The Apostle Paul knew the temptation of re-tooling the message to soft-pedal the shame of death on a Roman gibbet. A classic example is his discourse in Athens (Acts 17). Instead of talking about the death of Jesus and what it meant, he spoke in philosophical terms of the “unknown God.” It wasn’t a total failure. Luke reports that “some of the people became followers of Paul and believed” (17:34). Yet this was hardly the rousing success he had envisioned.
In Acts 18, Paul travels to Corinth and changed his strategy. Gone was the debate over Epicurean and Stoic categories. In its place stood Golgotha:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, NIV; bold added).
When we reflect on the Cross, what vital lessons about Christian faith come into focus?
1. The Cross symbolizes the death of self-centered living. The weed of “me first” thinking sprouts in the shallow soil of individualism but cannot grow in the healthy garden of interdependence. Jesus went to the Cross because he understood that our destiny depended on it. Romans 5:8 (NIV) teaches: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jesus understood that to claim his prerogatives as the Son of God would have meant prioritizing himself above us. When a companion drew his sword to protect Jesus at the moment of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him:
Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matt. 26:53, NIV)
When marriage grows difficult, when “what’s in it for me?” appears a legitimate question, the Cross offers an eloquent rebuttal, a testimony that “it’s not about me” nor should it be.
2. The Cross demonstrates that God’s love is stronger than humanity’s hate. Sometimes we mistakenly attribute hate to God when we say that the Cross was a manifestation of God’s wrath against sin. But the only wrath that day at Calvary was human anger obvious in the mocking tone of the religious leaders:
Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God! (Matt. 27:40b, NIV).
Instead, Paul extols the love of God “that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). And what was his definitive proof of divine love? Divine sacrifice. God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all…” (8:32). To overcome hate, God did not resist it but – in a kind of cosmic jujitsu – with love, pinned hatred to the ground.
3. The Cross insists that suffering has meaning when it’s endured for a greater good. Athletes working out in the gym surround themselves with motivational posters with sayings like:
No pain, no gain.
What the athlete stands to win – a trophy, a laurel wreath, a medal – makes the agony of training worthwhile. John the Baptist was a living “no pain, no gain” sign for Jesus. When the Lord came for his baptism, John announced: “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NIV). It was a reminder to Jesus of his mission, that because of his atoning death just 3 years later, people would be reconciled to God, that forgiveness of sins and cleansing from our moral pollution were possible (Hebrews 13:12). That positive outcome was worth all the trials Jesus would endure.
4. The Christ of the Cross demands our highest allegiance. Peter – who himself suffered martyrdom on a upside-down cross – urged his readers to follow in the steps of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 2:21). Ralph Hudson’s hymn captures this thought:
I’ll live for him who died for me!
Recent events in our world prove that the words of the hymn can be involuntarily transposed into a higher key: “I’ll die for him who died for me.” Would such a sacrifice be possible if Christ had not taken the lead, laying down his life for us? 1 John 3:16 (NIV) affirms:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
These are some of the lessons that we learn at the foot of the Cross. Christianity without a Cross would be incomprehensible. No Cross? No Christianity. This Good Friday, let us together thank God for the Cross.