What is the cross?
So often in Christianity, truths become phrases, phrases become sayings, and sayings become clichés. We’ve formed a whole set of “Christianese” thanks to the process. Just imagine how foreign it sounds to someone outside the church to hear about “being born again” or “being washed in the blood”. And yet, we Christians are so used to our Christianese that I wonder if we really stop to think about what we’re saying. This might be true of the cross.
Sayings about the cross are pervasive in our church culture. How often we sing about it in our worship songs and reference it in sayings like “That’s just my cross to bear”. Jesus himself mentioned the cross a few times. The first time we see him do so in the Gospels is Mathew 10:38:
“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
It’s so clear that a cross, then, is central to our relationship with Christ! A cross is at the very center of our Christianity. Taking it up and following Christ is what it means to be a Christian!
So again, what is the cross?
It’s not the cute little ornament that dangles from our tiny chain necklaces. Nor is it the pinnacle atop every church steeple. It’s more than a symbol. In the disciples’ day, it was the reality of the most brutal execution imaginable. There was nothing cute about it; it was hell on earth. As John Macarthur notes about the cross:
“To [the disciples] it would have evoked a picture of a violent, degrading death. [Jesus] was demanding total commitment from them—even unto death.”
The same is true for us. Jesus perfectly demonstrated this violent, degrading death when he submitted to the Father’s will in bearing his own cross. His flesh was torn to shreds. He was beaten beyond recognition. He collapsed under the weight of the cross as he bore it to the very place where he would be stretched out and crucified on it. His own blood stained the cross where his hands and feet were nailed to it. This is what he suffered as he denied himself and was terribly persecuted by the world for his perfect righteousness.
And this is our calling as well.
Kind of takes the wind out of the sails of those “health and wealth” prosperity preachers, doesn’t it?
It would seem at first blush with this understanding of the cross in mind that true converts to Christianity would be few and far between. Who in the world would ever want an ending to their lives like Christ? Who in their right minds would even want a taste of the tortures of crucifixion?
But here’s an even more troubling thought. What if this cross—this terrible torture, this degrading death—cannot be escaped by anyone, believer or non-believer alike? You see, what else do we know about the cross? It’s the just punishment for sin. It was the death Christ bore for us when he became sin and was forsaken by God so that we in exchange could be righteous. The cross is a microcosm of hell.
It is a sample of the eternity unbelievers will spend apart from God.
If that is true, then the cross is something each and every soul on earth will have an individual encounter with, one way or another. So now, from a completely logical view, which version of the cross would we rather bear? Would we rather take it up and follow Christ in this world, or take it up and bear it in eternity apart from Christ? This is where the good news starts, because as we compare the two, bearing our cross now far outweighs putting it off till after death. Believe it or not, it can actually be a joy!
You see this theme of the benefit of suffering now for Christ as opposed to suffering for living in sin throughout First Peter. There’s almost too many verses on the topic in that book alone to list, but the highlights include:
“For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” 1 Peter 2:20
“But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.” 1 Peter 3:14.
“For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” 1 Peter 3:17
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” 1 Peter 4:1
“But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”1 Peter 4:13
This is one of the amazing paradoxes in the Bible. It is in taking up our cross that we can rejoice, because this suffering is for our good!! It helps cleanse us of sin. It drives us to rely fully on Jesus, who loves us and offers us a new, abundant life if we keep crucifying our old life and submitting to his will. We truly are blessed, even if we have to physically endure a cross! Have you heard the amazing stories of martyrs praising God even as they were brutally murdered? What kind of amazing life is this that even in torture we can rejoice?
It’s real, friends. Accept Jesus Christ as Lord and go ahead and shoulder that cross. It won’t be too heavy, I promise. It won’t be too hard. Look at Paul! He describes our afflictions as momentary and light in 2 Corinthians, the same book of the Bible where he lists his own afflictions, including, “Five time I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren. I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
Sheesh, if Paul can look at his own life and shrug his suffering off as light and momentary affliction, I don’t think we have anything to worry about. Put that in mind the next time you are tempted to complain about your “hostile” work environment or that nasty Facebook comment slamming your faith.
It’s time for us to faithfully surrender our lives to Christ. No more putting off the cross. Accept what Jesus has done for you on that cross and cheerfully follow his example in bearing yours! Let’s lose our lives so that we can find them. It’s the only way to live a truly worthwhile life!
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wished to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Mathew 16:24-26