It is a symbol you see everywhere. It is on churches, on top of steeples, on necklaces and even tattooed on people’s bodies. It is the cross. The Christian cross. Have you ever wondered what this prevalent symbol really means? For some, it is just fad or fashion. For many, it is religious devotion. For most, it is the universal symbol of Christianity.
It was an instrument of execution. When the Roman Empire ruled the world, it used the cross as a means to kill people. It was an official means of torturous execution, reserved for the worst of criminals. In modern times, it would be somewhat like the gallows, the guillotine, the electric chair or the gas chamber. It was an official method of execution. Yet, death on the cross was slow, cruel and excruciatingly painful as the victim was nailed to its beams and died slowly in agony. It often took hours, sometimes days. It was done in public for all to see. Roman executioners would often break the condemned man’s legs, after he had been crucified for some time, in order to hasten his death by a resulting suffocation.
I have not seen people wearing jewelry symbolizing the gallows, the guillotine, the electric chair or the gas chamber around their necks. That is because the cross is supremely significant because of the One who died upon it some 2,000 years ago. He was the most unique person who ever walked the planet. We know Him as Jesus Christ. He was and is fully God and fully man. He has two natures in one person. He was the only one who has lived a perfectly sinless life on the planet. Despite his perfect life, He was crucified on the cross by the very people He came to love and rescue.
In this sense, His death on the cross was the greatest tragedy of human history. In a larger sense, His death on the cross was the greatest victory of human history. Jesus, the Son of God, came from to heaven to earth to take on human flesh and die on the cross. He was not overpowered. He did not have to do this. He chose to do it. This was His very mission. Jesus told Pilate the Roman governor, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11a) This was His very purpose. Death did not overpower Him either. Although He died and was buried, He rose again three days later.
Why did Jesus die on the cross? Jesus was on a mission to rescue people like you and me. Each and every one of us has not done what God wants us to do and have done what God does not want us to do. I admit I am guilty. The rightful anger of God was against me, requiring me to pay a penalty to God because of this. True justice must be served. A sentence must be imposed. It is a death sentence. Such a punishment consists of an eternity in hell, forever separated from God and all that is good.
I shudder to even think about it. My only consolation in this is the cross, the rescue mission of Jesus. This mission was a mission of mercy and love. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10) You see, Jesus took my place. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
He bore the punishment that I deserved. In His love and mercy, He voluntarily sacrificed Himself for me and He satisfied God’s justice. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20) His rescue was a complete success and He defeated the evil that made me a fool and a slave.
What is the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross? My punishment was paid in full. Jesus served my sentence. Not because He had to, but because He wanted to. His love and mercy are so great that He satisfied the rightful demands of God’s justice for me. I have been declared “not guilty by reason of Jesus.” And there is no double jeopardy in the justice of God. All of my sins—past, present and future—were paid for by Jesus on the cross, once and for all. The prosecution has no other case against me.
What does this mean for you and I? For me, it is freedom. I have been set free from the burden of my sin. Jesus’ death on the cross has rescued me from the penalty of sin. The penalty has been satisfied once and for all. Jesus’ death on the cross has also rescued me from the power of sin. Sin no longer has dominion and control over me. I am tempted by sin but I am no longer powerless. Jesus has given me the spiritual power to resist temptation and live in a right relationship with God and others. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am growing in this, and I still fail often. Finally, Jesus’ death on the cross will one day rescue me from the presence of sin. Such a rescue will one day usher in an eternity in heaven, forever with God and His people and all that is good. The best is yet to come, and my hope is firm despite the uncertainties of this life.