Years ago, a family member who had not been raised in the Christian faith attended church with me during the Easter season. The service was filled with imagery of the cross, including references to the cleansing power and redemption wrought by the blood of Jesus. I don’t recall exactly which songs we sang that day, but I’m certain that hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Calvary,” and “Nothing But the Blood” were featured prominently in worship. Consumed by celebrating the beauty of what Jesus had accomplished through His death on the cross, I was completely unaware of what this symbolism might mean to someone unfamiliar with Christianity. When the service concluded, my inquisitive guest peppered me with questions about what she had just heard and experienced. She was baffled by our celebration of the cruel and gruesome death of the Savior we claimed to love. I had never thought about it before, but for someone unfamiliar with the tenets of Christian doctrine, the cross makes no sense. We who were raised in the evangelical church take for granted a universal appreciation for the beauty of the cross; however, First Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The event described above occurred more than twenty-five years ago, and the cross makes even less sense to many people in the world today. Some even refer to it as “cosmic child abuse” and see God as a cruel and vindictive father. To many skeptics, preaching about Christ’s substitutionary atonement and singing hymns about what transpired on a hill called Calvary sound as if we are celebrating ancient capital punishment. Why on earth would we do that? The Easter season provides the perfect opportunity to explain three reasons why the cross makes sense to me personally, and how it provides an anchor in the faith for all followers of Christ. The cross demonstrates the severity of sin, illuminates God’s multifaceted character, and fulfills Old Testament prophecy.
The cross demonstrates the severity of sin.
Sin is mankind’s biggest problem. It prevents each of us from experiencing the nearness of our Creator since He is perfectly holy and cannot tolerate sin in His presence. Our sin is egregious not only because it prevents us from being able to enter God’s presence, but because any sin, no matter how minor we may consider it to be, is ultimately committed against God. My sin either fails to honor God directly by worshipping Him alone, or indirectly by harming others on whom He has stamped His image. Minimizing my sin is like thinking it is no big deal to turn a toddler loose with a Sharpie at the Louvre or allowing a couple of rowdy kids to play ball in the halls of Buckingham Palace. While such careless acts might lead to marked up walls or broken vases in my house, the consequences would be insignificant compared to the damage done to masterpieces at an acclaimed art museum or to the furnishings of a world-renowned royal residence. It matters immensely who the transgression is committed against. Because our sin is against God, an exceedingly high price must be paid to account for it. Hebrews 9:22 says, “According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” The sacrificial system described in the Old Testament law was established to make temporary atonement for sin and provide the means to receive forgiveness, but it was never intended to be a permanent solution. Only the death of Jesus, the perfect sinless sacrifice, could provide once and for all reconciliation between God and man. The cross laid bare the ugliness of sin and reminds me of the high price of transgressing against a holy God.
The cross illuminates God’s multifaceted character.
God is perfectly just, perfectly loving, and perfectly merciful. The cross brilliantly illuminates the convergence of these three aspects of God’s character. No other point in history displays the richness of who God is as clearly as the moment that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, laid down His rights and carried out the will of His Heavenly Father. “Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) Because God is perfectly just, sin had to be punished or He would no longer be just. Because God is perfectly loving, He offered Himself as the perfect sinless sacrifice to suffer and die in my place. “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) His mercy overflows to me, and instead of receiving what I deserve, I experience the outpouring of His grace and become the beneficiary of Christ’s righteousness purchased for me on the cross. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
The cross fulfills Old Testament prophecy.
Jesus’ death on the cross was the fulfillment of prophecies recorded throughout the pages of the Old Testament. As His blood flowed down the wooden crossbeam, He became the perfect Passover lamb written about in Exodus 12 whose blood spared the Israelites from the curse of death. As he was mocked, scorned, and abandoned, He became the scapegoat described in Leviticus 16 who carried the sins of God’s chosen people upon Himself and far away into the desert. As He was raised up on the rugged pole, He became the figure in the wilderness from Numbers 21 upon whom the people gazed in order to live. As He was forsaken, despised, rejected, punished, stricken, afflicted, pierced, crushed, and wounded, He became the suffering servant prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
The message of the cross may sound strange to those around us who are unfamiliar with the historic Christian faith. It is worth taking some time to consider what the cross means to us personally, why it matters, and how we can engage a skeptical world with its story. The good news of salvation found in Jesus alone flows seamlessly throughout the pages of Scripture and is worth telling even to a world who may think it foolish.