The message of Jesus is full of extremes. His opening speech talks about good news for the poor, prisoners released and freedom from oppression. He goes on to demonstrate great authority: healing desperately sick people, even raising dead people to life—that’s four days dead, not five minutes on the operating table! He promises blessings to the most unlikely people; making a name for himself by hanging out with prostitutes and bent tax collectors.
We like Jesus, because he is kind to children, cares for the poor and seems to notice the invisible people. He promises eternal life, along with suffering, prosperity with persecution, peace, joy, tears, miracles, homelessness, supernatural provision plus masses of extra family and friends. His message is full of unique challenges and extraordinary benefits.
One thing, however, sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb: the cross.
Over the centuries, the symbol of the cross has been used and abused more than most. It has been politicised, emblazoned on flags and shields, used to justify wars, crusades and empires. It has become distilled into a piece of religious iconography. It may be seen cast in delicate silver, worn on the neck of a beautiful woman, or as big bold bling on a rap artist. It might be shimmering gold on the spire of a Byzantine basilica, or rough crude timber in a passion play. In whichever form it appears, it has become familiar, and to the Western mind; even safe.
The cross is actually as safe as a Kalashnikov AK47 or a guillotine. It is as cosy as a grenade. The cross was designed to drag out the process of death to a painful, suffocating end. By the time Jesus was executed, he had already been subjected to seven separate appearances in a bogus trial throughout the night, and subjected to 39 lashes by professional Roman floggers. His back was left flayed open like an animal carcass on the side of the road, exposing ribs and muscle, before he was stretched out for the nails to tear through flesh and bone impaling him to the wooden beams.
Envy and love
It was the envy of Jerusalem’s religious establishment which brought events to the tipping point leading to the crucifixion, but it was something far deeper and far more powerful which put Jesus on the cross.
He saw it coming
The cross was no surprise to Jesus, it was his destiny. The tender baby in the arms of Mary—his destiny was to surrender to the brutality of the very people he loved. This was no fatalistic destiny, it was a destiny he repeatedly chose to go through with. Right until the end, Jesus chose the cross. Jesus chose to go all the way. He chose to shoulder, not just the cross beam—hauling it on his broken body through the streets of Jerusalem—but the sin debt of the human race.
Beginning with the sin of the first man and woman on the earth, humankind has gone on to rack up an unbelievable sin debt: completely beyond our means to pay. None of us could never be good enough to pay off our own individual sin debt, leave alone clear the debt owed by the entire human race. Just to be clear; we are talking about greed, envy, hatred and lust, alongside murder, incest, rape, child abuse and genocide.
Love did it
It was love which took on the sum of evil, on that dark, brutal day. It was love that brought Jesus to the earth in the first place. It was the aching heart of God—longing to have his precious people reconciled to himself—that made the cross necessary. All the blood of all the sacrifices in the Old Testament of the bible illustrate the destructive nature of sin. Sin always damages the innocent as well as the guilty. Even our secret, hidden sin adversely affects someone. There is no crime without a victim. On the cross Jesus became the victim of every crime. He voluntarily picked up the tab for the sin of the world.
The cross loudly proclaims two things. Firstly, that God loves people. He loves us so powerfully, that he was willing to become one of us, to live our life, feel our pain, weep our tears and then to die the cross death to reconcile us to himself. Secondly, that if Jesus really died to save us…how bad must be that which he wants to save us from?