The Meaning Of The Cross
The symbol of the Cross is recognized worldwide as an emblem of Christianity. For believers, the Cross establishes our faith and stirs our devotion. By itself, of course, the Cross contains no spiritual power. Its significance is derived entirely from the Holy One, the Prince of Life, who died upon it. It would be remarkable enough that Jesus Christ was willing to die sacrificially, the Just One substituting for those who were unjust. But the Lord Himself made it clear to His disciples that crucifixion awaited Him (Jn. 12:32-33; Mt. 20:19). His death was to be the death of the Cross.
Several other New Testament passages also emphasize the Lord’s death by crucifixion. Through some of those verses, we will consider a few characteristics of that death as well as some results of the Cross for Christians today.
Features Of The Cross
First, the Cross is a place of weakness. Anyone who hangs on a cross is completely helpless. One who had been strong can no longer do anything for himself. One who had been an influential leader must endure the mocking of the lowest servant-boy that passes by. Even the Lord Jesus, who could have called more than 12 legions of angels, took the lowly position of having to ask for a drink. To the world, hanging on a cross means reaching the very depths of weakness and foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18-25). Christ humbled Himself not only to death, but “even the death of the Cross,” where “He was crucified in weakness” (Phil. 2:8; 2 Cor. 13:4 NKJV).
The Cross is also the place of a curse. If a capital crime had been committed in Israel, the usual way to carry out the death sentence was by stoning. It appears, however, that hanging on a gallows or tree would be reserved for the most detestable criminals. God declared, “He who is hanged is accursed of God” (Dt. 21:23), and He also said their bodies would defile the land if they remained hanging overnight. Paul refers to this principle in Galatians 3:13, noting that Christ’s death has redeemed us from the curse of the Law since His very mode of dying was a cursed one.
Ultimately, the Cross means life has come to an end. One who carries a cross has no future plans, no thoughts of tomorrow. He cannot promise to do anything for you. He no longer controls his own destiny. All that is left for him is to die, and his actual death is so certain as to be almost a formality. Whoever is nailed to a cross has been destroyed and removed from the world. This was exactly the high priest’s desire when Jesus’ death was planned (Jn. 11:47-50).
For the followers of Jesus, these features of the Cross are sobering. While they illuminate His death, these points also are exactly what we should expect as we follow Him. In all three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – the first time a cross is mentioned is in reference to the disciple, who is expected to pick up his own cross and follow the Lord: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23; Mt. 10:38; Mk. 8:34).
Notice the order of those phrases: We carry our cross1 after self-denial, and before we can attempt to follow Him. If we truly bear the cross as His disciples, we can expect to be among the world’s foolish ones. We should anticipate the world’s contempt and rejection, because the Lord whom we follow has already been hated and rejected (Jn. 15:18-20). We are willing to let go of our own plans for life, because carrying the cross means our lives are completely given up.
The cross is the place of weakness, humility, rejection, and the end of ourselves. Only those who live as if they are carrying that cross are called the Lord’s true disciples.
Results Of The Cross
The Cross is mentioned in several New Testament epistles, but the greatest number of references are in 1 Corinthians and Galatians. The Christians in both of these locations were in danger of being led astray from true discipleship – by pride in Corinth, by works in Galatia. As a means of bringing them back on the solid ground of Christian teaching, Paul stressed not just the death of Christ, but His crucifixion. Here are five points to consider.
1. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian must learn to think this way: Christ was crucified instead of me; therefore, although I am physically alive, I consider myself to have died with Christ. God sees us as having died with Christ (Rom. 6:8); here, Paul declares that he understands this, too. For believers, it means that Christ’s life is displayed instead of their own.
2. “Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?” (Gal. 3:1). Paul had evidently emphasized the crucifixion of Christ when he was with the Galatians. Now, however, they were in danger of attempting to improve their Christianity by fleshly means. But had Christ displayed strength and independence in His sacrificial death? No! Instead, He had taken a place of weakness. The apparent weakness of faith, not the false strength of works, was to remain their foundation of Christianity. If such had been Christ’s sacrifice, they should now obey the truth of the gospel.
3. “If I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased” (Gal. 5:11; 6:12). The Galatians were listening to false teachers who promoted circumcision and the Mosaic Law as the way to become more spiritually mature. Those teachers opposed Paul’s teaching that the Law was actually a yoke of bondage. Paul called their opposition “the offense of the Cross,” because the Cross implies that the Christian is already complete because of Christ’s work. To these Judaizing teachers the Cross was offensive, because it meant the end of the Law which they still cherished. For the Christian, this is actually a glorious declaration of liberty in Christ (Gal. 5:1).
4. “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). This point is perhaps the most challenging to live out. When we take our place as crucified with Christ, our natural desires for self-satisfaction and self-advancement are dealt with. This is amplified in Colossians 2:11, where the death of Christ – figuratively called His circumcision – has removed the “body of the sins of the flesh.” Both eternal salvation and daily Christian living are completely emptied of any dependence on the flesh. “Our old man was crucified with Him … that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:6).
However, as we serve the Lord and use the gifts God has given us, it is easy to return to self-dependence and self-sufficiency. This is what happened to the Corinthians, whose pride in themselves and in one another led to envy, strife, and divisions within that Christian assembly. The antidote for this pride was a renewed understanding of the Cross of Christ. Paul reminded the Corinthians that he had not presented the gospel to them with attractive words or human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1-5). They might have been persuaded that way, but their faith would not have been grounded. Instead, Paul wrote, “I was determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This message brought them to God in the first place, and they needed to be reminded of that message again if their fleshly behavior was to be stopped.
How can we have pride in ourselves when we remember that Jesus Christ was crucified for us? His Cross highlights our own weakness and emptiness before God. Do I want what I deserve? I see it in the Cross. Therefore, an ongoing appreciation of the Cross will mean the end of the flesh, not only regarding our faith in God for salvation but also in our approach to daily Christian living.
5. “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). The world opposes God by claiming to offer all that will satisfy us. The Christian should instead depend on the Father, who gives every good and perfect gift. The Cross reinforces this dividing line between the world and the Christian. Believers find that the world is actually like a dead thing to them; what could satisfy them there, when that world crucified their Lord? At the same time, the world finds that believers are no longer of any use to it either. What does the world want with those who link themselves to Christ, who died a weak and foolish death? So, although we function in the world, we do not derive our value, satisfaction, or status from it; the Cross is the end of the world to us.
These points are not the only important results of the Cross of Christ. It has also paved the way for our reconciliation to God (Col. 1:20; 2:14); it reminds us to be humble (Phil. 2:8; 3:18-20); it ends cultural differences and hostilities (Eph. 2:11-16).
Further, it should be added that the Cross of Christ without His resurrection and ascension would be of little value to us. Because He was raised, our faith is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:17). Because He is now glorified in heaven, our faith has an object (Col. 3:1).
Still, it is clear that the Cross is central to our acceptance before God. Christ’s death upon it was the concentrated essence, purpose, and culmination of His entire earthly pathway (Jn. 12:27; Heb. 10:5-10). As G. Campbell Morgan wrote in 1909, “The longer I live, the less I can say in the actual presence of that Cross.” 2
Without the Cross, we would have remained dead in trespasses and sins, which are unspeakably heinous in God’s sight. Hymn writer Albert Midlane wrote,
|“But in the Cross of Christ we see
How God can save, yet righteous be.” 3
We stand in freedom before God, accepted by Him and separated to Him, because Jesus Christ loved us and gave Himself for us on the Cross.
1. The disciple is never told to carry the Lord’s Cross. That expression is only used when Simon carried Jesus’ Cross to Golgotha (Lk. 23:26). It’s never found in reference to the daily life of Christ’s followers.
2. The Bible and the Cross, G. Campbell Morgan (1909), New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., p. 39.
3. Albert Midlane, 1825-1909. In Spiritual Songs, #390 (1978), Snydertown, PA, Believers Bookshelf Inc.
By Stephen Campbell
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org