We see symbols everyday. Symbols of peace, strength, royalty, and victory.
Within Christianity, there is no greater symbol than the cross, something so obvious that we take it for granted. Something so pervasive, so associated with Christianity that we might not even question it.
But why is the cross the symbol?
Doubtless there could have been other symbols used.
Jesus was born in a manger, miraculously. We call him the good shepherd. He’s called the lamb of God. He said that he was the door, whoever entered through him would be saved. Jesus talks of being the bread of life.
As John Stott summarizes in his book the Cross of Christ, the early Christians “wished to commemorate as central to their understanding of Jesus neither his birth nor his youth, neither his teaching nor his service, neither his resurrection nor his reign, nor his gift of the Spirit, but his death and crucifixion.”
And ultimately the cross became the symbol. I’ve heard people dismiss the idea of the cross as a symbol. It’s where Jesus died. That would be like wearing an electric chair around your neck.
But really, I believe that the cross is even more radical. In the Roman world, crucifixion wasn’t even legal for Roman citizens. It was meant for non-citizens and slaves. Those looked down upon by society. Those who had committed murder and led rebellion. It was a means of execution specifically designed to maximize the torture and agony. A person being crucified could take days to die.
Obviously the cross doesn’t save us. It’s what Jesus did on the cross that matters. It’s what Jesus accomplished at the cross that matters.
It’s interesting that Jesus predicts his death.
In Jesus’ day, many people expected the messiah to be a great military or political leader. And what do great military and political leaders do? They win! They conquer. They take territory. They overthrow governments. They win!
They don’t die.
When Jesus makes his first prediction of his death, Peter actually rebukes Jesus. He criticizes the Lord who died for our sins for saying he was going to die for our sins! When he predicted his death, some might not have even believed him or thought he was exaggerating.
But he wasn’t. Everything in the gospels points to his death. Jesus is constantly making reference to his death throughout his life.
Aside from the multiple explicit references from Jesus about his death and resurrection, it’s constantly alluded to in the gospels. His entire life was in the shadow of the cross.
In Luke 2, as a baby, his parents take him to the temple for a dedication ceremony. A man named Simeon who’s a prophet who’s been waiting for the Messiah beholds the baby Jesus, and says: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
He tells Mary “a sword will pierce through your own soul.”
He’s referring to what Mary will experience when she stands at the foot of that cross, and watches her son die.
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus talks about his “hour,” referring to the time of his death.
In the gospels, about 40 percent of the books are dedicated to the final week of the life of Christ.
John Hay and John Nicolay wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln that is over 5,000 pages in length. In those 5,000 pages, the assassination of our 16th president is talked about in just 20 pages.
Why is it that 40 percent of the gospels revolves around his final week, his death, and his resurrection?
Because it is the only way to God!
The great leaders of other faiths: Gautama Budha, Muhammad, they died. And are still dead today.
It is on the cross that Jesus bears the sins of humanity. It is on the cross that Jesus endures the wrath of God for sin. It is on the cross where we see him supremely betrayed and forsaken. It is on the cross where we see our sins nailed down, and where we see the magnitude of our sins, the weight of our sins, holding God to the cross. He shows the love he has on the cross. He shows the justice of God on the cross.
Because Jesus died and rose again, there is hope. This life is not all that there is.
That the hope of eternity with Jesus is not some pie in the sky hope, it’s not some fairytale, or some bedtime story that we tell to children.
Jesus rose from the dead and that means everything. There is no stronger validator to who Jesus is.
It means that there is life after death, which is our hope. It validates who Jesus said he was, which is our God and savior. It proves what should be most precious to us, which is the love of God. It shows us where we came from, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It affirms that Christ’s teachings had authority. It shows that the life and ministry of Jesus are infinitely important.
Originally published September 21, 2016
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.