The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ

I am now 33-1/2 years old.  The same age when our Lord was crucified.  It's an interesting thing for me to ponder at this stage in my life.  It does not serve too much but to emphasize how great a difference there is between me and the stature of the fullness of Christ.  I had thought about it when I was thirty for that was the age when Jesus made himself known to the world.  The same feelings were evident back then and now here I am 3-1/2 years down the road.  I like to think I've gotten to know my Lord better but there is still that feeling of necessity to come closer to knowing the sufferings of Christ.  I don't know if you feel this or ever felt this?  It's great to know the truth and believe yet there is something else in our lives of discipleship that needs to round out our experience in Christ.  There is a level of suffering we need to experience before we can fully appreciate the cross and the glory to follow.

The cross and the sufferings of Christ are a focus of scripture which we need to come back to again and again.  This morning I would like to focus specifically on how Christ and his apostles make reference to the cross.  First of all, I'd like to start off with a little diversion by looking at how the symbol of the cross came into the churches around us and how it reflects the compromises of Christianity with paganism.  Having this appreciation for what the cross is not we will then look at the true power behind the cross.  I'm not going to deal with technical issues of the atonement but the practical life changing effects of Christ's sufferings.  We'll look at how Christ mentions it and how it plays out in his crucifixion story.  Next will be Paul who was infatuated with coming to know "the fellowship of his sufferings" and of "knowing nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified".  Finally we'll end up in 1 Peter where the sufferings of Christ are the key topic.

Pagan Background

The cross is an all pervasive icon in our society.  All the churches have one.  You see it hanging around peoples necks all the time.  Catholics make the sign of the cross upon themselves.  The subject of the cross is a very lofty Biblical subject yet it has suffered the Nehushtan syndrome.  Nehushtan means "a piece of brass" and it was Hezekiah's name for the brass serpent that Moses put on a pole that when the children of Israel looked upon it they were healed of their deadly venom of the serpents.  It was a good thing yet in Hezekiah's day the good thing was being used in a bad way.  The people worshipped it as we read in 2 Kings 18:4,

(2 Ki 18:4)  "He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan."

Interestingly enough Jesus equates his crucifixion with the serpent on the pole in John 3:14,

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:"

Is it just a coincidence that Nehushtan and the cross suffered the same fate of human worship?  People never change.  So it is even today that people seem to worship the cross more then understand the cross.  The pagan origins of worshipping this symbol of a cross are well documented.  Vine's Expository dictionary has this to say,

"The shape of the [cross] had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt.  By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith.  In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols.  Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the cross of Christ."  (Vine's Expository Dictionary - entry on "cross").

Unger's Bible Dictionary also after talking about the pagan origin of worshipping the cross has this to add,

"The exact time of its adoption as a Christian emblem is unknown.  In the pre-Constantine period the sign of the cross seems to have been quite generally recognized by primitive Christians.  They appear to have contemplated it only as a symbol, without any miraculous energy, and associated it with that which was hopeful and joyous.  On the tombstones of the early Christians the cross was the emblem of victory and hope.  It was only after superstition took the place of true spiritual devotion that the figure of the cross was used or borne about as a sacred charm.

In the latter part of the 3d century people signed the cross in token of safety, and laid stress on figures of it as a preservative against both spiritual and natural evil.  This superstitious feeling was stimulated by the discovery of what was held to be the real cross upon which our Lord suffered.  The empress Helena, mother of Constantine, about A.D. 326, visited Palestine, and was shown three crosses by a Jew.  In order to know which was the genuine one, Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, suggested that they be tested by their power of working miracles.  One only being reported as possessing this quality, it was declared to be the real cross."  (Unger's Bible Dictionary - entry on "cross")

And thus began the whole foolish era of relics and fanciful superstition.  We do well, like Hezekiah of old, to disassociate ourselves with any physical likeness of the cross.

Jesus and the Cross

So it was right to remove the crosses from this building but let us never remove from our hearts, minds and speech the great message of the cross.  Let us not be afraid to talk about it for it is definitely a very powerful Biblical term.

There were three distinct times that Jesus said, "Take up the cross and follow me."  One of these times is recorded in Luke 14:25-27 where we find that multitudes were following him and he turns around and says this,

"If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. {27} And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple."

What were they to think?  Everybody knew what a cross was.  It was the highest form of capital punishment and of shame.  During certain revolts Josephus records how thousands were crucified at the same time.  Rebellious cities were punished by being burnt, the rebels crucified in the hundreds and thousands down the main thoroughfare and the citizens sold into slavery.  When Jesus was a teenager the town of Sepphoris, only 5 miles from Nazareth, suffered such a fate (ref. Josephus).  In our society we are not used to looking at the face of death so often.  Everybody in Israel had seen this extreme form of torture and there must have been questions on everybody's minds as to what Jesus meant.

To the rich young man he said (Mark 10:21),

"One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me."

The third time is right after he rebuke's Peter and he turns to his disciples and says (Luke 9:23-26),

"... If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. {24} For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. {25} For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away? {26} For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father's, and of the holy angels."

At the heart of all three of these occurrences is the message to put off all the desires and cares of this world.  Jesus is saying let these things take a back seat to the gospel whether it be family, riches or our egos.  "Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."  Each of us is to have a cross.  Suffering is a divine prerequisite for being a disciple of Christ.  If we live our lives in comfort and ease, never going out of our way to help others, never wanting to become associated with pain then we have no part in Christ.  As Jesus also said, it is a daily offering.  Our crucifixion starts in our hearts and minds by denying the flesh yet that has to be revealed in a complete life given in dedication to our God.

When it comes time for our Lord to be crucified it's amazing how little attention is actually given to Jesus being put on the cross.  Commentators love to go into details about how the Romans actually nailed a person to the crucifix which can be helpful for our appreciation but scripture seems to give the act an almost passing reference.  Each gospel says something like, "they gave him vinegar and he would not drink.  And they crucified him, and parted his garments, etc."  There are no gory details of the nails going into the hands and feet.  The whole picture of the event is painted as one of physical pain and suffering as well as ridicule and mocking.

Yes there were many beautiful types fulfilled in his sacrifice.  It perfectly put into action a way for us to be justified by faith.  But what we are talking about is how Jesus did this to give us an example to go by (1 Pet. 2:21).  Jesus felt the extreme edge of sufferings to show us the way in our lives.  We must constantly have this image of Christ on the cross before us so that we might be motivated to put away the vanity of our lives and seek wholeheartedly for God's glory.

The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul was such a man.  He was utterly consumed with the passion to know the sufferings of Christ and to preach it.

(1 Cor 2:2)  "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified."

(Gal 6:14)  "But 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."

Paul was certainly striving to attain unto what Christ meant by "take up your cross and follow me."  He gave up everything in his life that would have gotten him prestige and riches and he did it all for Christ.  This is the way he puts it in Philippians 3:7-10,

"But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. {8} Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, {9} And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: {10} That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;"

You see how important the cross was to Paul?  Paul shows that to know part of Christ is to fellowship in his sufferings---to be made conformable unto his death.  In practical terms what does this mean for our everyday lives?  There are no easy personal answers for us but we know how Paul did it.  He "suffered the loss of all things."  Everything in this world he counted as nothing.  It's extremely hard but we've got to come around to that type of thinking.

To show you how central the cross, that is, the sufferings of Christ are to Paul I will just read these passages quickly in order.

(2 Cor 1:5)  "For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ."

(Phil 1:29)  "For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake;"

(Col 1:24)  "[I, Paul] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church:"

(2 Tim 3:12)  "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution."

How then will sufferings come, brothers and sisters?  Certainly, it is somewhat self inflicted on the choices we make and the things we give up in this life.  "Let a man deny himself."   But as Paul shows us it must also be external.  That passage in 2 Tim 3:12 is always a hard one for me to read.  How can we in this tolerant Western society even begin to suffer persecution?  Paul says it must come if we live a godly life.  It certainly will never come if we hide our light, if we're ashamed of it, if we neglect it, if we don't preach it openly.  When Jesus said a man must "take up his cross" and follow him he also said in the same breath (Luke 9:26),

"For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father's, and of the holy angels."

The Apostle Peter

Paul is not the only one to give us a powerful message on this subject.  Peter in his first letter devotes his whole subject to the need for Christ and us to suffer before we can attain unto the glory.  Paul was in agreement with this message when he said in Romans,

(Rom 8:16-17)  "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: {17} And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together."

And so Peter also in his epistle gives the same consistent message again and again.  Please permit me to once more read a series of passage throughout Peter's letter that talk about Christ's sufferings and it's meaning for us.

(1 Pet 1:11)  "[The prophets were] Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow."

(1 Pet 2:21)  "For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:"

(1 Pet 3:18)  "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:"

(1 Pet 4:1)  "Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;"

(1 Pet 4:13)  "But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy."

(1 Pet 5:1)  "The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:"

(1 Pet 5:10)  "But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you."

It amazes me how equally spaced out that message is in Peter's epistle.  The words just speak for themselves.  Christ had to suffer to leave us an example so that he might bring us to God.  Therefore we have to arm ourselves with the same mind just for a little while so that when Christ appears we may be partakers of that glory. 

The persecution that these believers suffered was awful.  Peter was comforting brothers and sisters who would eventually give their lives for what they believed.  We learned about it in our Wednesday night classes.  We by the grace of God may never have to give our lives unto death but what if we did?  Would we be willing?  Would we be ready?  Could someone say of us that "they loved not their lives unto the death?"


There is another aspect to the cross.  All though it is a daily struggle to uphold the cross it all starts here in the waters of baptism.  Paul makes this connection in two places,

(Rom 6:6, RSV)  "We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin."

(Gal 2:20, RSV)  "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Even though in our sufferings we may feel very lonely it is certain that we are not alone.  For we are crucified with Christ.  He bore our sins.  He was our representative.  When we come to the cross each and every one of us should see ourselves up there.  Impaled on the cross.  In agony.  Showing what flesh deserves.  Have you ever imagined yourself up there on the cross?  He did it for us so that we might live.


By looking at the power of the cross we have seen how silly it is that people rely so heavily on a material crucifix as if it was a magic amulet.  The power of the cross is in the effect it has on us to give up our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said three times that we "must take up our cross and follow him."   Paul was a great example of this.  He was a man consumed with a passion to know the sufferings of Christ.  He realized it's importance for without it we will not attain to the glory of the kingdom.  Peter also had beautiful stirring words for us in this regards.  He showed how Christ's sufferings on the cross were for our example and how we must have the same mind.  Finally we read a few verses connecting baptism with the crucifixion.  This is how we associate ourselves with the cross of Christ.

Now we come before the memorials.  In it we see Christ so evidently set forth, crucified among us (Gal. 3:1).  These emblems then are our wake up call to partake in his sufferings.   "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come."  (1 Cor. 11:26).  Obviously we are not going to "show the Lord's death" by sitting here and eating a little bread and wine.  This bread and wine is only the motivator to a whole life of dedicated service which is not our own.  So let us eat this bread, and drink this cup, and then go out and show the Lord's death until he come.