Offense of the Cross
The cross has become so familiar that it has lost its power to offend. It is no longer offensive to Christians because they are used to seeing it, talking about it, hearing about it, and singing about it all the time. Nor is the cross offensive to non-Christians. For them it is a symbol of religious commitment, or perhaps a fashion accessory. For many, the cross of Christ has been tamed. The taming of the cross is a sign that its true meaning has been lost. For as soon as people understand what crucifixion means, the cross becomes completely offensive to them. The early Christian theologian Origen rightly called it the “utterly vile death of the cross.”
Not everyone sees the meaning of the Cross. Many people are unclear about why the day of Jesus’ crucifixion is called ‘Good Friday’. As we say nowadays, they ‘just don’t get it.’ In order to help us ‘get it’ we will look this week at the offense of the cross from Hebrews 12:1-2, as we consider why the cross is offensive and how something so ‘vile’ could be so glorious for Christians.
When the New Testament speaks of the redemption of sinners, it customarily emphasizes redemption’s costly price: ‘the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt. 20:28). In order to pay this priceless ransom, Jesus had to endure God’s curse. That curse was first pronounced in the Old Testament (see Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:13, 14): ‘And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God…’
Imagine, then, how offensive Christianity was to the Jews, because at the heart of its message was a man hanging on a tree (Acts 5:30; 1 Pet. 2:24)! The apostles almost went out of their way to call the cross a ‘tree.’ At the same time, they claimed that the crucified Jesus was also the Christ. To the Jews this was absolute blasphemy: a cursed Messiah on a cursed cross. No wonder the cross was such a stumbling block to them.
Perhaps Paul himself struggled with this question. He knew that Jesus was Lord when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. But what could account for Christ’s death on a tree (the cross)? It seemed to be a real dilemma. How could the only man who ever continued to do everything written in the book of the law be subjected to its curse? Paul ‘got it’ : ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Gal. 3:13). ‘The language here is startling, almost shocking,’ wrote A.W.F. Blunt. ‘We should not have dared to use it. Yet Paul means every word of it.’
Paul meant every word because he understood what Christ was doing on the cross. His death was a substitution; he was crucified in our place. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). And when he took our sins upon himself, Christ also had to bear God’s curse, becoming ‘a curse for us’. The death penalty for breaking God’s law was executed on Jesus Christ. When Christ took our sins upon himself he was accursed, not for his own sins, but for ours. The curse we deserved was legally transferred from us to him. Luther described this as the ‘fortunate exchange’ in which we trade our sin and the curse it deserves for Christ’s righteousness.
Now perhaps we can begin to understand the meaning of Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46). In that ‘old cursed cross’ we see the wrath of God against the sin of humanity. Having seen the God-man on the cursed tree, who can doubt the sinfulness of sin or the wrath of God?
Yet in that same cursed cross we see more clearly than anywhere else the power of divine grace. God endured God’s own curse to save us from our sins. This is expressed beautifully in the words of the old American folk hymn:
‘What wondrous love is this,
O my soul, O my soul,
What wondrous love is this,
O my soul!
What wondrous love is this,
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse
For my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!’
My dear friend, I hope to see you this Lord’s Day as we think about, talk about, sing about, and pray about the offense of this ‘old cursed cross’. Won’t you join us, and bring a friend with you? Will you also pray for the Spirit’s work? There is no greater joy in my life than to sing with you and pray with you about this cross. In Christ, I love you.
For Christ and His Kingdom,