ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
WHY THE CROSS?
- The Cross as a symbol
In Sir Walter Scott’s romantic-historical novel, Ivanhoe, returned from the Crusades in the Holy Land appears unrecognised in his father’s house and produces “This reliquary containing a portion of the true cross, brought from the Monastery of Mount Carmel.” This symbol of the Cross, in all probability a fake, was received with respect and devotion by nearly all those present. Many today will wear a cross as an item of jewellery – but do they think about its true significance?
In heraldry there are some 285 types of cross (according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable), but all we need concern ourselves with is one rough wooden cross that was erected on a hill just outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago.
- The basic problem
In order to see why that cross was there we need to go back to the time when God and man first “met” on earth (whether by creation or evolution need not concern us here). God made simple rules (Genesis 2:17), man broke them (Genesis 3:6) and was punished (Genesis 3:16-24).
Whether the account of the happenings in the Garden of Eden is historical or mythical matters (in this respect) not one little bit because the pattern has been repeated ever since and still is being repeated today. For example, no one (except Jesus) has ever kept the ten commandments in their entirety – can you, for example, honestly say that you have never longed for “anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exodus 20:17) (and by neighbour we include anyone with whom you come in contact (as in Luke 10:29,33,37) not just the people who happen to live next door!)?
When the psalmist recounted the history of the Israelites as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan (Psalm 78) he does not hide their failures: e.g. putting God to the test (v.18), lying to God (v.36), and rebelling against Him (v.56). Their sins were many – but we cannot gloat over their wickedness for our sins, maybe different in type, are equally many.
- The temporary treatment
The Old Testament book of Leviticus opens with a detailed set of procedures for dealing with the sins of the people by a variety of sacrifices. However this basic idea is made very clear by what happened on the Day of Atonement. In particular two goats were chosen, one was sacrificed on the altar but the other was the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10). This goat was not killed, but Aaron “is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert…..The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place….. (Leviticus 16:21,22).
So we see the treatment of sins by transfer – to an animal which bore the penalty of the sin in the place of the (human) sinner.
- Why was this only a temporary treatment?
The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that the sacrifices detailed in the Old Testament, even when “repeated endlessly year after year” (10:1) could not “make perfect those who draw near to worship.” Something better was needed, something of which the temporary treatment would be a forerunner, and that something was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14).
- What was the difference between Jesus’ sacrifice and those of the Old Testament?
The Old Testament provided for a range of sacrificial animals and birds. The choice often depending on the financial resources of the one making the sacrifice. For example, when Joseph and Mary went to the Temple for Mary’s act of purification following the birth of Jesus (as prescribed in Leviticus 12) they took “a pair of doves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24) rather than a year-old lamb and a pigeon or dove, presumably because they could not afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:8).
When Jesus went to the cross He presented a sacrifice of infinite worth because it was sufficient to cover “the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Sufficient indeed but only applicable to those who believe and trust.
It was of infinite worth because not only was Jesus without sin (John 8:46) but also because Jesus was God as well as man and so this was God Himself making the necessary sacrifice for the sins of humankind. There can be no greater sacrifice.
- Why did the Jewish Authorities want Jesus dead?
Basically because Jesus challenged their way of doing things! For example, He would heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10-14) and so challenge their over-zealous interpretation of the commandment (Exodus 20:8-11). Jesus was also scathing in His condemnation of hypocrisy in the Jewish leaders, pronouncing woe on “teachers of the law and Pharisees” seven times in Matthew 23 and telling the crowds as well as His disciples that “they do not practise what they preach” (Matthew 23:3).
Even when they had arrested Jesus and put him on trial they found it impossible to find genuine witnesses against Jesus (Matthew 26:60). They had to force Jesus to answer their questions and so to claim that He had “spoken blasphemy” (Matthew 26:65).
- Why did Pilate give in to Jewish demands
Jewish historians of the time reveal that Pilate had made several unwise moves in his handling of the Jews who were under his authority as local ruler of the occupying Roman nation and so he was somewhat fearful of being reported to the Emperor – which did eventually happen.
When the Jewish authorities had rigged the trial and condemned Jesus, they had to bring Him before Pilate for Pilate to authorise His execution (John 18:31). Pilate was unwilling to give in to their demands because he found no basis for their charges against Jesus (John 18:38). Pilate had also been warned by his wife “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man…” (Matthew 27:19).
However when Pilate “tried to set Jesus free” he was met with words from the Jews that, because of his previous record, must have scared him, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.” (John 19:12). So he gave in to their demands, washed his hands of the responsibility (Matthew 27:24) and ordered Jesus’ crucifixion.
- What really happened on the Cross?
Between them the gospels tell us that as Jesus hung on the Cross He spoke out seven times. If we focus on just three of “The Words from the Cross” then we may get a glimpse of what was actually happening, especially if we ignore the chronological order. So first we reflect on the most terrible of the three.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46 quoting Psalm 22:1). All through His life Jesus and His Father had worked in unison (John 10:30) but now there seemed to be a rift. This was far more terrible for Jesus than any of the physical suffering He had and was enduring. But why should He feel this terrific sense of loss? Surely it was because He had become the sin-bearer – not for His own sins, because He had none – but for the sins of all the world (Isaiah 53:6). So the Father, horrified by this burden of sin, had turned away, no doubt with a “broken heart,” for the Father, at that moment, was suffering too.
Time passed and there came another cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus knew that the task He had come to do was accomplished. He had born the penalty for all the sins that have ever been committed and ever would be committed in this world and humankind could breathe again as fellowship with an Almighty God was restored. The main purpose of Jesus’ life had been accomplished and so He could bow His head and give up His spirit.
Now we can see why Jesus spoke as He did to one of the criminals who were crucified at the same time. At first both of these robbers hurled insults at Him (Matthew 27:44), but something about Jesus must have revived the conscience of one of these hard-bitten men for he tried to stop his fellow brigand from abusing Jesus and then turned to Jesus in what was a form of penitence, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And that would not be long! Jesus then told this repentant thief, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43). Jesus could say this because He was bearing this man’s sins on His own back and so freeing the dying criminal to be the first to benefit from His redeeming work.
So we can glory in what Jesus did, but always remember that there were two thieves crucified with Jesus, only one turned and was forgiven, the other presumably carried on, ignoring the work Jesus was doing. Despite its greatness the work of Jesus on the Cross is not forced on us, nor does it cover our sins automatically; it has to be asked for, very simply, as a man, woman or child comes to Jesus in penitence for past sin, seeking forgiveness and asking for the help of the Holy Spirit to live for Jesus from then on. And Jesus will never say “No” to any such request, He will always welcome anyone who so desires into His most wonderful kingdom.
- Why an empty Cross?
Sometimes a figure of Jesus is shown on a cross (when, technically, it becomes a crucifix). I think this misses the vital point that the Cross was not the end of the story. Jesus’ body was removed from the Cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:38-42) and placed in a nearby tomb while the Sabbath passed. When folk went to that tomb after the Sabbath they found it empty. So the Cross was empty and the tomb was empty because Jesus had risen from the dead. The gospels recount His appearances to the disciples and others confirming His resurrection and His victory over sin and death. Later, St. Paul was to confirm this: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20), having admitted that if this was not true “your faith is futile” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The empty Cross helps to underline the truth of the resurrection.
- The challenge of the Cross
Every time we see a representation of the Cross of Jesus Christ – whether in art, jewellery or sculpture, in church or home or wherever – it should make us stop and think, “Do I really believe that God Almighty loved me so much that He planned to save a sinner like me, that Jesus Christ His Son came to this planet and made the necessary sacrifice and that the Holy Spirit keeps reminding me of all that has been done for me.” If we do sincerely believe, then we too shall follow that repentant thief, and millions of other believing folk, into the paradise of companionship with Jesus, now in a somewhat limited way and one day in all its glorious fullness, but only because He died on the Cross to make it all possible.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.