It is universally recognized as the symbol of Christendom. If you walk through the arched doorway of a gothic cathedral, you will see a version of it in gold, encrusted with jewels, prominently displayed on the back wall. If you visit a military cemetery, you will see thousands of them in neat, white rows, casting shadows over manicured green grass. It dangles from silver chains or leather loops on the necks of men, women, and children all over the world. It marks arms, wrists, and ankles with the black ink of the tattoo. It is embossed in the leather binding of many Bibles, and graces the wood paneling of many pulpits.
The modern ubiquity of the cross is striking in light of its bloody past as an instrument of cruel torture and death. There was a time when the sight of the cross inspired fear and revulsion rather than faith. In what would have been recent history at the time Jesus walked the earth, six thousand screaming rebels were fixed to their own crosses, where they perished along the Appian way, the main highway into Rome.1 But even in Jerusalem it was not impossible that fathers and mothers would have had to explain to their little children why there was a man hanging from pierced hands and feet on a wooden post in the ground just outside the city gates. Death by the cross was purposely a public matter.
In the KJV the word cross only appears twenty-eight times. Out of the twenty-eight, eleven are in the climactic portions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There we find the very human Lord, having endured beatings and scourging, unable to bear the heavy wooden beam any further down the path toward Golgotha. Rather than sully their own backs with such a shameful piece of wood, the Roman soldiers laid “hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian…and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus” (Luke 23:26; Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21). By nine o’clock that morning the bloodied figure of Christ was lifted upright to hang between heaven and earth, while his enemies stared at His naked body and the soldiers divided His garments.
Then the mockery began in earnest. “Look at the fool who said he could destroy our great temple and build it again in three days!” “If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Matt. 27:40). Others found the fuel of their contempt in the title Pilate attached to the cross bearing the words, “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews,” (John 19:19). “Oh, he is a King, is he? He styles himself a Savior?” Well, “he saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him” (Matt. 27:42). Hard words they must have been for mother Mary to hear as she, with two other women named Mary, “stood by the cross of Jesus” (John 19:25). No doubt this was the sword old Simeon said would pass through Mary’s soul when Jesus was still a child in her arms. The thoughts of many hearts were certainly revealed by the wicked hands that crucified and slew the Son of God (Luke 2:35; Acts 2:23). But let those thoughts be carefully concealed again before the sun goes down, for today is the preparation, and tomorrow is the high Sabbath of the Passover week. “The Jews therefore…that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day… besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31). For the Lord Himself, though, such a measure was unnecessary. His body already hung limp on the cross.
Now what did it mean when those simple words of the Lord drifted down to the ears of the cross-gazers before the Lord bowed His head in death—“it is finished” (John 19:30)? It meant that He who came to do God’s will did it to the bitter end. The perfect mind of Jesus was herein, that He “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). And therefore, as the Head of His people, He blotted “out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us…nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:14). Us, that is, whether we be Jew or Gentile, for Christ has reconciled “both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (Eph. 2:16). Indeed, “by the blood of his cross” Jesus has reconciled “all things unto himself…whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20). Such is the significance of the cross, both personal for every individual sheep in behalf of whom the Good Shepherd laid down His life (John 10:15), and cosmic for the whole creation in behalf of which God in love sent His only-begotten Son (John 3:16). Therefore, “notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell,” there shall never “be wanting a church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ…who as a bridegroom for His bride, laid down His life for them upon the cross” (Canons, II.9).
To them that perish, of course, the preaching of such a cross is all nonsense and foolishness (I Cor. 1:18). What kind of a king goes like a lamb to the slaughter to save His people (John 1:29)? What kind of a Messiah is cursed by the God He represents (Gal 3:13)? Even in the Christian church, too often the crosses that dangle from necks and earrings really symbolize a new religious formalism, like circumcision, which in all reality causes “the offense of the cross” to cease (Gal. 5:11). Just let the popularity of the cross as a symbol run dry, however, and what was adopted out of a “desire to make a fair shew in the flesh” will quickly be cast aside, “lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12). As much as these speak favorably of Jesus, eventually their walk reveals “that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:18, 19).
Unto us who are saved, however, the cross “is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18). It is the main point of every gospel sermon, which is proclaimed “not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (I Cor. 1:17). The cross is the eternal foundation of our salvation. Its blood is the purchasing price of our redemption. And its centrality in the faith sets the tone for the entire Christian life in this bloody, broken, miserable, cursed, sin-filled world. The Christian looks hopefully to “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). The Christian rests in that finished cross-work of the Lord who calls him to come and labor no more. And then he heeds that other call of the same Lord who says, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Deny yourself, you rich young ruler, by selling your possessions and taking up your cross, and you shall have treasure in heaven (Mark 10:21). Deny yourself of your satanic understanding of the kingdom, Peter, and take up your cross, and follow Me (Matt. 16:24). Deny yourself even of family and friends, of father, mother, son, and daughter, for “he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38).
A symbol of life and death, of suffering and salvation, is the cross. At the same time, it is for many the ‘mascot’ of Christendom and its greatest stumbling block. For the Christian, however, the cross is everything. Therefore, with the apostle, the doxology of the Christian is a doxology of the cross: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14).