Christians esteem the cross of Christ. The apostle Paul claimed to preach nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). He wanted to boast in nothing “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).
Yet when one considers the cross, it seems almost absurd that we would celebrate the torturous death of God incarnate. Why do we celebrate the cross of Christ?
The Message of the Cross
The central message of Christianity is the humiliation and harassment of God. No other religion dares to depict their God receiving such disdainful treatment. He hangs naked in shame to suffer death before the eyes of the world. The message of Christianity is rightly a scandal. For what can be more scandalous than to condemn an innocent man—who is the eternal God himself—to die for the sins of others?
We display the cross proudly in our churches, our homes. Many people adorn their necks with a cross-shaped pendant. We have in many ways desensitised the actual horror and repulsion of the cross.
The cross was repulsive to every human sensibility for Jew and Gentile alike.
For the first-century Jew, the cross was a sign of God’s curse (Gal. 3:13). It was the absolute experience of God forsakenness. For the Gentile, the cross was a sign of rejection by the society of man. It was ultimate punishment reserved for the worst criminals such as rebels and slaves. Roman law prevented a Roman citizen from ever being crucified.
The cross was repulsive to every human sensibility for Jew and Gentile alike. It was perverse and hideous. For the Jew, the crucified Christ was a stumbling block. For the Gentile it was foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23). The message of the cross defied every social norm and human logic. Why is this message of reproach, a message of reverence for Christians?
John Stott, the Anglican theologian, in his classic The Cross of Christ, wrote, “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance).”
The Sinful Act of Man
In the crucifixion of Jesus, we observe the full display of human sinfulness. We observe the betrayal of a companion in Judas Iscariot, the denial of a friend in Peter, the open lies by the false witnesses at the trial, the secret conspiracy by the chief priests, the miscarriage of justice by Pilate, the cruelty of the soldiers in their violence, the vitriol of the crowd in their cries for crucifixion, and the contempt of the crucified thieves in their jeering.
The whole story of the crucifixion reveals the barbaric and callous inhumanity of the people. Every step of the way, Jesus endures abuse upon abuse.
Seeing the violence done to Christ, we must not assume it was merely the first century Jews and Romans that brought forth the crucifixion of Christ. Rather, the sinfulness of the whole of humanity is on display. While you and I were not present in Jerusalem on that fateful Friday, it is our sin that is showcased there.
As much as it is an act of man, Jesus’s crucifixion is also the sovereign act of God.
The cross reveals the depths of human sinfulness and the horrific reality of mankind’s rebellion. We not only observe the depravity of man but also its effects of condemnation and death.
The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, as the sinless man, suffers for sinners and dies, condemned in the place of sinners. He does this so that sinners might die to sin and experience eternal life (Rom. 5:8; 1 Peter. 2:24, 3:18).
Thus, it is for our sin, that Christ hangs upon the cross. He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities so that his chastisement brings us peace (Isa. 53:5). Christ as the lamb of God is sacrificed to make atonement for sin.
Unless we realise that we are active participants in the crucifixion of Christ, we do not understand the message of the cross. Only when we see that Christ hangs instead of us, in our place, for our sins, do we begin to comprehend the glorious reality of the cross.
As Stuart Townend wrote,
Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished.
The Loving Act of God
As much as it is an act of man, Jesus’s crucifixion is also the sovereign act of God. The cross is his divine initiative to save hell-bound sinners. It is his plan which God purposed to bring forth to perfect completion. It was the will of God that Christ should suffer and die for sinners (Luke 24:24; Acts 2:23).
God devised this plan before the foundation of the world (1 Peter. 1:19-20; Rev. 13:8). It was promised to Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15), revealed to the patriarchs (Gen. 22:8, 14), foreshadowed in the law of Moses (Lev. 16), sung by the poets (Ps. 22), and foretold by the prophets (Isa. 53). Thus, Paul says, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).
God’s wrath is a concrete display of the divine perfection of his being.
Could God have saved sinners in any other manner? This is the same question that Christ asked in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his agony he entreated, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Recoiling from the cross that awaited him, Christ asked his Father if there was any other way than the cross to save sinners. The silence of God responded with a deafening, “No.” The cross was the only way to save sinners.
The wrath of God lay heavy upon sinners. God’s wrath is not abusive, or manipulative like human anger can be. God’s wrath is a concrete display of the divine perfection of his being. It is an expression of his divine attributes of holiness, righteousness, and goodness. God’s wrath is thus, his faithful response to wrongdoing, to set things right. God had to satisfy his wrath.
The justice of God demanded the sinners’s death while the love of God demanded that sinners live. God’s holy wrath loathed sin, while the love of God desired to show mercy to the sinner. The cross is the only place where divine justice and divine love meet and embrace each other.
Upon the cross, it is the heavenly Father who punished his Son. The Father strikes his beloved Son. Jesus suffers the wrath of God for sinners, so that God might lavish the love he has for Jesus, upon sinners facing eternal judgment.
In the words of the apostles’s creed, Christ “descended to hell” that sinners might ascend to find heaven opened for them. Jesus voluntarily lays down his life for sinners (John 10:17-18). Only he, as the infinite God, could appease the infinite wrath of God upon sinners. Only he could settle “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Col. 2:14).
On the cross, God demonstrated his love and satisfied his justice in the perfect death of Christ (John 3:16, Rom. 3:25-26). Thus, God now grants sinners the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
The Response to the Cross
Contrary to Indian culture where shame is shunned, and sin is secret, the cross confronts plainly and publicly the humiliation and horror of sin in the crucified Christ. God does not hide humanity’s sin and shame behind fig leaves, as man attempted to do (Gen. 3:7). Rather, God deals with it in perfect justice upon the cross. He does not dismiss sinners as damned but saves them in his Son.
Stephen Charnock, the puritan, said in a sermon, “Let us look upon a crucified Christ, the remedy of all our miseries. His cross hath procured a crowd, his passion hath expiated our transgression, his death hath disarmed the law, his blood hath washed a believer’s soul. This death is the destruction of our enemies, the spiring of our happiness, the eternal testimony of divine law.”
This is why the cross of Christ is a cause for celebration. The only appropriate response to the cross is to bow one’s knee in humble repentance for the sin that made the cross necessary, and to worship God for his loving sacrifice of his Son, Christ Jesus.