According to legend, St. George defeated the dragon and won the hand of his lady while bearing a shield with a red cross. This cross became England’s national emblem. It was also used as a sign of warning. During a great plague in London, a red cross marked the doors of houses where people were infected. And it became a sign of deliverance: in 1864, the Geneva Conference adopted the Red Cross as a symbol of ambulance service. Thank God for the remarkable work that The Red Cross does today.
The noun, “cross,” is used in an Old English manuscript dating from the tenth century. The word may have come to England from Scandinavia. It’s origin is Latin – crux – “the stake, cross” on which criminals were impaled or hanged. Originally it meant a tall, round pole; possibly it is of Phoenician origin.
There are 48 definitions for “cross” in my office dictionary. Why so many? People sport crosses as tattoos and on t-shirts. Many church buildings feature a cross built into their architecture or highlighted in their stained glass – or on the pulpit – or on the front wall. It is so ubiquitous in churches and in jewelry that it is hardly the picture of torture that it represents. We look at it and forget that it was the electric chair of Jesus’ time – not swift and clean punishment – instead, it was a horrible struggling death by asphyxiation.
Martin Hengel studied the history of crucifixion. Crucifixions were designed as the ultimate public spectacle. Often those crucified were stripped naked. He searched ancient documents and found that references to crucifixion were scant. He found that people were ashamed of crucifixion and, having witnessed it, they had a deep aversion to it. He wrote: “For the people of the ancient world, Greeks, Romans, barbarians, and Jews, the cross was not just a matter of indifference, just any kind of death. It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word.”
Yet Jesus became “obedient to death” – and, can we hear Paul’s horror before he utters the phrase – “even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8).
The cross of Jesus was foolishness to the mighty Romans. Archaeologists who excavated the Palatine Hill in Rome discovered a drawing that dates from the third century. It depicts a boy, standing in the attitude of worship, with one hand upraised. The object of his devotion is a figure on a cross. The figure on the cross has the body of a man and the head of a donkey! Underneath the picture are scrawled the words: “Alexamenos worships his God.” Apparently Alexamenos was a Christian and his fellows were mocking his beliefs. And chief among those beliefs that made the boy’s faith so silly was this notion that he should worship someone who died on a cross [Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, pp.174-175]. The cross is an offense, a stumbling block, a scandalon – Galatians 5:11.
What it was like for Jesus, the Word of God, to say that shameful word “cross?” In Greek it is stauros – an upright stake or post. Stauros is used 28 times in the New Testament. Of the 17 times it is used in the gospels, Jesus speaks it only six times. When He does speak this word, it is not his cross but the cross of those who follow him that he talks about. For example, Matthew 10:38 “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
The Father doesn’t speak that appalling word.
Think of what it meant for the Spirit to use the word “cross” 28 times in the New Testament in regard to His incomparable Partner, the Beloved Son of God. Through the author of Hebrews, the Spirit says that the cross was “shameful” – disgraceful (12:2).
What it was like for Jesus to use the term stauroo – “crucify” or “crucifixion?” He doesn’t use stauroo much either. Of the 44 times this word is used in the NT, Jesus can only bring Himself to use it three times – twice in regard to himself and once of his followers. Only Matthew records it. Imagine what it meant for the Logos even to speak this word about himself.
But, Jesus is God and God is faithful. Jesus spoke this word of his own crucifixion – and he did what it demanded – out of love for God and love for us. Think anew of what the Almighty will do to befriend you.
As that stirs our heart of hearts, we remember that it was at his cross that Jesus “double-crossed” (!!) Satan. Satan’s aim in putting Jesus to death in this shameful way was to disgrace him. Instead, in losing – in laying down his life – Jesus won.
Let’s connect these “crucial” dots (note: “crucial” is another word derived from “cross”). Jesus has transformed an instrument of torture and shame into the symbol of redemption. For our wedding my wife, Via, embroidered a Huguenot cross on her wedding gown. Alexamenos’ peers would be dumbfounded.
What will Jesus do for an encore? We are eager to see how he will transform sinners like us – those he has redeemed by his cross – into his Bride.
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,
Awesome Uncle Steve! I really enjoyed your thoughts and the research you used was excellent and wide ranging. I never took the time to really think on the object in which out Savior was put to death and the views He held on it. Look at what Christ can do with an item of shame like the Cross and imagine what He can do with us!
I was able to get around to listening to Essay 1: Cross tonight. I must say, I have read this one multiple times and listening to it brings emphasis and emotions on sentences and words that I hadn’t necessarily heard when I read it. There is something very good about being able to hear something, to hear the passion and emphasis behind the voice of the person writing the words. Very good. Thank you, again for writing. In Him.
A tribute to the gift of the cross: “The Wesley’s Conversion Hymn’, Methodist Hymn Book 361:
Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise.