Why is the cross so important for Christians?
You all know the “Sunday School” answer. Christ died for our sins. That’s true. Christ did die for our sins.
But that isn’t the whole answer. Significance of the cross goes much farther than simply paying for our sins. Our understanding of the cross goes beyond it’s being the payment for our sins.
Let me offer an admittedly poor and inadequate illustration of what I’m saying. Imagine you and a friend have a quarrel, then you reconcile. Your friend, to heal the relationship, invites you to Starbucks for coffee. He even pays for the coffee. At Starbucks, that’s a big deal!
Afterwards, you keep the coffee cup and put it on your shelf, as a memento of your friendship. Then every time you get together, you mention that coffee. You even make a little gold coffee cup to wear around your neck, to remind you of your friend’s generosity. After a while, this gets annoying. He says, “Will you quit talking about the coffee cup? Let’s just be friends.”
Now, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins is a whole lot bigger than a cup of coffee. But even so, I don’t think God wants our relationship to Him to hyper-focus on what started that relationship. Christ’s sacrifice was the door to that relationship, but our relationship is ongoing and deep.
But according to the New Testament and the witness of the church through the ages, the cross of Christ remains and should remain at the center of our relationship. If it were merely the door to our relationship, then why do we meditate so much upon it? Why does Paul write this in 1 Corinthians 1: 17-18?
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
How can the Cross be the power of God? Something else is going on here other than just payment for our sins. It continues to have a significant place in our life with Jesus. What else was Jesus doing on the cross, and why does it continue to speak to us no matter how long we have been a Christian? Why is it the very power of God?
The New Testament contains thirty-three references to the cross. Twenty-three are in the Gospels. The remaining ten references to the Cross are mainly in the writings of Paul. There are also many references to the death of Christ scattered throughout the Bible. These references tell us much about what Jesus was doing on the cross.
I cannot say today all that the Bible says about the significance of the cross. It would take too long. So, let’s focus on three meanings of the cross of Christ that affect our relationship with God.
1. The Cross is the instrument of our healing.
One of the places that speaks the Bible speaks most clearly to Christ’s death Isaiah 53. Many Jewish rabbis suggested that it couldn’t be originally part of Isaiah, but that it was added or changed by Christians. When the Dead Sea Scrolls was found in 1947, archaeologists discovered an intact copy of Isaiah from before the time of Christ, and Isaiah 53 was there in its entirety.
This chapter describes Jesus as the “suffering Servant” or Messiah. It describes Him suffering, and being afflicted for us. Pay attention to Isaiah 53: verses 4-5, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
In Hebrew, “griefs” and “sorrows” are literally the words for “pain” and “illnesses.” There is no distinction between Illnesses caused by sin and any other illness. Christ’s death on the cross is not just a covering for our sins, but healing for our pains and illnesses as well.
How can Christ’s death heal us? This may seem strange to us, but it wasn’t to people in ancient times. They were in the divine right of kings. It was common belief that the Spirit of God was a king, and that “virtue” flowed out of him. In Roman times, people believed that even the sweat and spit of a king were medicinal. We see this in the Bible, in stories such as the woman with the issue of blood, and the blind man that Jesus heals by rubbing his spit in his eye. Christ’s healing miracles were an affirmation that He was the true King, the Messiah and a signs of His divinity.
Consider this, if the spit of a king was treated as medicine, then what would the blood of the King of kings be? If the sweat of an ordinary mortal king was supposed to have power, then how much more power would be in the blood of the Messiah if He sacrificed His life for his subjects? The blood and the cross are symbols of Christ’s healing power! His blood poured out on the earth had the power to heal the earth. We hear this theme in the old hymns that says, “There is a fountain filled with blood,” “There’s power in the blood,” “The blood will never lose its power.” Christ’s death displays His ongoing power to heal us completely.
Please understand I’m not advocating faith healers. Jesus doesn’t promise us immediate healing or deliverance from every pain or hurt on earth. This is against His plan and we couldn’t handle it, anyway. We live in a world of hurt. Sometimes prayers of healing don’t get answered in earth, though all is healed in heaven. But knowing that Christ died for our healing assures us that He is on our side. Jesus could have stayed in heaven and watched us suffer from afar, but He took our pains upon Himself. He became the medicine to heal us. He walks with us in our suffering when we are reconciled to Him.
2. The cross is a sign of Christ’s humility towards us.
Jesus is our Lord he has ever right to demand our obedience. But He doesn’t. Instead, He became a friend to us, not a tyrant. He proved this on the cross.
There’s a wonderful passage in Philippians 2: 5-8, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus was God, but He didn’t live like a god. Instead, He humbled Himself as a servant. When He left earth, He did it by the means we all dread—death. We’d all like to be raptured, but most of us will die. Christ didn’t endure just any death, but one of the worst deaths anyone in His time could devise—crucifixion. He could have called ten thousand angels to rescue Him, but he didn’t. If I were Jesus, I would have called down a heavenly helicopter and a full platoon of avenging angels! Christ displays humility that’s incomprehensible to me. He refused to impose His will even upon His captors.
Christ shows this same humility towards us. Humility is having rights, but not seeking them. It is being able to destroy the world, but allowing the world to destroy us instead.
Christ does not demand our obedience, but He requests it. On the Cross, He shows us why we should give him obedience, because He already loves us and he humbled Himself to our level.
3. The cross is an example of how to live.
Matthew 16:24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”
In several passages,
Paul writes about the cross in many places in Galatians. But which cross does he write about—Christ’s or ours? Let’s see:
Galatians 5:11: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.”
Galatians 6:12: “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”
Galatians 6:14: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Is Paul writing about the cross that Jesus was crucified on, or the cross He gives to us? I’m convinced that the “cross of Christ” is not the cross Jesus died on, but the cross we bear in His name. Christ’s service to us is symbolized in the cross. Our service to Him is also symbolized by the cross.
In Galatia, the new Christians lived in Jewish communities. The Jews would only accept them if they were circumcised and followed the Jewish law. The community pressure was for people to become good Jews and conform to the standards of the Jewish world around them, including separation from the world which they considered unclean. Not being circumcised was more painful to them than being circumcised, just as standing out in the crowd is more painful to us than having surgery. But this is our cross—obey God and be different.
Paul is tempted to boast to the Galatians of all the things he has done. But instead he says this—if there is anything for him to be proud of in his life, (for that is what boasting is) it’s that he was willing to take up his cross.
The cross is not just a symbol for Christians of what Christ has done, but also of what we are called to do, to be obedient to Him all the way if necessary to the crucifixion of the flesh.
In the Christian film Do You Believe, there’s a place where a minister is confronted by a street preacher, who asks if he believes in the cross of Christ. He says he does. Then the preacher asks if there is blood on his cross. He isn’t talking about Christ’s cross, but our own. Are we willing to sacrifice ourselves for the calling of God in Christ? Are we willing to die for our faith in Jesus as our Lord and savior, and for his calling to love others?