The Cross of Christ
The death of Jesus Christ on a cross is an important truth of the Christian gospel. In fact, it is crucial to the gospel, the crux of the message, if we might employ additional English words derived from the Latin word crux, from which we also derive the English word "cross."
The Greek word which we translate into English as "cross" is stauros. Stauros originally indicated a pointed, vertical stake firmly fixed in the ground. The word was used for "fence posts." Later the word was used in the Greek language for a wooden stake fixed in the ground and used as an instrument of torture or death. The primary meaning of the word thus became a reference to an execution instrument comprised of wooden timbers and affixed in the ground.
Sometimes the execution instrument was but a single pointed stake on which the offender was impaled. Sometimes the word was used of the timbers from which an offender was hanged. An example of this second usage may be found in the Greek text (Septuagint) of Esther 7:9 where Haman is ordered to be hanged on the gallows which he had constructed for Mordecai. The predominate form of the stauros death instrument was the crossing of two timbers. These were sometimes crossed in the form of a "T", sometimes in the form of an "X", and sometimes in the form of the perpendicular crossed timbers we are most familiar with in the West, "Ý".
There are abundant examples in history where most of the ancient cultures utilized the cross as an execution instrument. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans all employed this death device. Although the Jews employed stoning as their primary method of execution, they were well acquainted with the use of the cross by other cultures to execute to their own people. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, records that Alexander the Great "did one of the most barbarous actions in the world" to a group of Jews he had conquered. He "ordered about 800 of them to be crucified." On another occasion Varus sought out leaders of a Jewish revolt and "the number crucified on this account were 2000." In another of his writings, Josephus notes that Titus crucified the Jews outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem; "the soldiers...nailed those they caught...to the crosses...their multitude was so great that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies."
Death by crucifixion was an especially cruel and agonizing way to die. The Romans employed this form of execution primarily for slaves, although it was also used for foreigners, traitors and the most despicable of criminals. It was generally regarded as too degrading to be utilized for Roman citizens.
Execution on a cross was a public display of captial punishment. Crosses were quite visible on the hills surrounding major towns and alongside the Roman roads. The visibility of these executions was considered to be a deterrent to further crime in the society. The condemned criminal was often forced to carry the wooden timber, or at least the cross-beam, the patibulum, to the site of his own execution, thus exposing himself as an object of public reproach.
In the first century the Jewish people of Palestine were well acquainted with crosses being used as death instruments, execution devices. There is certainly no anachronism in Jesus' referring to the general practice of "taking up" or "bearing" a cross. The gospel narratives record three incidents where Jesus made such a reference prior to His own experience with a cross: (1) Matthew 10:38 as Jesus sent the twelve disciples out on a preaching tour. (2) Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23 after Jesus had rebuked Peter. (3) Luke 14:27 in an extended passage of Jesus' teaching. The figurative implications of these teachings will be considered later, but these five general references serve as the initial usages of the Greek noun, stauros, in each of the synoptic gospels, prior to any specific references to the particular cross on which Jesus died.
The Material Object -- The Cross
On one of the many timber stakes affixed in the ground outside of Jerusalem, Jesus was suspended in order to be executed. It was no doubt a stake that had been used many times previously to execute others. The material object itself was no different than thousands of other such instruments constructed by the Romans. But the One who was to be affixed to that specific execution instrument was unique among men; He was the Son of God. Henceforth that specific cross would be referred to as "the" cross on which Jesus Christ died.
Apart from the aforementioned five general references to a cross as a death instrument, all of the other usages of the Greek word stauros within the New Testament gospel accounts refer to the physical, material object on which Jesus was crucified. Jesus was forced to "bear His own cross" (John 19:17), but was physically unable to do so, whereupon a foreigner, Simon of Cyrene, was compelled to bear the cross for Him (Matt. 27:32; Mk 15:21; Lk. 23:26). An inscription was attached at the top of the timber of the cross, reading "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews" (John 19:19), probably inscribed in mockery to agitate the Jews. There were by-standers, both friend and foe, standing near the cross (Matt. 27:39; John 19:25). Jesus was taunted to exhibit His supernatural power and come down from the cross (Matt. 27:40,42; Mark 15:30,32). These eleven references comprise all of the remaining usages of stauros in the gospel accounts.
The point being made is that there are five general references to "bearing" or "taking up" a cross, and eleven specific references to the particular material cross on which Jesus was affixed, and these comprise all sixteen usages of the word stauros in the gospel accounts.
Other biblical references to the material cross on which Jesus died may include Phil. 2:8 where Paul writes of Jesus being "obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross," and Col. 2:14 where it is recorded that God has taken "the certificate of debt...out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." Hebrews 12:2 also refers to Jesus enduring "the cross, despising the shame." By their context these references carry with them additional historical and theological implications, as we will continue to explore.
The Historical Action on the Cross -- Crucifixion of Jesus
On the particular death instrument to which Jesus was attached and suspended there transpired an historical event, the crucifixion death of Jesus. The historical action of being hung on a cross to die is represented by the Greek verb stauroõ which is used primarily in the New Testament Scriptures to refer to the historical death of Jesus by crucifixion. Jesus Himself had prophesied that such an event would take place (Matt. 20:19; 26:2; Luke 24:7).
The Jewish mob demanded the crucifixion death of Jesus, crying "Crucify Him!" (Matt. 27:22,23; Mark 15:13,14; Lk 23:21; John 19:6,15). Pilate, the Roman proconsul, questioned, "Shall I crucify your King?" (John 19:15) and advised Jesus that he had the Roman authority to crucify Him (John 19:10), but capitulated to the demands of the Jewish people and "delivered Him over to be crucified" (Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:14; John 19:16). The Roman soldiers who were on "crucifixion detail" that eventful day "led Him out to be crucified" (Matt. 27:31; Mark 15:20), "crucified Him" (Mark 15:25; Luke 23:33; John 19:18) and divided up His belongings (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; John 19:23). Jesus was crucified between two thieves who were suspended on other crosses nearby (Matt. 27:38,44; Mark 15:27,32; John 19:32)
The place where this historical event of Jesus' crucifixion took place was "near the city" (John 19:20), in close proximity to a garden (John 19:41), and was referred to as "the place of the skull." (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; John 19:17). The Aramaic term for "skull" is transliterated into English as "Golgotha." The Latin word for "skull" is calvaria, from which we derive the English transliteration of "calvary," used by the King James translators in Luke 23:33.
The angel at the empty tomb advised His followers that he knew they were "looking for Jesus who was crucified" (Matt. 28:5; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:7). The men on the road to Emmaus told the as yet unidentified risen Jesus of the prophecy and event of Jesus being "delivered into the hands of sinful men and crucified" (Luke 24:20).
The aforegoing citations are the gospel references to the historical death by crucifixion of "the man, Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). Additional references to the historical death of Christ are made by Peter at Pentecost when he tells the great gathering of Jews at Pentecost of "Jesus, whom you crucified," (Acts 2:36), and later tells the Jewish leaders of "Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified" (Acts 4:10). To the Corinthians Paul writes that if those who were instrumental in Jesus crucifixion had understood "they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (I Corinthians 2:8).
The Theological Significance of the Cross
The historical event of Christ's death by crucifixion has eternal theological significance because of the identity of the One who was crucified. Jesus Christ, God's Son, had become incarnated as a man, and "came to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; I Tim. 2:6).
In His death on the cross Jesus was taking the death consequence of sin for all mankind. This He could do in that He was the sinless Savior enacting a consequential spiritual solidarity with the whole human race. The first man, Adam, had enacted a consequential spiritual solidarity, when by his sin all men died spiritually (Rom. 5:12), were constituted "sinners" spiritually (Roman. 5:19), and were condemned (Rom. 5:18) to everlasting death. God had originally told Adam in the garden, "In the day that you eat thereof" from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "dying you shall die" (Genesis 2:17). The consequence of sin was death in its various spiritual, psychological and physical forms.
Jesus, the Son of God, was incarnated as the God-man, who as man could experience the death consequences of sin, who as sinless man could take those death consequences vicariously and substitutionally for all man, and who as God could restore divine life to man spiritually in order to restore functional humanity. As a man Jesus incurred all the death consequences that had occured in Adam. As a sinless man death had no right to Him personally and could not hold Him. As God He could thus save us from the consequences of sin and further expression of sin by becoming life within us. Jesus "came to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). Jesus "came that we might have life" (John 10:10). The death of Jesus on a cross is the remedial action precedent to the restorative action of God's indwelling life in man. The remedial purpose of death and the restorative purpose of life are inseparable in the consideration of the theological significance of the death of Jesus Christ on a cross.
While still suspended from the cross and facing imminent physical death, Jesus exclaimed, "Tetelestai!" The word is translated into English as, "It is finished!" (John 19:30)(The perfect tense is used, indicating completed action in the past, the consequences of which remain unto the present). To amplify the meaning, it could be translated "completed," "accomplished," "fulfilled," "brought to its intended end." Evidence exists that in first century times this word, "tetelestai," was inscribed on certificates of indebtedness when they were paid-off.4 The meaning would thus be, "Completed," "Fulfilled," "It is finished," "Paid in full." This is enlightening when we consider Paul's comment in Col. 2:14 about the "certificate of debt" having been taken out of the way, having been "nailed to the cross." Sin presented an indebtedness of condemnation; the Law presented an impossible indebtedness of performance, a big "IOU" before God. In the death of Jesus Christ this has been "Paid in full," "It is finished." There is no more death sentence. There is no more condemnation. There is no more indebtedness. There are no more performance requirements. Such is the "finished work" of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus cried, "It is finished," from the cross as He was dying, He knew He had set in motion the complete enactment of the finished work of God's intent for the restoration of mankind and creation. Redemption, whereby we are "bought with a price" (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23) which has been "paid in full" by the death of Jesus, is the remedial aspect, whereas regeneration is the restorative factor wherein the life of God once again indwells the spirit of a man who is receptive to such in faith.
Thus we see that reference to the "cross" on which Jesus died necessarily conveys the theological significance of the "finished work" of God for and in man by His Son, Jesus Christ, inclusive of the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, Pentecostal outpouring and complete eschatalogical expectations. Though the material cross was specifically but the instrument of physical death, mention of the "cross" throughout the rest of the New Testament will always encompass that great cry from the cross, "It is finished," and the consequent restoration of God's life to His creation.
It is essential that you should realize that His cross was the means to an end; for to confuse the means for the end is to rob the Lord Jesus of that for which He came.
He came that you might have life! His life -- imparted to you by the renewing of the Holy Spirit on the grounds of redemption... He came to restore to you all that makes the mystery of godliness an open secret -- the presence of the Living God within a human soul.
Paul's many references to the "cross" within his epistles always seem to convey this comprehensive perspective of the theological significance of the "finished work" of God in Christ. He asks the Corinthians a rhetorical question: "Paul was not crucified for you, was he?" (I Cor. 1:13). No! Paul was a mere man whose death by whatever means would not have theological significance for mankind. Only the death of Jesus Christ, Son of God, God-man, could take our death-consequences that we might have His life-consequences.
Continuing his correspondence Paul states, "Christ sent me to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void." (I Cor. 1:17) The "finished work" of God set in motion at the cross is intrinsic to the good news of the gospel. "The cross of Christ is made void" when the "finished work," the full theological significance, is not recognized -- when the cross of Christ is presented and received as but the historical basis of a fundamentalistic belief-system or a moralistic ethical system. "The cross of Christ is made void" when continuing performance standards are advocated as criteria for sanctification rather than the "saving life of Christ."
"The word of the cross...to us who are being saved, it is the power of God." (I Cor. 1:18) The comprehensive theological significance of the death of Jesus comprises the divine dynamic of the life of Christ in the Christian. Christians who are "being saved" from the dysfunction of fallen humanity receive that divine dynamic in order to function as God intended.
"We preach Christ crucified" (I Cor. 1:23), Paul declares. The perfect tense verb indicates completed action in the past, the consequences of which remain to the present, i.e. the "finished work" of God commenced at the crucifixion death of Jesus and allowing for the life of Jesus to be lived in us presently.
Likewise, in I Cor. 2:2 Paul employs the perfect tense verb when he writes, 'I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." Ministering "in demonstration of the Spirit and power" (2:4), Paul is operating by the "finished work" of God in Christ and is thus "spiritual," without the additives of man-made criteria of "spirituality" which impose performance standards to allegedly "finish" God's work in the Christian.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul is very explicit about Christ's death on the cross being the decisive event that leads to the completion of God's restorative work. He refers to the "Galatians...before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified" (perfect tense)(Gal. 3:1). Paul had clearly spelled out, graphically presented to the Galatians how Jesus took our death to give us His life, took the consequences of our unrighteousness to give us His righteousness. The implication is that if the Galatians have understood the "finished work" of Christ, they would not continue to be persuaded by the false purveyors of legalism to pursue performance, "works," self-efforts to finish the work.
"If I still preach circumcision" (works)..."then the stumblingblock of the cross has been abolished." (Gal. 5:11). The stumblingblock, the scandal, the offense of the cross is that Jesus finished doing everything that needed to be done before God. There is nothing we can do! This is "offensive" to the natural man who wants to take some credit, who wants to think there is some merit in what he has done, who doesn't want to be a welfare recipient "on the dole." There is no basis for any human pride in performance when we simply receive by faith what Christ does. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross and the subsequent availability of the divine life to all mankind, comprises the "finished work," the sole basis of right relationship and fellowship with God.
Religion and all its "works" programs have been exposed as frauds by the "finished work" of Christ. Consequently they are quick to denigrate and persecute those who teach and live by the grace-work of God in Christ. Paul explains that the religionists "try to compel you to be circumcised, that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ" (Gal. 6:12). They do not want to be persecuted and mocked by other religionists for preaching the grace of God in the activity of Jesus Christ alone. Paul then declares, "may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14). Paul never wants to boast in what he has done by self-effort or performance, only in what Christ has done and continues to do -- the "finished work."
Christ's "finished work" reconciles both Jew and Gentile into one new creation, new humanity, new body, "through the cross" (Eph. 2:16). The remedial action of Christ's death and the restorative action of Christ's life is for all men universally, and is the means whereby they are restored to functional humanity, functional society and community by the functional life of God in man.
Likewise, "all things" are reconciled to God by His "having made peace through the blood of the cross" (Col. 1:20). The alienation of the whole creation was due to sin, the consequence of sin was death, and death has been taken by Jesus Christ. Reconciliation, peace, the restoration of all things, the restoration of creation has been effected by the "finished work" of Jesus.
Through his tears Paul decries that there are many who "are enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18). Many there are who do not understand and live on the basis of the "finished work" of Christ. They do not accept that Christ has done all that needs doing and continues to be the dynamic of grace for the expression of His life and character in the Christian. These "enemies of the cross" still advocate legalistic "works" of self-effort, perfectionist performance and piety.
The theological significance of the cross must be understood within the context of the "finished work" of God in Christ. Though the cross itself was but the death instrument, it was there that Jesus victoriously proclaimed, "It is finished!" The remedial action of substitutionary death leads directly to the restorative action of God's life in the Christian. Christ took our death to give us His life, took the consequences of our unrighteousness to give us His righteousness. The "finished work" of Jesus Christ is inclusive of redemption, regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification.
Spiritual Identification with the Cross
The "finished work" of God in Christ must not be considered only with theological objectivity. Christ's activity will of necessity affect us personally and subjectively. Though this might all be regarded as the theological significance of the cross, it is being separated under a different heading to emphasize the subjective elements of His death and life in the Christian by referring to spiritual identification with the cross.
Previous mention has been made of an objective "spiritual solidarity" that all men have with Jesus Christ because He substitutionally took the death consequences of our sin. That "spiritual solidarity" becomes efficacious for us individually and subjectively when we receive by faith the complete death and life that God effects in Jesus Christ. The spiritual exchange of our regenerative conversion is the occasion of this personal spiritual identification.
Paul explains in Romans 6:6 that "our old man was crucified with Him (Jesus Christ), that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin." It is important to observe several particulars of what Paul writes in this verse:
First of all, he employs a compound Greek word, sustauroõ, which means "to crucify together with." This has often been referred to as the Christian's "co-crucifixion" with Jesus. It is best to avoid such terminology, as the English prefix "co-" can mean "jointly" or "together with," but it also can mean "equally," "in the same degree," or "as a complement to." We would not want to imply that our subjective crucifixion experience is of equal significance or in the same degree as the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor would we want to imply that our experience of being crucified is a complement to Christ's crucifixion in order to complete it. Jesus said, "It is finished" completed! Our having been "crucified together with" Jesus must be understood in terms of spiritual solidarity. When Jesus died on the cross He died there for me, but He also died there as me. When He died, I died. I was "in Him" when He died. The entire human race was represented by Jesus when He took the death consequences for sin upon Himself, but that spiritual solidarity becomes personally and subjectively efficacious for me when I receive Jesus Christ by faith. The verb is an aorist tense indicating that "to have been crucified with Him" was a definite occurrence historically enacted when Jesus died on the cross, and which becomes experientially effective at the definite occasion of our spiritual conversion.
Secondly, Paul writes that our "old man" has been crucified together with Christ. The designation "old man" signifies our spiritual identity when we were a "man of old" in our old spiritual condition of unregeneracy. Our pre-Christian identity was that of a "natural man" (I Cor. 2:14), a "child of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), an "old man." That "old man" identity was "laid aside" (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9 - both aorist tense verbs) when we became Christians and received a "new man" identity (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). The old spiritual identity of the unregenerate person is forever dead, having died with Jesus. I now have a new spiritual identity as a "new creature" (II Cor. 5:17) in Christ, a "child of God" (John 1:12), a "spiritual" man (I Cor. 2:15; Gal. 6:1), a Christ-one - "Christian." This was made effective for me, in me, spiritually when I received Jesus Christ by faith at conversion and regeneration. The "old man" is not synonymous with the "flesh" or "indwelling sin" that remains residually in the soul of the Christian, nor is it to be equated with the unbiblical phrases such as "old nature," "sin-nature," "Adam-nature," "self," "sin-principle," etc.
Thirdly, Paul explains that when this exchange of spiritual identity has taken place, our "old man" identity having been terminated and put to death and our "new man" identity established in identification with the indwelling life of Jesus Christ, this spiritual exchange has practical implications for our behavioral expression. We are no longer "slaves to sin" inevitably expressing the character of our old spiritual identification. Our physical bodies are no longer to be employed as the vehicle of sin expression, for such is misrepresentative of our new identity and the character of Christ who now lives in us as Christians. Our behavior is intended to be a consistent expression of our new identity -- of the life of Christ. When writing to the Ephesians and Colossians, Paul also explains that the "new man" identity is to issue forth in consistent behavior (Eph. 4:25-32; Col. 3:12-17). We are to behave as who we have become "in Christ."
Galatians 2:20 is the only other figurative usage of the Greek word sustauroõ within the New Testament. "I have been crucified with Christ," Paul writes, using the perfect tense of the verb in the first person singular. Once again, he must be referring to the "old spiritual identity" he had as an unregenerate man. When Jesus died that old unregenerate identity of Paul was put to death "in Him." Jesus died to effect our death in order to change all men from "sinners" (Rom. 5:19) to "saints" (I Cor. 1:2). "It is no longer I (the old spiritual identity) who lives, but Christ lives in me," Paul goes on to say. As a Christian we have a new spiritual identity as a "Christ-one," a Christian. The indwelling Christ is the essence of my new spiritual identity. The Spirit of Christ is the dynamic of the out-living of His life in Christian behavior. Paul continues to explain: "the life that I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me." To require any additional legalistic requirements of performance or to demand any other criteria of "spirituality" is logically to imply that Christ "died needlessly" (Gal. 2:24), for such denies the "finished work" of Christ and sets aside grace.