What the Cross Means
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this World? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching (that is, by the simplicity of a proclamation) to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, but Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” —1 Corinthians 1:17-24
In this passage the Apostle Paul is not seeking in the slightest degree to under-value Christian baptism when he says, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” He is seeking to get us to realize that the important thing is making known the good news; then of course when people believe the good news it is right and proper they should be baptized. Paul so decreed even in Corinth, the city to which this letter was directed, for we are told in the book of Acts, “Many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized.” But the great thing to emphasize is not any Christian ordinance, no matter how precious, but the Gospel which is set forth in that ordinance. The apostle said, “My message is the good news and I seek to preach it not with wisdom of words.” That is, he did not try to adorn his addresses with oratorical splendor and rhetorical platitudes lest the people would be so taken up with the manner of presentation they would fail to get the message itself.
You have perhaps heard the story of the painter who painted a most beautiful picture and placed it in a very fine frame. A friend came in, to whom he said, “How do you like it?” “It is one of the most beautiful frames I have ever seen!” The artist tore away the frame with indignation and cried, “It is the picture, not the frame, that is important!” So the Apostle Paul was concerned lest in his preaching the Gospel, it would be so adorned with wisdom of words, that people would be occupied with their beauty rather than the message. He said, “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness: but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” By this expression “preaching of the cross,” he means the proclamation of the Gospel. He identifies one with the other. You can’t present the Gospel without preaching the cross.
What then is the meaning of the cross? Cicero said, “The cross is so shameful it should never be mentioned in polite society.” Crucifixion was an ignominious method of death which the Romans made common and ordinarily it was reserved for slaves who offended their masters for traitors against the government. It was reserved for the lowest in society and the vilest criminals. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ, the holy, spotless Son of God, died upon a cross. We find in Roman literature that so terrible were the sufferings of the crucified, it was a common thing to use “crucifixion” as a figure of speech to denote extreme suffering, physical or mental. Our Lord Jesus Christ endured the most extreme physical and mental suffering when He took our place upon that cross.
We might say Calvary first of all tells out the wickedness and malignity of man’s heart as nothing else could. In the second chapter of the book of Acts when the Apostle Peter was driving home to the consciences of the men of Israel their guilt in rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ, he exclaimed, in verse 22, “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by Him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” We learn two things from this Scripture. It was in the purpose of God that His Son was to be delivered to death in order to settle the sin question, but it was man, energized by Satan, who delighted in heaping upon the Lord Jesus Christ the shame and the ignominy and the suffering that were connected with the cross itself. It was not absolutely necessary that the Lord Jesus Christ should expire on a cross on Calvary in order to put away sin, but it was foreseen. God, looking down through the ages, saw that was the way His Son was to die. “They pierced my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:16). His death should be of such character that nothing but crucifixion would answer. But that did not excuse the men of Christ’s day, whether Jews or Gentiles, for putting the Son of God to that accursed tree. Nothing reveals the wickedness of man’s heart like the cross. That rabble who did not cross the threshold of Pilate’s judgment hall lest they should be defiled, told out the malignancy of their corrupt hearts when they cried out in their hatred of God’s blessed Son, “Away with Him, crucify Him.” In this we have a picture of the hearts of all men, for we are “all by nature children of wrath even as others” and not one of us would have taken a different attitude had we been there at that time.
The cross, then, emphasizes as nothing else could the corruption of man and the hatred of man toward God. But if the cross tells out the hatred of men, on the other hand it tells out the grace and the mercy of God, who gave His Son in order that He might make known the love He had toward us. We are told in the fourth chapter of the first epistle of John, “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
For 1500 years God has been saying to man, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength,” but instead of man responding to that and giving to God the love He deserved because of His grace, goodness, mercy, and loving kindness, man’s answer to God’s command was the cry to which I have already referred, “Crucify him!” when the Father sent His Son—and yet that very act told out as nothing else could the love of God to guilty men. “Herein is love.” It is His love to us, our hearts were totally bereft of love to God. There isn’t a spark of love for Him in our natural hearts. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins.” God looked into the hearts of men and He could see nothing good, nothing righteous, nothing that responded to the love of His heart, and He said, “If man doesn’t love me, I am going to show how I love him;” and “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8. When we had no love for Him, His heart went out in love for us and we read that He spared not His own Son. He foresaw all man would do, all his ingratitude and sin, all the suffering of Calvary, and yet He didn’t hold back the Son of His love but gave Him up of His own will that He might become the propitiation for our sins. So the cross became the altar on which the supreme sacrifice was immolated.
God had said, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (that is, the Septuagint version) the Hebrew word translated “atonement” in the English Bible is rendered by the same Greek word as that for “propitiation” in the Greek New Testament. So what God is saying is that the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you upon the altar of the cross—Christ has made propitiation for the soul. The passage in John which links with that in Leviticus shows us it was in the cross God told out His love to the world. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” No wonder Paul could say, “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”
It is not enough to know and proclaim Him as a great teacher or example for all mankind, not enough to proclaim Him even as the fullest manifestation of divine love that ever appeared upon the earth; but we must proclaim Him as the one who died on the cross as the propitiation for our sin. Christianity without the cross is not Christianity at all.
Then again, the cross is the full expression of Christ’s love to the Father. You remember how He said to His disciples on that last night before He went out to Gethsemane, “But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence,” John 14:31. Having so said, He went forth to die.
He appeared before Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate, and thence on to Calvary where He laid down His life voluntarily upon that cross in order to redeem us to God. But in that act of offering Himself on the cross, He was testifying to the Father how He loved Him, He was manifesting the devotion of His heart to His God and our God, to His Father and our Father, so in Philippians we read, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God (not something to be retained) but divested Himself, and became in the likeness of man and having been found in fashion as a man He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death—such a death—that of the Cross.” And so in His obedience unto death God the Father had been fully glorified.
But then our Lord not only told out His love for the Father in the death of the cross, but to us also for we read in Hebrews 12:2, “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Oh, beloved, this was the joy of having redeemed sinners with Himself in the Father’s house to share His glory for all eternity. And so we read in the epistle to the Ephesians, fifth chapter verse two, “and we walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour.” I like John Bunyan’s rapt exclamation:
“Oh, this Lamb of God! He had a whole Heaven to himself, myriads of angels to do His bidding; but that could not satisfy Him. He must have sinners to share it with Him.” So He came from Glory, died upon that cross in order that He might redeem us to God, in order that He might have us with Him for all eternity.
Not only did He die for our sins, but He was made sin for us on that cross. The last verse of the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians reads “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” He took our place.
“O, Why was He there as the bearer of sin
If on Jesus the guilt was not laid;
Why from His side flowed the sin cleansing stream
If His dying thy debt has not paid?”
There He settled the sin question to the divine satisfaction. He not only bore our sin but was made sin for us. That is, God allowed Him that day to be treated as though He Himself were the very incarnation of all sin ever committed in the world. He gave Himself a ransom for all.
Colossians 1:20 tells us that He “made peace through the blood of His cross.” There upon that cross He stood in our stead. We had become alienated from God. We could never atone for our sin.
“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no respite know,
All for sin could not atone—
Thou must save, and Thou alone!”
But He made up the wrong we had done and He made peace by His own most precious blood.
I know of no hymn that sets forth the work of the cross like that one by Anne Lois Cousins:
“O Christ, what burdens bow’d Thy head!
Our load was laid on Thee:
Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead,
To bear all ill for me:
A victim led, Thy blood was shed,—
Now there’s no load for me!
“Death and the curse were in the cup—
O Christ, ‘twas full for Thee!
But Thou hast drained the last dark drop,—
‘Tis empty now for me!
That bitter cup—Love drank it up:
Left but the love for me!
“Jehovah bade His sword awake—
O Christ, it woke ‘gainst Thee!”
Thy soul the flaming blade must take—
Thy heart its sheath must be:
All for my sake, my peace to make,—
Now sleeps that sword for me!
“The tempest’s awful voice was heard—
O Christ, it broke on Thee!
Thy open bosom was my ward—
It bore the storm for me!
Thy form was scarred, Thy visage marred,—
Now cloudless peace for me.
“For me, Lord Jesus, Thou hast died,
And I have died in Thee!
Thou’rt ris’n; my bands are all untied;
And now Thou liv’st in me!
The Father’s face of radiant grace
Shines now in light on me!”
All this we see in the cross. No wonder the Apostle Paul could say “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world,” Galatians 6:14.
“Oh cross of Christ, Oh glorious tree,
What place can be compared to thee?
Where God’s own Son a ransom died
And for our sins was crucified.”
And not is pleases God through the simplicity of preaching, through the proclamation of the cross of Christ, to save them that believe. I trust that you who have listened to me today have found rest for your conscience in the finished work on the cross, or if I am addressing any who have not yet turned to Christ, I trust that the appeal of Calvary will so speak to your soul that it will bring you to the feet of the One there crucified and that you will accept Him as your own Saviour.