Understanding the Cross of Christ

Tom Roberts
Ft. Worth, Texas

All of religion is academic without a power or force to make it vital. This can be seen in the dead and sterile litanies of Roman Catholicism and other world religions. Whether the prayer wheel of the Buddhist or the counting of beads by the Catholic, such religion is "vain," springing from the doctrines of men rather than the mind of God (Mt. 15:9). That which gives New Testament Christianity its life is the object of our faith, Jesus Christ: crucified, raised and glorified. "Faith to the saving of the soul" (Heb. 10:39) is that "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5) which offers to God both worship and living that is patterned after His will. All men should realize that it is not mere "doing" or religious activity that God accepts. He is not obligated to accept our efforts, regardless of their zeal, just because we have performed them (Mt. 7:23). What we do, therefore, must be in accord with the will of God and must be accompanied with sincerity and love or it is empty and fruitless (Jn. 4:24; 1 Cor. 13: 1ff). With these thoughts as a preface, let us consider the cross of Christ and its meaning to the Christian.

The Misunderstood Cross

Paul accused the Athenians (Acts 17) of superstitious worship because of their idolatry. If this same apostle could see how people view the cross today, he would accuse us of the same practice. Many people, both in and out of the church, have come to revere a cross, made of "gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device" (Acts 17:29) as a talisman, a good luck charm or the focal point for the dispensing of God's grace. Thus, the form of a cross is often used in architecture to provide a "sacred building" in which the teaching of Christ is ignored. It is often worn as an ornament or sign of authority among "clergy" who usurp the authority of Jesus. One is often elevated above an altar in cathedrals where the very divinity of Christ is denied. Shapes of crosses adorn many walls in homes where the name of Christ is taken in vain, if at all. The "sign of the cross" has become, for both the criminal and priest, a superstitious ward against evil and a mans of bestowing blessings and grace. So pervasive, in fact, is the adoration of the cross that we might just dispense with Jesus and retain a cross itself as the efficacy and essence of religion. Such foolishness would be equal to keeping the bath water and throwing out the baby. There is a great need today to understand the biblical intent of the cross of Christ.

The Cross: Both Real and Symbolic

Whatever else we understand about the cross, we must realize that there was a real cross, an intrument of torture and death. Jesus died a lingering and suffering death on such a "tree." It matters little what shape the cross took. Whether simple or ornate, an "X" or a "T," it was a means of capital punishment in the Roman world and Jesus accepted its embrace. But the "relic" of the cross is nonexistent and supposed "splinters of the true cross" are simple frauds foisted upon the simpleminded with no purpose to be served among believers. Yet the Bible retains much teaching about the cross and suggests a vital relationship between the Christian and the cross. Without falling into superstition, how may we receive the benefits of the cross today? How does the cross fit into the pattern of true worship?

To understand this, we must understand that the Bible uses figures of speech. Figures of speech are not intended to obscure but to elucidate. Such is true in this case. We are far removed from the real wooden cross but not from the meaning of the cross, its symbolism. The figure of speech to which we refer in our study is metonomy: a part of a thing standing for the whole. In this case, the cross of Jesus has come to include the entire spectrum of the gospel. So meaningful and complete is the imagery of this word that is not necessary to refer individually to the events of Jesus' death or to the elements of justification, salvation and saving grace. It is enough to "preach the cross" (1 Cor. 1:18). Paul could say that he determined not to know anything save "Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). Those who opposed Jesus were said to be "enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18). It is in the cross of Christ that we should glory (Gal. 6:14). Care should be taken lest the "word of the cross" (1 Cor. 1:18), here equated with gospel preaching, should be mingled with the wisdom of men so that the "cross of Christ should be made of none effect" (1 Cor. 1:17). Is it not clear, therefore, that the cross stands for the whole message; metonomy, the part for the whole? With this properly digested, we can determine what the cross means to us today. Errors of men cannot obscure the beauty of the cross when we understand its true meaning. It is quite evident that God intended for the cross to have an impact on our thinking and our lives. Let us study that we may be blessed by the "word of the cross."

The Meaning of the Cross

The cross of Christ tells us that sin is a curse. When used as an ornament around the neck, a cross says little about the ugliness of sin. But when we look at sin through the cross of Christ, we see sin as God does: ugly, deforming, condemning, separating man from his Creator. Sin is so terrible -that it made God send His only begotten Son to the cross to pay for its cost. Las Vegas does not present a true picture of sin. In the nightclubs and on TV, sin is glamorous, gaudy, fun, titillating, exhilarating. But sin causes deathseparation from God (Rom. 6:23; Isa. 59:1,2). Jesus became a curse for us, hanging on the cross (Gal. 3:13), and I should see this when I see the cross.

The cross of Christ tells us that a sacrifice for sin was made. Blood was appointed by God to be the atonement for sin (Lev. 17:10, 11). The blood of animals was insufficient to do the job of reclaiming the soul of man but the blood of Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. The Hebrew writer eloquently explores this subject when he speaks of the inadequacies of the blood of animals as compared with the "body prepared" for God (Heb. 9). 1 should see this when I see the cross.

The cross of Christ tells us that substitution was made. "The soul that sins shall die" (Ezek. 18:4). 1 sinned, therefore I ought to die. But thanks be to God that His grace permitted it to be different. As the story of Abraham and Isaac and the substitute ram for sacrifice foreshadowed it, the cross declares it plainly. Jesus Christ was sent by God to be a substitute for me. He took my punishment and death. "By his stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53). 1 should see this when I see the cross.

The cross of Christ tells us that atonement was made. God's wrath is justly and divinely directed against sin and the sinner. The sinner dies and is without excuse because of his sin (Rom. 1, 2, 3). Sin is rebellion against a loving God and the wrath of God will be poured out as against Sodom and Gomorrah unless this wrath can be stilled. But man has no means to calm this wrath. How can we escape? The story of the cross has its roots in the Old Testament and the faint glimmer of hope expressed under the Law becomes a radiant light in the Gospel. When the high priest went into the Most Holy Place once each year, he brought the blood of an animal to the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. If you will do a word study, you will find that the mercy seat is the seat of atonement-the place where the wrath of God is to be atoned. However, the blood of animals could not accomplish this great work; it remained for the blood of Christ to do it. When Jesus appeared before the throne of God with His own blood, God accepted this as atoning for the sins of the world. Atonement for sin has been made, and I should see this when I see the cross.

The cross of Christ tells us that reconciliation was made. So long as man was in sin, he could not draw nigh to God but, was in fact, an enemy. With our best intentions and greatest works, we could not bring about this healing of enmity, reconciliation. Since atonement was made by the sacrifice on the cross, it was possible for God to invite man back into a saved relationship. Paul said that this was the great work of the apostles, appointed by God to be ambassadors, entreating on behalf of God, "be ye reconciled unto God" (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Note that atonement precedes reconciliation and that God had to initiate them both due to our sinful condition. I should see this when I see the cross.

The cross of Christ tells us that fellowship with God is possible. Now that atonement has been made and reconciliation is possible, I can be forgiven. While atonement was made for the sins of the world, not all men will be saved. Not all will obey the call of the gospel through the ambassadors, the apostles, to be reconciled to God by the cross. To some, the word of the cross is foolishness; to others, it is a stumblingblock (1 Cor. 1). But if we reject the cross and the word of the cross, we reject reconciliation. If we reject reconciliaiton, we reject the peace with God that forgiveness brings. If we accept the cross, we may enter into a relationship with God reminiscent of that between Adam and Eve and God in the garden before sin intruded. Fellowship-a mutual sharing in heavenly matters-is found only in Christ. I should see this when I see the cross.

The cross of Christ tells us that I must become dead to the world and alive to God. "If then ye have been risen with Christ. . . " (Col. 3: 1) presupposes that we have died with Christ. "For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). But how does one become dead to sin? "How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin" (Rom. 6:2-6).

Yes, we must crucify the old man of sin. We must walk in newness of life after having been buried in Christ. How is all this done? Paul said it is done when we are baptized. I should see this when I see the cross.

Let Us Take His Cross

There is a cross for us to bear. It is not a silver or gold ornament with no real meaning but that of vanity and false humiliation. The cross that Jesus bore was that of "obedience unto death, yea, the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8). Our Lord said, "And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Mt. 10:38,39). If we understand this, we can understand the cross of Christ. And all the ornamental jewelry and superstitious architecture in the world will not bring us any closer to the service of God unless we do understand it. Are you wearing your cross or bearing it?

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Author: jfm

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