“I just don’t get this religious stuff? Why all this talk about crosses and death? Religion is about being good, not about blood sacrifices and executions.” This young man was arguing about the message he was hearing in his church. He just could not understand why there would be so much emphasis placed on an ancient method of execution. “Maybe the Romans killed people on crosses 1900 years ago, but what has that got to do with me today? What has that to do with my life?” was his question.
Throughout history, mankind has viewed the cross in a variety of ways. In ancient times the cross was a symbol of a terrible death. Crucifixion came as a result of committing a capitol crime within the Roman Empire. But this mode of execution was so despised that Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion. Only those who were not full Romans could be killed in this fashion. As a result, the cross came to represent all that was evil about society, all that was corrupt about the Roman empire, all that was despised by mankind. When Jesus died on the cross, the prevailing views of the cross caused people to look at His death in a variety of ways. As today, there were many perspectives of the cross of Jesus.
When Jesus died, His enemies ridiculed Him. They taunted His power and His claims. “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross'” (Matt. 27:39-40). This abuse came from people who had seen His miracles and heard His sermons. Yet, they rejected Jesus as the Christ and insisted He be crucified. When that awful sentence was carried out, they laughed at Him. In spite of all the evidence about His status, they ridiculed the Son of God.
People today still miss the significance of the cross. In failing to see who Jesus is, they fail to see the importance of His death. Even today people ridicule the idea of the cross. They misunderstand its place in God’s plan of salvation. Those who saw Jesus firsthand ridiculed Him; so will some people today ridicule Him and reject the crucified Savior.
The soldiers who executed Jesus seemed to be oblivious to His death. Perhaps that is because they had killed many condemned prisoners. So, after nailing this man to His cross, they gambled for His clothes and sat and watched for Him to die (Matt. 27:35-36). They knew how the process worked. They may have grown used to it all. Even as the only Son of God died before them, they seemingly could care less.
Even today people are indifferent to the cross and its meaning. The cross represents death in its most humiliating and horrible terms. No wonder people choose to ignore it rather than come face to face with it. Looking at the cross reminds all of us that we too will die. The cross reminds each of us that death (in some form) will overtake each of us. The soldiers were indifferent to the cross, perhaps as a way to stave off the feelings of mortality it brought. People today turn away from the specter of death, unwilling to look into the face of one dying, afraid to be reminded of their inevitable death.
But indifference plays another role as well. In calling on us to be His followers Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus forces us to take a stand. We may not like looking at the cross of Christ. We may not like contemplating death. The Lord actually challenges us to accept death by carrying our own means of execution, the cross. Jesus calls us to do as He did. We are asked to die to self, accept the price of following Him, even death. We are to give up our own passions and serve God instead. In fact, religion isn’t about just being good, it is about accepting an altered lifestyle that forces us to submit and die to self, just as Jesus died on the cross.
When Jesus warned the disciples of His coming death, they could not understand His meaning. In fact, Peter attempted to correct Him. “Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!'” (Matt. 16:22). For people of the ancient world, a death on the cross was the worst imaginable fate. It not only meant terrible pain and agony but it also meant utter humiliation. The cross was reserved for low-lifes, for the dregs of society. For Jesus to predict that this would happen to Him offended Peter. He was ashamed to think Lord would die in such a way.
This is what Paul had to overcome in every ancient community in which he preached. The Jews were offended that a Holy God could be brought so low as to die on the cross. Gentiles looked at the crucified God as foolishness. The cross represented shame and humiliation, not glory and power. But Paul said, “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). Jesus accepted the shame of this sort of death in order to save mankind. This was and is God’s only method of redeeming sinful man.
What does the cross have to do with being good? “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus endured the shame of the cross in order to achieve the glory of God. We are to look to Him, walking in His steps (1 Pet. 2:21). This means (as Peter explains) accepting the humility of Jesus’ path. It means enduring shame, ridicule, and punishment in order to be what God wants us to be. Submission and suffering may look shameful and weak, but God asks us to walk in that path anyway.
God sees the cross, in all its pain and shame, as a way to demonstrate the two sides of His character. “To demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). God hates sin (1 John 1:5) and yet loves sinners (1 John 4:8-10).
In the cross, God found a solution to His need to be just. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God’s nature demands that He condemn every sin and every sinner. God had to find a way to save mankind that would satisfy His justice. Yet, He also wanted to demonstrate His love for us. In the cross His love was shown. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom. 5:8-9). There is God’s view of the cross. In the sacrifice of His Son, God was able to show his love while also seeing justice done. In the death of the sinless Christ, sinful man can now be forgiven. The cross stands at the center of God’s work to redeem man. What is the cross about? It is about the triumph of good over evil. It is about the victory of life over death. It is about the love of God being demonstrated. It is about the wrath of God being appeased.
For Jesus, the cross was a terrible experience. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'” (Matt. 27:46). He was sinless, but at His death the sins of all mankind were heaped upon Him. God, who cannot be where sin is (1 John 1:5-6), turned His face away from His only Son. For the only time in His existence, Jesus experienced separation from His Father. It is no wonder Jesus had asked God “let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). No wonder the task of submitting to God’s will was difficult for the Lord. He was being asked to give up His relationship to God, so that others could have a relationship with the Father.
Here again we see God’s great love at work. He was willing to sacrifice His obedient Son in order to redeem disobedient man. He was willing to accept the death of a sinless man in order to forgive sinful man. For Jesus the cross meant a difficult death separated from God. The shame was hard, the indifference painful, the ridicule cut Him, but the real cost to Jesus was “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
What does the cross have to do with us today? It means our only hope for salvation. It is our only means of access into the Father’s presence. It means our only source of power to change world. It means our only way of being right with God and with other people. That is why we are still asked, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” We are still challenged by God to accept the way of submission and humility. We are still asked to walk in the path of Jesus, even as it leads to our own experience with a cross.
This is why we preach about the need to die to self and live for God. This is why the experience of baptism is so crucial to salvation. It is in the act of submission at baptism that we experience the power of the cross. It is in baptism that we die to self so that we can live for God. It is in baptism that we gain the full effect of the life and death of Jesus Christ. “Or do you not know that who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we to might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). When we are baptized, we die to self and arise to walk in newness of life. As the cross stands at the center of God’s effort to redeem man, baptism is at the center of the cross. In that act of submission, you die to sin and are born again to a new life, free from the penalty of sin, free from the fear of death. Having accepted death in baptism, death loses its grip on your life. What does the cross mean today? It means Life and Death.