The meaning of the cross
...like wearing a little
electric chair around your neck
|Madonna wears a cross as jewellery—as do many people, Christians and non-Christians alike.
But that’s actually like wearing a tiny electric chair around your neck. The cross was a particularly brutal instrument of execution, used by the Romans; so cruel that no Roman was allowed to be executed this way, only slaves and rebels. Jesus was neither, but that’s the way his life ended.
Or did it?
For the first followers of Jesus, the cross was a complete disaster. They’d believed Jesus had come to get rid of the Romans occupying their land; to establish God’s special kingdom. Instead, he ended in disgrace, crucified, while his followers ran for their lives and hid behind locked doors (except, it must be said, for some of the women). All that remained of his life and ministry was a small group of frightened, disillusioned people. Yet today his followers number in the hundreds of millions across the globe. How come?
Those same first followers were also witnesses to the resurrection: God showed them that death isn’t the end. Their experiences changed them radically, especially when the Holy Spirit arrived to bring life and power to the early Church. The cross wasn’t a disastrous end; rather, it brought fresh meaning to Jesus’ ministry. The first Christians saw it as a deliberate act of God, enabling them to experience God’s presence and activity. To explore its meaning, the early Church used various metaphors (word-pictures), because it’s so hard to understand and explain God.
These metaphors are grouped together as ‘atonement theories’. Atonement (or ‘at-one-ment’) is the process of God bringing humanity into relationship with himself. Ways of describing atonement include:
Sacrifice: the language of the temple. In July 2006, Corporal Bryan Budd died in Afghanistan, and was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for having single-handedly attacked a strong Taliban position, saving the lives of seven colleagues. Here, sacrifice means dying in someone else’s place.
Redemption: the language of the slave market. A slave is anyone ‘owned’ or held by force—by traffickers, alcohol, or gambling. Rose was a Nigerian secretary who unwittingly paid a gang to take her to Rome. The debt forced her into prostitution until one of her clients realised she was enslaved and paid her debt to the traffickers, buying her freedom. Jesus has already paid everyone’s price.
Justification: the language of the law courts. If I commit an offence I must be punished, by a fine or imprisonment. If someone else takes the punishment, I am free to go. Jesus has been punished for our sins, so we escape that punishment.
Reconciliation – the language of family life. Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Iraq demonstrate how hard it is to overcome civil conflict, because justice, truth and forgiveness are all involved. Jesus is the mediator, the peacemaker, who reconciles us to God.
Wear a cross, by all means. But don’t wear one unless you understand what it means: God is too precious for that.
Pray: Lord, I want to open myself to understanding the meaning of the cross. Thank you that Jesus died for me. Sorry for the wrong things in my life. Please send your Holy Spirit into my life.
Watch the video clip Currency: How Much Is Our Life Worth?
Look at the painting Descent from the Cross by Rubens
Watch the music video of Jars of Clay singing Worlds Apart (read the lyric)
Watch the video clip Sacrifice: What would you give your life for?
Read about Corporal Bryan Budd
Find out about why Jesus had to die at the BBC website
Watch the movie The Green Mile, starring Tom Hanks
Watch the movie The Passion of The Christ
Read the book Dead or Alive?: The Truth and Relevance of Jesus' Resurrection by Daniel Clark
Read the book The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection by Lee Strobel
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