Robert D. Pace
If you’re familiar with the world’s major religions you know they each use an emblem as a mark of identification. Judaism uses a six-pointed star. Islam uses a crescent moon. And Buddhism utilizes a lotus blossom. These symbols suggest charm and attractiveness. Yet the universal emblem for Christianity is a cross—an instrument of death.
It might seem strange that Christians memorialize Jesus with something the Romans used to kill thousands of people. Decorating your office or home with a cross or wearing one around your neck makes no more sense than using a business card engraved with a guillotine or an electric chair—unless there’s a good reason for using the cross as a symbol.
Actually the cross is not the oldest symbol of Christianity. A hundred years after Christ’s death, Christians used the shape of a fish to identify themselves to one another. That’s because Christianity was outlawed and the sign of the fish was a covert symbol of one’s Faith. But from 150 AD forward Christians used the cross as the universal symbol of their Faith. Not a crucifix—a cross with Jesus on it—but an empty cross. They used it because they knew the cross, along with the grave, was abandoned. Jesus conquered death!
(Transition) However, it still begs the question, Why has this image remained central to the identity of Christianity? I believe the answer lies with the great truths that are associated with the Cross. First, The cross expresses the horror of sin.
The Cross Expresses the Horror of Sin
I’m sure most people here remember Timothy McVeigh and the 168 people he murdered in the Oklahoma City bombing. To this date this is the most horrific act of American terrorism perpetrated by an American. Everyone that’s seen pictures of that gutted Federal Building has been nauseated.
(Illustration) In the sentencing phase of Timothy McVeigh’s trial plaintiffs told how his vengeance made shambles of their lives. One mother told how she left her fourteen month-old daughter trapped in the building’s day-care center. She was stranded without a bottle or mother to answer her cries. Seven days later, rescuers found the girl dead.
Timothy McVeigh’s actions reveal the presence of evil in the world. And you can imagine the multiplied accounts of those that suffered when the Twin Towers were flattened. Thousands of families suffered the loss of loved ones on September 11, 2001. But America is not the only nation that’s suffered from terrorism.
- Israel has been plagued for decades with violence.
- In Uganda the dictator Idi Amin, an avowed cannibal, killed millions of civilians in the late 20th Century.
- And then history records the butchery of Adolph Hitler against six million Jews.
But there’s a worse crime than terrorism. It’s the crime of Calvary. Jesus didn’t suffer at Calvary because He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, He repeatedly warned His disciples that Calvary was His destiny. The Cross memorializes the execution of history’s one perfectly righteous and innocent person. And despite being the most heinous crime of history Jesus had to die! Romans 6:23 says: “The wages of sin is death.” He was the only person that could reunite man with God.
Some people that don’t understand Christianity see Christ’s crucifixion as merely a terrible injustice against a man that died for His convictions. Jesus died for His convictions but it involved much more than that. He came to earth and died at Calvary to free sinners like you and I.
(Transition) There was nothing easy about what Christ did during His last week on earth. It was a torturous, grueling, heart-wrenching experience. I want us to take a brief look at what we call, Passion Week, Christ’s final week on earth as a man. In past years, I don’t know whether you’ve tried to relive the final days of Christ’s earthly life but there’s a rich spiritual blessing in doing that.
Christ’s Work During Passion Week
Sunday is called Palm Sunday.
- The day Jesus mounted the donkey and entered Jerusalem to the crowd’s shouts of “Hosanna!” Unfortunately, the crowd didn’t recognize betrayal in their voice because a few days later they would be yelling to crucify Him!
Monday is when He platted the whip and chased the moneychangers from the Temple. It’s when He cursed the fruitless fig tree. He cursed it because a fruitless tree symbolizes men failing to fulfill their purpose.
Tuesday was the day of Christ’s final public teachings. It’s also when Mary washed His feet with tears and poured out a bottle of costly perfume on them.
And then there was Wednesday. Nothing is known of what Jesus said or did on this day and that’s why it’s called “Silent Wednesday.” (Wednesday is the fourth day of the week and Christ’s silence here compares with the four silent centuries between the Old and New Testaments.)
Thursday was the beginning of the end. It’s when He shared the Last Supper with His Apostles and Judas betrayed Him. It was the night He labored praying in the Garden until His sweat turned to blood. It’s the evening His disciples forsook and denied Him.
Friday was the day of His destiny—the purpose of His appearing. It was the day He reached back to the beginning of time and assembled all the sin from Adam to the thief on the Cross. He then reached forward and procured the sins to the end of the age and then bore the guilt of those sins upon Himself by dying on the Cross. That was Friday.
Saturday is when He descended into Abraham’s Bosom, called the Upper Parts of Sheol, and proclaimed His Lordship to the captives.
And then Sunday is the great day of His resurrection! He proved, beyond certainty, that neither death, sin, or the grave could vanquish Him.
We might like to forget much of this week. Maybe skip the passages of Scripture recording His betrayal, denial, and torture at the Cross. It’s unpleasant to relive that torment. But this was the purpose of His coming. This was His destiny. He loved us so much He suffered and died for us. The cross reminds us of the judgment we deserved but He endured!
(Transition) But there’s another reason Christians identify with the cross. It reveals the greatness of God’s love for man.
The Cross Reveals the Greatness of God’s Love
In John 15:13 Jesus described His love for us. He said: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s an expression of love that just can’t be improved upon—a love that dies for friends. But what’s incredible about Christ’s statement here is who He called His “friends.” And when you read Romans 5:8 you discover who He’s talking about. Listen to Paul’s words: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus was calling “sinners” His friends—those that hate Him and disobey Him and ignore Him and even persecute Him.
(Illustration) Years ago, I heard the story of the judge that had to sentence his son with a drunk-driving charge. Because he was sworn to uphold justice the Judge charged his son to the fullest extent of the law. But moments after issuing the sentence against his son, he stepped from behind the Judgment Seat and paid the fine from his own pocket!
In one respect that’s how God dealt with us. He couldn’t declare us innocent when the Law He had given to Moses pronounced us “Guilty!” The Old Testament Law required death as the payment for sin. But Jesus intervened, died on the cross, and paid the penalty for us. That’s love!
Many people have questioned how a God of love and compassion could allow suffering and evil. And they might have a valid objection had Jesus not entered our world and bore the weight of our guilt. But God, through Christ, entered the arena of humanity, mysteriously became flesh and assumed our nature. He suffered and paid the price for our sins. Nobody can point an accusing finger at God and say, “You don’t know what it’s like to suffer!” because Jesus didn’t stay above the fray. He entered our world and fully identified with us. Calvary settles that objection!
(Illustration) The daughter of Queen Victoria was Princess Alice that had a four-year-old son. Unfortunately her son contracted a contagious and deadly disease known as “black diphtheria.” Because of her frail health the nurses warned the Princess to keep distance from her son. And she tried. But one day, as she stood across the room, she heard her son whisper to a nurse: “Why doesn’t my mother kiss me?” The Princess couldn’t bear her dying son with that thought, so she rushed to his bed, held him in her arms, and smothered him with kisses. Sadly they turned out to be kisses of death because the mother contracted the disease and within days both died.
Was it foolish for her to seal her fate? Even if it was foolish where is the full explanation for ‘love making sense’? God loved us so much that He personally plunged Himself into our lives. He gave His all for us.
(Transition) And finally, the cross reveals Christ’s triumph over sin.
The Cross Reveals Christ’s Triumph over Sin
Psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and even government struggle to control the problem of sin in the world. They may not call it sin but that’s what they’re dealing with.
You see, the fundamental human problem is sin. And the answer doesn’t lie in more psycho-therapy or rehabilitation programs or medicating the problem. The only solution is a Savior that can triumph over sin.
The Bible plainly says that sin defiles our soul, separates us from God, and makes it impossible for us to enter heaven. Nothing impure or defiled can enter heaven. That means if we plan on spending eternity with God our sins can’t be ignored, medicated, locked up, or painted over. Our sins have to be completely removed. And that’s what the cross does. Christ died at Calvary to pay the penalty of sin. He couldn’t simply come to earth, announce He was the Messiah, perform some miracles, and then die of natural causes. When Adam sinned He broke covenant with God and brought death upon the human race. Sin placed Man under a curse. That’s because God’s Law was broken. And breaking God’s Law incurs a penalty. The Just God of the universe demanded that the full payment of sinned be met.
You see, there’s no justice without penalty! And justice is based on this: The penalty of the crime must fit the crime. And what is the penalty for breaking covenant with the Creator of the universe? It’s death! In God’s Court of Law, only Christ’s death at Calvary could fully satisfy the penalty of our sins and match the crime. And His death was gruesome!
Isaiah 53:3-8 says: “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. (4) Surely our grief’s He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. (5) But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. (6) All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. (7) He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. (8) By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?” (NASU)
And then listen to David’s prophecy about Christ in Psalm 22:6-8. “But I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people. (7) All who see me sneer at me; they separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, (8) “Commit yourself to the LORD; let Him deliver him; let Him rescue him, because He delights in him” (NASU).
Jesus was betrayed by a devil, forsaken by his friends, and crucified by everyone. But it had to be that way. He had to satisfy the claims of God’s system of justice. And He did. 1 Peter 3:18 says why: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (NASU).
The Cross reveals the horror of sin. It reveals the love of God. But it also reveals the defeat of sin. And the reason we as Christians identify with the Cross is because it’s the only means of salvation. God took the initiative to forgive men and restore their fellowship with Him. He sent Jesus to take our place on the Cross, die for our sins, and accomplish what we could never do. Jesus is our Savior. And His Cross testifies to this fact.
Thank God for the Cross of Christ. If you are not a Christian, I invite you to accept Him as your Savior today.