For many people, the cross is just another symbol for one of the many religions of the world. However in the first century, the cross had a very different meaning. The cross was a symbol of the worst possible punishment and death sentence reserved for only the most horrific criminals. It was deemed so horrible that it could never be used to punish a Roman citizen, and the Jewish people saw it as a curse from God: “he that is hanged is accursed of God”-Deuteronomy 21:23). The cross was a disgusting, repulsive, thing; something people didn’t talk about and definitely didn’t want to think about. So why is it the symbol of Christianity?
Jesus. who was crucified, is the God of Christianity, but the early Christians still could’ve chosen any number of other symbols to represent Him. As a matter of fact, the cross was such an unlikely symbol for anyone to choose to represent God, that even the Bible says. “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness: but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” - 1 Corinthians 1:18. So, the more pertinent question is, what does the cross represent to the followers of Jesus Christ? What would make someone exalt such a disgusting and repulsive sign?
To the Christian the cross symbolically reminds them of the death of Jesus Christ and the work His death accomplished there. So, what was that work? Jesus Christ took the deserved punishment of His people at the cross (Isaiah 53:10-12), and in so doing He reconciled them to God (Romans 5:10). But why would anyone need to be reconciled to God?
To see what is keeping us from being reconciled to God, let’s look at Isaiah 59:1-2 : “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear.”
God will not hear us because we have sinned against Him. That is the point of Isaiah 59:1-2. He’s perfectly capable of saving, of forgiving, of loving, and hearing our prayers, but He won’t listen to us as sinners. We must first be reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. He is a perfectly righteous judge, and He must side with justice. Justice is for those who have sinned to be punished for their sins. So, the question now becomes, are we sinners?
To get an honest answer to this question, we must first be completely honest with ourselves as to what we are truly like. After all, “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness; but a faithful man who can find?” - Proverbs 20:6. So the question is: Are you a good person?
To find the answer, let’s look to God’s standard, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement.” - Hebrews 9:27; that is the only standard that matters. Let’s examine ourselves in the light of the Ten Commandments:
Have you ever told a lie? The Bible says that “all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” - Revelation 21:8b. Have you taken God’s name in vain (i.e. OMG)? Have you ever stolen anything? Have you loved God with all your heart, mind, and soul? Has God always been first in your life? Have you honored your father and mother in obedience? Have you set aside a day to honor God/ kept the sabbath? Have you ever coveted/desired what didn’t belong to you? You may or may not have committed adultery, but Jesus said that “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”- Matthew 5:28. Have you ever looked at someone with lust/sexual desire? You may not have murdered anyone, but in 1 John 3:15 it says that, “ Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” So, do you still think you’re a good person?
Keep in mind that in James 2:10, the Bible says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” And this from 1 John 1:8-10, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word in not in us.” Listen to what Psalm 14:1-3 says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” And hear the words of the prophet in Isaiah 64:1-7, “Oh that Thou wouldest rend the heavens, that Thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at Thy presence, As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make Thy name know to Thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Thy presence! When Thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, Thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at Thy presence. For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside Thee, what He hath prepared for him that waiteth for Him. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember Thee in Thy ways: behold, Thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved. But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon Thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of Thee: for Thou hast hid Thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.”
Our best is never enough to satisfy God’s standard. There is nothing we can do to erase sin or our guilt, which points to our sinfulness. “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds:”-Romans 2:5-6. “God creates out of nothing. Therefore until man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.”- Martin Luther.
Your good deeds cannot undo the wrong you have done or your guilt, and justice demands you be punished. You may think eternity in hell is a bit extreme for your crimes, but keep in mind that punishment is dependent upon whom you have sinned against or committed the crime against. For example, if you lie to a total stranger at the grocery store, there’s probably no consequence outside of your conscience bothering you. Yet if you lie to your spouse, you might suffer their anger and damage the relationship, but if you lie to your boss, you might get fired. And still further if you lie to the government you could go to jail or worse. The crime or sin was the same; lying, but the consequences and punishment were greatly changed because of whom you sinned against.
We have sinned against the perfect and Almighty God of the universe. Any infraction of His commands is considered high treason; a capital offense (God killed a husband and wife in Acts 5:1-11 for telling one lie.). God is our Creator and gives us every breath we take, provides each beat of our hearts, and has given us all the good things we enjoy (i.e. food, family, friends, etc.). He can do with us as He chooses, and by His law we stand condemned and guilty deserving of eternal hell.
“That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.. . . . And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh, For through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.” - Ephesians 2:12-13, 16-18.
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” - Romans 6:23
In the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, John Calvin said, “For God, who is the highest righteousness, cannot love the unrighteousness that He sees in us all. All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred. With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in His sight, and are born to the damnation of hell. But because the Lord wills not to lose what is His in us, out of His own kindness He still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain His creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet He has created us unto life. Thus He is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners He cannot receive us completely. Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to Himself, He wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in His sight. Therefore, by His
love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because He first loved us”(1John 4:19), He afterward reconciles us to Himself. But until Christ succors us by His death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before Him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with Him. If, then, we would be assured that God is pleased with and kindly disposed toward us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone. For actually, through Him alone we escape the imputation of our sins to us - an imputation bringing with it the wrath of God.”
This is what made those first century Christians and all true believers today cling to the symbol of the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the payment, the propitiation, for our sin debt to God. Jesus was sinless, and therefore the only One who could pay that debt in His own life’s blood. “For he hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in HIm.” - 2 Corinthians 5:21. This is what Christianity is truly all about. God has redeemed and pardoned sinful people by offering His own Son, Jesus, to be punished in our place; that’s what happened on the cross. That is why the cross is the symbol of Christianity. Not because there is beauty, favor, power, or social status in the symbol, but because it symbolizes the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the forgiveness offered in that sacrifice to reconcile us to God, as sinners “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Colossians 2:13), without anything we could do on our own account “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9), by repenting (confessing our sinfulness to God, asking His forgiveness, and turning from those sins) and putting all of our hope for Heaven in the sacrifice of Jesus making it possible. Don’t run from the cross, cling to it!
Listen to the words of A.W.Tozer: “The glory of the Christian faith is that the Christ who died for our sins rose again for our justification. We should joyfully remember His birth and gratefully muse on His dying, but the crown of all our hopes is with Him at the Father’s right hand. “
This unbelievable knowledge should cause the unsaved to seek God’s mercy and salvation in Jesus Christ, and should make the Christian praise the Savior and seek to serve and obey Him in telling the whole world the “good news” of the gospel. Let us as Christians live as if all our hope is in Christ, His atoning death and resurrection, because there is no other hope! And may this powerful knowledge allow us to say confidently with Justin Martyr, a first century Christian martyred in A.D. 165, “You can kill us, but you cannot do us any real harm.”