Features, Highlights

The message of the cross


THE cross is a key Christian symbol. And it can only be fully understood or experienced if we remember and consider the Person on the cross – our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the cross of Jesus that the Bible speaks about and which the Church has celebrated over the ages as a sign of God’s mercy, grace and power, and of our salvation.

Paul wrote, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ … ” (Gal. 6:14). He was a man who saw his reality defined by Christ’s cross. It was for this reason that the core content of his mission was the “message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), and he declared, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2).

But what is this message of the cross of Jesus? Historically, the Church has understood the cross in at least three important ways.

Firstly, on the cross, Jesus saved us from our sins.

Tracing the theme of sacrifice in Old Testament scriptures and religious worship, the New Testament writers point to Jesus as the real sacrifice for our sins, through which our guilt is taken away from us and we are forgiven. “(Jesus) entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:12). Paul reiterated this when he wrote, “(Jesus) gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness.” (Tit. 2:14).

It is for this reason that John the Baptist saw Jesus and declared for all to hear, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). In that statement, all the ancient sacrifices, priests and prophets join together in a chorus of testimony. Can we not hear their clear and persuasive voice?

Unfortunately, it has become fashionable today to consider the doctrine of the atonement with modern disdain and distaste. How can Jesus be a substitute for us on the cross, taking the punishment meant for us? Modern human pride finds it difficult to admit our own utter helplessness and the fact that the drops of blood on and around the cross of Jesus (the “crime scene”) could be traced back to us.

But the Bible has spoken quietly and clearly over the ages. Declaring that all of us have sinned and can be redeemed through Jesus Christ, Paul explains further that “God presented him (Jesus) as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” (Rom. 3:25). John adds his voice too: “He is the atoning sacrifice … for the sins of the whole world … Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (1 Jn. 2:2; 3:16)

The cross tells us that Jesus sacrificed Himself to save each of us (1 Jn. 3:16). Because of this, His cross has become, in the words of P. T. Forsyth, “the one hinge of human destiny”.

Secondly, on the cross Jesus defeated the devil and his underlings.

In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is portrayed, among other truths, as the one who delivered people from demons. He encountered the demonic realm by defeating them through exorcism. It is interesting to note that in the fourth Gospel, where Jesus is portrayed in the loftiest way possible (where the Gospel begins with the declaration that Jesus is God Himself), there is no account of any deliverance from demons. Unlike the other three Gospels, the account of the demonic temptations faced by Jesus in the wilderness is also missing.

John, it appears, seems to be very focused on making clear Jesus’ ultimate and decisive way of dealing with the devil and evil. And that decisive battle had to do with the cross. This must have been very puzzling to the devil and his malignant followers. If Jesus had contested them with a show of heavenly power and divine muscle, they would have understood and given their best shot. But the cross?

It was mind-boggling indeed. Why would God, who had all authority and power, reduce Himself to the pathetic form of a man who was beaten to pulp and left hanging, like a common criminal, on a shameful and merciless Roman cross? This is a great enigma indeed. A world that operates on the principle that “might is right” would never understand this.

When he saw the cross, the devil must have thought that his wildest dream had come true – God was defeated and dead. But such thoughts were crushed when Jesus rose from the dead, vindicated and victorious, and the power and victory of God was simply and humbly revealed. Strangely, it was on the cross that Jesus defeated the most wicked powers in the cosmos. The Bible states this in a magnificent way. “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col. 2:15). In the shadow of the cross, the weapons of the wicked forces of the diabolical world crumbled into impotent dust. The plans hatched in evil places lay defeated at the foot of the cross.

Luther put it well when talking about death as a serpent coiled around us. He said the cross of Jesus has defanged the serpent – it may still appear as a frightening enemy, but it is now a toothless and fangless one.

What are the implications for us? Jesus defeated the wicked powers not by sword (cf. Mt. 26:52-54) but by the cross. The Roman emperor Constantine is said to have become a Christian when he saw a cross in the sky, with the words, “By this conquer.” He went on to paint crosses on his soldiers’ shields and won a key military battle against a rival. Constantinian Christianity, which led to various forms of Christendom in Europe (though, thankfully, God preserved forms of Christianity more faithful to the Bible throughout history), was led astray by a militaristic


+ Jesus saved us from our sins.

+ Jesus defeated the devil and his underlings.

+ Jesus is the model for all Christians.


Ceiling painting in St Johann Church, St Goarshausen, Germany.

understanding of the catchphrase, “By this sign we will conquer!”

THE cross is not a flag that we fly to charge into battles of violence and displays of worldly power. The battle of the cross is fought differently. The devil was defeated by divine sacrificial love that poured out from the cross. Against that flood of holy blood, the devil and all his forces were stripped of their weapons. The church must learn this lesson carefully and demonstrate it, as P. T. Forsyth said, with the cross not only on its sign, but also in its centre. God’s power is not shown in forms of worldly power and military might. In the wise words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian martyr who died in the hands of the Nazis, “The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes (worldly) success for its standard.”

For those who suffer relentlessly and for whom it looks like the forces of darkness have the upper hand, we can rest assured when we look at the cross, that the outcome has already been determined. The Lamb is already the Victor and His victory will be made perfectly clear in days to come. We can embrace the cross and wait for that day.

Thirdly, on the cross Jesus is the model for all Christians.

Did not Jesus define discipleship as denying oneself and taking up the cross to follow Jesus (Lk 9:23)? The cross is integral to Christian living. The cross is God’s method not only to bring us into heaven, but also to bring heaven into us. Without a crucified life, we cannot be made holy. We are expected to crucify our fleshly desires and ambitions (Gal. 5:24), and also our addictive attraction to the world (Gal. 6:14). Without this, we cannot grow into maturity and Christlikeness. To become Christlike one has to live the life of the cross.

This means that we must question distorted versions of the Gospel that trick us into thinking that there is a painless way to heaven. We must dispel cheapened imitations of divine grace and look for the real thing. A. W. Tozer was right when he lamented: “The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter. The flesh, smiling and confident, preaches and sings about the cross; before that cross it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged histrionics – but upon that cross it will not die, and the reproach of that cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.”

The cross of Jesus is more than a Christian symbol. It brings to us the reality of God’s mercy, power and grace. If we understand it correctly, we will find salvation, victory and holiness. We will find Jesus – our Saviour, Lord and Master.