The sign of a fish provided an early symbol of Christian commitment and identification with the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, but the more enduring image is undoubtedly the cross.
Whether unending lines of identical white crosses at a military cemetery or two simple pieces of wood nailed together in a remote place; whether massive and resplendent on the dome of a great cathedral, or minute, jangling on a necklace, the cross remains the unmistakeable sign identified with the Christian faith.
In our contemporary world, of course, we are far removed from its original horror and shame. We see it paraded at the heart of a national flag or carried high at a procession full of pomp and splendour. When Paul boasted in the cross, his boast would have been incomprehensible to any of his contemporaries, apart from those who had fully embraced its breathtaking wisdom.
The cross was a form of public execution of unparalleled degradation and repulsiveness. Though Paul gloried in the cross, men’s normal response would have been horror and disgust at something so hideous and repellent. It was reserved for the lowest of the low and enabled Rome not only to crush its enemies but to leave them full of utter terror, fear and humiliation.
Even though the Romans imposed this infamous punishment on their enemies, Cicero condemned it as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’, later adding, ‘The very word “cross” should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.’
Naked and disowned by men and God, someone hanging on a tree was regarded by the Jews as forsaken and damned. Man had inflicted punishment to the limits of his ability. Now let God curse him!
For Paul to boast in the cross and be determined to preach no other message than Jesus Christ and him crucified was extraordinary, a mystery of foolishness to the Greeks and a cause of deep offence to the Jews. How could his disciples proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah? He had not merely died; he had been completely humiliated at the hands of the Gentiles. The true Messiah should have followed David’s success against Goliath and vanquished the Romans, not be thoroughly dishonoured, mocked and dismissed by them.
God’s predetermined plan
For Paul and the apostles to go to the world proclaiming a message centred in crucifixion was absolutely staggering. It seemed like a public acknowledgement of defeat and disaster, but of course the message of the cross did not stand alone! It was made dynamic by the insistence that, though Godless men put him to death, there were two other breathtaking factors to discover, namely that Christ had been ‘delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23) and that indeed it was impossible for death to hold him, for God had raised him up again (Acts 2:24).
Jesus had not been simply betrayed, tricked and overwhelmed by men’s cunning; God himself had predetermined it. The Bible consistently speaks of God’s advance plan and complete involvement. God had ordained a way to satisfy His justice, vindicate His name, uphold the law, fulfil the promises, realise Israel’s destiny, defeat Satan, justify sinners, release captives, demonstrate His unspeakable love and begin a new creation.
God had not abdicated. He was involved. God (we are told) ‘made him to be sin who knew no sin’ (2 Cor. 5:21). We often misquote this verse and paraphrase it ‘he became sin’, whereas we are plainly told that God ‘made him to be sin’. As Leon Morris points out, ‘The verb is active and the subject is God,’ and as Philip Hughes adds, ‘There is no sentence more profound in the whole of Scripture, for this verse embraces the whole ground of the sinner’s reconciliation to God.’
He suffered for our sins as though they were his own so that we might enjoy the reward of his righteousness as though that had been our own. His spotless life in all its perfection and innocence is credited to our account, as though we had lived it.
When Jesus shouted out ‘it is finished’, never did the word ‘it’ carry so much weight. Judgement was passed, the law was fulfilled, God was satisfied, the temple was redundant, principalities and powers were disarmed, the battle was won and new creation could begin.
Our cross as well
For us who are in Christ, we were crucified, dead and buried with him. The Bible tells me that two men were crucified with Jesus but it also reveals that I was crucified with him. I might not always feel like it, but my old self was as certainly crucified as those two! (Rom. 6:6). Judgement is passed, bondage to sin is over, resurrection life has begun.
Paul gloried in the ‘old rugged’ cross not in nostalgic reflection but in triumph and glorious emancipation. ‘May it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal. 6:14).
As J I Packer said, ‘Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgement for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory.’