It has been said that the cross of Christ is the most recognisable symbol in human history. However, that something is well–known is not the same as being well–understood, and it is obvious that the minds of many are informed, not by the Bible, but by superstition and sentimentality. As in all matters, there is a need to examine what the Scriptures actually say (see Rom. 4: 3).
The Physical Act
The first thing to note is that the Bible provides no information whatsoever on the shape of the cross. Peter tells us that Christ “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”, and the word tree here (xulon) simply means a piece of timber, whether living or dead. The same word is used for sticks (see Matt. 26: 47), stocks (see Acts 16: 24), and wood (Rev. 18: 12), and is also used in Acts 5: 30; 10: 39; 13: 29 where it is sometimes translated cross.
Paul also uses xulon in Galatians 3: “Christ has redeemed us out of the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, (for it is written, Cursed [is] every one hanged upon a tree,)” (v 13, my emphasis; see Deut. 21: 23). Such a method of execution was clearly intended to be a public spectacle. Thus in Ezra 6: 11, King Darius announces that “I have given order that whosoever shall alter this rescript, let timber be pulled down from his house, and being set up, let him be hanged thereon”. Closely related to this (but not in the sense of ridicule) is what is taught in John 3: 14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up, that everyone who believes on him may [not perish, but] have life eternal”. The reference is to Num. 21: 9 where the brazen serpent was put upon a pole, the Hebrew word for which is elsewhere translated sign (see Num. 26: 10), banner (as in Is. 30: 17: “banner on a hill”), and sail (see Is. 33: 23). The thought is clearly something intended to be seen.
Now while xulon simply means a piece of timber, the word most commonly translated cross in the NT (staurος) always carries with it the idea of wood used for a judicial purpose. From staurος is derived the verb staurow—this is translated crucify 44 times in the NT. The words crucify and cross are thus intimately related.
There is also another unrelated word translated crucify in Acts 2: 23—prosphgnumi—but this simply means to fix or fasten. That such fastening would at least partially (if not entirely) be by nails is clear from John 20: 25 and Col. 2: 14. Remarkably, however, not a bone of the Lord was broken (see John 19: 36), even though the force used to administer the nails would have been considerable.
The Public Image
Crucifixion, and more particularly the cross of Christ, have been somewhat sanitised in the modern world. Thus the religious crucifix generally presents a palatable image of a hardly damaged man—which sits somewhat incongruously with the prophecy of Is. 52: 14. Again, thousands wear a cross simply as a piece of jewellery—a practice which would have baffled anyone from the ancient world. Crucifixion was a shameful thing, not something to be delighted in—a grotesque horror that the authorities used to terrify the masses into subjugation. The extreme nature of this form of punishment is evidenced by the language of Phil. 2: 8: “becoming obedient even unto death, and [that the] death of [the] cross”. And yet the Lord Jesus “endured [the] cross, having despised [the] shame” (Heb. 12: 2, my emphasis). There is no doubt He felt the derision and humiliation of the cross—the word endured proves that—but He counted it as nothing “in view of the joy lying before him”. When Peter forcefully declares to the nation of Israel that “this Jesus whom ye have crucified” God has made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2: 36), the contrast between the degradation of the cross and Christ’s subsequent exaltation could not be plainer.
There is little or no offence in preaching Christ. Many are prepared to listen to expositions of His moral teaching, and most think it regrettable that such ‘a good man’ was put to death. They can tolerate Christ without the cross because this allows them to imagine that the adamic nature is redeemable and that moral reform is all that is required for themselves. Writing to the Philippians, Paul laments that “many walk of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they [are] the enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3: 18). He does not say that such were enemies of Christ, but that they were enemies of the cross of Christ. This brings into relief the primary error of these professors. They minded “earthly things” (v19), because their religion was suited to fallen man and his world. Paul’s gospel, by contrast, saw the cross as the condemnation of everything that now attaches to the first order of man. His hope lay in another man in another world for “our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour” (v20). The apostle preached “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1: 23, my emphasis) and then, as now, such preaching was viewed as objectionable and stupid. To the Jews the cross of Christ was “an offence”—this did not fit in with their concept of the Messiah. They looked for a glorious personage who would bring in national salvation, not a contemptible Galilean who would not only die, but die in a way that their own Scriptures declared to be accursed. The signs that they wanted were those that indicated kingly power, and they certainly attached no credence to One who was “crucified in weakness” (2 Cor. 13: 4). As for the Greeks—those who made so much of the human intellect—the preaching or “word of the cross” was “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1: 18). Human wisdom would argue ‘How could a dead man save?’ And yet, “had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”! (1 Cor. 2: 8, my emphasis). At the cross, every sort of man—cultural, political and religious—were represented in Pilate’s inscription being written “in Greek, and Roman, and Hebrew letters” (Luke 23: 38), thus exposing the complete bankruptcy of the human condition. The purpose of the gospel therefore is to “deliver us out of the present evil world” (Gal. 1: 4).
Thus to Paul, preaching Christ crucified was not a side–issue to his ministry, or a passing fad, but the very kernel of all that he stood for. In Galatia he preached his message with such vivid imagery that he could say “O senseless Galatians, who has bewitched you; to whom, as before your very eyes, Jesus Christ has been portrayed, crucified [among you]” (Gal. 3: 1, my emphasis). To the Corinthians he could say “I did not judge [it well] to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2: 2, my emphasis). The Galatian error was essentially Judaism refurbished, and so the apostle speaks in chapter 5 of “the scandal” (or offence) “of the cross” (v11). At its root, the error at Corinth was Grecian conceit, which is why Paul is at pains to say that he had been sent to “preach glad tidings; not in wisdom of word, that the cross of the Christ may not be made vain” (1 Cor. 1: 17). Thus he was with the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; and my word and my preaching, not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of [the] Spirit and of power; that your faith might not stand in men’s wisdom, but in God’s power” (1 Cor. 2: 3–5). Thus in both Corinthians and Galatians the cross is brought in as the death–knell of everything in which man naturally might make much of himself.
Sins, the Old Man and the Flesh
Many Christians do not view the cross of Christ as anything other than a ticket for heaven. That Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree” is blessedly true, as is what follows shortly thereafter: “by whose stripes ye have been healed” (1 Pet. 2: 24). Why, however, pass over what the apostle writes between these two Scriptures: “in order that, being dead to sins, we may live to righteousness”? According to this Scripture, the reason why Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree is the effect that it has on our lives on earth now. Being dead to sins means having done with them. This is not, of course, the only reason why the Lord died for us, but it immediately begs the question as to whether the ticket–for–heaven believer has really understood what it means to be a Christian. In v21 Christ is presented as the One in whose steps we should follow. The next verse then describes four characteristics of this model, the first of which is that He “did no sin” (v 22). Can we follow Christ there? The Spirit of God through Peter clearly expects us to. We can very well imagine that in heaven we will be dead to sins, but that is not what Peter is saying. It is Christians, in this world, and now.
Paul takes this doctrine further than Peter in that he speaks of the cross not only in relation to sins but also in relation to our sinful nature. This introduces us to another Greek word: sustaurow or crucify with. Now just as the thieves on Golgotha’s hill were crucified with Christ (see Matt. 27: 44), so also “our old man has been crucified with [him], that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin. For he that has died is justified from sin” (Rom. 6: 6, 7, my emphasis). The cross here is not presented as a ticket for heaven but as a judicial condemnation of all that is in us that relates to man as a fallen race. Why? In order that “we should no longer serve sin”. A crucified man may well linger in life, but he has the sentence of death irrevocably upon him. It is the same with the “old man”. Scripture does not say that the old man is dead—otherwise the exhortation to “neither yield your members instrument of unrighteousness to sin” (v13) would be meaningless—but in the cross God has announced that He has finished with him. It is something that God has already done: our old man “has been crucified” (my emphasis) What we need to do is accept God’s testimony about what He has done to the old man and having formed the same judgement as God about that character of man, we reckon ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v11). Of course we may not feel dead to sin (or alive to God), but that is because we are looking in the wrong place. We are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Thus in Galatians 5, the believer is said to be one who has “crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts” (Gal. 5: 24, my emphasis). Is the flesh and its lusts dead then? No. The sense is that the believer has come to the same judgment about these things as God has. The flesh and its lusts are condemned. The judgment is death, and there is no right of appeal.
Christ Crucified and the Law
As that which condemns, the cross is a legal device. This relationship with the law is threefold:
1. The obligations of the law are met in Christ crucified. Thus: “and you, being dead in offences and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he has quickened together with him, having forgiven us all the offences; having effaced the handwriting in ordinances which [stood out] against us, which was contrary to us, he has taken it also out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2: 13, 14, my emphasis). What is taken out of the way and nailed to the cross is not said to be our sins (or offences) as such, but the handwriting in ordinances which stood against us. The force of the word “handwriting” is an obligation by which a man is bound by his own signature. This obligation is annulled because Christ has met its demands at the cross. The law demanded death on account of man’s failure but the handwriting in ordinances nailed to the cross of Christ is judicial proof that the charge is now null and void.
2. The man who could not keep the law is condemned and finished with in the cross. Christians are often slow to realise this. Thus the Galatian saints “having begun in Spirit” were attempting “to be made perfect in flesh” (Gal. 3: 3)—that is, through keeping the law. The apostle Paul meets this error with the cross of Christ: “For I, through law, have died to law, that I may live to God. I am crucified with Christ, and no longer live, I, but Christ lives in me; but [in] that I now live in flesh, I live by faith, the [faith] of the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me” (Gal. 2: 20). Legal ordinances could not improve Paul, because the old Paul had been crucified with Christ, and was finished with. Furthermore, in the life of faith that he now lived, a better man had come into view and he could say “Christ lives in me”! Law has its application, not to Christians, but to “lawless and insubordinate, to [the] impious and sinful” (1 Tim. 1: 9). The sentence on such is “Cursed is every one who does not continue in all things which [are] written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3: 10). Thank God then, that we also read that “Christ has redeemed us out of the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, (for it is written, Cursed [is] every one hanged upon a tree,)” (v13)—in the cross, Christ has vicariously taken the curse upon Himself.
3. The cross is the means by which another man is formed. The “law of commandments in ordinances” (Eph. 2: 15) was the source of the enmity between Jew and Gentile—the one had bound himself to be governed by it, the other not. However, God has now set aside both sorts of men in favour of one new man, “having annulled the enmity in his” (Christ’s) “flesh, the law of commandments in ordinances, that he might form the two” (Jew and Gentile) “in himself into one new man” (my emphasis). How has this been brought about? He has reconciled “both in one body to God by the cross, having by it slain the enmity” (v16, my emphasis). Thus both Jew and Gentile are brought to a judicial end in the cross in the eyes of God, and replaced by the new man.
The Cross of the Disciple
However, the cross of Christ is not the only cross in Scripture. When the Lord Jesus taught that “he who does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10: 38), the sense is each disciple taking up his own cross. It is not the cross of Christ that is in view. The setting of Matthew 10: 38 is clearly the growing rejection of the Lord by His own people. In chapter 9, His works had been ascribed to Satan (see v34), then in the earlier part of in chapter 10 He had spoken of cities rejecting Him (see vs.14, 15), and later of His disciples being delivered up, scourged and put to death (see vs 17, 21, 28). Against such a background the imagery of the disciple taking up his own cross would be very vivid. The disciple is called to be as his Lord: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more those of his household?” (v25). This gives force to the apostle’s chiding of the Hebrew saints: “ye have not yet resisted unto blood” (Heb. 12: 4).
However, we must not imagine that the disciple’s cross is simply a metaphor for the suffering he will find in following Christ. The thought behind the imagery of Matthew 10: 38 is of a condemned man carrying the means of his own death. Death, not suffering, is the primary lesson. That is why Mark’s account says “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34, my emphasis). Whether martyred or not, each one truly taking up his cross no longer attaches any importance to that which, as a natural man, he previously made so much of. Thus: “For whosoever shall desire to save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16: 25). That the lesson intended to be conveyed is more than a merely physical one is proved by Luke 9: 23: “If any one will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”. It is thus an ongoing spiritual exercise. This denial of self is what was exemplified later by the apostle of the Gentiles: “what things were gain to me, these I counted, on account of Christ, loss” (Phil. 3: 7).
One last thought: there are a great many self–denying believers who hold to the idea of a ‘community church’. The self–denial is commendable, but Christians are no more part of their supposed ‘community’ than the crucified Christ was. He was outcast, hence the exhortation “let us go forth to him without the camp, bearing his reproach: for we have not here an abiding city, but we seek the coming one” (Heb. 13: 13, 14). Paul understood this perfectly. On account of Christ, society had rejected Paul, and Paul had rejected society: “far be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom [the] world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6: 14). It is a great thing for a disciple to take up his own cross and “deny himself” (Matt. 16: 24), but it needs to be accompanied a recognition that in the cross of Christ God has not only finished with self, but also with the world in which self finds its fulfilment. “Where also their Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11: 8) applies morally to ‘community’ as much as it does literally to Jerusalem. It is the same world.