The Meaning of the Cross

August 21, 2019

Jesus:“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” Luke 9:23 NLT

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21 NIV

Look around and you will see crosses everywhere. They are worn around the necks of commoners and celebrities, tattooed on bodies, hung on walls, stuck on cars, used as adornments and decorations. Most of the people who wear them, post them, or ink them have little but a cursory knowledge at best what that cross actually means.

Simply put, the meaning of the cross is death. From about the 6th century BC until the 4th century AD, the cross was an instrument of execution that resulted in death by the most torturous and painful of ways. In crucifixion a person was either tied or nailed to a wooden cross and left to hang until dead. Death would be slow and excruciatingly painful.

The whole process was meant to inflict the maximum amount of shame and torture upon the victim. Roman crucifixions were carried out in public so that all who saw the horror would be “scared straight,” or at least stay out of the way of the Roman government. Crucifixion was so horrible that it was reserved for only the worst of the worst criminals.

The victim of crucifixion was first severely scourged or beaten, within an inch of his life, generally considered to be “40 stripes, save one.” This alone was life-threatening, and it was not unusual for a victim to die then. If he painfully lived through it, he was forced to carry the large wooden crossbeam to the site of the crucifixion. It was the equivalent of digging his own grave, and not only was physically almost impossible, but it added more layers of shame as he was jeered. It was like digging one’s own grave.

When the victim arrived at the place of crucifixion, he would be stripped naked to multiply shame. Then his arms would be stretched on the crossbeam. Nails were hammered through the wrists. The nails would have pulled through the softer area of the palms. In these days, the wrist was considered part of the hand. Imagine the nerve pain. The crossbeam would be fastened to an upright piece that would normally remain standing for other crucifixions.

Then the executioners would nail the victim’s feet to the cross, normally, one foot on top of the other, nailed through the middle and arch of each foot, with the knees slightly bent. All the victim’s weight was supported by three nails. Constant shooting pain resulted. Cramping and paralysis in the chest muscles made breathing impossible unless the victim pushed up with his feet. More pain. As he did it, his raw back would rub against the rough upright beam of the cross.

After getting a breath or two, foot pain would cause the victim to slump down. Quickly the inability to breathe would occur again, and the entire process would begin again. Everything about it was pure, hideous, horrific torture.

Crucifixion usually ended in a slow, excruciating death. Some victims lasted as long as four days on a cross. Death was ultimately by asphyxiation as the victim lost the strength to continue pushing up on his feet in order to take a breath. Sometimes to hurry up the process, the victim’s legs wouldbe broken, which would prevent him from pushing up in order to breathe; thus, asphyxiation would follow shortly after. John 19:32 tells how this happened to the criminals crucified with Jesus.

To a person in the first century, the cross meant one thing and one thing only: death by the most painful and humiliating means human beings could develop. To wear a cross as adornment in that day would be as bizarre as we would think it to be if we decorated ourselves and homes with images on electric chairs. However, 2,000 years later, Christians view the cross as a cherished symbol of atonement, forgiveness, grace, and love.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow Me,” He means be willing to die in order to follow Him. He calls us to die to self. It’s a call to absolute surrender. After each time Jesus commanded cross bearing, He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:24-25). Although the call is tough, the reward is matchless.

Wherever Jesus went, He drew crowds. Although these multitudes often followed Him as Messiah, their view of who the Messiah really was—and what He would do—was distorted. They believed He would free them from the oppressive rule of their Roman occupiers. When Jesus began teaching that He was going to die, His popularity sank. Many of the shocked followers rejected Him. Truly, they were not able to put to death their own ideas, plans, and desires.

The call is the same today. Surrender to Christ means taking up your cross daily, giving up your hopes, dreams, possessions, even your very life if need be for the cause of Christ. Only if you willingly take up your cross may you be called His disciple (Luke 14:27). The reward is worth the price.

But by the time of Constantine, the call was already watered down and changed. The “Christianity” Constantine endorsed was already much different from the teachings of Jesus the disciples followed. History shows that Constantine’s motive for “converting” to Christianity was a purely political decision, and his “divine vision” was created as a “convincer” story. He realized that Christian belief was the route to success, which was evident in the fact that he gave official orders which began the feudal system, or in other words, a slave system. When we consider the vast differences between the mainstream Christianity of today and the original Christianity of Jesus Christ and the apostles, we can trace much of that change to Constantine and the religious system he put in power.

Interestingly, a study of history shows that the cross symbol predates Christianity. According to author Ralph Woodrow, “Centuries before the Christian era, the cross was honored as a religious symbol by the people of Babylon. It is seen on their oldest monuments. Historians say that it was a symbol associated with Tammuz” (Babylonian Mystery Religion, p. 51). From Babylon, the cross spread to other nations and was associated with paganism long before Jesus’ crucifixion in A.D.31.

There is no evidence that for the first 300 years after Christ’s death, those claiming to be Christians used the cross in worship. In the fourth century, however, pagan Emperor Constantine became a convert to apostate Christianity and promoted the cross as its symbol. Whatever Constantine’s motives, the cross had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. The cross is, in fact, pagan in origin. The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “The cross is found in both pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures.” Various other authorities have even linked the cross with nature worship and pagan sex rites. Woodrow further explains, “It was not until Christianity began to be paganized that the cross came to be thought of as a Christian symbol. It was in 431 A.D. that crosses in churches and chambers were introduced, while the use of crosses on steeples did not come until about 586 A.D.” (p.50).

While most people today connect the cross with Christianity rather than paganism, we must also consider the message. While the apostles preached “the cross [stauros]” as part of the history of Christ’s ministry for our sakes (1 Corinthians 1:17-18), it was not something they idolized. It was a shameful instrument of death (Hebrews 12:2). In His crucifixion, Jesus took on Himself our shameful sins. Having our sins forgiven is a wonderful blessing, but the instrument used is not the main point. The main point is what it means.

So what does it mean for us as Christ-followers? When Jesus calls us to take up our cross, He is calling us to something we do willingly. Our “cross” is not something forced upon us by others or life circumstances like a bad back. It is the willing choice to daily completely surrender ourselves, our goals, dreams, and desires to follow Jesus and experience His reward.

The cross to which Jesus calls us is uncomfortable—but apart from embracing it we will not experience the transformation of the power of Jesus Christ. It is only through surrendering and embracing that self-surrender will we experience the depth of God’s love and the transformation Jesus’ death on the cross was intended to provide. Embrace it—the reward is beyond imagination.

Today whenever you wear or see a cross, ask yourself, “Am I embracing and bearing the cross?”