The Cross of Christ
The Implications of the Cross
The historical accounts of the cross have been communicated to the world by all four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Three of the five writers of the 21 Epistles of the New Testament do not mention the cross. Paul makes frequent reference to it, usually employing the word “stauros,” translated “corns,” but Peter in his letters uses only the word “xulon,” a tree. In the language of the early church the two terms were synonymous. “Stauros” connotes an upright pole or a dead tree to which a criminal was nailed.
In the Old Testament the cross is foretold in Psalm 22, written about a thousand years before the Incarnation. Its remarkable fulfilment in the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ marks the Psalm as Messianic. The sixteenth verse, “They pierced My hands and My feet,” records prophetically the words of Christ concerning His cross. This prediction is remarkable, as it anticipates death by crucifixion, involving the transfixing of the victim to a cross by piercing the hands and feet through with nails, a mode of capital punishment introduced by the Romans centuries later.
The Old Testament presents in several places a prophetical view of the cross, the four Gospels its historical details, the Acts of the Apostles its evangelical proclamation, and the Epistles its doctrinal significance. The Apostle Paul emphasizes the importance of the cross of Christ in three of his earlier epistles, namely, 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians, and in three of his prison letters — Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians: but he makes no reference to it in his pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus. In the Epistles, as in the Gospels, the Holy Spirit shows how, by enduring the cross and despising the shame, the Lord Jesus transmuted the cross from the symbol of horror and death into an emblem of hope and triumph.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia Paul indicates that for the believer there are four crucifixions on that one cross, each replete with practical significance. Thus, viewing the cross, the Christian might say:
“I see my Saviour on the cross, redemption’s work completing (Gal. 3:13):
Myself I see on that same tree, my present need Christ meeting (Gal. 2:20):
There, too, I nailed and left impaled the flesh, its lusts and passions (Gal. 5:24),
And by His cross I count as dross the world, its ways and fashions” (Gal. 6:14).
(1) The particular aspect of redemption that the cross presents in the letter to the Galatians is “from the curse of the law.” Throughout the Epistle the centrality of the cross is emphasized. If it is accorded the central place in the Christian’s faith and conduct, then, the Apostle shows, circumcision and the rites and ceremonies enjoined under law will find no place of acceptance there. The claim of the cross of Christ to this central position is mentioned in all six chapters: In Chapter 1:1-4, as the centre of God’s purpose for us, delivering us from the present evil age. In Chapter 2:19-20, as the Centre of God’s power in us, emancipating us from legal bondage. In Chapter 3:10-14, as the Centre of God’s promise to us, saving us from the curse of a broken law and bestowing the Spirit in response to the exercise of faith. In Chapter 5:11-21, as the Centre of God’s patrimony for us, redeeming those under the law from servitude and conferring the dignity of sonship. In Chapter 5:11-21, as the Centre of God’s provision for us in producing the fruit of the Spirit and eliminating the works of the flesh. In Chapter 6:12-15, the cross is viewed as the believer’s banner and boast, enabling him to bear the stigma and reproach attached to it by the world.
Paul argues that those who, misled by Judaizing teachers, were determined to place themselves under law, were under the curse. Being unable to keep the law in its entirety, they brought down upon their heads all the curses that fulminated from Mount Ebal. Christ by His death on the cross, when He sustained the penalty of the lawbreaker by becoming a curse, changed the curse for those who accepted His redemption into a blessing, the blessing promised to Abraham. In this way Christ has brought the believer out from under the curse of the law and given him, apart from the works of the law, a righteous standing before God.
The cross is thus the refuge of the penitent sinner who, realizing the impossibility of salvation by keeping the law, rests on the work of the Redeemer. This truth is thus presented by the poet, William Cowper:
“If the wanderer his mistake discern,
Judge his own ways and sigh for a return,
Bewildered once, must he bewail his loss
For ever and for ever? No! the cross!
There and there only, though the deist rave,
And atheist, if earth bear so base a slave,
There and there only is the power to save.”
(2) Disciples of Christ who have taken up their cross to follow Him see themselves “crucified with Christ” when He died (Gal. 2:20) Thus the believer was “born crucified.” In Paul’s reckoning the cross of Christ terminated Judaism and the legalism that it embodied. He recognized that by it he had died to the law, while still maintaining that the law itself was holy, just and good, and revealed the righteous requirements of God. He showed that the law was diametrically opposed to the grace of God as expressed in the cross of Christ, and maintained that he was dead to the law, having been crucified with Christ.
In Galatians 2:20, the verb is in the perfect tense in the Greek, indicating a present state resulting from a past action. Thus it might be read, “I have been, and still am, crucified with Christ.” That crucifixion took place, not at Paul’s conversion or at his baptism, but at the cross, for the preposition “with” determines the time the action took place as well as the person named. Thus, like Paul, every believer is united to Christ both in death and in resurrection life, for “Christ lives” in him to produce a new outlook on life and a new manner of living,.
The other aspect of crucifixion with Christ, prominent in the letter to the Romans, should not be forgotten, He “died unto sin once” on the cross, and now “lives unto God” in resurrection glory. This is stated as a matter of fact, but its appropriation and application by the individual believer is a matter of faith. “Likewise reckon yourselves dead indeed unto sin but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rorn. 6:11).
(3) The flesh, with its passions and lusts, is seen on the cross in Galatians 5:24. Here the aorist, not the perfect, tense, and the active, not the passive, voice are used. This is an act that has to be done once for all by the believer, and each for himself. The statement here is the logical sequel to what precedes it. When they that are Christ’s reckoning themselves dead with Christ, crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts, thus mortifying the deeds of the body, the life of the risen Christ is lived out in them; so “the golden chain of the Spirit’s fruit” encircles their life and the black catalogue of the “works of the flesh” does not find a place. Thus what God produces in the be-believer supersedes what, as an unbeliever, he naturally produced, for he is “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God has prepared beforehand that he should walk in them.” Self-expression, as seen in the will, wisdom, and welfare of the flesh, leads to one or many of those types of depravity enumerated in Galatians 5:19-21, and of these Paul affirms that those who indulge in them “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
“Then hasten to give it the deathblow by nailing the flesh to the cross,
And thou shalt find infinite treasure in what had seemed nothing but loss.”
(4) The Apostle’s sole ground of exultation was in the cross of Christ Jesus his Lord, not only because he saw himself there, associated with Him in death, the death of the “old man,” but also because, on that same cross, he saw the world crucified. In Galatians 6:14, Paul uses again the passive voice and the perfect tense, as in 2:20, signifying that the world “has been and still is” crucified to him. In His priestly intercession the Lord Jesus said. “They are not of the world even as I am not of the world.” The world gave to the sinless Lord of glory a cross, not a crown. It was the world that led Him forth and saw Him crucified. Standing, as it does, between the Christian and the world, the cross is the great divide, and the language of the Christian must be:
“Can I take part with those who nailed Him to the tree,
And where His name is never praised, is that the place for me?”
To see the world crucified is to see it in the place of shame and dishonour that is assigned to our blessed Saviour whom God the Father has made “both Lord and Christ.” A crucified world appears stripped of its allurements, fascination, and all the meretricious array that attracts its devotees. The disciple of Christ glories in the fact that for him the hands of the world have been transfixed so that it can no longer control his actions, and the feet of the world deprived of all the power to guide his steps.
He who makes his boast in the cross as the instrument by which the world is crucified to him and he to the world will neither “love the world” (1 John 2:15-16), nor walk “according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:2), but will “keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27), and “escape the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet. 1:4). The disciple of Christ can have no parley with a world at open war with his Saviour and Lord, for his business in the world is that of his rejected Lord, the salvation of sinners; and he constantly bears in mind his Master’s words to His Father, “As Thou hast sent Me, even so have I sent them into the world” (John 17:18).