Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
Good Friday: March 30,2018
The Cross of Christ
This evening we have gathered to reflect on what the Lord Jesus Christ did in our behalf 1,988 years ago. Many emblems have been used over the years to symbolize that event, but none so common or potentially rich in meaning as the cross.
Yet, while the cross is rich in meaning, much of that meaning has been lost over the years. They do not make crosses the way the used too.
The Modern Cross
Think for a moment about how much the symbol of the cross is used in the modern world. It is used in processions by various “Christian” religious organizations. It decorates houses of worship throughout the world. Our building uses the cross in this symbolic way. The large wooden cross behind me and metal one at the apex of our steeple is symbolic of our identification with Christ. Modern crosses for these purposes are mass produced in fine polished woods – oak, walnut, cherry, and stained to match the pews. For outdoors uses, you can get a cross made out of polished aluminum, bronze, or for the more modern look, plexiglass or fiberglass in any color imaginable.
Wooden crosses (usually painted white) are often erected on hill tops as a symbol to the whole community. The cross is also wove into the flag designs of many nations. Crosses are worn as jewelry including necklaces, earrings, and rings. Such jewelry can be exquisite being made out of precious metals such as platinum, gold or silver and set with diamonds, rubies and other gem stones. Or they can be the less expensive jewelry catalog items. One jewelry catalog offers a “gold electroplated cross with a microdot of the entire Bible in the center so you have the peace of God’s Word near you throughout the day.” They don’t make crosses the way the used to, but then again, crosses now have a different purpose.
The modern cross is no longer the symbol it was when Jesus hung on one. The modern cross has become simply another religious symbol devoid of much significant meaning. It is a decoration. It is something pretty to be worn as jewelry regardless of what you believe about Jesus Christ. I guess that is my point here. What meaning is left in the cross when it is used as a decoration by those that do not know the Lord Jesus Christ? Why do some punk rockers, gangsta rappers and others who sing and promote things that are contrary to Christ, wear crosses? Of what significance is the cross to them? What purpose is left in having the cross be part of the flag design of nations such as England, Denmark and Sweden which long ago gave up their spiritual heritage and now support activities and ideas that are in opposition to Jesus’ commandments? What do those who reject Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior think about the cross they wear around their neck?
The purpose of the modern cross is for the most part simply decorative. It is something nice, something pretty to enhance how something else looks.
The Roman Cross
The Roman cross was of a different design. There was nothing pretty about it. It was not made of polished wood or smooth metal. It was made from rough timbers of what ever was around. There was no concern for either its aesthetic appearance or for splinters, big or small. There was no standard design. Some Roman crosses were giant X’s, others looked like a capital “T,” and others looked like the one behind me. Yet, each Roman cross fulfilled the purpose of its design.
The cross was not pretty. It was an ugly thing because of what happened upon it. The common people feared it. The Jews despised it. And even Roman citizens avoided it. Cicero wrote, “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”
The cross, regardless of which design was used, was not made to look nice, but to kill a person in a slow, agonizing manner. The idea for the cross originally came from Persia where Alexander the Great learned of it. In Persia it was simply a stake upon which a condemned criminal would either be either hung or impaled. The main idea was to allow the dead body to rot in the sight of everyone as a warning to those who might want to practice a similar crime. Rome seems to have picked up the practice of using it as a means of capital punishment from Carthage, but Rome refined the practice. Rome made it into not only an instrument of death itself, but a most cruel, torturous kind of death.
A cross was usually not much taller than the height of a man. The arms of the one being crucified would be stretched out along the crossbeam, or between the pieces if it was in the shape of an “X”. The arms would be fastened by either tying them with cords or using large, rough nails and cords. Nails through the hands would be insufficient by themselves because the weight of the body would cause the nails to tear through the hands, so either nails and cords would be used, or the nails would have to be driven through the wrists where the bone structure there would support the weight of the body.
If this was all there was to it, the victim would not last very long – dying within hours or a day at most. With the arms raised in such a manner breathing becomes very difficult, and it is only with increasing labor the individual can swell his chest to breath in. Orthostatic collapse also occurs. The blood begins to settle into the lower parts of the body, and soon insufficient blood reaching the brain would cause the person to become unconscious. As the process continued the blood flow to the heart and lungs would become insufficient resulting in the victim’s death. But the Roman executioners thought this was too fast. It was not agonizing enough, so they devised ways to prolong the suffering.
They would usually tie or nail the feet to the stake so that the victim could push himself up to breath and increase blood flow. They would often also fasten a small block or pin as sort of a seat for the victim to rest on. The whole purpose was to increase the agony of the one suffering. Those being crucified were usually scourged first. That is, they were whipped with a special device that would lacerate the back and even tear out hunks of flesh.
With that in mind, imagine the torment of the one being crucified. Every breath would be a struggle. The weight of your body tearing at the flesh where the nails had been driven in. That searing pain increasing each time you tried to raise yourself up to get a breath. Your back, already ripped to shreds by the scourging, would be rubbing against the rough timbers with splinters penetrating deeper each time you pulled yourself up and then sank down in the effort to breathe.
The Roman method was very successful in achieving what they wanted, and the victims would usually live for two to three days after which sheer exhaustion would set in and they could no longer do what was necessary to breathe and keep the blood flowing. If it was necessary to have the victim to die sooner, a club would be used to break their legs just below the knees. The bodies would then generally be left on the cross to rot as a warning to everyone else.
Crucifixion was ugly in every aspect, and it was the most common form of execution in the Roman empire. After a person was condemned, they would be scourged, then forced to carry either the crossbeam or the titulus (placard describing their crime) to the place of execution. The only ones exempt from crucifixion were Roman citizens. This is evidenced by the fact that church tradition holds that Peter and some of the other Apostles were crucified, but Paul, a Roman citizen by birth, was beheaded.
It was a common sight in the Roman world to see someone being crucified, or the remains of someone who had been crucified. At times there were mass crucifixions. Over 6,000 slaves were crucified by Crassus along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua when he finally defeated Sparticus. Augustus Caesar claimed to have captured 30,000 fugitive slaves and crucified everyone that had not been claimed. Two thousand followers of the Jewish rebel Judas were crucified in the region of Galilee. In Rome itself, thieves would be crucified for the amusement of the masses. Crucifixion was not abolished until the time of Constantine in the fourth century.
No, they do not make crosses like they used too. They no longer have the same purpose. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, everyone identified the cross with a slow, agonizing death. There was nothing nice about it. Not even a hangman’s noose, a guillotine, or an electric chair match it as symbols of gruesome execution.
The Cross of Jesus
The cross of Jesus was a Roman cross, and He went through everything I have described. Pontus Pilate gave up his fight for justice and what he knew was true, and yielded to the demands of the mob. Jesus was then mocked and scourged. The special whip that had several strands of leather with pieces of rock, pottery shards and such tied to them was used to slash into his back and tear our hunks of flesh. He was then forced to carry the crossbeam while before him walked a man with the placard proclaiming His “crime.” It said in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, “Jesus the Nazarene, The King of the Jews.” On His way to Golgotha, the place of the skull, Jesus collapsed from the physical exhaustion and loss of blood. Simon of Cyrene was then pressed into carrying Jesus’ crossbeam. When He arrived at Golgotha, Jesus laid down on top of the cross and His hands and feet were nailed to it. The cross, with Jesus on it, was then lifted up and slid into the hole in which it would rest. It would have come to rest with a jar, and the nails would have torn into His flesh. It was upon a Roman cross that Jesus died three hours later.
But the Roman cross on which Jesus hung failed in its mission that day. The cross did not kill Jesus. Jesus willingly gave up His spirit (Luke 23:46). John 10:17-18 records Jesus said, ” . . . I lay down My life that I may take it again, No one takes it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative, I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again . . .” The purpose of the Roman cross was to execute the hopelessly condemned criminal. The purpose of Jesus on the cross was to execute judgment and bring hope.
The cross of Christ brought about the execution of God’s judgment on sin. It was not by accident that Jesus died on a cross. It was fully in the plan of God. The Jewish method of capital punishment was stoning, not crucifixion. Several attempts had been made to kill Jesus including stoning and throwing Him off a cliff, but it was necessary that Jesus die as He did.
In Deuteronomy 21:22-23 the Law of Moses stated, “And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged on a tree is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”
The cross of Christ was the place of God’s judgment of sin. Jesus died on a cross because He became “accursed of God” in our place. Isaiah 53:4 states the Messiah would be “smitten of God, and afflicted.” 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The cross of Christ is where Jesus became sin and was judged by God in our place. Paul points this out clearly in Galatians 3:13. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”
Because of Jesus’ willing sacrifice of Himself as the payment for sin on our behalf, the Roman cross became the Cross of Christ and it no longer symbolized just a cruel, torturous death. Its meaning was changed. Inherently bound up in Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself, His bearing the judgment of God for our sin, the cross became the place of hope for mankind. The cross, which was a symbol of death and hopelessness, became the a symbol of the hope of being restored to God and of life in Him.
It was God’s desire to deliver us from our bondage to the sin of this present evil world and bring us to Himself. In Galatians 1:4 Paul states that it was Jesus “who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world.” As Peter put it, “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just of the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God . . .” (1 Peter 3:18). And again, in 2 Corinthians 5:19 Paul tells us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. . .” That is why Jesus was made “sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” It is because of Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on a Roman cross, that symbol of condemnation and death, that it became His own cross, the symbol of unsurpassed love that grants forgiveness and life. Romans 5:8 puts it this way, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
It is for this reason that the hated symbol of the Roman Cross, a symbol that caused fear and revulsion, was changed into a symbol of God’s love and the hope He has given us in Jesus. Tragically, most people today have forgotten what it took for that the Roman Cross to be changed into the Cross of Christ, and because of that, they no longer see it as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, or a symbol that calls us to Him.
The Cross You Bear – Jewelry or Sacrifice?
Jesus understood the importance of symbols and often used them in His teaching. He used the symbol of the Roman Cross in calling people to Himself. In Matthew 16:24-25 Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.”
In simple terms, being a Christian is about following Jesus. It involves believing what Jesus said about Himself, that His sacrifice on the cross was sufficient payment for your sin, and that confessing your sin (which necessarily involves repenting from them) brings about God’s forgiveness and a restored relationship with Him. It also involves living for Him and no longer for yourself, for you have been bought with a price, the precious blood of the Lamb of God. You are no longer your own. As Paul puts in Galatians 2:20 and other places, the true Christian is “crucified with Christ and no longer himself lives, but Christ lives in him.” The Christian is to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). Being a Christian involves denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Him.
The great tragedy is that too many think that the cross for them to bear is just a piece of jewelry rather than the cross of Christ. Christianity for them is an ornament that makes them feel good rather than a way of life lived sacrificially to please the one that loved us so much that He died in our place.
What is the cross to you? Jewelry? A decoration? Or the symbol that tells of the sacrifice needed to redeem you from your sin, and the symbol that reminds you to be a living sacrifice for Him?
The cross behind me is not there for decoration, but to remind you of Jesus’ death and the hope that has given to us. As we prepare to partake of the Lord’s Supper, let it remind you of what Jesus has done for you.