Why should we boast in the cross of Jesus Christ? Why is the symbol of the cross the centerpiece of our churches and our faith?
First, the cross is the place where we are transformed.
It is there that we discover the true glory of God. We think of glory as the grand, majestic, awesome power of God. But this is a “hidden glory” that Jesus Christ revealed on the cross. His kingship was never more revealed than in His servanthood, which led Him to the cross. His authority was never more powerful than when He said, “No man takes my life; I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). His power is never more evident than in the weakness and vulnerability of the cross.
The cross turned everything upside down. God redeemed the world not through a top-down display of force and power, but by entering into the suffering and pain of the world. The cross is not the picture of God’s glory relinquished. It is the greatest expression of the glory of God! Only through the cross could God judge the entire world righteously for sin (Jesus bore our sins) and yet, in that very act, simultaneously offer His greatest act of mercy and grace to the world (Jesus offers grace and forgiveness to all who would trust in Him).
If the gospel teaches us anything, it is that God comes to us in unexpected ways. We see Him coming into the world not in a palace, but in a stable in Bethlehem. We see Him talking to a woman at the well, an outsider despised by her community. We see Him having a meal with Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector. We see Him in the presence of sinners and touching lepers. But, nothing could prepare us for God going to a cross so that we could have our sins forgiven and our lives transformed. The cross represents our greatest rejection of God. Yet, in the mystery of the gospel, our greatest rejection of God became His greatest embrace of us! Our greatest act of alienation became His greatest act of reconciliation! For “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them,” but nailing them to the cross (2 Cor. 5:19). Our worst act as a human race—nailing God to a cross, became His greatest act of grace—nailing our sins there. The cross represents our greatest “No” to God—saying, “God we don’t want You in our lives, and we don’t want You in our world.” Yet, in the cross, we meet God’s greatest “Yes!” to us. All of our “Nos” to God are swallowed up in the great “Yes!” of God in Jesus Christ! This is why the cross will always stand at the heart of the Christian faith. Even when the early church was being persecuted and had to meet in the catacombs, they scrawled crosses on the walls. Even then the church realized that the cross, which was in their day the most revolting sign of disgrace and torture, had been trans- formed into the greatest act of God’s mercy and love.
Second, the cross is empty—reminding us that Jesus rose from the dead as the victor.
The Roman Catholic church often depicts Jesus hanging on the cross. It is known as the crucifix. We Protestants do not reject that image, and in fact, some Protestant churches display the crucifix during Lent. However, early Protestants believed that another important lesson could be taught if the cross were displayed bare. It became a simultaneous pointer to the suffering of Christ and to His glorious resurrection. The cross points us not only to the price He paid, but to the victory He secured.
Paul wrote in Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (3:10). This is why Paul boasted in the cross—it is no longer merely an instrument of torture or death. The cross represents Christ’s victory over death. It represents His victory over sin and over every other lesser trial of life. It is therefore a symbol of God’s power. The Scripture says that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is now being manifested in our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). The same power that emptied the cross is now available for us through the Holy Spirit working within each of us. Jesus holds the keys of death and hell! The stone the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone! The Lamb of God is the Lion of the tribe of Judah! (see Revelation 1:18; Matthew 21:42; John 1:29; Revelation 5:5).
This is why the church did not use as their central symbol either a stable or an empty tomb. The former would make sense as a symbol of the incarnation, another central teaching of the Christian faith. The latter would make sense because if Christ had not been raised, we would still be in our sins (1 Cor. 15:12–20). But the empty cross became the central symbol of Christianity because it gathers all these truths into a single emblem. If Christ had not become incarnate, He would never have suffered on the cross. If He had not been raised from the dead, the cross would not be displayed as empty. So, the cross has rightfully taken its place as the central symbol of our faith. We are the people of the risen Lord.
Third, the cross stands as God’s victory over all the world’s false religions and philosophies.
Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself ” (John 12:32). This is a testimony to the global power of the cross to overcome all false ideas, shallow philosophies, and worldly wisdom. While every cross symbolizes this, I think it is probably best depicted in the Celtic cross, a cross superimposed over a circle. The circle has become a Christian symbol in, for example, wedding bands. But this is not the meaning of this ancient depiction that those early Christians found in what is today Great Britain. When these early Christians first arrived on the islands, Britain’s occupants were practicing paganism—and the chief symbol of paganism was the circle, an ancient Druid symbol. Pagan beliefs and rituals had a very fierce grip on people groups throughout the British Isles. These are the ancestors of many who may be reading this—including myself. But the gospel triumphed over paganism, and the love of Christ prevailed!
As the lasting symbol of this great triumph, the Celtic cross was designed—the cross triumphant over paganism, and over every other false religion or lofty philosophy that stands opposed to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. In a proper Celtic cross, the cross should be displayed as superimposed over the circle, demonstrating the triumph of the gospel. I like this not only because it reinforces the earlier themes, but because here we do not have a simple, isolated cross—a cross detached from the world—but rather a cross that has engaged the world and emerged victorious. This reminds us that ultimately our mission is in the world. Paul said it was the cross “through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). It was his way of summing up that great prayer of Jesus in John 17 when He prayed that we may be in the world, but not of it (see vv. 14–17). We are to be engaged fully in the world, but always with the triumph of Christ, which puts the world and all of its worldliness to death on the cross.
This excerpt is taken from Keeping the Main Thing: A Never-Changing Gospel in an Ever-Changing World by Timothy Tennent. Through this series of incisive scriptural reflections Timothy Tennent helps readers discern the challenges of living out an uncompromising gospel in an increasingly compromised culture. Get it from our store here.