Did you know that, more in the place and time that Jesus of Nazareth lived, it was actually very common for someone to come forth every few years, claim that he was the Messiah, gain a huge following, and then be crucified for his message? This chain of events is not unique to Jesus. In fact, there is an incident in the book of Acts that alludes to this historical fact. Peter and other apostles are called before the Sanhedrin (the full assembly of the elders of Israel) because they have been preaching the gospel, the message that “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you have killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those whom obey him” (Acts 5:30-32). The Pharisees are furious when they hear Peter say these things and want to kill him and the apostles. But one Pharisee, named Gamaliel, stands up and addresses the Sanhedrin, saying this:
Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He, too, was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God. ~Acts 5:36-39
Jesus, the leader of an entire movement, had died. He was crucified on the Cross. And yet his movement did not die out, as was the pattern of the day. It grew to even larger numbers and greater strength than it had when he was alive. And two thousand years later, the message of Jesus Christ is still spread and embraced around the world. Miraculous works are still being done in His name. Lives are still being transformed. What Peter wrote to the first century church still holds true today: Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy -1 Peter 8.
How is this possible?
I would propose a few things. First of all, that Jesus Christ truly is the Word who became flesh, God who, out of his immense love for creation, humbled himself and came to live on earth. Second, that on the third day, He did rise again and that His resurrection was witnessed by many. Third, that He did ascend to Heaven and is seated on the throne, constantly working to bring restoration to this world and His creation now. And this whole chain of events starts with the Cross.
The Cross is, I submit, the most powerful moment of all history because of what happened in the spiritual realm as Jesus died. I believe that effects of that spiritual battle caused those who witnessed the crucifixion to realize that something greater was happening, signs that caused the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus to exclaim, “Surely he was the Son of God!” ~Matthew 27:54. But I also believe that most of what was happening on the Cross, the reason the Cross is seen as victory in the Christian faith, was not seen by the human eye.
The Cross and Jesus’ subsequent resurrection are the cornerstones of our faith, but if we do not understand them, or do not understand them well, we could be left with a skewed picture of God. In my next two posts, I will present the two most common understandings of the Cross, Penal Substitution and Christus Victor. I don’t think the Cross can be narrowed down to just one meaning or one explanation, and it will always be surrounded with a certain sense of mystery and wonder. However, I hope that by using Scripture, we can uncover more of the beauty and victory of the Cross and more of God’s character. The Cross was an ugly symbol of death that Jesus transformed into one of triumph because of his love for us. And that is an amazing thing.
I hope you stick around for these next two posts and we can discover the meaning of the Cross together.
Note: In my previous post, Selma and the Cross, I briefly discussed another perspective on the Cross, which I think is also very important. That perspective comes from Liberation Christology. Here is an excerpt from that post and, if you’re interested, I suggest you read the full post:
“The significance of Jesus’ crucifixion is deeper and more beautiful and mysterious than we can ever know, but I am confident that a part of its significance is to show that the Lord Jesus suffered and died in solidarity with the countless women and men who have, throughout history, been strung up on trees, been beaten and mocked, been scorned and objectified, been made to feel as though they are forsaken by God.”