If a 1st century Jew living under Roman rule were to travel across spacetime, he would be horrified by how ubiquitous the cross is in our society. He would see crosses on church buildings, on necklaces, on tattoos, on bumper stickers, and on ambulances. To us, the cross is a harmless decoration piece. Yet to a 1st century Jew, those wooden stakes would have stirred up intense revulsion.
The cross is an instrument of torture. While the guillotine kills in a matter of seconds, the cross is designed to ensure a slow, painful, and shameful death. For hours and even days the victim withers away from hunger, dehydration, bleeding, exhaustion, unceasing pain, and the assault of insects and the elements. He would be stripped naked and publically showcased as the epitome of folly. To be crucified is a horrifying fate reserved only for the worst of criminals and slaves.
Yet today Christians celebrate the cross. Above the stage of my church’s sanctuary hangs a giant cross lit by dim lights. For my 18th birthday, my mom gifted me with a golden cross necklace. We sing words such as “in the cross alone I glory”, “And, oh the glory of the cross”, and “thank you for the cross my friend.” We read books such as “The Cross of Christ”, “Living the Cross-Centered Life”, and “The Cross He Bore.” Are Christians sadistic? How did a grotesque torture machine become an object of celebration?
It was Jesus Christ who transformed the meaning of the cross. When He, being God, chose to die in such an ignoble way in order to serve ungrateful sinners, the cross came to embody humility, the attitude of prioritizing the needs of another over one’s ego (Phi. 2:6-7). When He suffered the unbearable pain in order to take the punishment that belongs to us, the cross became the apex of divine love, which meets the needs of another even at the expense of one’s own well-being (Joh. 15:13).
When He yielded to the Father’s plan to be tortured and shamed, the cross became the example of what absolute obedience looks like, which trusts God to continue doing what is right even when every fiber of one’s being screams against it (Luk. 22:42). When He shouted “it is finished” and yielded up His spirit, the cross became the full payment of the debt man cannot afford (Col. 2:14), which shatters any self-righteousness and self-sufficiency in me. To the Christian the cross is his supreme inspiration for obedience, his security of God’s love, and the satisfaction of his greatest need.
When I sit in the pews and my gaze is naturally directed to the front of the sanctuary, when I fiddle with my necklace, I remind myself that I am staring up at an odious torture machine, that I am twiddling with a barbaric execution device. My security, hope, and inspiration to be good in life came at the expense of One’s tremendous suffering. I am in awe that I worship a self-sacrificing God. I worship Jesus Christ because of the bloody, grotesque cross.