The Wondrous Cross

“What’s your sign?” I’ve had many people ask me this question. They are referring, of course, to the signs of the Zodiac, driven by the belief that celestial movements influence human activity. Many people take this stuff seriously. Our local newspaper, The Denver Post, for instance, has a section for those who read their daily horoscopes. Some people want daily, weekly, monthly guidance based on their sign. Believe it or not, our progressive, big city newspaper gives out financial direction, love profiles, peak time of day direction, and lotto advice all based on your astrological sign!  Astrology has signs. What’s your sign?

Corporations have signs as well. People buy sports clothing because they identify with its corporate signs. Nike, Reebok, Hurley, Apple, IBM, and Starbucks; these signs appear everywhere. Even sports franchises have signs. People pay a lot of money to wear the sign of their favorite team. In our town it’s the Broncos, Nuggets or Rockies. Which one drives you?  What’s your sign?

Most religions also have signs. Buddhism has its lotus flower, Islam has a crescent moon, Judaism has the star of David. Not surprisingly, Christianity has a sign as well. Interestingly, it is not a manger, a dove, a workbench or a throne, but a cross. Yes, a cross is the sign most often associated with Christianity. You find it on the top of buildings, in cemeteries, or around people’s necks.

You will never understand Christianity until you understand its pervasive sign—the cross. In the New Testament, the gospel is called “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18); Paul said that he “boasted” in the cross” (Gal. 6.14); when Paul preached he said he preached “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1.23). The gospels themselves have been described as “passion narratives with long introductions”—that is directing our attention to the cross.[1]

Some people see the cross as a piece of jewelry, a fashion accessory. Others treat it like a good luck charm, believing that wearing one offers spiritual protection. Still others wear it as an indication of their commitment to the Christian faith. It is their sign, signifying that they somehow identify with Jesus.

What comes to mind when you see a cross?   What do you think about? 

The second half of the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ cross. John 19:14-18 intensifies that focus:

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. 

If I were to ask you to explain the cross coherently to a stranger, could you do it?  Could you describe its significance to someone who wanted to understand why it is so important for Christians?

For the next few minutes I would like to help you do just that. In the words of the 18th century hymn writer, Isaac Watts, I would like us to “survey the wondrous cross,” to probe its meaning. In so doing, I would like to give you five keys to unlocking the meaning of the cross.

An Instrument of Execution

The first necessary key to unlock its meaning is to think of it as an instrument of execution. This would have been the most obvious thing about it to a first century Jew or Gentile living near Jerusalem. To crucify meant to execute. Jesus died on wooden beams fashioned by the Romans into a death weapon. Surrounded by so much cross “bling” as we are, this basic fact is often lost on us. But it is where we must start.

Crucifixion was a cruel, sadistic form of punishment reserved for criminals, slaves and deserted soldiers. They were hung on crosses in public to warn others to submit to the Roman state. We’re told that in 4BC the Romans crushed an insurrection and actually crucified 2,000 rebels along the road that led to Galilee. The Romans inherited this sadistic idea from the Phoenicians, but the Romans refined it.

When one is crucified, you are literally nailed to its wooden beams, first the hands, then the feet. The cross is then lifted and dropped into a pit, and all of your weight is held up by your pierced limbs. The pain is excruciating. It eventually causes your lungs to collapse, which is how you eventually die. To prolong and maximize the pain, the Romans introduced what was called a “saddle.” This was a piece of wood placed just below the of a crucified person so they could use it push up and get some air. This only extended the torture and delayed the death.

John 19 describes the events leading to this brutal form of death inflicted on Jesus. It tells us he was flogged, a crown of thorns was pressed into his scalp, he was mocked, beaten, condemned, and then led away, forced to carry his own heavy cross to the execution site, where he was nailed to its beams and then lifted up between two thieves.

By the way, the execution of Jesus is an established fact of history. It took place around 29 AD, and is agreed upon by secular and Biblical sources alike. Virtually no one denies that it happened. The outrage of it all is that the process that led him there involved a miscarriage of justice. The trial was rigged. Even Pilate, the Roman governor, recognized it. He could find no fault with Jesus. He explained to the mob, “I find no guilt in him” (18:38). Who was responsible for this travesty?  Who can we pin this massive injustice on? The Jewish leaders? The Romans?

Yes, they bore part of the responsibility. But the stinger in the Biblical account is that we are also to blame. The Bible lays the responsibility at our feet as well. For it was our sin that put him there. Christ died not for his sins but for ours. The prophet Isaiah put it this way: “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5) Or as Martin Luther is reported to have said, we all carry his nails in our pockets!    

So this is the first necessary key to unlock the meaning of the cross. We must first see the cross is an instrument of execution. This should not be simply a matter of historical imagination. This should be personal. We had a lot to do with it.

An Altar of Sacrifice

If we are to unlock the meaning of the cross, there is much more to consider.

Second, we must also think of the cross as an altar of sacrifice. John thinks of it in this way. In John chapter 1, John the Baptist encounters Jesus and then proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). As the Gospel of John unfolds, especially from chapter 11 on, the narrative builds towards the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, i.e. “now the Passover of the Jews was at hand…” (John 11:56). So, Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin, draws near to his appointed hour when he himself will be sacrificed, around the same time that the Passover lamb in the temple will be sacrificed. But what is Jesus’ altar?  It is not made out of stone. Rather, it is the wood of the cross.

What Jesus accomplished by this sacrifice is actually foreshadowed in the first three books of the Bible. In Genesis 22, we see Abraham obediently take his son to an altar. Isaac asks, “Father, behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb?” Abraham replies, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering.”  His statement is a declaration that rings throughout the Old Testament as it anticipates the coming of Messiah.  And God did provide a sacrifice.

In Exodus, we are introduced to the Passover lamb. An unblemished lamb must be killed, the blood must be applied to the door posts of the homes of Israel and those who were under the blood would be spared. “When I see the blood,” God said, “I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you” (Exodus 12:13). Likewise, in Leviticus we see the laws for sacrificial offerings: an unblemished animal (bull or lamb) is to be chosen. As it is presented at the tent of meeting, the offerer must lay his hand on its head, “and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement” (Leviticus 1:4). The priest will then take the blood and apply it to the altar. Then comes the regular refrain, “And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven” (see 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18, etc.). Every sacrificial lamb points forward to the ultimate sacrifice of a lamb who will finally take away the sin of the world. In other words, it is a redeeming or saving sacrifice.

Where is the Biblical logic in all this?  It starts with God himself. What we believe about atonement is shaped by our understanding of God. The God of the Bible is holy and righteous. He condones nothing wicked, but will judge the world and all sin in righteousness. Our sin and defiance against our Creator and against our fellow human beings cannot be overlooked, but merits his retributive justice. In other words, each of us stands condemned before the just and holy judge of the universe. We are under his wrath. What is wrath? Think of God’s wrath not as capricious, arbitrary, out of control anger, but rather as a function of his holiness. It is God’s holy revulsion against sin, our sin.

Now if this were all there were to the Biblical story, it would be a bleak indeed. Thankfully there is more to the story! For this holy God is also a loving God. In love he initiates a plan of redemption to rescue sinners. It is a plan that both upholds his justice yet provides a way for justifying the unrighteous. Thus, you might say that love and justice meet on the cross. It is a plan that sends the Son of God on a divine rescue mission. He comes into the world as its redeemer to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He redeems by paying a price that we can’t pay in order to deliver us out of our condemnation. He comes into the world and pays the price for us by sacrificially laying down his life for others. Jesus not only meets the demands of God’s justice, thus upholding divine law, but bears the retribution due to us. He becomes our substitute. Substitution is the heart of the atoning work of Christ on the cross for us. He takes our sin upon himself. He provides pardon and a righteous standing to sinners. As 1 John 2:1, 2 says, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” How does this atoning sacrifice affect us? We receive this wonderful gift by faith in Christ and his finished work on the cross for us. Through faith in him and his work on the cross for me, I can be justified, pardoned and accepted by this holy but loving God.

The end of the Bible offers praise to the lamb for his amazing sacrifice. Revelation

5 pictures angels surrounding God’s heavenly throne and saying “worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” It adds, “for by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom of priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:12, 9, 10).

This then is the second necessary key to unlock the meaning of the cross. Think of it as an altar of sacrifice, an atoning sacrifice that takes away our sin.

A Map of Reconciliation

A third key to unlock the meaning of the cross is to think of it as a map of reconciliation. Reconciliation is an outcome of substitutionary atonement. The cross is a visual sign of the reach of God’s reconciling love.

Never forget that though God is holy and just, his entire redeeming work was initiated in love. Within the Holy Trinity, God initiated a plan of redemption: Father, Son and Spirit were part of the same plan, all working together to bring salvation to a lost world. In love, the Father sent the Son. In love, the Son obeyed and humbled himself and became incarnate. He came to earth on a mission that focused on the cross where he offered himself as a sacrifice for sin. He provided what we could not provide. He rescued where we could not rescue ourselves.

Every time you look at a cross, bring these things to mind: instrument of execution, altar of sacrifice, map of reconciliation.

Reconciliation signals a change in relations that was affected by this sacrifice. The very beams of the cross point to its dimensions. The two intersecting lines of the cross are perpendicular to each other. One points vertically, the other points horizontally. As a result of this sacrifice there is atonement, literally at-one-ment, a twofold reconciliation.

First, and most important, the cross reconciles us to God. The vertical lines of the cross point, as it were, from heaven to earth, and remind us of the bridge Jesus built between a holy God and sinful humans. Through the cross we can be reunited with our Maker. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:19, that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Second, and as a consequence of our reconciliation to God, the cross reconciles us to our fellow human beings. The horizontal lines point, as it were, all around the earth, reminding ourselves of the bridge Jesus is building to people through the cross. All kinds of barriers are broken and transcended through the cross—ethnic barriers, racial barriers, class barriers, etc. The One who is greater than all these differences now calls us to love one another, to be agents of reconciliation, to be peacemakers. I love the way 1 John 4:10-11 puts it; they show how our reconciliation to God has spillover effects and calls for us to be reconciled to one another. John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” And later, he adds, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Can you see it?  By looking at the visual beams of the cross, we see the outstretched arms of God in Christ reminding us of his reconciling love. We see a map of reconciliation.

An Announcement of Victory

What I have said so far is not all that we see in the cross. A fourth key to unlocking the meaning of the cross is to see it as an announcement of victory.

When you look at the cross it is often empty. Why?  Because it reminds us that Jesus is no longer there. The empty cross announces resurrection. He is risen! This is the message of Easter Sunday. Now in saying this, I do not mean to denigrate a crucifix, that is, a depiction of Christ on the cross. I remember being a patient in a Catholic hospital; there were plenty of crucifixes there! These reminders brought me comfort to know that God understands my suffering. Jesus has already been there, and out of his suffering, which was far greater than mine, great good has come.

Recently, I was reading about a former Prime Minister of Holland, who also was a pastor, Reformed theologian, college president, and newspaper man. It was a book about the legendary Abraham Kuyper. In 1903, as prime minister, he faced a railroad strike that was to bring down the curtain on his political career. Kuyper happened to be in the Dutch East Indies at the time, and he wrote these words to his daughter: “My calling is high, my task is glorious. Above my bed hangs a crucifix, and when I look up there it is as if the Lord is asking me each night: ‘What is your struggle next to my bitter cup? His service is so exalting and glorious.’”[2]

Raised as a Protestant, however, I grew up with empty crosses. And the point of the empty cross is that Jesus is no longer there. After John 19 comes John 20!  John 20 declares the cross is empty, the grave is empty, and Christ is alive.

In Christ a great reversal took place. Sin’s penalty was paid in full. Death was overcome. Our enemies have been defeated. A doorway has been opened out of pain and death into eternal life. The risen Christ is the first-fruits of a coming resurrection. This is what the empty cross announces. As Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life, He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25).

How do you picture Jesus right now?  He is no longer on that cross. He is no longer walking out of that tomb. He is risen. He is now ascended. And he is available to all who call on him.

The last book of the Bible gives us a revelation of Jesus as he is now. John saw him in a vision and wrote,

When I saw him I fell at his feet as though dead

But he laid his right hand on me saying, Fear not!, I am the first and the last. I am the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever. And I hold the keys to death and hades (Revelation 1:17ff).

What you’ll find with each of these keys, is that they not only unlock the meaning of the cross, but there is something visual about them.  The cross is itself visually an instrument of execution. When we discover what Christ achieved in his death, we will then see the cross as an altar of sacrifice. But the plus sign of the cross is also a kind of map of reconciliation. And because it is empty, the cross becomes a visual announcement of victory.

A Reference Point for the Christian Life

However, there is one more key that I think will help us unlock the meaning of the cross. The cross is also a point of reference for the entire Christian life. That is, it is a sign of discipleship.

As followers of Jesus we are called to take up our cross and bear it every day. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

What does it mean to “take up” our cross daily and follow him? When a person took up their cross, that meant they were getting ready to die. The disciples were slow to get this point, but they eventually came to realize that following Jesus means a life of denying yourself, of complete obedience to him. It meant dying daily to ourselves, as well as a total commitment even to the point of death (e.g. most of the twelve disciples did actually die for their faith).

My problem, and it may also be your problem, is that I keep forgetting this important lesson. I forget that I am to daily take up my cross and follow him. So I need reminders. This is exactly what the cross will become for a Christ follower—a point of reference.

Every time I see a cross on top of a church building, high above the noise of the street, it lifts my eyes and reminds me of my calling. In the foothills of Denver, there is a large cross on the Front Range that is lit up at night and can be seen from many parts of the city. When I see it, it lifts my eyes and reminds me of my calling. It brings to mind the pattern at the beginning of my life as a Christian, where I had to die to my old self, and come alive in Christ. It brings to mind the pattern of my life now as a Christian, that I am to live life under the cross, that trials and pain are part of life under the cross. In fact, often that is when God is doing his most profound work in my life. These uplifted crosses also remind me that this will also be a pattern at the end of my life. When I die, death will not be the end, but a beginning, not an evaporation into nothingness, but a doorway to life everlasting.

Over and over, time and again, in my adult life as a Christian, I need to be reminded of these things. In fact, I am so dense, I often need a visual reminder. I need a reference point that reminds me to turn yet again to Christ and take up my cross and follow him. I have a wonderful point of reference in my life.

What’s your point of reference?

Jesus said,“Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me, and where I am there will my servant be also” (John 12:23-26)

Isaac Watt’s well known hymn, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” has been called “the greatest hymn in the English language.” It certainly is one of the greatest and one of my favorites. Did you know that the original title was not “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross?” The original title was, “Crucifixion to the world by the cross of Christ.” How appropriate. Even for Isaac Watts, the cross had become his reference point. Perhaps that is why the hymn ends with the powerful words, “Love so amazing so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”

Friend, I will say it again, you will never understand Jesus until you understand his cross. You will never understand Christianity, until you understand the cross. It is central to this life-giving faith.

So, what do you think of when you see a cross?  Perhaps you will now think differently about it. Think of it as an instrument of execution, and an altar of sacrifice. Think of it as a map of reconciliation and an announcement of victory. Think of it held high so as to be a point of reference for your life. These are five necessary keys that help me unlock the meaning of the cross. This is why Friday, was not bleak, but Good!

What is your sign? What altar are you running to?  What map are you using?  What victory are you counting on? What is your point of reference? Have you come to terms with the wondrous cross? Have you knelt at its foot and confessed your sin? Have you embraced by faith the crucified and risen savior? 


[1] Martin Kähler, The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic-Biblical Christ (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1988), 80, n.11.

[2] Quoted in Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 155.

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