The Meaning of the Cross
What do the cross and resurrection mean for us? First, let’s look at the cross. Historically, Christians use seven major words to summarize the Bible‘s teaching on what happened when Jesus died. They help us to understand how spiritually poor we are by nature and how rich we can become by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The basic meaning of the word is very straightforward and in relation to the death of Jesus is extremely important. This comes across powerfully when we read that ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 1:18, NIV, emphasis added). As another New Testament writer puts it, ‘He laid down his life for us’ (1 John 1:16, emphasis added). The Bible tells us that death is the result of sin; so how could Jesus die when he did not have a sinful nature and never committed sin of any kind? The Bible’s answer is that in his death Jesus was bearing sin’s penalty (which he did not deserve) in the place of others (who did). His death was certainly an impressive example of meekness, forgiveness and faith, but it was much more than that. Neither setting the finest example nor following it can make sinners right with God. As the British preacher John Stott says, ‘A pattern cannot secure our pardon.’11 Jesus was more than an example; he was a substitute, taking the place of those whose sin leaves them spiritually bankrupt and exposed to God’s righteous anger. In the most amazing act of love ever known, Jesus endured sin’s ultimate penalty in the place of even the worst of his enemies.
This is not an everyday word, but it is vitally important that we understand it. ‘Propitiation’ means appeasing an offended person by paying the penalty he demands for the offence. This enables him to receive back into his favour the person who committed the offence. In the New Testament the original Greek word for ‘propitiation’ is sometimes translated ‘atonement’. This is easier to understand, as to ‘atone’ means to deal with an offence so that the offender and the person offended can be ‘at one’. This is what Jesus did in dying on behalf of others: ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 1:10).
Many people think of God only as a God of love, always on hand to help when things go wrong and bound in the end to forgive everybody’s sins and receive them into heaven for ever. This idea is fatally misleading. The Bible certainly tells us that ‘God is love’ (1 John 1:8), but also that he is ‘majestic in holiness’ (Exodus 15:11) and that ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ (Romans 1:18). A few years ago it was all the rage for some Christians to wear a badge saying, ‘Smile, God loves you’, but, as a friend of mine said at the time, ‘It would be more truthful to wear one saying, “Frown, you’re under judgement.”‘
Jesus showed the cost of being the propitiation for sin when on the cross he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). Only hours before, when his closest friends were about to desert him, he had assured them, ‘I am not alone, for the Father is with me’ (John 16:32). Yet in his dying moments that assurance was gone. Why? Christians often have a joyful sense of God’s presence as they die, yet for Jesus exactly the opposite was true because at that moment he was experiencing not merely physical death but spiritual death. As the Bible puts it, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 2:21, NIV, emphasis added). God has ‘zero tolerance’ of sin, and his holiness demands that all sin be punished. When Jesus became accountable for the sins of others he was punished as though he had committed them, and he bore that punishment both in his body and in his soul. When Jesus cried that he had been forsaken by God the Father, it did not mean that the Father was not there (as God is always everywhere), but that he was not there to strengthen, comfort and bless him. Instead, in his righteous anger against sin, God the Father deserted, rejected and punished him. As the American theologian R. C. Sproul puts it, at that moment the figure of Jesus on the cross ‘was the most grotesque, most obscene mass of concentrated sin in the history of the world’.12
This is a very familiar word. We all know of people taken prisoner by someone who then demands a ransom. The Bible teaches that sin not only separates sinners from God but imprisons them. They are ‘slaves of sin’ (Romans 6:17). What is more, sinners are not merely the captives of a sinful principle, but they are in ‘the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will’ (2 Timothy 2:26). Most people reject this, but every sinful habit confirms its truth. Jesus said that he had come to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). His death on the cross was the essential ransom price so that God’s justice could be satisfied and the sinners in whose place Jesus died set free.
When a ransom has been paid, the captives are set free, or redeemed, and this is what happens to those for whom Jesus gave his life. The apostle Paul says that Jesus ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Galatians 3:13). By nature we are under the ‘curse’ of God’s holy law, which pronounces us guilty in his sight. Jesus was under no such curse, yet in order to satisfy the demands of divine justice he bore the curse of the law in full. The ransom price to bring redemption to helpless sinners was nothing less than his death in their place, and he paid it in full, setting prisoners of sin free to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
The Bible sees sin as a debt owed by the sinner to God, but those on whose behalf Jesus died receive not only ‘redemption through his blood’ but also ‘the forgiveness of sins’ (Ephesians 1:7, NIV). In the death of Jesus the Christian believer is cut loose from the double burden of guilt and debt and is freely and fully forgiven — for ever.
Reconciliation means bringing together those who are separated for one reason or another. By nature and choice we are all separated from God because of our self-centred rebellion against his authority and our determination to go our own way. As Jesus put it, ‘The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19). The Bible also says that because of sin God has become man’s enemy: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ (Romans 1:18).
Yet God (the innocent party) has taken the initiative and done something astonishing to enable man (the guilty party) to be at peace with him by dealing with the root cause of the rift — human sin. In the death of his Son, God not only punished human sin but also satisfied his own righteous judgement, and in this he way removed the barrier separating him from sinners. This is why the apostle Paul writes, ‘While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ (Romans 5:10) and tells early Christians, ‘You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ’ (Ephesians 2:13).
At the precise moment Jesus died, God provided an amazing visual aid to illustrate this. In the temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of the nation’s worship, a richly-embroidered veil or curtain separated the ‘Holy Place’ from the ‘Most Holy Place’, the inner sanctuary that represented God’s presence. As Jesus drew his last breath, ‘The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom’ (Matthew 27:51). This miracle was a sign that, whereas under the old religious system the high priest alone could enter the symbolic presence of God, and then only once a year, the death of Jesus had removed the sin barrier between God and man. Now, all those for whom he died could be reconciled to God without any religious trappings. Later, a first-century Christian wrote, ‘We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body’ (Hebrews 10:19, NIV).
This word comes from the law courts. It describes what happens when a judge declares that the prisoner before him is not liable to any penalty demanded by the law and is to be treated as though he had never broken it. Yet, as sinners stand condemned by a God whose eyes are ‘too pure to look on evil’ and who ‘cannot tolerate wrong’ (Habakkuk 1:13, NIV), how can we possibly be declared ‘Not Guilty’ in his sight and treated as though we had never sinned? Jesus provides the answer. His perfect life met all the demands of God’s law — he was ‘holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners’ (Hebrews 7:26) — and his death paid in full the penalty that God’s law demands. Jesus was punished as though he had never been holy, so that those in whose place he died could be treated as though they had never been unholy. God declares a person righteous on the basis of the life and death of his Son, who was acting on that person’s behalf. This is why the apostle Paul claims, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1). The justified sinner is brought into God’s favour and family and received as though he had met all the demands of God’s holy law. To be justified means to be made right with God for time and eternity.
What is more, the justified sinner receives eternal life immediately. When one of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus turned to him in faith, Jesus promised him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43, emphasis added). Their bodies would soon be buried, but the spirits of the sinner and his Saviour would by then be in heaven.
Left to ourselves, how poor are we? We are…
- exposed to God’s righteous anger
- spiritually dead
- prisoners of Satan and sin
- helpless captives
- hopelessly in debt to God
- sworn enemies of our Creator
- guilty without excuse or escape
How rich can we become because of Jesus’ death? We can escape sin’s death penalty, find favour with God, be set free from prison, escape from our self-imposed captivity, have all our sins forgiven, have spiritual peace and be right with God forever.
The Proof of Promises Fulfilled: Christ’s Resurrection
These seven big words reveal the most amazing promises, but how can we know that they are true and relevant to us today?
The answer lies in the earth-shattering truth that on the third day after he died and was buried Jesus rose from the dead. A cross with a human body hanging on it completely misrepresents the Christian message. The symbol of Christianity is an empty cross, because the Bible’s glorious message is that Jesus is alive today, having triumphed gloriously over sin and death. As C. S. Lewis put it:
[Jesus] has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because he has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation; a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.13
I have laid out the evidence for this stupendous truth elsewhere.14 Here are a few of the obvious pointers:
- Jesus undoubtedly died on the cross. Theories that he was buried while still alive and somehow recovered full health and strength again are absurd.
- Not even his worst enemies denied that by Sunday morning (Jesus died and was buried on Friday) his tomb was empty.
- If for some strange reason the Roman or Jewish authorities had removed the body from the tomb, they would have produced it as soon as Jesus’ followers claimed that he was alive again and the Christian church would have collapsed on the spot.
- As there was an armed guard of Roman soldiers at the tomb, Jesus’ followers could not have stolen the body, nor would they have wanted to as it was buried safely in a friend’s grave.
- Before Jesus rose from the dead his followers hid behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 20:19). Yet a few weeks later they risked persecution, imprisonment, torture and even death because they had seen Jesus alive again. People sometimes die for something they believe to be true (even if it can be shown that it is not), but nobody is prepared to die for something they know to be false, especially if they concocted the lie.
- Six independent witnesses record Jesus appearing after his death in eleven separate incidents over a period of forty days. On one occasion over 500 saw him at the same time, and when the apostle Paul recorded this well over half of them were still alive and could confirm the fact (see 1 Corinthians 1:6).
- The Christian church is the largest religious body the world has ever known (over two billion and growing by the thousand every day) and no other group, religious or otherwise, has made a greater contribution to the well-being of humankind. Yet the church is not based on the moral example Jesus set, nor on his death, but on his resurrection. For 2,000 years this has been its driving force and the only explanation for its existence. The first Christian church was known as ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2), but if Jesus had remained in the grave ‘the Way’ would have become a dead end! As the American preacher D. James Kennedy put it, ‘The Grand Canyon wasn’t caused by an Indian dragging a stick, and the Christian church wasn’t created by a myth.’15
The Bible has ‘many convincing proofs’ (Acts 1:3, NIV) of the resurrection of Jesus, but what does it mean?
The Bible’s first answer is that Jesus ‘was declared to be the Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:4). His resurrection did not make Jesus the Son of God, as he has always been so; it proved that he was. It was a declaration of his deity. It showed him to be everything he claimed to be. Before Jesus died his deity had been ‘veiled’ by his humanity, so that, in spite of his character, his teaching and his miracles, he was in many ways no different from others. His resurrection changed everything, and his divine power over death proved that he was exactly who he claimed to be. When he invited a disciple (ever since known as ‘Doubting Thomas’) to examine the wounds caused by his crucifixion so as to confirm that he had indeed risen, Thomas was convinced and cried out, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28).
Yet his resurrection also proved that his death was not a defeat but a glorious victory. About a year before his death three of his disciples were given a glimpse of his divine glory and Jesus ‘spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’ (see Luke 9:28). Nobody speaks of ‘accomplishing’ their death, but Jesus did. His death did not conclude his life; it crowned it. Although he was crucified ‘by the hands of lawless men’, his death was ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). Far from being something over which God had no control, or a knee-jerk reaction to an unforeseen crisis, it was something he had planned ‘before the foundation of the world’ (1 Peter 1:20).
This explains why, as he was dying, Jesus cried out, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). This was not a terrified cry of defeat, but a triumphant cry of victory. It meant ‘mission accomplished’, not ‘mission abandoned’. Immediately prior to his arrest and execution he told his disciples, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,’ and went on to say, ‘for this purpose I have come to this hour’ John 12:23). In his death he achieved exactly what God the Father had sent him into the world to do (see John 17:4). Death did not annihilate him; it glorified him in what it achieved.
But how can we be sure of this? How do we know the price Jesus paid was accepted and the debt paid? Many years ago in Britain there were ‘debtors’ prisons’, where those who could not pay what they owed were held under arrest. If someone had agreed to stand as a guarantor for the debtor and the debtor could not be found, the guarantor could be jailed in his place. If you had been the debtor and had left the country owing a large sum of money, your guarantor would have been jailed until the debt was cleared. If you returned and saw your guarantor walking the street as a free man you would know that the debt you had incurred had been paid in full on your behalf.
The illustration is not perfect, but the main point is clear. Jesus was ‘imprisoned’ by death on behalf of those in whose place he was acting, but when he had paid sin’s penalty in full, ‘God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’ (Acts 2:24, NIV). The one who paid the debt was released from the prison of death. In the original language used, Jesus’ last cry, ‘It is finished’, is just one word — tetelestai — a word that was often written across a bill when it had been paid in full. His resurrection is all the proof we need that those in whose place he died can never be asked to pay sin’s debt again. As the twentieth-century American theologian Donald Grey Barnhouse put it, ‘The resurrection of Christ is our receipted bill.’ The person in whose place Jesus died can never be asked to pay the bill again.
For some forty years I have lived within fifteen miles of Buckingham Palace, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II, the United Kingdom’s head of state. I have been to Buckingham Palace once as a tourist, but never at Her Majesty’s invitation. If I were to receive a royal invitation I would not treat it like any other, which I might choose to turn down. An invitation I received from my queen would to me be a command, and one I would feel under a willing obligation to obey. The same is true of an infinitely more important invitation, one that comes to everybody from the Lord Jesus Christ, who is ‘the King of kings and Lord of lords’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Let me spell it out as you come towards the end.
Firstly, it is a genuine and loving invitation. To those concerned about their need to get right with God, but struggling under a mountain of rules and regulations imposed by the religious authorities, Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28, NIV). He gives the same invitation today. Religious observance can never make you right with God. Services and sacraments, rites and rituals can never bridge the gap that sin has created. But if you turn to Jesus and trust him to save you, he will release you from the burden of trying to get right with God by your own efforts and give you the ‘rest’ you need.
To those who found life empty, without meaning or purpose, Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35). He issues the same invitation today. He alone can give you spiritual life and then sustain you day by day as you seek to live for him.
To those who were concerned about their eternal destiny, Jesus said, ‘Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life’ (John 5:24). He makes the same invitation today. All who respond to it are promised that they will spend eternity in God’s glorious presence in heaven, where there will be no more trials or traumas, fear or failure, sin or suffering, disease, decay or death.
These are amazing invitations and promises. Sinners are offered forgiveness; rebels are offered amnesty; enemies are offered friendship; outsiders are offered places in God’s family; slaves to sin are offered release from its grip; prisoners are offered liberty; those doomed to spend eternity in hell are promised eternity in heaven — and all these are lovingly made to everybody, even those who deny God’s existence or flatly reject the Bible’s testimony that Jesus is divine.
Yet they are also commands. When Jesus said, ‘Come to me’, it was not a casual suggestion or a vague ‘take it or leave it’ offer, but a serious and firm instruction. Elsewhere God makes the wonderful promise, ‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’ (Jeremiah 29:13, NIV), but he also says, ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near’ (Isaiah 55:6). This is a command, and to disobey it is outright rebellion.
You may receive many invitations of one kind of another. Some can be thrown away immediately, while deciding what to do about others is just a matter of choice, with no serious consequences. God’s invitations and commands are very different, because left to yourself you are in clear and present danger. Not only are you helplessly exposed to God’s righteous anger day after day (even if you are not aware of this), but by rejecting his invitation, made at such unimaginable cost, you are ‘storing up [God’s] wrath’ for the day when ‘God’s righteous judgement will be revealed’ (Romans 2:5). Some years ago I was in Greece at the time of a general election. On Election Day I was told that the polling booths opened at sunrise. When I asked, ‘When do they close?’ my host replied, ‘The moment the sun sets.’ I have never forgotten that. It is a powerful picture of the urgent need to respond to God’s invitation to turn to him while you can. The opportunity to do so lasts only for as long as the ‘sun’ of one’s life is in the sky — and nobody knows when it will set. God may not allow you another day, let alone another week, month or year, in which to turn to him. As the Bible warns you, ‘Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring’ (Proverbs 27:1). Whatever your age or state of health, at this moment you are twenty-four hours nearer your death than you were at this time yesterday. This is not being miserable or morbid; it is a simple fact. It is only by God’s grace that you are being given the present opportunity to respond to his invitation, obey his command and lay hold on the promises of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that he is making to you at this very moment. God says, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die…?’ (Ezekiel 33:11). He says the same to you at this very moment.
Are you ready to meet your Maker? Are you certain that you are right with God? Are you sure that your sins are forgiven and that when your life on earth ends you will spend eternity in heaven? If not, call upon him now, asking him to have mercy on you and to enable you to lay hold on the promises of the gospel. As you do, you will truly understand the answer to the question, ‘Why the cross?’
[Editor’s note: Taken from “Why the Cross?” by Dr. John Blanchard (ep books, used by permission).
See also earlier installments of this article series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.
For a complete copy of this series, visit EP Books here.]
Dr. John Blanchard is an internationally known Christian author, and his twenty-four books include two of the UK’s most widely used evangelistic publications,Right with God and Ultimate Questions. Published in 2000, his 655-page volume Does God believe in Atheists? was voted ‘Best Christian Book’ in the inaugural UK Christian Book Awards held in 2001. Dr. Blanchard makes his home in Banstead, Surrey, U.K.
1. The Observer, 26 March 1967.
2. C. S. Lewis, They Stand Together; The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, Collins, p.503.
3. C. E. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Continuum International Publishing Group, p.529.
4. John Blanchard, Meet the real Jesus¸ EP Books.
5. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Macmillan, p.52.
6. J. I. Packer, Knowing God, Hodder & Stoughton, p.53.
7. Abraham Kuyper, ‘Sphere Sovereignty’, in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial reader, ed. James D. Bratt, Eerdmans, p.488.
8. Guy Appéré, The Mystery of Christ, Evangelical Press, p.43.
9. Daily Mail, 16 December 2009.
10. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.152.
11. John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity, Inter-Varsity Press, p.92.
12. R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross, Reformation Trust, p.134.
13. C. S. Lewis, Miracles, Collins, p.149.
14. John Blanchard, JESUS: Dead or Alive?, EP Books.
15. D. James Kennedy, The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail, Thomas Nelson Publishers, p.21.