A study of the meaning of the "cross of Christ", pointing out the many mystical meanings that have been used to apply the cross to Christian believers.
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The death of Jesus Christ on a cross is an important truth of the Christian gospel. In fact, it is crucial to the gospel, the crux of the message, if we might employ additional English words derived from the Latin word crux, from which we also derive the English word "cross."
The Greek word which we translate into English as "cross" is stauros. Stauros originally indicated a pointed, vertical stake firmly fixed in the ground. The word was used for "fence posts." Later the word was used in the Greek language for a wooden stake fixed in the ground and used as an instrument of torture or death. The primary meaning of the word thus became a reference to an execution instrument comprised of wooden timbers and affixed in the ground.
Sometimes the execution instrument was but a single pointed stake on which the offender was impaled. Sometimes the word was used of the timbers from which an offender was hanged. An example of this second usage may be found in the Greek text (Septuagint) of Esther 7:9 where Haman is ordered to be hanged on the gallows which he had constructed for Mordecai. The predominate form of the stauros death instrument was the crossing of two timbers. These were sometimes crossed in the form of a "T", sometimes in the form of an "X", and sometimes in the form of the perpendicular crossed timbers we are most familiar with in the West, "Ý".
There are abundant examples in history where most of the ancient cultures utilized the cross as an execution instrument. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans all employed this death device. Although the Jews employed stoning as their primary method of execution, they were well acquainted with the use of the cross by other cultures to execute to their own people. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, records that Alexander the Great "did one of the most barbarous actions in the world" to a group of Jews he had conquered. He "ordered about 800 of them to be crucified."1 On another occasion Varus sought out leaders of a Jewish revolt and "the number crucified on this account were 2000."2 In another of his writings, Josephus notes that Titus crucified the Jews outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem; "the soldiers...nailed those they caught...to the crosses...their multitude was so great that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies."3
Death by crucifixion was an especially cruel and agonizing way to die. The Romans employed this form of execution primarily for slaves, although it was also used for foreigners, traitors and the most despicable of criminals. It was generally regarded as too degrading to be utilized for Roman citizens.
Execution on a cross was a public display of captial punishment. Crosses were quite visible on the hills surrounding major towns and alongside the Roman roads. The visibility of these executions was considered to be a deterrent to further crime in the society. The condemned criminal was often forced to carry the wooden timber, or at least the cross-beam, the patibulum, to the site of his own execution, thus exposing himself as an object of public reproach.
In the first century the Jewish people of Palestine were well acquainted with crosses being used as death instruments, execution devices. There is certainly no anachronism in Jesus' referring to the general practice of "taking up" or "bearing" a cross. The gospel narratives record three incidents where Jesus made such a reference prior to His own experience with a cross: (1) Matthew 10:38 as Jesus sent the twelve disciples out on a preaching tour. (2) Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23 after Jesus had rebuked Peter. (3) Luke 14:27 in an extended passage of Jesus' teaching. The figurative implications of these teachings will be considered later, but these five general references serve as the initial usages of the Greek noun, stauros, in each of the synoptic gospels, prior to any specific references to the particular cross on which Jesus died.
On one of the many timber stakes affixed in the ground outside of Jerusalem, Jesus was suspended in order to be executed. It was no doubt a stake that had been used many times previously to execute others. The material object itself was no different than thousands of other such instruments constructed by the Romans. But the One who was to be affixed to that specific execution instrument was unique among men; He was the Son of God. Henceforth that specific cross would be referred to as "the" cross on which Jesus Christ died.
Apart from the aforementioned five general references to a cross as a death instrument, all of the other usages of the Greek word stauros within the New Testament gospel accounts refer to the physical, material object on which Jesus was crucified. Jesus was forced to "bear His own cross" (John 19:17), but was physically unable to do so, whereupon a foreigner, Simon of Cyrene, was compelled to bear the cross for Him (Matt. 27:32; Mk 15:21; Lk. 23:26). An inscription was attached at the top of the timber of the cross, reading "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews" (John 19:19), probably inscribed in mockery to agitate the Jews. There were by-standers, both friend and foe, standing near the cross (Matt. 27:39; John 19:25). Jesus was taunted to exhibit His supernatural power and come down from the cross (Matt. 27:40,42; Mark 15:30,32). These eleven references comprise all of the remaining usages of stauros in the gospel accounts.
The point being made is that there are five general references to "bearing" or "taking up" a cross, and eleven specific references to the particular material cross on which Jesus was affixed, and these comprise all sixteen usages of the word stauros in the gospel accounts.
Other biblical references to the material cross on which Jesus died may include Phil. 2:8 where Paul writes of Jesus being "obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross," and Col. 2:14 where it is recorded that God has taken "the certificate of debt...out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." Hebrews 12:2 also refers to Jesus enduring "the cross, despising the shame." By their context these references carry with them additional historical and theological implications, as we will continue to explore.
On the particular death instrument to which Jesus was attached and suspended there transpired an historical event, the crucifixion death of Jesus. The historical action of being hung on a cross to die is represented by the Greek verb stauroõ which is used primarily in the New Testament Scriptures to refer to the historical death of Jesus by crucifixion. Jesus Himself had prophesied that such an event would take place (Matt. 20:19; 26:2; Luke 24:7).
The Jewish mob demanded the crucifixion death of Jesus, crying "Crucify Him!" (Matt. 27:22,23; Mark 15:13,14; Lk 23:21; John 19:6,15). Pilate, the Roman proconsul, questioned, "Shall I crucify your King?" (John 19:15) and advised Jesus that he had the Roman authority to crucify Him (John 19:10), but capitulated to the demands of the Jewish people and "delivered Him over to be crucified" (Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:14; John 19:16). The Roman soldiers who were on "crucifixion detail" that eventful day "led Him out to be crucified" (Matt. 27:31; Mark 15:20), "crucified Him" (Mark 15:25; Luke 23:33; John 19:18) and divided up His belongings (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; John 19:23). Jesus was crucified between two thieves who were suspended on other crosses nearby (Matt. 27:38,44; Mark 15:27,32; John 19:32)
The place where this historical event of Jesus' crucifixion took place was "near the city" (John 19:20), in close proximity to a garden (John 19:41), and was referred to as "the place of the skull." (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; John 19:17). The Aramaic term for "skull" is transliterated into English as "Golgotha." The Latin word for "skull" is calvaria, from which we derive the English transliteration of "calvary," used by the King James translators in Luke 23:33.
The angel at the empty tomb advised His followers that he knew they were "looking for Jesus who was crucified" (Matt. 28:5; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:7). The men on the road to Emmaus told the as yet unidentified risen Jesus of the prophecy and event of Jesus being "delivered into the hands of sinful men and crucified" (Luke 24:20).
The aforegoing citations are the gospel references to the historical death by crucifixion of "the man, Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). Additional references to the historical death of Christ are made by Peter at Pentecost when he tells the great gathering of Jews at Pentecost of "Jesus, whom you crucified," (Acts 2:36), and later tells the Jewish leaders of "Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified" (Acts 4:10). To the Corinthians Paul writes that if those who were instrumental in Jesus crucifixion had understood "they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (I Corinthians 2:8).
The historical event of Christ's death by crucifixion has eternal theological significance because of the identity of the One who was crucified. Jesus Christ, God's Son, had become incarnated as a man, and "came to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; I Tim. 2:6).
In His death on the cross Jesus was taking the death consequence of sin for all mankind. This He could do in that He was the sinless Savior enacting a consequential spiritual solidarity with the whole human race. The first man, Adam, had enacted a consequential spiritual solidarity, when by his sin all men died spiritually (Rom. 5:12), were constituted "sinners" spiritually (Roman. 5:19), and were condemned (Rom. 5:18) to everlasting death. God had originally told Adam in the garden, "In the day that you eat thereof" from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "dying you shall die" (Genesis 2:17). The consequence of sin was death in its various spiritual, psychological and physical forms.
Jesus, the Son of God, was incarnated as the God-man, who as man could experience the death consequences of sin, who as sinless man could take those death consequences vicariously and substitutionally for all man, and who as God could restore divine life to man spiritually in order to restore functional humanity. As a man Jesus incurred all the death consequences that had occured in Adam. As a sinless man death had no right to Him personally and could not hold Him. As God He could thus save us from the consequences of sin and further expression of sin by becoming life within us. Jesus "came to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). Jesus "came that we might have life" (John 10:10). The death of Jesus on a cross is the remedial action precedent to the restorative action of God's indwelling life in man. The remedial purpose of death and the restorative purpose of life are inseparable in the consideration of the theological significance of the death of Jesus Christ on a cross.
While still suspended from the cross and facing imminent physical death, Jesus exclaimed, "Tetelestai!" The word is translated into English as, "It is finished!" (John 19:30)(The perfect tense is used, indicating completed action in the past, the consequences of which remain unto the present). To amplify the meaning, it could be translated "completed," "accomplished," "fulfilled," "brought to its intended end." Evidence exists that in first century times this word, "tetelestai," was inscribed on certificates of indebtedness when they were paid-off.4 The meaning would thus be, "Completed," "Fulfilled," "It is finished," "Paid in full." This is enlightening when we consider Paul's comment in Col. 2:14 about the "certificate of debt" having been taken out of the way, having been "nailed to the cross." Sin presented an indebtedness of condemnation; the Law presented an impossible indebtedness of performance, a big "IOU" before God. In the death of Jesus Christ this has been "Paid in full," "It is finished." There is no more death sentence. There is no more condemnation. There is no more indebtedness. There are no more performance requirements. Such is the "finished work" of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus cried, "It is finished," from the cross as He was dying, He knew He had set in motion the complete enactment of the finished work of God's intent for the restoration of mankind and creation. Redemption, whereby we are "bought with a price" (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23) which has been "paid in full" by the death of Jesus, is the remedial aspect, whereas regeneration is the restorative factor wherein the life of God once again indwells the spirit of a man who is receptive to such in faith.
Thus we see that reference to the "cross" on which Jesus died necessarily conveys the theological significance of the "finished work" of God for and in man by His Son, Jesus Christ, inclusive of the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, Pentecostal outpouring and complete eschatalogical expectations. Though the material cross was specifically but the instrument of physical death, mention of the "cross" throughout the rest of the New Testament will always encompass that great cry from the cross, "It is finished," and the consequent restoration of God's life to His creation.
W. Ian Thomas writes,
Paul's many references to the "cross" within his epistles always seem to convey this comprehensive perspective of the theological significance of the "finished work" of God in Christ. He asks the Corinthians a rhetorical question: "Paul was not crucified for you, was he?" (I Cor. 1:13). No! Paul was a mere man whose death by whatever means would not have theological significance for mankind. Only the death of Jesus Christ, Son of God, God-man, could take our death-consequences that we might have His life-consequences.
Continuing his correspondence Paul states, "Christ sent me to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void." (I Cor. 1:17) The "finished work" of God set in motion at the cross is intrinsic to the good news of the gospel. "The cross of Christ is made void" when the "finished work," the full theological significance, is not recognized -- when the cross of Christ is presented and received as but the historical basis of a fundamentalistic belief-system or a moralistic ethical system. "The cross of Christ is made void" when continuing performance standards are advocated as criteria for sanctification rather than the "saving life of Christ."
"The word of the cross...to us who are being saved, it is the power of God." (I Cor. 1:18) The comprehensive theological significance of the death of Jesus comprises the divine dynamic of the life of Christ in the Christian. Christians who are "being saved" from the dysfunction of fallen humanity receive that divine dynamic in order to function as God intended.
"We preach Christ crucified" (I Cor. 1:23), Paul declares. The perfect tense verb indicates completed action in the past, the consequences of which remain to the present, i.e. the "finished work" of God commenced at the crucifixion death of Jesus and allowing for the life of Jesus to be lived in us presently.
Likewise, in I Cor. 2:2 Paul employs the perfect tense verb when he writes, 'I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." Ministering "in demonstration of the Spirit and power" (2:4), Paul is operating by the "finished work" of God in Christ and is thus "spiritual," without the additives of man-made criteria of "spirituality" which impose performance standards to allegedly "finish" God's work in the Christian.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul is very explicit about Christ's death on the cross being the decisive event that leads to the completion of God's restorative work. He refers to the "Galatians...before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified" (perfect tense)(Gal. 3:1). Paul had clearly spelled out, graphically presented to the Galatians how Jesus took our death to give us His life, took the consequences of our unrighteousness to give us His righteousness. The implication is that if the Galatians have understood the "finished work" of Christ, they would not continue to be persuaded by the false purveyors of legalism to pursue performance, "works," self-efforts to finish the work.
"If I still preach circumcision" (works)..."then the stumblingblock of the cross has been abolished." (Gal. 5:11). The stumblingblock, the scandal, the offense of the cross is that Jesus finished doing everything that needed to be done before God. There is nothing we can do! This is "offensive" to the natural man who wants to take some credit, who wants to think there is some merit in what he has done, who doesn't want to be a welfare recipient "on the dole." There is no basis for any human pride in performance when we simply receive by faith what Christ does. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross and the subsequent availability of the divine life to all mankind, comprises the "finished work," the sole basis of right relationship and fellowship with God.
Religion and all its "works" programs have been exposed as frauds by the "finished work" of Christ. Consequently they are quick to denigrate and persecute those who teach and live by the grace-work of God in Christ. Paul explains that the religionists "try to compel you to be circumcised, that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ" (Gal. 6:12). They do not want to be persecuted and mocked by other religionists for preaching the grace of God in the activity of Jesus Christ alone. Paul then declares, "may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14). Paul never wants to boast in what he has done by self-effort or performance, only in what Christ has done and continues to do -- the "finished work."
Christ's "finished work" reconciles both Jew and Gentile into one new creation, new humanity, new body, "through the cross" (Eph. 2:16). The remedial action of Christ's death and the restorative action of Christ's life is for all men universally, and is the means whereby they are restored to functional humanity, functional society and community by the functional life of God in man.
Likewise, "all things" are reconciled to God by His "having made peace through the blood of the cross" (Col. 1:20). The alienation of the whole creation was due to sin, the consequence of sin was death, and death has been taken by Jesus Christ. Reconciliation, peace, the restoration of all things, the restoration of creation has been effected by the "finished work" of Jesus.
Through his tears Paul decries that there are many who "are enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18). Many there are who do not understand and live on the basis of the "finished work" of Christ. They do not accept that Christ has done all that needs doing and continues to be the dynamic of grace for the expression of His life and character in the Christian. These "enemies of the cross" still advocate legalistic "works" of self-effort, perfectionist performance and piety.
The theological significance of the cross must be understood within the context of the "finished work" of God in Christ. Though the cross itself was but the death instrument, it was there that Jesus victoriously proclaimed, "It is finished!" The remedial action of substitutionary death leads directly to the restorative action of God's life in the Christian. Christ took our death to give us His life, took the consequences of our unrighteousness to give us His righteousness. The "finished work" of Jesus Christ is inclusive of redemption, regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification.
The "finished work" of God in Christ must not be considered only with theological objectivity. Christ's activity will of necessity affect us personally and subjectively. Though this might all be regarded as the theological significance of the cross, it is being separated under a different heading to emphasize the subjective elements of His death and life in the Christian by referring to spiritual identification with the cross.
Previous mention has been made of an objective "spiritual solidarity" that all men have with Jesus Christ because He substitutionally took the death consequences of our sin. That "spiritual solidarity" becomes efficacious for us individually and subjectively when we receive by faith the complete death and life that God effects in Jesus Christ. The spiritual exchange of our regenerative conversion is the occasion of this personal spiritual identification.
Paul explains in Romans 6:6 that "our old man was crucified with Him (Jesus Christ), that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin." It is important to observe several particulars of what Paul writes in this verse:
First of all, he employs a compound Greek word, sustauroõ, which means "to crucify together with." This has often been referred to as the Christian's "co-crucifixion" with Jesus. It is best to avoid such terminology, as the English prefix "co-" can mean "jointly" or "together with," but it also can mean "equally," "in the same degree," or "as a complement to." We would not want to imply that our subjective crucifixion experience is of equal significance or in the same degree as the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor would we want to imply that our experience of being crucified is a complement to Christ's crucifixion in order to complete it. Jesus said, "It is finished" completed! Our having been "crucified together with" Jesus must be understood in terms of spiritual solidarity. When Jesus died on the cross He died there for me, but He also died there as me. When He died, I died. I was "in Him" when He died. The entire human race was represented by Jesus when He took the death consequences for sin upon Himself, but that spiritual solidarity becomes personally and subjectively efficacious for me when I receive Jesus Christ by faith. The verb is an aorist tense indicating that "to have been crucified with Him" was a definite occurence historically enacted when Jesus died on the cross, and which becomes experientially effective at the definite occasion of our spiritual conversion.
Secondly, Paul writes that our "old man" has been crucified together with Christ. The designation "old man" signifies our spiritual identity when we were a "man of old" in our old spiritual condition of unregeneracy. Our pre-Christian identity was that of a "natural man" (I Cor. 2:14), a "child of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), an "old man." That "old man" identity was "laid aside" (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9 - both aorist tense verbs) when we became Christians and received a "new man" identity (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). The old spiritual identity of the unregenerate Jim Fowler is forever dead, having died with Jesus. I now have a new spiritual identity as a "new creature" (II Cor. 5:17) in Christ, a "child of God" (John 1:12), a "spiritual" man (I Cor. 2:15; Gal. 6:1), a Christ-one - "Christian." This was made effective for me, in me, spiritually when I received Jesus Christ by faith at conversion and regeneration. The "old man" is not synonymous with the "flesh" or "indwelling sin" that remains residually in the soul of the Christian, nor is it to be equated with the unbiblical phrases such as "old nature," "sin-nature," "Adam-nature," "self," "sin-principle," etc.
Thirdly, Paul explains that when this exchange of spiritual identity has taken place, our "old man" identity having been terminated and put to death and our "new man" identity established in identification with the indwelling life of Jesus Christ, this spiritual exchange has practical implications for our behavioral expression. We are no longer "slaves to sin" inevitably expressing the character of our old spiritual identification. Our physical bodies are no longer to be employed as the vehicle of sin expression, for such is misrepresentative of our new identity and the character of Christ who now lives in us as Christians. Our behavior is intended to be a consistent expression of our new identity -- of the life of Christ. When writing to the Ephesians and Colossians, Paul also explains that the "new man" identity is to issue forth in consistent behavior (Eph. 4:25-32; Col. 3:12-17). We are to behave as who we have become "in Christ."
Galatians 2:20 is the only other figurative usage of the Greek word sustauroõ within the New Testament. "I have been crucified with Christ," Paul writes, using the perfect tense of the verb in the first person singular. Once again, he must be referring to the "old spiritual identity" he had as an unregenerate man. When Jesus died that old unregenerate identity of Paul was put to death "in Him." Jesus died to effect our death in order to change all men from "sinners" (Rom. 5:19) to "saints" (I Cor. 1:2). "It is no longer I (the old spiritual identity) who lives, but Christ lives in me," Paul goes on to say. As a Christian we have a new spiritual identity as a "Christ-one," a Christian. The indwelling Christ is the essence of my new spiritual identity. The Spirit of Christ is the dynamic of the out-living of His life in Christian behavior. Paul continues to explain: "the life that I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me." To require any additional legalistic requirements of performance or to demand any other criteria of "spirituality" is logically to imply that Christ "died needlessly" (Gal. 2:24), for such denies the "finished work" of Christ and sets aside grace.
Two additional references in Paul's correspondence with the Galatians also employ the Greek verb staurõ in explaining the consequences of this spiritual identification that all Christians have made with the crucifixion of Jesus. Galatians 5:24 indicates that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified (aorist tense) the flesh with its passions and desires." Spiritual identification with "the spirit that works in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:3) has been terminated. There has been a cessation of the direct contact and inner empowering of the flesh patternings of behavior in the desires of our soul. The jurisdictional control whereby we were "slaves of sin" has been terminated. Likewise in Galatians 6:14 Paul declares that through the cross "the world has been crucified (perfect tense) to me, and I to the world." Again, just as the contours of sinful patterning have been severed from their spiritual operative source, so the context of the collective expression of selfishness and sinfulness by the "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4) has ceased to have any claim or power or right or jurisdiction in our Christian lives. We are free to live by the life of Jesus Christ.
We have now referred to every pertinent reference to the "cross" and to the action of "crucifixion" in the New Testament -- every usage of the noun form stauros, the verb form stauroõ, and the compound verb form sustauroõ. The historical event of Christ's death by crucifixion on a material cross outside of Jerusalem has theological significance as the "finished work" of God in Christ inclusive of the subjective spiritual identification of our crucified old identity with the consequential disenfranchising of the flesh and the world.
The important observation which must now be made is that all of this action has been completed, accomplished and fulfilled in the "finished work" of Jesus Christ exclaimed from the cross. There is no on-going, continuous process of enacting, engaging, applying or appropriating the crucifixion of Jesus in the life of a Christian. The effects of the crucifixion of Jesus were a completed objective reality at the time of Jesus' death, burial, resurrection, ascension and Pentecostal outpouring and were subjectively realized individually at the Christian's conversion. "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature, the old things passed away (aorist tense); behold, new things have come (perfect tense)" (II Cor. 5:17). Every Christian has accepted spiritual solidarity with all that Christ has done and spiritual identification with the death and life of Christ.
The verb tenses employed by Paul which connect our subjective identification with Christ's objective death by crucifixion all imply definite completed action. For example:
This is not to imply that our spiritual identification with the crucifixion of Jesus does not have behavioral implications. Indeed it does, but not in a continuing application of Christ's dying, rather only as a consequence of the spiritual identification and participation in the "finished work" of Christ. A. B. Bruce remarked that "the ethical aspect of Christ's death is hardly touched on in the Pauline literature," and went on to note that Paul "contemplates the death of Jesus...exclusively from a religious and theological viewpoint."6 This is a correct observation but is not meant to deny that as a result of the objective theological significance and subjective spiritual identification there will not be behavioral implications as the life of Jesus Christ is lived out in the Christian.
The Biblical passages which immediately follow the statements of the theological significance of Christ's crucifixion often procede to consider behavioral implications. Having been crucified with Christ, we should "no longer be slaves to sin" (Rom. 6:6), but "live with Christ" (Rom. 6:8), "bear fruit for God" (Rom. 7:4), "serve in newness of the Spirit" (Rom. 7:6), be "led by the Spirit" (Rom. 8:14), "live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal. 2:20), and "walk by the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25) in the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22,23). On the basis of having exchanged our "old man" identification for a "new man" identification, there will be behavioral implications of "righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24) with numerous practical expressions (cf. Eph. 4:25-5:21; Col. 3:12-17).
Now we return to the five references within the synoptic gospels where Jesus spoke of "taking up," "bearing," or "carrying" a cross (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27). We have noted that the first century Jews of Palestine were well acquainted with death by crucifixion on crosses, so there is no anachronism in Jesus' prior comments about a "cross" unless we are reading into those comments reference to Jesus' own experience of crucifixion which was yet to transpire. There is no doubt that the death of Jesus Christ on a cross was "foreknown before the foundation of the world" (I Peter 1:20; cf. Rev. 13:8), but it occured historically in the first century, and that historical crucifixion was subsequent to the three occasions when Jesus spoke generally of "taking up a cross."
The question we must ask is whether there is any reason to believe that Jesus intended those who heard His teaching on those occasions to postulate His own post-dated experience of crucifixion for the interpretation and meaning of His words. This is unreasonable and unnecessary and does indeed create an anachronism. We must not project our perspective of Christ's crucifixion back upon the previous words of Jesus.
On three different occasions Jesus made general metaphorical comments about the familiar action of bearing a cross unto crucfixion. The object of a cross to which He refers does not have any reference to the particular cross that stood on Golgotha nor to the historical event of Christ's crucifixion nor to any theological or spiritual implications thereof. Jesus makes a generic and figurative reference to "a cross," to the action of cross-bearing, not to the specific cross on which Christ was crucified, nor to His crucifixion.
Each record of Jesus' comments refers to the follower of Jesus taking up "his cross." It is grammatically impossible to construe this to mean "His cross," referring to the cross of Jesus. Many authors have misunderstood this point and encouraged Christians through the centuries to
There is no Biblical basis for such comments. They denigrate the "finished work" of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus said, "If any man wills
to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily,
and follow Me" (Luke 9:23), He was referring to a cross
as a well-known instrument of death, an execution device. He
was alluding to the activity of taking up a cross and carrying
it to one's own crucifixion which was a daily occurence in that
day. The imperative form of the verb "take up" implies
a definite personal responsibility on the part of the one who
would be His follower. Obviously, Jesus is not asking for a literal,
physical response of taking up the timber of a material cross.
What He says must be taken figuratively. Jesus demands that those
who follow Him voluntarily allow a metaphorical death instrument
to be applied to their selfish tendencies, in order to execute,
terminate, bring to an end, allow for the absence of selfish
behavioral expressions. This must be done continuously, "daily,"
in the midst of every situation we confront.
Many different interpretations have been proffered for the meaning of Jesus' admonition to "take up one's cross daily." Some have suggested Jesus was encouraging a willingness for self-sacrifice or self-surrender, or a willingness for suffering, or a willingness to be humiliated, shamed or reproached, or a willingness for martyrdom. The interpretation best suited to the context is to accept the Hebraic parallelism with the preceding phrase and understand His command for a willingness to allow for the end, the termination, the cessation of selfish behavioral expressions, a choice we must make day-by-day, moment-by-moment.
The next question we must ask is whether this commanded action constitutes a call for the Christian to "die to self." "Dying to self," "crucifying self," "putting self to death," "mortifying self," etc. are all non-biblical phrases, which are commonly used in the terminology of some religious teachers and writers. If by the phrase "dying to self" they simply meant a choice synonymous with "denying oneself," then the phrase might have legitimate usage, but the phrase is often freighted with other meanings and inculcations to additional responsibilities. Those who use this phrase are often ambiguous as to what "self" they are encouraging others to "die to." Is it the "self" of personal spiritual identity? Such an action would be apostasy. Is it the "self" of personal individuality? Such an action would be akin to the nihilism of Buddhism. Is it the "self" of personal embodiment? Such an action would be suicide. Is it the "self" of personal resource? Such is to posit the fallacious tenet of humanistic self-potential. Is it the "self" of personal interest and selfishness? This can be the only legitimate usage, making the phrase equivalent to "denying onself."
Many of the Scriptures used to justify the use of the phrase "dying to self" refer to Paul's own physical persecution and suffering, not to any on-going expected action within the Christian life. When Paul says, "I die daily" (I Cor. 15:31); "we are being put to death all day long" (Romans 8:36); "we are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake" (II Cor. 4:11); and when he expresses his desire to know "the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death" (Phil. 3:10, the context always indicates that Paul is being physically persecuted. His personal embodiment is being beaten and battered unto death, but he is quite willing to suffer thus for Jesus' sake.
The phrase "dying to self" is often used to encourage masochistic "works" of continued performance in order to live the Christian life. When it is thus used as a call to self-effort, and when it is implied that Christ's activity in and through the Christian is contingent upon this action of the Christian, then those who teach this have effectively denied the "finished work" of Jesus Christ. Others advocate "dying to self" simply as the renunciation of the "straw-man" of humanistic self-potential -- an exercise in irrelevancy.
These misunderstandings and misinterpretations reveal a much broader mystical explanation of the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus which needs to be addressed. There is a long history of Christians using the symbol of the cross in superstitious and mystical ways.
The earliest Christians seem to have repudiated
the use of the cross as a symbol. This because the cross was
a despised execution instrument. Would we want to wear a gold-plated
noose or gallows had Jesus been hanged, or a gold-plated guillotine
had Jesus been beheaded, or a gold-plated electric-chair had
Jesus been electrocuted, or a gold-plated syringe had Jesus been
lethally injected? It is not difficult to understand their aversion
to using the cross as a symbol.
The cross as a symbol was further entrenched as the primary symbol of Christian religion after the Roman emperor, Constantine, claimed to have seen a flaming cross of light in the sky with the words, "By this sign conquer." He henceforth merged Christian religion with his political aspirations using the symbol of the cross. Constantine's mother, Helena, is alleged to have travelled to Palestine in 325 A.D. and she claimed to have discovered the original wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified. The criteria for the claim was that a sick person had grasped the wood and was allegedly healed. Small fragments were transported back to Rome and sold to wealthy believers as priceless relics. There were not enough to supply the demand so they claimed "the miracle of the multiplication of the cross" whereby many more splinters from the cross were allegedly formed. It is reported that wood fragments existed in Roman Catholic churches around the world sufficient to construct many crosses.
The problem with symbols is that since they are more tangible than the abstract reality, religious people tend gradually to superstitiously worship the symbol and lose sight of the reality on which it is based. This, of course, is the essence of idolatry. Symbols become amulets, magical charms, holy hardware. They are used as fetishes, believed to have magical power to aid or protect when rubbed, worn, or otherwise utilized. Symbols can also become conceptual fetishes, mental objects of irrational reverence and obsessive devotion. A.W. Tozer remarked that idolatry "begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place."15 It is this latter practice of using the cross as an ideological idol that we shall continue to explore.
For many centuries the idea of the cross and the action of Christ's crucifixion have been considered as if they were an on-going living reality. The concept of the cross has been enlivened, empowered, personified and deified.
Thomas a Kempis, a medieval mystic within the Roman Catholic church, penned these words:
"In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in
the cross is protection against our enemies, in the cross is
infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength ofmind,
in the cross joy of spirit, in the cross the height of virtue,
in the cross the perfection of sanctity.
Seventeenth century Catholic mystic, Francois Fenelon, wrote:
Madame Jeanne Guyon, another Catholic mystic of the seventeenth century, adds:
A Protestant mystic has written similarly:
How can such blatantly unScriptural statements be accepted by Christian people? Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone (I Thess. 5:9). Jesus Christ is life (John 14:6; Col. 3:4). The "summing up of all things is in Christ" (Eph. 1:10). Jesus Christ is "the beginning and the end" (Rev. 21:6; 22:13), not the cross! To equate the conceptual idea of the cross with Jesus Christ is idolatry!
But the mystic writers go on to make such outlandish statements as:
The cross is not to be considered as "divine"
or to be "bowed" to even as a conceptual idol.
Many of the mystic writers keep referring to "the power of the Cross," whereas the Scriptures refer to "the power of God" (Rom. 1:16; I Cor. 1:18,24), "the power of the Lord Jesus" (I Cor. 5:4; II Cor. 12:9), "the power of the Spirit" (Rom. 15:13), and "the power of His resurrection" (Phil. 3:10), but never to "the power of the Cross. They have empowered the idea of the cross as "a force in the life of a Christ,"29 as "the manifestation of an activity of God in Christ."30
Notice in these quotations how they capitalize the word "Cross" and "Calvary," just as they do "God" and "Christ," because they have deified the concept of the cross.
Is there more than one cross? Does the action of Christ's crucifixion on the cross need to be repeated? Most definitely not, for it is clearly stated that Christ died "once for all" (Heb. 7:27; 9:28; 10:10; I Peter 3:18). Yet one author writes,
Several writers indicate that Christ's crucifixion was to serve as an exemplary model for subsequent Christian activity:
Contrary to the Biblical evidence of the completed and "finished work" of Jesus Christ, the writers who are being cited believe that there is an on-going continuous process of subjectively applying the crucifixion of Jesus within the Christian life.
In order to make such comments these authors must deny the aorist tense and perfect tense verbs that Paul uses to explain the crucifixion of Jesus and our spiritual identification with Him. Convenient to their own unBiblical thesis, they arbitrarily change the verbs to the present tense imperative to signify continuing action and responsibility. If they do accept the completed action of Christ's death, they sometimes redefine "death" and "crucifixion" in very unique ways.
Underlying all of these admonitions to "take up the cross" and "die to self" is the failure to understand the "finished work" of Christ and the grace operation of God to manage the "perfecting" of our Christian lives (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). They have indicated that we are perfected by our application of the cross:
"Our spiritual life is perfected by the constant recognition of the cross and by our unceasing application of it to all our life and being."48
What is being advocated is a "works" theology of sanctification. The Christian is advised to respond and act by following Christ's example of crucifixion so that God can act in his/her life. This makes God's activity contingent on my activity; God dependent on man! Never!
One writer demotes God to having to act on the same "principle" of self-sacrifice that man is alleged to have to follow:
God does not act on any "principle." He acts as God, independent of anything outside of Himself.
Others blatantly state that God's activity in the Christian's life is contingent on the Christian's response of self-crucifixion.
The consequences promised when a Christian responds with what they refer to as "faith in the cross"54 and "commits to death"55 are but a listing of what every believer already has "in Christ Jesus."
It is boldly asserted that "the Cross
of Christ saves,"56
despite the fact that the name of Jesus means "Jehovah saves"
(Matthew 1:21) and there is "no other name under heaven,
by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The experience of
the cross is said to "bring a personal salvation."57
Scripture indicates that "we have redemption" (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), and it is a completed "eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12).
Jesus Christ is the basis of all spiritual life (John 14:6), and it is His life that we receive in regeneration. How then can it be asserted that "The Cross of Christ...contains all the elements of moral regeneration and of spiritual life."? 59
Contrary to the Scriptures wherein it is written, "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature..." (II Cor. 5:17), one author states that we must
John and Peter, respectively, report that all Christians are part of the "kingdom, priests unto God" (Rev. 1:6), a "royal priesthood" (I Peter 2:9). In contradiction to this truth the mystic writer asserts:
Whereas Paul explains that every Christian has "citizenship in heaven" (Phil. 3:20), those who emphasize the continuing experience of the cross indicate that such makes us "citizens of heaven."62
Despite Paul's statement that "God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3), one author claims:
Freedom is ours because of Christ and His "finished work." Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). Paul explains, 'It was for freedom that Christ set us free;...do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1). Some writers would put Christians under just such a "yoke of slavery" by insisting that the continuous experience of "the Cross..is the pathway to freedom"66
"The spirit of the cross is the mark of my discipleship"68, asserts one author. Instead, Jesus said, "all men will know if you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). The same author later writes that
Paul, on the other hand, wrote that "the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5), and the "fruit of the Spirit is love..." (Gal. 5:22).
Another author thinks that on-going crucifixion is the basis of fruitfulness:
Paul wrote to the Ephesians about being "filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18) and the practical consequences thereof. The mystical writers indicate that self-crucifixion is the contingency upon which fullness of the Spirit is based:
The character expressed in the behavior of a Christian is to be a manifestation of the Holy character of God (I Peter 1:15,16). Such expression of holiness is not predicated on our experiencing crucfixion, as the misguided crucifixion advocates propound:
"the crucifixion of the flesh...maintained daily in the power of the Holy Spirit, is essential to a holy life."75
"The Cross of Christ not only enforces holiness, but makes holiness possible."76
"The only way onto the Highway (of holiness) is up a small, dark, forbidding hill--the Hill of Calvary."77
"Christ Jesus abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel," explains Paul to Timothy (II Tim. 1:10). When then is it adversely explained that the continuing experience of "the cross...gives to us the right to the resurrection and the life immortal."78
If Christian are "partakers of a heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1) and have "an inheritance...reserved in heaven" (I Peter 1:4), why then do these advocates of continued performance encourage us to additional crucifixion in order to go to heaven?
"Let a man look at himself as nailed to the Cross..., and calmly, quietly, take the path of the Cross, and he will follow the Lamb not only to Calvary, but right to the centre of heaven, and share His Throne."? 79
The list of contradictions with Scripture
could go on and on. The mystic writers have spiritualized the
cross and personified the cross as acting with divine power.
They claim that it is able to "cleanse the flesh"80 and "purify"81, that the cross will "put
the ax to the tree of self"82
with a "sharp edge"83
which will "sever us from the old life"84 and "tear us ruthlessly from everything
else...sundering the dearest of earthly ties."85 The cross is likened to a "searchlight
which will discover the plague of our hearts"86, and a "hidden fire of radium in our
the removal of all the cancers of the 'self-life'"88 There is no Scriptural basis
for any such claims.
Rejection of the Mystical Cross
In summation, it might be useful to enumerate the reasons why the theories of the mystical application of the cross and its continued crucifying activity should be rejected:
(1) UnScriptural. Numerous contrasts have been made in the above paragraphs between what the Scripture records and what the mystic writers assert. Every reference to "cross" and "crucifixion" in the entirety of the New Testament is applicable to one of the five categories with which we commenced this study: (1) the material object of the cross (2) the historical event of Christ's crucifixion on the cross (3) the theological significance of Christ's crucifixion on the cross (4) the Christ's spiritual identification with Christ's crucifixion (5) the figurative usage of "taking up a cross." There are no Scriptures whatsoever to justify the mystical application of the cross of Jesus in an on-going crucifixion experience. The continued crucifying activity advocated by these predominantly Protestant authors is little different than the continued crucifying activity which Roman Catholicism postulates as transpiring in their eucharistic mass.
(2) "Works" Theology. Christian theology is based on the grace activity of God, not upon the "works" and effort of man. Within the Christian life, God's continuing activity is not contingent on our activity. We do not effect Christian living by engaging in any particular activity, specifically self-crucifixion. Yet it is asserted:
The Christian life is not a matter of "doing our best so God can do the rest," doing our part so God can do His part. Yet they have written:
Repetitive demands that the Christian should "die to self," "apply the cross," surrender and "be broken," all reveal a techniquism approach to a formulized Christian life which is a theology of "works" sanctification. Particularly rampant is the admonition to "reckon" oneself dead so God can work.
When Paul advised the Roman Christians to "reckon yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11), he did not imply that reckoning creates the reality. He used a Greek verb that was an accounting term meaning that by reckoning we count as a fact a reality that already exists.
The focus of these crucifixionism teachers is misdirected. They are preoccupied with "self" instead of God, preoccupied with sin instead of the Saviour, preoccupied with death instead of life, preoccupied with the cross instead of Christ. As a result they are involved in a works-oriented "suppressionism" of self, the failure of which leads to inordinate "confessionism" of sin. They do not understand the "finished work" of Jesus Christ and the grace provision of God.
(3) Gnosticism. The gnostics and the mystery religions always claimed that they had found the secret knowledge of spirituality. The mystic crucifixionists likewise make such claims:
(4) Elitism. Cultic thinking often develops attitudes of elitism and exclusivism, wherein they regard themselves as more "spiritual," more "mature," God's special people, the "remnant" of God's true followers. The spiritual pride underlying such attitudes is evident in these statements:
(5) Perfectionism. Referring often to the "deeper Christian life" and the "victorious Christian life," some of the writers indicate that the Christian can arrive at a level of Christian experience where he/she no longer sins.
Others offer an adapted form of progressive perfectionism which might be called "triumphalism."
(6) Mysticism. The ideological symbol of the cross becomes a mystical object that allegedly serves as an agent of God. The cross is personified and attributed with the intrinsic power to work in Christian lives in order to enact a continuing crucifixion and create "spirituality." One author refers to this as the "bona-fide mysticism of Jesus and of the New Testament theology."108
(7) Subjectivism. The inner work of the cross which these writers advocate is entirely experiential and subjective.
(8) Idolatrous. God has always warned His people against idolatry. The teaching which is herewith being exposed equates an object (the cross), a place (calvary) and an activity (crucifixion) with God. The symbol of the cross is deified. The mystical cross is equated with the person and activity of the Holy Spirit and with Jesus Christ Himself.
The scope of this false-teaching is such that the teachers of the same surely fall within Paul's indictment of being "enemies of the cross" (Phil. 3:18) despite their preoccupation with the cross. In their advocacy of on-going crucifixion, they deprecate the once and for all death of Jesus Christ on the cross implying that "Christ died needlessly" (Gal. 5:21) for he did not complete His work, and thus "make the cross of Christ void" (I Cor. 1:17). They reveal their fundamental misunderstanding of the "finished work" of God in Jesus Christ, and the sufficiency of God's grace in the Christian life. Yes, these are severe indictments, but the integrity of the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is at stake, as the context of the foregoing Scriptural statements indicate.
J. Sidlow Baxter writes similarly of this same phenomena:
This study is not intended to be an attack
on personages, and this is the reason all names of the teachers
and writers being critiqued have been reserved for the documentary
evidence of the footnotes. Their ideas and theses have been evaluated
in the light of the Scriptures, for it is of utmost importance
that we remain Biblical in our interpretation and proclamation
of the gospel.
In exposing the unBiblical mystic applications of the cross, we must not over-react by failing to proclaim the eternal efficacy of Christ's death on the cross and all the implications thereof. The death of Jesus on the cross is indeed a central factor in the whole redemptive and restorative action of God's grace. By His death Jesus took our deserved death in order that we might have His life. He did not take our death that we might have His death, as the inner-crucifixionists indicate.
The message of the cross is the message of the completed, finished work of God in Christ. The message of the cross is the message of an empty cross whereupon all crucifixion activity has ceased, for Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and come to live within the Christian. The message of the cross is the message of liberating freedom to be all that God intends us to be by His grace in the out-living of His character.
Such a message is the only "good news" available to mankind -- the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul refers to "preaching the gospel" in I Cor. 1:17, and then in the next verse refers to the content of that gospel as "the word of the cross," which he continues to explain is "to us who are being saved, the power of God" (I Cor. 1:18). The "good news" of the gospel is not the "power of the cross," but the "power of God," as Paul also wrote in Romans 1:16.
Anything other than recognition of God's power of grace in the "finished work" of Jesus Christ, will inevitably be some kind of self-effort that makes void the cross of Christ (I Cor. 1:17). Paul continues in his correspondence with the Corinthians to declare that "we preach Christ crucified" (I Cor. 1:23), and are "determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (I Cor. 2:2). Later, to the Galatians he explains that he will boast in nothing "except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14). Eschewing all boasting in personal performance, Paul would boast and proclaim only that Jesus Christ had performed everything necessary for our redemption on the cross and continues to perform everything necessary in the Christian life by His grace. Whenever we read of the "cross" or "Christ crucified" in the Pauline epistles, we should always think of the "finished work" of Christ, the completion of which He exclaimed during that historical event on that material cross. Therein is the "good news" of the cross, which would otherwise be "bad news" indeed.
The proclamation of the "finished work" of God in Christ, whereby God has done and is doing everything necessary for man's salvation, including sanctification, will always be regarded as scandalous by natural man. It is contrary to all the conventional wisdom of the world which believes that we must be the cause of our own effects and that which is worth having should be worked for. Proclaiming the "finished work" of God in Christ deals a "death-blow" to the human pride of personal performance. That "death-blow" was dealt when Jesus died on the cross and exclaimed just prior to His imminent death, "It is finished!" (John 19:30).
Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, chpt. 14. Philadelphia:
David McKay Pub., n.d., Pg. 410.