The instrument of a slave's death, associated with the ideas of pain, guilt, and ignominy. "The very name," writes Cicero (Pro Rab., 5), "ought to be excluded not merely from the body, but from the thought, eyes, and ears of Roman citizens." The Hebrew, having no term for it as not being a punishment in their nation, called it "warp and woof." Scourging generally preceded crucifixion: so Jesus (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; foretold in Isaiah 50:6; Isaiah 53:5). Pilate had probably hoped the Jews would be content with this scourging, and still let Him escape crucifixion (Luke 23:22; John 19:1). Jesus bore His own cross toward Golgotha outside the city (Hebrews 13:12; so Stephen, Acts 7:58), but sinking exhausted probably He was relieved, and it was transferred to Simon of Cyrene; prefigured in Isaac carrying the wood (Genesis 22:6; contrast Isaiah 9:6, "the government shall be upon His shoulder".)
Jesus' sacred and lacerated body was raised aloft, the hands nailed to the transverse beam, the feet separately nailed to the lower part of the upright beam so as to be a foot or two above the ground (others think the two feet were pierced by one and the same nail). Stupefying drink, vinegar mixed with gall and myrrh, was first offered to Him and refused (Matthew 27:34), for He would meet suffering consciously. Near death, to fulfill Psalm 69:21, He drank of the sour wine or vinegar kindly offered Him on a sponge. His death was hastened by rupture of the heart (See BLOOD; also Mark 15:23; compare John 19:28; Matthew 27:48.)
The sour wine called posca was the common drink of the Roman soldiers. Pilate marveled at His speedy death, crucifixion often not terminating in death for days. The approach of the Passover sabbath, one of peculiar solemnity, led to his permitting the Jewish law to be carried out which forbids bodies to hang after sunset (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). His legs could not be broken, because the Passover type must be fulfilled (Exodus 12:46). Constantine when converted abolished crucifixion. The agony consisted in:
(1) the unnatural position of the body, causing pain at the least motion;
(2) the nails being driven through the hands and feet, which are full of nerves and tendons, yet without a vital part being directly injured;
(3) the wounds so long exposed bringing on acute inflammation and gangrene;
(4) the distended parts causing more blood to flow through the arteries than can be carried back through the veins;
(5) the lingering anguish and burning thirst.
After Constantine's vision of the cross in the air and the inscription, "Under this standard thou shalt conquer," a new standard was adopted, the Labarum, with a pendent cross and embroidered monogram of Christ, the first two Greek letters of His name, and Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8). The Andrew's cross is shaped like an X, through Hippolytus says he was crucified upright. The Anthony cross (embroidered on his cope) was shaped as a T. The pagan Egyptians, Copts, Indians, and Persians, all have the same sacred emblem. Tradition, and the inscription over our Lord's head, make it likely that the form of His cross was +. The pole on which the brazen serpent was lifted by Moses was the type (John 3:14; Numbers 21:8-9).
The fathers regarded its four limbs pointing above, below, and to both sides, as typifying" the height, depth, length, and breadth" of the love of Christ, extending salvation to all (Ephesians 3:18). The harmlessness of cruciform flowers is another suggested type in nature. Christ's cross transforms the curse into a blessing (Galatians 3:13-14); the inscription was written with letters of black on a white gypsum ground. By a striking retribution in kind, the Jewish people, whose cry was "crucify Him," were crucified in such numbers by Titus "that there was not room enough for the crosses, nor crosses enough for their bodies" (Joseptius, B. J., 6:28). The piercing of Jesus' hands was foretold in Psalm 22:16; Zechariah 12:10.
The story of "the invention of the cross," A.D. 326, is: Helena the empress, mother of Constantine, then nearly 80 years old, made a pilgrimage to the holy places, and there, by help of a Jew who understood her superstitious tastes, found three crosses, among which Christ's cross was recognized by its power of working miracles, at the suggestion of Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem. Bits of this real cross were distributed as relics throughout Christendom. To supply the enormous demand, they were alleged to have been miraculously multiplied! In the church of the Holy Jerusalem Cross at Rome, relics of the top of the cross with the inscription are annually exhibited to the people for veneration. The falsity of the whole story appears from the fact that the Jews' law required the cross to be burnt; Eusebius is silent as to the alleged discovery of it.
A symbol or emblem merely at first, it soon began to have the notion of spiritual and supernatural efficacy attached to it. In the 6th century the crucifix image was introduced, and worship (latria) to it was sanctioned by the Church of Rome. Figuratively, the cross and crucifixion are used for spiritually mortifying the flesh, in union spiritually by faith with Christ crucified, not self-imposed austerities (Matthew 16:24; Philemon 3:18; Galatians 6:14; Colossians 2:20-23). Our will and God's will are as two separate pieces of wood; so long as both lie side by side there is no cross; but put them across one another, then there is a cross. We must take up the cross Christ lays on us if we would be His disciples.
Fausset, Andrew Robert M.A., D.D., "Definition for 'cross' Fausset's Bible Dictionary".