In his book, The Cross of Christ, the late John R. W. Stott described the experience of an imaginary visitor to London who arrives with little understanding of Christianity. Eager to learn, he comes upon the beautiful Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
Approaching the cathedral he first notices with amazement that the dome of the building is dominated by a huge golden cross. He then enters and sees that the cathedral itself is built in the shape of a cross with arms reaching to the right and left from the central nave. These arms appear to form two chapels.
Looking into each chapel he sees what appears to be a table and on each a small cross. Going below into the crypt where the remains of famous people are buried he notes that on each tomb there is engraved the form of a cross.
Back in the nave the stranger decides to stay for a service of worship about to begin. He notices that a man sitting next to him wears a miniature cross on his lapel and a woman on the other side wears one on her necklace. The service begins with a hymn beginning, We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross.
The theme of the cross registers with him as dominant and compelling.
The cross was claimed as the symbol for Christianity as early as the second century. Other symbols had a brief life but once the cross was established it remained firm against all opposition and has endured for two millennia.
This should not be surprising. There are at least 28 references to Christ’s cross in the New Testament and these references appear across the New Testament from Matthew to the Revelation.
But why the cross, this instrument of vicious torture? Why must the punishment of sin be visited in this manner on the Holy Son of God? Simply put, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin must be punished.
Mankind’s universal offense against God’s holy laws is more serious than we, his creatures, are aware until the Holy Spirit brings the reality home to us. The Lord God, the ruler of the universe declared to Adam, You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die (Genesis 3:3). Adam both touched and ate despite promised consequences.
Adam’s offenses were not like a child’s offense in taking a bit of candy from a table knowing only vaguely that to do so was wrong. Adam’s offense (and ours) was an intentional, self-conscious disobedience against a holy God, the Creator and Ruler of All. God must keep his word: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
But again, why must there be such suffering on God’s part in order for him to forgive the sins of his creatures? The answer in brief: God’s justice must be applied without compromise otherwise he is not just. Sin must be paid for.
And there was no one else who could pay the just penalty for sin since, as the Apostle Paul notes, all humans have sinned and do come short of God’s glorious ideal (Romans 3:23). So, God in Christ out of his great love for his sinning creatures took the penalty on himself at Calvary. It was the only way (John 3:16).
On a cross, Jesus, the Son of God, voluntarily suffered a substitutionary death and a temporary alienation from God, the Father of us all (Psalm 22). He became sin for us who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). In doing so, he paid the enormous penalty for our sins.
As the letter to the Romans declares, He did (this) to demonstrate his justice at the present time so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Thus, the cross is the ground of our salvation.
Looking deeper into this timeless moment at Calvary one sees beneath the suffering a love that will not give up on sinners. As we have travelled through the Easter season this has been brought home to us many times. As John Bowring wrote more than a century ago:
In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time,
All the light of sacred story,
gathers in its head sublime.
Photo credit: Waiting For The Word (via flickr.com)