A few years ago, a 14-foot bronze cross was stolen from a cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas. The cross had stood at the entrance to that cemetery for more than 50 years. It was originally placed there in 1930 and at the time it had been valued at around $10,000. The thieves apparently cut it off at its base and hauled it off in a pick-up truck. Police speculated that the thieves were going to cut the cross into small pieces and sell it for scrap. According to the authorities, this 900-lb. cross probably brought them a little less than $500 or so in scrap metal.
These criminals clearly did not recognize the value of the cross, in more ways than one.
At Mayfair, we just started a new series entitled The Wonderful Cross: Understanding the Atonement of Jesus. And the aim of this series is really simple: unlike these cemetery thieves, we want to value and appreciate the cross of Christ.
Justin Martyr was a Christian philosopher who lived in the second century AD. He saw the cross as the key to everything because it is the central feature of the world. Justin said if you want to sail a ship, the mast will be in the shape of a cross; if you want to dig a ditch, your spade will need a cross-shaped handle. The cross and its meaning are woven into our world at every turn. And that’s what we want to reflect on over the next several weeks: the meaning of the cross.
The cross is a universally recognized symbol of the Christian faith. You can go anywhere in the world and the cross means the same thing. It transcends language and culture and time. Wherever you go, whenever you go, the cross represents the story of Jesus. And even more than universal recognition, there is also a universal identification with the cross. People around the world may recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s, but they don’t wear them around their necks every day! But people around the world identify with the cross because it is an enduring symbol of hope.
And yet, it wasn’t always this way. In the Roman world of the first century, the cross was understood as a symbol of power: Roman power. The cross was a sign of death. Someone from the first century would find it strange that we have crosses adorning the walls of our homes and churches. It would be as strange to them as it would be for us to see someone with an electric chair icon on their wall or necklace. The cross was something scandalous, not even to be discussed in polite company in the ancient world.
But that’s the power of God: He transforms this symbol of death and turns it into a symbol of life.
So what happened at the cross? Why did Jesus have to die?
How would you answer these questions? I think there are two popular answers:
- One popular answer would be something like, “Jesus died on the cross to show us how much God loves us.” And this is certainly true. But the Scriptures tell us that the cross is so much more than just “Jesus showing us something.” No, the biblical writers repeatedly affirm that something actually happened in the death of Jesus.
- Another popular way of answering this question would be to say, “Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins.” And that’s also true. But how exactly does this happen? And that’s the real question. How does the death of a Jewish preacher two thousand years ago take away our sins? And that’s one of the things we’ll be exploring at length in this series. We’ll look at some of the ways the biblical writers explain the death of Jesus. They show us that Jesus died as a substitute for us; they affirm that Jesus gave up his life as a ransom for many; and they also explain that Jesus died to defeat the enslaving Powers of Sin and Death.
I invite you to join us in this study. Get a notebook and take notes. Pray over the passages we’ll read together in these posts. Because Justin Martyr is right: the cross is the key to everything.