The cross is the de facto symbol of Christianity. Everyone around the world recognizes the Cross of Christ. The crucifix has even entered mainstream pop culture. Two millennia down the road since the most famous execution in all of history we must ask what it really means. When people who have no affiliation to Christian faith freely wear what Christians hold in high esteem, there has clearly been some miscommunication. The cross in the 21st century has become a secularized icon.
To understand the cross we need to view it in context. To the people of the first century Roman Empire the cross was not something to be taken lightly. It was the worst punishment for the worst offence. Paul spoke about the resistance and persecution that he, along with the rest of the early Christian community, faced for preaching this message. We find several allusions and references to this throughout Scriptures. Ancient texts also speak of the profanity of the idea that the Chosen One of God could be murdered in such a fashion. It was absolutely absurd. Far from it being something to be taken lightly, crucifixion was a serious affair and a source of great controversy when the Christians first preached it.
The fact Jesus died by a full Roman crucifixion is a well-established historical fact. The fact that crucifixions occurred in the Roman Empire, however, is unremarkable. We have enough records of it to know that it was a practice not only peculiar to the Romans. Even though it is a particularly ghastly form of execution, it is not exceptional. Jesus himself was crucified between two criminals. What it establishes is that Jesus died and a person dying, as tragic as it might be, is simply not unusual. People dying is a fact of life so why preach that a man died? Such a message on its own is hardly original and could not have been the source of so many troubles for early believers.
The crucicentric emphasis of Christian theology, preaching, imagery and music, is actually badly skewed. When we read the New Testament we do not see such a singular emphasis on the cross. A lot of Christian thinking places Jesus’ death as the pinnacle of his life. A message that climaxes at Jesus dying cannot be good news. The message of death cannot be the Gospel.
The cross stands as the great sign post of human history and like any sign post there are only two positions relative to it. The first perspective is the one which we have already mentioned. In this view we meet Jesus on the cross. The cross stands before him, the story of Jesus ends with death. In the second perspective the cross stands behind him and his story continues in the resurrection.
What makes the cross significant is the empty tomb. It is his resurrection that makes his crucifixion meaningful. No matter the reasons for which Jesus died, if he was not raised, his death would have held no more significance than any other persons. Yes, it is true he died for our sins. However, his death does not justify us before God, it is rather his resurrection. His death does not deliver us from our sins, his resurrection does. Our sins are forgiven by his resurrection and not his death!
It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification. (Romans 4:24-25 NKJ)
…if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Corinthians 15:17 NKJ)
Being on the right side of the cross means seeing his death in the light of his resurrection. Resurrection means new life coming out of death. There has to be a death for there to be a resurrection. When Paul talks of Christ crucified, or the message of the cross, it is another way of saying that the resurrected Messiah did indeed die. Let us take a look at how Jesus introduced himself in the Apocalypse of John,
And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.” (Revelation 1:17-18 NKJ)
Christ crucified means Jesus, who is alive now, was once for all killed. Paul spoke with enthusiasm about the cross because Jesus literally had to be ‘dead and buried’ for there to be any resurrection.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? (Galatians 3:1 NKJ)
Jesus could have died in so many other ways but he was crucified. Now one argument for the crucifixion is that it was prophesied. This still does not tell us why God had predestined his Son to die in that way. I believe an answer lies in the very nature of crucifixion.
As I mentioned earlier, crucifixion was the most ignominious death in that time-period. This method of execution was not only designed to terminate life but to publicly shame and dehumanize its victims. A death on the cross was open, deliberate and obvious. A credible resurrection requires a credible death and crucifixion did not leave any room for doubt. (Resurrection by Martin Hengel is an excellent resource on crucifixion in the ancient world.) Implicit in any resurrection is death and the cross clearly represents mortality. On the cross death openly mocks human life and endeavour.
Christians often speak of the power of the cross and I think that is the reason why much of Christianity lacks in supernatural power. Jesus was not crucified in strength but rather weakness. On the cross no miracle was worked, there was no divine intervention. We cannot look to the cross to receive divine power. The power of the cross is the power of death. It is only on the wrong side of it that the cross has power.
Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]. (Colossians 2:15 NKJ)
Paul conveys to us the imagery of a battle. It was common place for the victor to parade their defeated foe stripped and powerless throughout the streets. Instead of revelling in its cruel authority, death found itself to be the victim on the cross. The resurrection reinterpreted the significance of death. Now the cross instead of being the banner of shame became the standard of victory. God has openly mocked death by raising his Son from the grave and so the scripture says,
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55 NKJ)
Now is the scripture fulfilled that no weapon fashioned against you will prosper (Isaiah 54:17.) Life and immortality has finally been brought to light in the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:10.) The purpose of the message of cross is to ultimately show that the cross has no power. The effect of the cross had been nullified by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What we preach is the powerlessness of the cross by the power of his resurrection.
If the cross is something in the immortal Lord’s past does it hold any significance for the future?
Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen. (Revelation 1:7 NKJ)
When the Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven, with great authority and power, the world will recognize him as the same Jesus who was crucified. The cross has become his identifier. He is the Lamb that was slain. The new creation is therefore what emerged out of the old. As light was hidden in darkness so was everlasting life hidden in death. This is the new perspective of the cross. Jesus bears the marks of the cross as battle scars of when he vanquished death and the grave. On the right side of the cross we look for the coming of the all-conquering King of kings and the Lord of lords.