The Apostle Paul wrote that the preaching of the cross is to them that are perishing foolishness. He spoke of "enemies of the cross of Christ," "the offence of the cross" and the "shame of the cross," but he himself gloried in the cross of Christ. What is the right Christian attitude toward the cross of Christ?
Two THOUSAND years ago, the cross didn't inspire religious awe or thoughts of the Messiah's atoning sacrifice. Instead, the cross inspired sheer terror. A crucifixion was a gruesome, torturous, and shameful way of dying — the lowest form of execution, reserved for traitors and hardened criminals. The Romans adopted this gruesome form of death from the Phoenicians, who actually impaled their victims on a straight, upright post. From this cruel practice came the Greek word stauros, which means an upright stake. However, the Romans used a cross (Latin, crux) with crossbeams. Either way it was a slow and agonizing means of death — reserved for traitors, slaves and in general the scum of the Roman world. But the process of crucifixion involved more than the shame of a brief public hanging. First, the victim was mercilessly scourged with spiked whips, sticks and all manner of physical and verbal abuse. Then the victim was forced to carry his own heavy cross to the site of the crucifixion. Afterwards came the painful process of nailing his hands and feet to the cross. Finally, this slow, agonizing death was aggravated by taunts, threats and buffeting from the crowd.
Christ's Forebodings of Crucifixion
The terror of the cross — like the anticipation of a public hanging — is heightened by the victim's fear of the event. Most criminals were crucified immediately after their trial because the forebodings of pain were more than most mortals could handle. The crucifixion of Jesus was typical in this respect — He was crucified on the same day he was convicted. But this death sentence was no sudden surprise to Jesus. He anticipated His death by the cross throughout His three-and-one-half-year ministry. As a young man growing up in Galilee, He undoubtedly witnessed a number of the Roman crucifixions. He was probably aware of His coming death for an even longer period of time — from long before He divested Himself of spirit life. For 4,000 years prior to His human birth, Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament (cf., John 1:1-3; Hebrews 1:1-3; I Corinthians 10:4 and many other scriptures). The Apostle Paul referred to the deity and the incarnation of Christ in his letter to the Philippians. "... Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:5-8). Early in His ministry, Jesus began preparing His disciples for this shameful death He was to suffer. He continually referred to His coming death, and urged the disciples to "take up his cross" (Matt. 10:38; 16:21; Luke 9:23; 14:27), but His disciples simply didn't "get it" until the very end. During the last week of His life, Jesus became more blunt about the manner of His death. He gave the twelve disciples the complete step-by-step advance details of His upcoming brutal murder. "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again" (Matt. 20:18-19). Each of the four Gospels focuses in heavily on this detailed account of Christ's death. Over ninety percent of the Gospel accounts focus on His 3 1/2-year ministry, and about one-third of that covers the last week of His life, His death, burial and resurrection. Therefore, it would be impossible to summarize all the Gospel accounts regarding the crucifixion in this article, much less the mountain of tradition which has grown out of the event. Let's consider, instead, the effect of Christ's crucifixion on others.
The Shame of the Cross
How would you consider the value of a dead man hanging on a cross? How could you think of him as a savior, a great man, or the son of God? Wouldn't he be more representative of a failure, a criminal, or a "loser"? The Jewish tradition of the day said, "Cursed is every6ne that hangeth on a tree." The very idea of publicly displaying a dead (or dying) man was the worst sort of degradation he could suffer. In this way, Jesus became "accursed" for us. Jesus was crucified outside the city. In the Jewish tradition of stoning, this was the lowest form of criminal prosecution — done outside the city gates (Num. 15:36). The Roman occupational army complied with this Jewish custom. In fact, Jesus had to carry His cross so far from "city center" that a visitor from Cyrene, named Simon, was "compelled to bear his cross" (Matt. 27:32). Many of the disciples, and even many among the "mob" at His crucifixion, believed in Jesus until the very end. But that end was so degrading that even they doubted His Messiahship when He hung on the cross. How could they believe in a Messiah, perhaps stark naked, on a cross between two obviously guilty criminals? His own mother and His twelve disciples saw Him in His shame, and perhaps even they were disillusioned. Imagine Mary's feelings. All that she'd been through — the virgin birth, the angel's message, the miracles she had seen — must have gone through her mind. At the moment of His crucifixion she also had to bear much shame — especially from her Jewish friends. "We always knew there was something wrong with Him," they would say. "Now this (being crucified) confirms it!" For many — even those who saw His miracles, heard His teachings and were benefited by healings — the shame of the cross wiped out any thought that Jesus of Nazareth could be the Messiah. Even after His resurrection, many of the disciples didn't recover from the shock of the crucifixion. Thomas doubted. Peter went fishing. The others followed Peter back into their old life-styles. Not until the day of Pentecost did the shame of the cross finally become glory to those who eventually preached it around the world.
When the disciples perceived the glory of Christ's resurrection, they finally understood why the abject shame of the cross was necessary, and they became willing even to be crucified themselves! When the disciples remembered their Master's prophecies, they saw them in a new light. Christ had not only said He would die on the cross, but that the disciples also would drink of His cup and be baptized with the baptism He was baptized with (Matt. 20:22-23). To the Pharisees, Jesus had been even more pointed. "Behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city" (Matt. 23:34). James was the first apostle to be martyred (Acts 12:2) and tradition tells us that Peter was crucified (perhaps upside down). Most of the disciples, including Paul, were martyred, and all of the disciples were persecuted continually for the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:12).
A Symbol — For Shame or Glory?
The cross became the foremost symbol of Christianity. This in itself was a miracle — how could a hangman's noose or a gas chamber become a symbol of the world's largest religion? Yet the cross during that day was just as ghastly a symbol of death as a hangman's noose is today. Yet the cross became a worldwide symbol of Christianity. However, orthodox Christianity has overdone this reverence for the cross — even to the point of perhaps making a "graven image" out of too many crosses. After all, millions of wooden "slivers of the cross" during the Dark Ages added up to enough wood to build Noah's Ark! Today, many people "cross themselves" before doing anything important. Many wear crosses continually, or kiss the bishop's cross at each mass. The physical cross is not holy of itself, but the symbolism of what it stands for (the reality of what took place on the cross) is — in a sense — holy. The symbolic meaning is something in which we ought to GLORY. Paul constantly preached the cross — "Jesus Christ and him crucified" — especially to those who looked for a more sophisticated and complicated road to salvation. To the Greeks at Corinth, for instance, it was philosophic foolishness to believe in a cross. Notice what Paul wrote to them: "For Christ sent me not... with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it [the cross] is the power of God.... For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness" (I Cor. 1:17-18, 22-23). To these Corinthians, Paul further wrote: "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (I Cor. 2:2). Of course Paul also spoke on other subjects, but he wanted them to realize that the simplicity of the cross was the FOUNDATION of Christianity.
Symbol of Atonement
The "wisdom" which the Greeks sought after was represented by the esoteric philosophy of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the great Greek poets and playwrights. To them, atonement by a symbol of death was utter foolishness. The Jews' stumblingblock was the seeking of a "sign" (a Messianic miracle) and the intolerable thought that the Messiah could die so shamefully like a common degenerate criminal! Many Jews could not understand that all men, all nations and races, were made one by the universal reconciliation of the cross: "... That he might reconcile both [Jew and Gentile] unto God in one body by the cross..." (Eph. 2:16). "And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself..." (Col. 1:20). Yet even the Jewish Christians continually nagged Paul to preach circumcision to the Gentile converts, instead of the cross, as the sign of salvation. To such Judaisers, Paul wrote the book of Galatians, concluding: "And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased" (Gal. 5:11). The cross was offensive to outsiders, and even to some within the Church. "For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18).
Are You an "Enemy of the Cross"?
Is it possible for a professing Christian to be an "enemy" of the cross of Christ? There are many ways in which a Christian could be such an enemy. Paul spoke of those who "walked" in a way that marked them as enemies. ("Walk" is a common biblical metaphor for a "way of life.") You can become an enemy of the cross by walking in a different way of life than Jesus walked. Christians are commanded to follow Christ's example. "For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps" (I Pet. 2:21). One of the most beautiful verses of the Bible describes this relationship of Christ's way of life to His cross. Paul wrote: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). It would be easy for a Christian to glory selfishly in human wisdom (as did the Greeks) or in outward signs of obedience (such as circumcision and the Talmudic principles of Judaism), but it is hard to glory selfishly in the symbol of your Savior's sacrificial death, the cross. To the Galatians, Paul wrote: "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14).
Take Up His Cross
To a Christian, the cross is a symbol of patience, endurance and even occasional suffering. When Christ urged each Christian to "take up his cross daily," He referred to this lifelong process of daily endurance. It is possible to be an enemy of the cross by merely being ashamed of the reproach that it represents. "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach" (Heb. 13:12-13). Are you afraid to be different in your community, standing up for the cross of Christ and what it represents? There is very little physical persecution of Christians today, but there is a measure of embarrassment and hardship for the Christians who are not ashamed of their calling. Be willing to come out of this world's deception, and then return to that world with the right example. Don't be an enemy of the cross. Instead, take up and bear Christ's cross daily.