THE CROSS

- by Lance Pierson

Have you ever thought how much we have tamed and churchified the Cross of Jesus? It was the ancient Roman death penalty. Even in these days of gratuitous violence, there is nothing quite so shocking. It would have won the Nobel Prize for Brutality. It was, in the words of Dorothy Sayers, 'a bloody, dusty, sweaty and sordid business.' And yet Christians honour their Christ with the sign of this chilling execution. We parade not the cradle of his Christmas birthday, nor the crown of Judgement Day, but the Cross of His unhappy death-day.

Unholy death

It would scarcely be our choice today. Death is the last thing we talk or think about. And we're uncomfortable with a man so unconventional as to die in agony at only 33years of age. Modern man feels it is a messy mistake. In `the greatest story ever told', why this ugly blunder?

Faked death

A fairly recent book called "The Passover Plot" tried to make the case that Jesus survived the rigors of the Cross without dying. You can maintain anything you like if you disregard the very clear `death certificate' (John l9; 31 - 37, Mark 15; 44 - 45)! But this twisted idea was nothing new. Muslims have solemnly read in the Koran since the 7th century that `They slew him (Jesus) not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them; . . . But Allah took him up into Himself.' [Surah IV; 157 - 158]. Islamic tradition even adds that Judas replaced Jesus on the Cross in this divine sleight of hand!

Deadly earnest

Which just shows that ancient man, as well as modern, missed the point. It is interesting that the word `crucifixion' entered the English language from late Latin. Just as well, perhaps. If it had come any earlier, we would now spell it `cruci fiction '. But for Jesus it was no fiction; He died in deadly earnest. And our spelling keeps that deadly `x' in sight to remind us of the stark reality. And likewise, for Jesus it was no mistake. It was all part of the plan. He predicted time and again `that the Son of man must suffer many things. . . and be killed' (Mark 8; 3l, compare Mark 9; 31, 1O; 33, 45, 14; 22, 25). The Creeds of Christian faith sress that the crucifixion really happened, and happened with a purpose:

  1. The Apostles' Creed recites the fact :- `He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead.' - The mention of Pilate provides valid evidence of a real time and place for the event.
  2. The Nicene Creed emphasises the meaning within the fact:- ` For our sake he was crucified. . .'

The man Christ Jesus

Some try to limit this meaning to the human nature of Jesus. Thus He was complete man. He ran through the full range of human experience, from cradle to grave and beyond: `He descended to the dead'. We can reach no stage of life where He has not gone before us; no problem that He cannot understand. More, He did all this in a stirring blaze of altruism. He died an unflinching martyr. He died without violent resistance. He died still loving and forgiving the bloodhounds. He gave the words `self-sacrifice' a new depth of definition.

Jesus the Son of Man

That is all gloriously true. But does it sufficiently probe the Christian evaluation - `for our sake'. It is hard to see what we gain from knowing that one man sixty generations ago died a magnificent death, if that is all that happened. It is not all. Jesus is not just `one man' among others. He is - He called Himself - `the Son of Man' . And that is a double-edged title: (a) One slice of its meaning is `the Super man', the rightful representative of the whole human race. (b) The other has the Messianic tinge of Daniel's vision (Daniel 7; l3 - l4): this `son of man' would be God's man, His vice-regent with divine authority and power.

Must be killed

So when He says that `the Son of Man must. . . be killed' , He isn't merely predicting the inevitable penalty for offending the Roman and Jewish rulers. There is a divine will, divine necessity for his death. He will die as man's representative, dying a death that is ours be right. And He will die as God's representative, in His divine nature God's own son became man. You can't understand the Cross of Christ without grasping that it was God dying for our sake.

Must suffer

And if that leaves you wondering why the God-man should need to die for us, the clue is in His other word of explanation - `suffer'. `The Son of Man must suffer . . . and be killed.' `Suffer' may not ring particular bells today; but to a first-century Jew it should have had as precise a reference as `Auschwitz' or `Belsen' to his modern descendant. It sped straight back to the bleeding prophecy at the heart of the Old Testament; the song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52; 13 - 53; 12). That servant was to suffer the punishment for others' rebellion against God: `He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities' . That servant, foreseen centuries earlier, was Jesus.

Three clinching proofs

  1. The cloud. As Jesus hung on the Cross, an unnatural darkness dimmed the sky from noon till three (Mark 15; 33). Contemporary historians noted it and admitted that it could be no eclipse; you can't have such a thing at the full moon of Passover. It remains a mystery unless you understand it as nature's sympathy with its maker's unthinkable death; and as a visible demonstration of our murky, mucky wrongdoing landing on Jesus' spotless shoulders. Jesus died for you and me. `We believe it was for us He hung and suffered there'.
  2. The cry. At the end of those three excruciating (literally) hours, He shouted out `My God, my God, why did you abandon me?' (Mark 15; 34). Never in His life before had He called His Father that anonymous `God'; never had He experienced God-forsakenness. The only barrier that can prise man and God apart is human sin (Isaiah 59; 1 - 2). There is no satisfying explanation of Jesus' cry of dereliction other than this: He was cut off from God because He was being punished for sin. And as He had none of His own, it must be ours. As perfect man, He bore man's blame; as God He endured God's justice. `There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin'.
  3. The curtain. As He magnificently traded in His life, He bellowed one last exultant, yet agonised, `I have paid it! I have done it!' (literal translations of John 19; 3O). And simultaneously, perhaps pushed along by an earthquake, the `Berlin wall' inside the temple came tumbling down (Mark 15: 38). God imperiously swept aside the old demarcation curtain, ripping it from His end to ours, to show that there was no longer anything to prevent us from coming toknow Him and receive His fair forgiveness. Jesus' death for our sins had been 1OO% successful. `He died that we might be forgiven. . . that we might go at last to heaven, saved by His precious blood.'

But why a Cross?

Jesus died physically to identify with human mortality. He died spiritually to overcome it. Because He died in your place, you need never die the death of total rejection by God, although you deserve it. But this still hasn't explained why, other than political circumstance, Jesus should die on a Cross. Wouldn't some quieter method have done? The answer probably lies in the convergence of these factors:

  1. For God to die is a deliberate voluntary act of self-surrender. That wouldn't have been clear if He had succumbed, apparently accidentally, to a flu virus.
  2. The central moment of human history needs to be in public. If Judas had stabbed Jesus secretly behind a palm-tree, we'd still be looking for clues to what really happened.
  3. The Romans reserved crucifixion for the dregs of the earth. One of God's characteristics is breathtaking humility. At supper He does the slave's job (John 13; 4 - 5). At death He takes the common criminal's gibbet.
  4. In God's design, Old Testament law and prophecy laid out the hammer and nails that must pierce Jesus to the Cross. `A dead body hanging on a post brings God's curse on the land' (Deuteronomy 21; 23). `They tear at my hands and feet' (Psalm 22: 16). `They will look at the one whom they have stabbed to death' (Zechariah 12; 1O).

Cross-question

Whatever the reasons for the Cross, the real question is; "how will you answer?"

Jesus dived to the depth of hell so that you might join Him in highest heaven. Will you saunter in, having spent the rest of the day on your own concerns? Or will you learn to take up your Cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9; 23)? There is no other such spur to outright, inright, downright, upright love and dedication to the Lord.

One famous portrait of the Crucifixion surmounts the placard; "All this I did for thee. What hast thou done for me?"


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