What Does the Cross Really Mean?
Tom: Thanks, Gary. You’re listening to Search the Scriptures Daily, a program in which we encourage all who desire to know God’s truth to look to God’s Word for all that is essential for salvation and living one’s life in a way that is pleasing to Him.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been discussing God’s love, and there’s no greater demonstration of His love than what took place on a cross just outside Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. As Charles Wesley wrote, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou, my God, wouldst die for me?” But, Dave, the meaning of the cross is rather confused these days, isn’t it?
Dave: Well, crosses are very common on top of churches, or hanging around people’s necks as jewelry. The Catholic Church has bejeweled the cross. Many of them are just . . . I remember sitting next to a man on the airplane who happened to be, amazingly, involved in recovering money and jewels from underwater wrecks—ancient ships. I’d never met a man like that before. And some of the crosses, he said, they sold for half-a-million dollars or more, with diamonds and rubies and so forth. Pure gold.
I don’t know how the bloody cross on which Christ suffered and died for our sins was sanitized and turned into something like that. I’m not trying to be critical, but doesn’t it seem that that rather perverts the message of the cross? Or maybe they feel that they are glorifying the cross. I don’t know. And that’s another problem, because then the cross itself, somehow, the symbol of the cross, the shape of the cross, seems to have a power . . .
Tom: Like an amulet.
Dave: Right . . . of its own. That is not what the Bible teaches at all. It is rather what happened on the cross, the One who hung there, and what He did and what was accomplished through Him, that is what counts. But you wouldn’t get that from a bejeweled cross.
Tom: Right. Or one that’s held up to fight off a Dracula, or even those that are just used as a rabbit’s foot, a superstitious item.
Dave: I guess some people wear a cross around their necks for that reason, and, as you said, you wave a cross, the priest waves a cross at a demon to exorcise someone. I think the demons laugh. I mean, the shape of a cross—it really means nothing. In fact, it’s interesting. When we read the gospel of Jesus Christ—for example, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul said, “This is the gospel that I preached unto you, whereby you are saved, and wherein you stand; how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; was buried, rose again the third day, according to the scriptures.” But there is not a mention of the cross.
I don’t have a concordance in front of me, but I don’t think the cross is made a part of the gospel—I don’t recall any gospel presentation by Paul, or Peter, whoever, preaching. It’s the fact that . . . . Now, it is important. Crucifixion was foretold.
Tom: Right. So it had a lot to do with prophecy and our understanding of who the Messiah . . .
Tom: . . . when He would come, and who He was.
Dave: The Messiah had to die upon a cross. But that doesn’t mean that it was the cross that had some magic quality. It was the fact that He died. And this was the death of a criminal.
So, the cross, on the one hand, has been bejeweled, or it’s been turned into a magic symbol, some magic power of its own. On the other hand, I think that many Christians, and I speak to my own heart, we forget that Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Galatians:2:20); in the last chapter of the epistle to the Galatians, he said, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And then he makes an interesting statement: “Whereby the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.”
I don’t know if you even wanted to get into that . . . I’m just wandering along here, Tom. You’re the man that’s supposed to directing this program.
Tom: Well, what I want to concentrate on, Dave, is—at least initially—just how the demeaning of the cross . . . For example, when Paul says—he uses the term to imply Christ’s death—not the object itself, not the article. And it’s that content that the cross has very much to do with that I really would like to get into. And we’re seeing, I think almost prophetically, although I don’t think this was meant to be a prophecy—no, it wasn’t, but it implies . . . Well, for example, 1 Corinthians:1:17 says, “For Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.”
What we’re saying here is, at least by way of looking to the object and not to the objective of the cross, we’re losing the meaning of what Christ did.
Dave: Well, he’s talking there about introducing man’s wisdom and man’s reasoning in order to somehow better express the gospel. I think we would see that today in repackaging the gospel; we’re going to redefine it, and we’re going to make it palatable for modern man. And Paul says if you embellish this . . . you try to come up with some rationalizations and reasonings of human wisdom, you’re going to destroy the real power of what happened on the cross.
So, you’re doing with language what they’re doing with jewels to a cross that is made into a piece of jewelry.
Tom: Dave, in addition to that, it seems, it isn’t just like we’re sliding off, let’s say—the body of Christ, or the church—that we’re just kind of sliding away from this true meaning, this content, but the world is antagonistic toward the cross. Paul, picking up in 1 Corinthians:1:18: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”
Dave: There are a lot of ways you could look at that, Tom. On the one hand, well, I’ve even heard people say, “This bloody religion. Why does someone have to die for someone else?” And then, “On a cross! How could someone who was crucified as a common criminal, how can he be God? How can he be the savior of the world? It doesn’t make sense.”
Well, Jesus hung there for us. And there is so much that we learn in what transpired. For example, in His cry to His Father: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” That shows His love, even as they were venting their hatred upon Him. The cross is probably the most cruel way that you could kill someone—let them linger in torture until you’re ready to take them down, and mock them, and so forth. So, the cross—not the symbol of it, but the One who hung there—when you think that this is the Creator of the universe, and these are His creatures, and He’s done nothing but good: He has fed the hungry, He’s raised the dead, He’s opened the eyes of the blind—He has done nothing but bless them. And they’re cursing Him! The Scripture said prophetically, “They hated me without a cause.” And they mocked him.
So, we’re seeing in the cross a demonstration, proof, evidence, of the evil in the human heart and the enmity of man against God.
Tom: So this doesn’t bode well for the humanist and his idea about the . . .
Dave: . . . innate goodness of man.
Dave: And at the same time, it’s the most amazing demonstration of love and forgiveness when Christ says, “Father, forgive them.” These are the ones who nailed Him, who are mocking Him, and He asks forgiveness! So in the cross we see the depth of human hatred and sin and rebellion against God; we see the height, the wonder, of God’s love, and we see the scope of the forgiveness! There’s nothing that could not be forgiven. There is no sin that a man could commit that the cross could not forgive. Not the cross, the symbol, as we’re trying to say, but what Christ did, the One who hung there. . . .
Tom: Dave, you point out over and over in this chapter of your book (this is chapter 17 of An Urgent Call to a Serious Faith), but you point out that the cross, as you’ve been mentioning, demonstrates over and over man at his worst, but God, on the other hand, at His most loving. But as you mentioned also, there’s a tendency to focus on Christ’s physical suffering on the cross, and, in a sense, you can’t get away from that.
I made the mistake of . . . well, there was some value to it, but I saw the film The Gladiator. It’s an incredible film, because it deals with pagan Rome at its height, and they reconstruct the Coliseum, so from a production value, it’s staggering. But if the film demonstrates anything, it demonstrates man’s inhumanity to man in staggering ways. It also shows that the Romans worked overtime devising ways to torture their fellow humans. And the cross was their product. So it’s hard to get away from the physical aspect of what Christ went through. But if we do, as I think you’re pointing out, we miss something, don’t we?
Dave: Yeah. If you put too much emphasis upon the physical, then we miss the spiritual. There were thousands who died on crosses, as you would know, who were tortured and so forth by the Romans. So when Christ was on His knees, praying, crying out in agony to His Father, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” it was not the physical sufferings that He had in mind. He was not a coward. Many a criminal had been nailed to a cross and gritted his teeth and wouldn’t give those Roman soldiers the satisfaction of a whimper or a plea for mercy and went to his death like a stoic. And there’s no reason to believe that Christ could not do that. That was not what He was concerned about. What He was concerned about was that He was going to be made sin for us. The Bible says it: “He who knew no sin was made sin. . . .” That is, He became the very thing that He hated that God’s judgment against sin could be poured out upon Him. What that involved, we don’t know, but it would send a sinner who rejects His salvation to the Lake of Fire for eternity. But Christ being God and being infinite, He could endure that eternity of suffering and of God’s judgment against all of mankind, He could endure it in those three hours of darkness . . .
Tom: . . . of separation, also . . .
Dave: Yeah, it was separation from God, and we don’t understand that either, because He is God. But He endured the separation from God that a man, that the whole human race, who were doomed, would endure for eternity.
Tom: “He tasted death for every man.”
Dave: Amen. Interesting—He was put into, it says, “a new tomb, wherein never man had lain.” That was Joseph of Aramathaea’s tomb. And why was it a “new tomb”? Because Joseph was from Aramathaea, a town some distance from Jerusalem, and, as you know, they buried—if you’ve ever seen this, when we were in Israel—they buried families together. These were family burials. So, if Joseph of Aramathaea had been Joseph of Jerusalem, it would have been a family burial plot. But he had just moved to Jerusalem, and being a wealthy man, he had them carve out of stone a new burial plot that would be for his family, he had thought. And that’s where Jesus was put.
So, it’s a . . . well, it’s a picture of the fact that Christ went into a grave that no human had ever been into. He tasted the fullness of death that no human has yet ever tasted, because the Bible talks about the Second Death in Revelation 20: “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God” (all the people who have died). Their souls and spirits now had been brought up and stand before God for the final judgment. And then it says, “Death and hell were cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death.”
So, this is a grave that no one had ever gone into. It’s a death that no one had ever endured and no one need endure, if they would believe in Him and accept His sacrifice in their place.
So this was something that Christ took for us.
Tom: Dave, I want to go back to specifics with regard to focusing on Christ’s physical suffering. As you know—some of our listeners know—I grew up Roman Catholic, and it seemed (and it’s the same way today) the focus is on suffering, penance, doing certain things, whether it be nuns or priests or monks in monasteries, doing certain acts in which they create pain for themselves, whether it be going to confession and being given a penance to do, to sort of work off sin.
Dave: Mm-hmm. In other words, Christ’s suffering was not enough. You have to suffer, too.
Tom: Right, but Christ’s suffering—you point out here in your book that it’s not the physical pain that He went through, yet for those of us who were Catholics, and those who are Catholic today, pain and suffering go a long way to expiate one’s own sin.
Tom: So there’s the crux of (no pun intended), but that’s where the idea of this punishment for sin comes in—it’s a misunderstanding of the cross.
Dave: In fact, there is an anathema, as you know, pronounced by the Council of Trent: “Whoever says that a repentant sinner who has been justified by faith is justified to such an extent that he is no longer under an obligation to suffer for His sins, here or in purgatory, let him be anathema!” And yet the one whom they claim was the first pope, Peter, he said, “Christ hath once suffered for sins. He, the just one, for us, the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” Not to purgatory, not to some place where we would suffer. And you cannot expiate your sins by suffering. It won’t work.
Tom: So, then, Dave, what about the physical suffering that Christ went through? Isaiah 53 uses some very graphic terms: wounded . . .
Tom: . . . with his stripes, yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him . . .
Dave: Okay, now . . .
Tom: Are these all . . . ?
Dave: . . . these are two different things, Tom.
Dave: “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. By his stripes . . .” That's what men did to Him. And what men did to Him, you know, nailing Him there, mocking Him, torturing Him—would not save us. It would only add to our condemnation, because that’s what we did. And I think the angels must have trembled, you know, wanting to come down and stop this! To think that the creatures—what they’re doing to their Creator! Well, then, where does our salvation come from?
Well, then you quoted—you went on, and you said, “It pleased Jehovah to bruise him. Thou hast put him to grief. When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, then he will see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”
So on the one hand, we have the physical suffering, the torment that man did to Him, which won’t save us. It would only add to our condemnation. But as He hung there, we have what God is doing to Him. He is bruising Him; He is putting Him to grief; He is laying up Him the penalty—the sins of the world—and then the penalty for those sins prescribed by His own infinite justice.
These are the two things that happened on the cross that, but—as you’re saying, not only the Catholics but Protestants or evangelicals or whatever—as we take the bread and the cup, for example, in remembrance of Christ, which some people do weekly, others do it quarterly, or monthly, generally there tends to be . . . the emphasis is upon the physical sufferings. Very little understanding . . .
Tom: Dave, I’m sure you’ve read some articles by Christians who were doctors, had a background in pathology or forensic science, and they analyzed what it would be like to die on a cross. And it’s as gruesome as you’d want to read about anything, because the suffering is just unspeakable, to some degree. And you read that, and you can’t away from it: Christ did this for us! But the misunderstanding in my mind and I’m sure a lot of our listeners can come to [the conclusion that] this is what He did to pay for our sin.
Tom: It’s not the case.
Dave: Well, He endured the hatred of man and the torment of man—that was a part of it, but that wouldn’t pay for our sins, of course. But the fact that His soul was made an offering for sins . . .
Tom: But what about the humility aspect, Dave, because we’re going to be talking about “Take up your cross and follow Him”? What about the humility side of this as it says in Philippians.
Dave: I often . . .
Tom: He humbled Himself.
Dave: Yeah. “He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Now we’re looking at another side of it here. This is not what God laid upon Him, but the humility, the shame, of hanging there naked, and being mocked, knowing that He is innocent! And He is dying for our sins! I often say that one of the hardest things to do is to bite your tongue and not say anything when you are being charged falsely with something, and “He was like a sheep, dumb before his shearer, He opened not His mouth,” because we had to no answer to make, and He was taking our place.