The Message of the Cross

At some point the cross digressed from a symbol so controversial having one in your possession could imperil your life to a cheap piece of jewelry that can be purchased at truck stops. Even non-Christians wear them. I guess you’d have to ask them why. I don’t know. I fear they don’t either because what the cross represents has become so gutted of meaning that to them it’s no more significant than a plastic bracelet. This raises a serious question every believer should ask themselves. What does the cross mean to us?

While the man/woman on the street may or may not have an answer, it’s imperative a Christian does because our faith is founded exclusively on what happened on Calvary Hill two millenniums ago. On the cross God took a bullet for each of us. Romans 5:7-8 says, “…Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person. … But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In The Message translation it reads, “…God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.” To emphasize the importance of the cross Paul summed up his entire ministry in 1 Corinthians 2:2; “…I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Keep in mind the average Corinthian of that day wasn’t much different from a run-of-the-mill 21st century city-dweller. Morals and ethics were flexible things and spiritual matters were low on the citizenry’s list of priorities. They thought themselves cosmopolitan sophisticates and considered Paul’s teachings about the cross farfetched and downright stupid. Their pride blinded them from the truth. Concerning their conceited attitude he wrote “…the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Many found the cross a jagged pill to swallow. It was a boulder in the road for the Jewish people and idiocy to the philosophic Greeks. The latter in particular saw no need for a Savior. They were confident their fine-tuned intellect could unravel all the mysteries about God. Paul confronted their hubris, telling them man in his unaltered condition (lacking the indwelling Holy Spirit) is incapable of understanding the things of God. Sin has so twisted a non-believer’s concept of truth that, when the real thing comes along, it makes no sense to them. In other words, one must renounce their inflated know-it-all-ism and accept Christ before the Spirit of God can unlock their closed minds. A lot of folks find this almost impossible to do because it requires taking a leap of faith without any hard evidence they can see, feel, touch, smell or taste. But there’s a veil covering our minds as a result of our separation from God that can’t be lifted any other way. Billy Graham wrote, “To an ‘outsider’ the cross must appear to be ridiculous. But to those who have experienced its transforming power, it has become the only remedy for the ills of each person, and of the world.”

Yet, despite the countless testimonies of people who’ve been completely transformed by the power of Christ, the Gospel message is still illogical to millions across the globe. Paul referred to those individuals in 1 Corinthians 1:20-21, Where is the wise man? … Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching.” Add up the combined intelligence of all the smartest ladies and gents who’ve trod terra firma since Adam & Eve and you’d think we would’ve solved all the world’s problems by now. But everybody knows we’ve made little progress on our own. Isn’t it high time we concede our mental abilities are severely limited and admit we’re consistently puzzled by life?

I’ll share a personal anecdote. About 8 years ago I was still a pseudo-Christian. I’d been baptized as a pre-teen but in my adulthood I’d abandoned the church, never read the Bible and lived my life pretty much as I saw fit. My sister is married to a preacher in Alabama so my parents moved there from Texas in the 80s to be closer to the grandchildren. When I attended my father’s funeral in ’07 I found myself alone in their guest room one morning with a Bible. In a haughty gesture I silently dared God to blow me away with a randomly-picked verse of Scripture. I closed my eyes and opened the Word. The passage I read had no impact upon me at all. I said to myself, “just as I thought,” and set the book down. Zip ahead a few years. Due to my wife’s discovery of a sinful habit I’d kept secret from her for years my marriage was on life-support. I fell to my knees and asked God to forgive and help me. He led me to a church that had a Celebrate Recovery ministry. I rededicated my life to Christ, stepped out of denial and began the long but immensely rewarding process of letting Jesus heal me. I decided to read the entire Bible and one of the first things I did was try to find the verse God had showed me. It was 1 Corinthians 1:18; For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I was stunned. There’s no other verse in the Holy Word the Lord could’ve selected that morning years earlier that addressed my spiritual condition more succinctly. But I was perishing at the time and, thus, considered it pure foolishness. Once I surrendered my pride God removed the veil from my mind and I beheld the truth for the first time in my life. The power of God was unleashed and His love flowed into my heart like a torrent. I no longer wanted to live for myself. I wanted to live for Him.

There’s nothing extraordinary about the cross itself. It was likely constructed of recycled, low-grade wood planks. It’s what occurred on the cross that’s of the utmost importance. Jesus’ death upon it changed everything. There are those who think God didn’t want Christ to die, that He had to alter His master plan due to unforeseen circumstances. But that notion isn’t Biblical. Acts 2:23 states that Jesus “…was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” See, Satan was running things down here. He’d succeeded in driving a wedge between God and humans in the Garden of Eden. Afterwards Satan assumed a kind of sovereignty over mankind. When Jesus came on the scene he manipulated powerful people into having Him murdered. What Satan thought was a final victory turned into defeat when he realized he’d underestimated God’s love for the world He created. The devil couldn’t believe God would send His own Son and have Him strictly adhere to the rules of this world. Satan, like so many others, didn’t grasp what was really going on. God’s love for people was so genuine and deep He let Christ be subjected to the worst punishment the devil and his demons could devise in order to save mankind.

Evil doesn’t comprehend that kind of love. The cross was Satan’s Waterloo and it was part of God’s strategy all along. 1 John 3:8 reads, For this purpose the Son of God was revealed: to destroy the works of the devil.” Is Satan still around? Yes, but he’s impotent to alter his sealed fate. Because of the cross he’s a dead dude walking. Hebrews 2:14 states, “…that through [Christ’s] death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil).” Plus, in the process of vanquishing Satan, Jesus rescued those in slavery to the devil and reconciled them to Himself. Paul expressed it in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 with, “…We speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The cross revealed something uppity “Ol’ Scratch” didn’t have a clue about. Paul called it “…the mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, but now is disclosed…” (Romans 16:25-26). One man, Adam, led mankind to ruin. God, in the literal form of a man, redeemed it. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive(1 Corinthians 15:22).

I could never willingly sacrifice either of my children. My grief and regret would be unbearable. But God loved me enough to endure that unimaginable agony. It’s my belief that if there’d been any other way to forgive our sins, some other method, the Heavenly Father would’ve never allowed His Son to die. In Gethsemane the Son of Man prayed, My Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me! Anyone else would’ve given God time to ponder alternative solutions but our courageous Lord didn’t skip a beat, instantly adding, Yet not what I will, but what you will (Matthew 26:39). Consider that in His impassioned plea Christ wasn’t expressing fear of dying. His life was unique and so was his death. He knew what He was about to experience on the cross had never happened to anyone in the past and would never happen to anyone ever again. He took the immeasurable weight of all the sins mankind committed and will ever commit on His shoulders. To wrap our heads around the big picture we have to go into the Old Testament. God made a binding covenant with Israel. He’d take care of their needs. In return they’d worship Him as their one and only God. They’d demonstrate their love by obeying His laws. But no matter how well-intentioned they were, they just couldn’t do it. They sinned like there was no tomorrow. Since the penalty for sin is death and that would’ve exterminated the race altogether the death sentence had to be transferred to another. For the Israelites a perfect animal symbolically suffered the punishment and bit the dust in their stead.

So why’d God give them laws He knew they couldn’t uphold? The Scriptures teach they were given as a mirror. In the law we can see what true righteousness looks like. The Ten Commandments tell us how to please our Creator and live in harmony with each other. When we sin the law illuminates our flaws and we’re confronted with the image of our actual spiritual condition. It ain’t pretty. Because God is unfailingly holy sin must be paid for so He instituted the sacrificial system to balance the scales of justice. In OT times people offered spotless animals as atonement for sin. Those sacrifices were harbingers of the ultimate sacrifice yet to come. In Leviticus 4 Moses spelled the whole thing out in proper sequence. Man sins and seeks God’s forgiveness. He brings a pristine animal before the priest and puts his hand on its head. Symbolically at that juncture the guilt and punishment he’s earned because of his iniquities passes to the innocent animal. He then kills it as a sin offering and the priest sprinkles the blood on the sacred altar. In this way the man makes amends for his trespasses and gains God’s forgiveness. You may ask, “Really? What was the point?” The point is it showed folks there was hope for them yet because God would allow the punishment for their sin to be transferred to and paid for by another. But God wasn’t playing some kind of shell game. The animal sacrifices were only symbols because “…the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). However, God’s forgiveness was authentic because He knew what would take place one day on the cross. All sins – past, present and future – would be washed in the blood of Jesus. His beloved Son “…offered one sacrifice for sins for all time…” (Hebrews 10:12).

God’s not frivolous, petty or wasteful. He has a good reason and purpose for everything He does. There were two things we had to learn from this grisly ceremony. First, we had to have driven into our thick skulls the ugliness and intolerableness of sin. It cannot be abided in the kingdom of God. Second, the profound meaning of the cross upon which God Himself would satisfy forever the demands of His justice had to be made crystal clear to all. Hebrews 9:12 states that Jesus “…entered once for all into the most holy place not by the blood of goats and calves but by his own blood, and so he himself secured eternal redemption.” We can argue the whys and what fers till the cows come home but the fact remains that Christ erased all our debts that dark day on the cross. It is finished. He suffered and died for us. Graham wrote, “If God had forgiven sin by a divine decree, issuing some sort of a heavenly document written across the sky, without the atonement which involved the personal shame, agony, suffering and death of Christ, then we might assume God is indifferent to sin. Consequently we’d all go on sinning and the earth would become a living hell.” Think of it this way: God proved His love for us by coming down and participating in the act of atonement. Sin pierced the Father’s heart. He felt every lash of the whip, every nail driven through bone, the unrelenting heat of the sun on His parched body and He heard the jeers of the callous spectators as He slowly bled out. When we see a cross it should never fail to affect us. We should picture our Savior upon it, taking on the enormous guilt of our collective sins. And not just the sins of believers but the sins of those who’ll never surrender their heart to Him! On the cross the unthinkable occurred. God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God(2 Corinthians 5:21).

Since we’re so forgetful (and sometimes rudely ungrateful) Jesus left us the communion service. While there’s nothing inherently supernatural about it, it does convey deep spiritual meaning. Christ was God’s sacrificial lamb, slaughtered for our sake. Does that make you uncomfortable? It should. The wafer of bread represents His broken body and the wine represents His blood. Both are physical reminders of what’s been done on our behalf. We can see them, touch them, taste them. It’s an important rite. Jesus said, Do this in remembrance of me(Luke 22:19). The word remembrance has lost its original meaning over the centuries. In the ancient Middle East it connoted an activity that thoroughly engaged the spiritual, mental and emotional aspects of the person. It wasn’t about simply recalling the event, it was recreating it. Malcolm Smith said, “It’s bringing into the present tense something in the past through a symbolic reenacting. Persons remembering something totally identified and participated in all the powers and effects of the original event.” Mull that over the next time your church observes the Lord’s Supper.

What the cross represents can be overwhelming because, frankly, it’s beyond mortal comprehension. The merciful side of our conscience is repulsed by the idea of an innocent person dying in order for us to be forgiven of our sins. But we must accept it on faith; else we’ll continually bear the heavy burdens of guilt. Perhaps in heaven we’ll be made aware of just how intolerable and hideous sin really is and why extreme measures had to be taken to cleanse us of the stains it puts on our souls. As Graham wrote, “Salvation is by Christ alone through faith alone, and for the glory of God alone.” The story’s told of a frustrated father. His kids wouldn’t behave but he couldn’t bring himself to spank them. One day they were being particularly disrespectful and unruly. The father took off his shirt, kneeled down and made them strap him across his back with his belt. At first the youngsters thought it silly fun but when they saw the red whelps rise and their dad’s painful tears fall they began to cry. They begged to stop but he wouldn’t let them, saying the penalty for their actions had to be paid. His children learned a hard lesson but their dad’s suffering touched their hearts and changed their behavior forever. If we embrace the true meaning of the cross we’ll be changed forever, too.

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