THE MEANING OF THE CROSS
by Bob Wheeler
On Good Friday, of course, we commemorate the death of Christ on the cross, a historical fact that we largely take for granted today. Yet it is hard to imagine how problematical that was in Jesus’ own day. He proclaimed Himself to be the Messiah, yet he was crucified by the Romans. For Jews who had been expectantly waiting for the Messiah this was not the way it was supposed to turn out.
The confusion in people’s minds can be seen in Jesus’ own disciples. At one point, towards the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus was traveling with His disciples to the northern extremity of Palestine. During the course of their trip Jesus asked the disciples who people thought that He was. “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets” were some of the answers He got. But then Jesus asked the disciples, who did they think that He was, and Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29; NKJV – “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah”).
But at this point Jesus tells them something that utterly astonished them. “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31). “Killed”? The Messiah? That wasn’t supposed to happen. The “Son of Man” is a reference back to an Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah. In Daniel 7:13,14 we are told of “One like the Son of Man, / Coming with the clouds of heaven,” and “. . . to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, / That all peoples, nations and languages should serve Him.” And the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting just such a Messiah. And yet here was Jesus, telling His disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected . . . and be killed.” How could such a thing be true?
Understandably Peter found this hard to accept, and he had the temerity to rebuke Jesus for saying such a thing. Jesus, in turn, rebuked him (vv. 32,33). What Peter and most of his contemporaries failed to realize is that before the Messianic reign could begin, before there could be universal peace on earth, an atonement for sin had to be made, and that was the primary purpose of Christ’s first coming to earth.
But that was not all. Not only was the Messiah called upon to suffer on the cross, but that had implications for His disciples as well. “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (v. 34). You call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus. But what does that involve? What it means is that just as Jesus was rejected and put to death, so too we must be prepared to suffer rejection and persecution. This, of course, goes against our grain. Our natural instinct is for self-preservation. And yet what is required of us as disciples of Jesus is self-denial. We must, each one of us, “take up his cross.” We do this figuratively when we suffer trials and difficulties as a result of our testimony for Christ. In this way we “follow Him.”
“But,” someone might say, “that is absurd. Why would anyone willingly sacrifice his self-interest for someone else’s sake? What is to be gained by it?” Jesus goes on to explain. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (v. 35). Here we are confronted with a paradox: in order to gain our life we must be prepared to lose it. Jesus goes on to explain in verse 38: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Currently we live in a fallen and sinful world – “this adulterous and sinful generation” Jesus calls it. It is a world that hates the message that Jesus preached, and therefore hates us when we also preach it. But then, referring back to the prophecy in Daniel about “the Son of Man,” Jesus points to a day sometime in the future when the Messiah will return and punish evil and reward good. At that point the tables will be turned and those who suffer persecution now will be amply rewarded.
And so Jesus asked a pointed question: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (v. 36). What is the point of being successful in this life if we spend an eternity in hell? What will we have gained?
As modern Americans we are preoccupied with the here-and-now. We devote our time and energy to getting ahead, or at least surviving, in this life, and scarcely give any thought at all to the life to come. We “look out for good-ole number one,” and to “get along we go along.” But what a terrible mistake it all is. Life will not last forever, and this world will eventually come to an end. And what then?
Today we are living in a rapidly changing society. The western world is shedding the last vestiges of Christianity. Are we prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus?