The Cross of Christ

and its centrality
The Centrality of the Cross. As we trace the blessed subject of the cross of Christ through the pages of scripture, we will find that it takes a center place. The cross of Christ is the foundation of every work of God, and the means of our redemption. Often we think of the cross as what took away our sins, and that is very important, but it is more than that! I hope to examine some of these less appreciated aspects of the cross. We owe everything to Christ and the work that He accomplished on the cross nearly two-thousand years ago!

Center of Old and New Testaments

“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:24-26)

In the Old Testament there were sacrifices and prophecies that looked forward to the cross. For example, in Hebrews it says that the Old Testament was “a shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1). But in the New Testament, we find salvation is based on the cross, so we look backward to it, and thank God for it. In Romans 3:24-26 we read of “the sins that are past” or the sins of Old Testament saints, and “at the present time” of the New Testament saints. The cross comes between v.25 and v.26. The Old Testament saints did not understand how their sins were covered. But in the New Testament, we look back on a finished work. The important point is that the cross is what takes away the sins of all believers, at any time. The difference is like a credit card versus a debit card. In credit, you make a purchase without possessing the funds. In debit, you already have the money in the account. As Christians, we know where our sins have gone; the work is finished! In that way, for justification, the cross stands between the Old and New Testaments.

Supplying Man’s Need and God’s Glory

The cross is the center of all things for God and man. Man has a need in that our sins separate us from God. Christ suffered in our place, bearing our sins, enduring the judgment we deserved. “Who himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 1:24). We call this substitution. But God also had an interest in the cross, apart from our salvation. God’s character had been insulted by sin. Christ offered Himself to God to placate or satisfy God, and deal with the entire issue of sin. “Christ has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). We call this aspect of the cross, propitiation. The cross not only meets our need, but completely glorifies God!

The Paradox of the Cross

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

The cross doesn’t make sense to man. Can life come through death? Can victory come through defeat? Yet this is how God works. It is a “hidden wisdom… which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8). Unbelievers will never understand the cross, but we do!

The End of the First Man

God views all of humanity in terms of just two men: the first man, and the second man. Dispensationally, the cross was the last of the successive tests given to the “first man” (1 Cor. 15:45-49).

“And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.” (1 Cor. 15:45-48) 

Adam, the head of a natural race of men, was placed in the garden of Eden to keep the garden. God gave him a simple test of obedience, which he failed. But in partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the first man gained a conscience, and his human nature took on a fallen condition, which we call “the flesh”, the “old nature“, or “sin in the flesh”. Was the first man recoverable? No. Instead, in the prophecy of Genesis 3, all hopes were pinned on the coming of the Second man; the woman’s seed.

What would be the cost of the Second man’s victory over the serpent? “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). The cross was required. In becoming man, Christ took on the responsibility of the headship of man over creation. He found the first man in a state of complete ruin and failure. Therefore, He had to go under and bear the consequences of the failure of the first man in order that He might restore creation and humanity to God in a new creation.

After the expulsion from Eden, God proceeded to unfold successive tests for the first man. Each of these were given to test the first man, with certain dispensations from God. The coming of Christ was the final test. He was presented to Israel as the King, and to the whole world as the Son of God incarnate. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. But man failed that test by rejecting the Son, and crucifying Him.

“Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’” (Mark 12:6-7)

The testing of the first man was over. But in the very place where we see the utter ruin of the first man, we see also the perfection of the Second! The second man is of a totally different order than the first. The first man is of the earth; he is earthy and natural. The Second man is the Lord from heaven; and He is heavenly and spiritual. By accepting the truth of the cross, we acknowledge that the first man is utterly ruined, that the wisdom of this world is foolishness, and that the Second man is the man of God’s counsels, the accomplisher of God’s purposes, and the Savior of the world. It is precisely in this capacity that Paul speaks of the cross in 1 Cor. 1 and 2. The cross stands at the end of the testing of the first man, and as the display of the perfection of the Second man. In that way, the cross is the center of the ways of God. To live under the law is to try to get something from the first man. God is finished with him! Are you?

The Flesh Condemned

Another great change that took place at the cross was that the flesh was condemned. In the believer there are various desires and qualities; love, kindness, obedience, humility, faith. We call this the new nature, or the life of Christ in us. But we also have evil desires and tendencies; pride, self-exaltation, lust, disobedience. We call this the old nature, or the flesh. These are the two natures. But at the cross, God condemned the old nature, or the flesh. He did not try to rescue it, or improve it, or redeem it.

“For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:3-4)

And because the believer is associated with Christ, we also are crucified with Him. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). We need to treat the flesh the way God sees it; “And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). We cannot try to extract something good out of what God has condemned. We have the life of Christ, and we have the Spirit of God to help is to live that life.

The Judgment of this World

The cross is the judgment of the world. When we say “the world”, we need to be clear that we are talking about the system. The Bible refers to the world-place, the world-people, and the world-system. God loves the world-people (John 3:16). He will redeem the world-place, which He created (Romans 1:20). But the world-system is under the judgment of God.

“Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out” (John 12:31).

If the cross is the end of the first man, its is also the judgment of all of the first man’s accomplishments. Morally, it is the end of the flesh and all things the flesh might glory in, like looks, wealth, status, abilities, and religion. The world is in an open state of war against God. Satan has become the prince and god of this world. The cross was where the world formally rejected Christ; “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). Now the cross separates the Christian from the world.

“God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

The cross was a shameful affair; an object of disgust. This is the normal attitude of the Christian toward the world, and of the world toward the Christian; i.e. mutual disgust. To be a friend to the world is to despise the cross of Christ, and become a traitor to God.

“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

We have to live in the world-place, but we need to be separate from the world-system. We are in the world, but not of the world (John 15:19; 17:15-16).

The End of Man’s Religion

We know that Jesus was crucified outside the gate of Jerusalem. It was because the cross was a shameful thing. The leaders of Judaism wouldn’t allow the cross inside their “holy” city. They were too religious for Him. The writer of Hebrews picks up on this in the final chapter of that epistle. He argues that if man’s religion was too good for Jesus, than we should have nothing to do with it. We are leave the camp (Judaism), and go to Christ, willing to bear His reproach.

“Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.” (Heb. 13:12-13).

The cross is totally the opposite of man’s religion. Man’s religion is respectable to the world, but the cross is a scandal before the world. Man’s religion overlooks sin, but the cross puts away sin. Man’s religion makes much of man, but the cross makes nothing of man. If we adopt man’s religion, we are forsaking the cross, and the shirking the suffering associated with it; “And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased” (Gal. 5:11). Many Christians have made the cross into a religious object of worship (golden, stained glass, etc.). But this is to make the cross into something respectable before the world. It misses the point entirely.

A Place of Extremes

We see man’s hatred for God at the cross, more than anywhere else; Jesus called it “your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:52-53). But we also see God’s love at the cross, more than anywhere else.

“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10).

Do you wonder if God loves you? Look at the cross. He gave His only-begotten Son for you! We also see God’s righteousness and His grace at the cross. How could God be righteous (“that He might be just…”) and still bring sinners to heaven (“…and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”). He wants to show us grace, but cannot compromise His righteousness (Rom 3:26). These two things come together perfectly at the cross. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

We sing the praise of Him who died,
Of Him who died upon the cross,
The sinner’s Hope—let men deride;
For this we count the world but loss.
Inscribed upon the cross we see,
In shining letters, “God is love!”
The Lamb who died upon the tree
Has brought us mercy from above. 
The Cross! it took our guilt away,
It holds the fainting spirit up;
It cheers with hope the gloomy day,
And sweetens every bitter cup.
It makes the coward spirit brave,
And nerves the feeble arm for fight;
It takes its terror from the grave,
And gilds the bed of death with light.
The balm of life, the cure of woe,
The measure and the pledge of love,
The sinner’s refuge here below,
The theme of praise in heaven above.

Other questions about the cross

  • What does it mean to “glory in the cross” (Gal. 6:14)?
    It means to claim for ourselves the One that the world has rejected and spit upon. It it to celebrate the symbol of the world’s hatred.
  • What does it mean to “take up our cross”?
    “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). The Bible never tells us to carry Jesus’ cross; that is something we could never carry. A cross in this sense is very specific to each individual. It says, “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull” (John 19:17). But each one of us has a portion of suffering assigned to us. We cannot be the Lord’s disciples if we refuse to suffer with Him! The cross is the end of our Adam-life. To hold onto that life in view of the cross is to lose it. To let go of that life is to gain Christ-life for all eternity.
  • What does it mean that the handwriting was “nailed to His cross” (Col. 2:14)?
    This refers to the Jews’ obligation to the Law, like a signature on a legal document. The cross was required to erase that signature, and remove the Jews’ obligation to the Law.
  • Why was Jesus crucified rather than stoned?
    Firstly, the Jews did not have the authority to put someone to death at the time that Jesus lived. They had lost ius gladii (literally, “the right of the sword”, or the legal right to exercise capital punishment) in A.D. 6, when Palestine became a Roman province. The Roman method of execution, for it’s worst criminals, was crucifixion. But more than that, there was prophesy to be fulfilled: e.g. “they pierced my hands and my feet” (Psa. 22:16). Thirdly, God required a method of death that would make it evident that the Lord laid down his life. His life was not taken from him. This is why it says “a bone of him shall not be broken” (John 19:36), which was another prophecy that had to be fulfilled. Stones would break bones. But John’s gospel lays emphasis on the fact that Jesus laid down His own life. This is evident by the loud cry at the end of the three dark hours (John 19:36).
  • Why is Jesus crucified pictured as a serpent on a pole, given that the Devil is a serpent?
    This strikes us as strange. Why would Jesus be represented by a serpent? The brass was made into the shape of a serpent, fashioned like the ones that had bit the people. It really represents Christ “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). This helps us to understand, in a limited way, what took place at the cross. Christ was made to be the very expression of what we are (“made sin”). He stood in the place of sin, and God judged the man Christ Jesus as sin in His sight.
  • Did Simon carry Jesus’ cross?

    It would appear, from John 19:17, that Jesus went forth to the place of crucifixion "bearing his cross". Often a condemned man was forced to carry his own cross, as a symbol of shame and humiliation. But often, after being beaten and scourged, a condemned man would not have the physical strength to complete the journey under such a heavy load, and might possibly die of exhaustion. The soldiers were under strict orders to execute by crucifixion, and therefore they would need to carry the cross themselves when the prisoner was exhausted. Apparently, Jesus was physically weak, and so the soldiers surmised that He would not be able to carry the cross all the way alone. Though He was physically weak, the soldiers had no way of knowing that it was impossible for the Lord's life to be taken by man; "no man takes it from me" (John 10:18). Later, while hanging on the cross, Jesus cries twice with a loud voice (v.46, v.50), strengthening the fact that His life was not taken from Him. Seeing a North African man, Simon of Cyrene, the soldiers conscripted him to bear the cross of Jesus when He could go no further alone. Indeed the time came when "on him [Simon] they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus" (Luke 23:26). It would appear that Jesus carried the cross all the way "to the place" (John 19:17), but part way along Simon was compelled to carry the back part ("after" or "behind Jesus").12 Although it was an expression of the soldiers' cruelty, years later Simon must have looked back at the experience and regarded it a special privilege! Having carried the cross, Simon no doubt witnessed the crucifixion of Christ. Mark identifies Simon as "the father of Alexander and Rufus" (Mark 15:21), indicating that Simon was well known at the time of writing by early Christians. In Romans 16:13 Paul salutes a brother named Rufus, who was likely the son of Simon. William Kelly said; “The Lord repaid with interest the burden of that day.” His son Rufus is found among the elect! And not only Rufus, but his mother (Simon’s wife) was saved as well, and became a mother-figure to the Apostle Paul!

  1. "Observe how Luke's account brings together John's statement and that of Matthew and Mark. The Lord must alone have borne the cross until relieved of some portion of it by Simon." - Kelly, William. Notes on the Gospel of Luke. Crewe, UK: E. E. Whitfield, 2013. Note #576
  2. The Catholic tradition that Jesus fell down three times under the weight of the cross is pure speculation. John 19:17 says that the Lord carried His cross all the way to the place of crucifixion. We do know that the Lord was physically weakened, but we read nothing of the Lord slipping or falling.