The answer to the meaning of the Cross depends on one’s understanding of the problem of sin.
Félix H. Cortez
The earliest surviving picture of a crucifixion is a graffito from the second century A.D. found on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It is a caricature of a crucified figure with the head of an ass. To the left, a man stands with his arm raised in worship. Underneath, an inscription says, “Alexamenos worships god.”1 The idea that a man found guilty and executed on a cross should be worshiped as God was offensive to the ancient mind. In fact, for them, it was the preeminent evidence of the absurdity of the Christian religion, and its enemies always referred to its shame with strong emphasis and malicious pleasure. They considered it atrocious.
Pliny the Younger, who as the Roman governor of Pontus-Bithynia interrogated a number of Christians at the beginning of the second century A.D., referred to Christianity as a form of mental illness and “a perverse and extravagant superstition.”2 His friend Tacitus, an important Roman historian who probably also interrogated Christians when he was the Roman governor of Asia, knew the shameful fate of its Founder and wrote that the “evil” He instigated spread too quickly in Rome “where all things hideous and shameful . . . become popular.”3
In the ancient world, the cross was a depraved and distasteful affair. Romans used it, but the sparse reference to it in their literature shows their aversion to it. They considered it a barbarian form of punishment and reserved it for rebels, violent criminals, robbers, and traitors provided “they were also slaves, foreigners, or other nonpersons.”4 Similarly, the Jews detested it. The Jewish law declared that a man impaled on the tree was cursed by God and should not remain there overnight because it would defile the land (Deut. 21:23). There is also evidence that slaves, prostitutes, and others from the lower classes used the word cross as a vulgar taunt. So Cicero argued that “the very word, ‘cross,’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.”5 Yet, of all the symbols Christians could have adopted, of all the images they used at the beginning of their history, it was the Cross that became the emblem of Christianity.
This seems absurd.
The first motifs that have been found in the Christian paintings in the catacombs were the peacock (supposedly symbolizing immortality), a dove, the athlete’s victory palm, and the fish—the Greek word for “fish” was an acronym for “Christ,” meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Later other themes appeared: Noah’s ark, Abraham sacrificing the ram instead of Isaac, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jonah being spewed out by the fish, a shepherd carrying a lamb, or depictions of miracles such as the healing of the paralytic and the raising of Lazarus. These were symbols of salvation, victory, and caring. The cross, on the other hand, conveyed a sense of defeat and shame and invited derision from both Jews and pagans (Heb. 12:2; Gal. 5:11). It was a challenge for mission—counterintuitive—and always difficult to explain (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). Yet it was the Cross that became the emblem of Christianity.
The Centrality of the Cross for the Gospel
Scripture asserts that the Cross was central to God’s plans. During His ministry, Jesus taught the disciples at least three times in plain, explicit language, that “‘the Son of Man must suffer many things and . . . be killed’” (Mark 8:31, ESV).6 He also alluded to His death at least eight other times. In addition, the Gospel of John registers seven references made by Jesus in the last week of His ministry to the “hour” of His death. The disciples, however, were unwilling to accept this idea.
The death of the Son of Man was a most astonishing idea. The title “Son of Man” identified Jesus with the glorious, heavenly figure of Daniel 7, who would receive dominion and a kingdom that would never be destroyed: “‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed’” (vss. 13, 14).
How could this glorious figure, beneficiary of God’s dominion over the kingdoms of the earth, be given into the hands of sinners and be executed by the powers from which He was destined to liberate His people? Yet Jesus asserted that the suffering, rejection, and death of the Son of Man were the specific reason for His coming to earth (John 12:27).
The disciples resisted this notion. Peter rebuked Jesus (Mark 8:32, 33; Matt. 16:22, 23), and the rest of the disciples, though distressed (Matt. 17:23; Mark 10:32), failed to understand because the whole matter was simply unthinkable (John 12:34). It was only after the Resurrection, when Jesus explained it from the Scriptures, that they finally understood (Luke 24:26, 44). Therefore, it was because of Jesus’ own teaching and emphasis that the Cross became central to the apostles’ preaching (Acts 1:16; 17:3). Paul called the gospel simply “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), and the Gospels devote so much attention to the Passion that they could be considered Passion narratives with extended introductions. Thus, Scripture attests that the Cross was not simply the result of capricious historical forces or the vileness of Jesus’ enemies but the outworking of God’s purpose.
The centrality of the Cross to the gospel can be understood only in the context of the great controversy between good and evil. This is suggested by the fact that, in addition to the normal Greek noun translated as “cross,” New Testament authors referred to the Cross with the noun translated as “tree” (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24). The use of the word tree for the Cross is very significant because it refers back to two important notions of the Old Testament.
The first of these is that by calling the Cross a “tree,” New Testament authors clearly meant that Jesus died under the curse of God according to Deuteronomy 21:23. This point is clearly made in Galatians 3:13. The second is a little more subtle but no less significant. By calling the Cross a “tree,” the apostles alluded to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the Garden of Eden, suggesting that what Adam and Eve lost by their disobedience at that tree was recovered by Jesus’ obedience at the Cross. Paul makes this point explicitly in Romans 5, arguing that while Satan obtained a major victory at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God obtained the decisive victory at Calvary.
This connection between Jesus’ death on the Cross and Adam and Eve’s fall in Eden is crucial to understanding of what was achieved at the Cross and will provide the foundational perspective to study what He accomplished there. Jesus and the New Testament authors asserted that the Cross was the evidence of God’s wisdom and righteousness, the moment of God’s victory over—and subjugation of—the forces of evil, and the revelation of God’s glory. All of these were an irrefutable response to Satan’s allegations at the tree.
The Tree in the Middle of the Garden
When God created Adam and Eve, He put them in the garden He had planted in Eden. This garden contained every kind of tree that was “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). In the midst of the garden were also the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (vs. 9). The tree of life symbolized the truth that all life comes from God as a gift. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was denied to Adam and Eve (3:3), symbolized the sovereignty of God over the universe. It was a reminder that though God had given humans dominion over everything, they themselves were under the benevolent rule of God.
The significance of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can be understood only in the context of God’s purpose in the creation of humanity. “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (1:26).
Scripture suggests that the image of God included moral, physical, relational, and functional aspects of the human nature and role. This passage, however, explicitly relates God’s image in humanity to humanity’s relationship to creation. Just as God has dominion over the universe, He also gave humans dominion over the world. In referring to the creation of humans, Psalm 8 describes them as “crowned . . . with glory and honor,” having “dominion over the works of your [God’s] hands,” and, therefore, made just a little lower than God Himself (vss. 5, 6). The earliest readers of the Bible would not have missed the significance of this divine action.
Ancient Near Eastern rulers had the practice of erecting an image of themselves in the lands over which they claimed dominion. One such image, dated to the ninth century B.C., and found in Tell Fakhariyeh, had an inscription in Aramaic and Assyrian. The inscription explained that this was the “image” and “likeness” (the same terms used in Genesis 1:26) of King Haddu-yisi.7 Thus, it was manifest to them that God had created human beings in His image and placed them as rulers on earth to signal His own dominion over creation. The fact that Adam is called a “son of God” (Luke 3:38) has similar implications. Ancient Near Eastern rulers often identified themselves as sons of God, implying that their authority to rule was derived from the gods.
Genesis records that humanity’s dominion was to be exercised literally by serving and protecting the earth (2:15). Jesus would later affirm this ideal when He taught His disciples: “‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave’” (Matt. 20:26, 27). Genesis also tells us that God blessed Adam and Eve and commanded them: “‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen. 1:28). The plan was that, through their service and protection, God’s blessing would flow to all creation. God’s purpose was that His own benevolent rule (referred to in the New Testament as “the kingdom of God”) would be mediated and extended to all creation through the administration of Adam and Eve.
The exalted position of humanity and the significance of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil help us to understand the gravity of humanity’s sin. The serpent asserted that, contrary to God’s warning, humans would not die should they eat of the tree; instead, they would become “‘like God, knowing good and evil’” (3:5). By eating of the tree, Adam and Eve accepted the serpent’s allegation that God was not as loving as He claimed to be and demonstrated that they believed, instead, that God was selfishly retaining a benefit that was rightfully theirs. They also implied that God was not as righteous as He said He was and that they believed, instead, that God would not destroy them for eating from the tree. Most important, they rebelled against God. Unsatisfied with their exalted position as administrators of the world, they attempted to become God themselves. They did not want to remain in God’s image; they wanted to be rulers (gods) in their own right. In short, it was an attempted coup d’état. The irony was, however, that in their attempt to free themselves from their responsibility to God, they fell under the dominion of the serpent, and Satan became the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). These two things—the impeachment of God’s character and the dispute over the dominion of the world—are at the core of the great controversy between God and Satan. These issues would be solved only at the Cross.
God did not abandon Adam and Eve to their fate when they rebelled. He promised a Seed to the woman; a Son who would destroy the serpent by crushing its head with His heel. He also predicted that, in the same act, the serpent would kill the Son through His heel (Gen. 3:15).
God also looked for ways to benefit the world through faithful individuals and their families, as had been His intention through Adam. Noah was the first of such individuals. When God had to destroy humanity because of its wickedness, He found in Noah a righteous person through whom He would provide a means of salvation from the Flood (Genesis 6). After the Flood, God confirmed to Noah and his family the promises made to Adam. Humanity would continue to have dominion over the animals; God blessed them and commanded them to “‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (9:1, 2), as He had in Genesis 1:26 to 28. The purpose of this covenant was to bless and protect creation. That is why God considered this covenant to be not only between Him and Noah but also between Him and creation (9:8–17). After the rebellion at the Tower of Babel, God called Abraham in order that through his seed—meaning “descendant” or “descendants”—God would bless all the families of the earth. God offered this as a turning point in the history of humanity. The word curse has been used five times up to this point (Gen. 3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25), but God used the word bless five times in His promises to Abraham. His purpose was to bless “‘all the families of the earth’” through Abraham (12:3). So God promised to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation, to multiply them, and to make them exceedingly fruitful to bless all the nations of the earth (12:1‒3; 15:5, 6; 17:4, 6; 22:16–18).
Like Adam in the beginning, Israel would become God’s son (Ex. 4:22). God wanted to put Israel at the head of the nations and bless it abundantly and through it rule the world (Deut. 28:1–14). Israel at the head of the nations would fulfill a role of service. The Israelites would be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Ex. 19:5, 6). It would fulfill the priestly functions of mediating the knowledge of God to the nations and blessing them in His name (Deut. 10:8; Num. 6:22–27). Nevertheless, Israel failed. The Israelites wanted to be like the nations around them and requested a king. By doing so, they rejected God’s rule over them (1 Samuel 8).
After the failure of Saul, Israel’s first king, God found in David a man according to His own heart (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). He made a covenant with him and his seed. He promised to give David’s seed the throne of Israel and adopted David’s offspring as His own (2 Sam. 7:13, 14). David immediately understood that this covenant was not only with him, but also for all humanity through him (vs. 19). The Davidic king would be “the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27), and also have a priestly role (110:4). He would rule over the kings of the earth and defeat and discipline those who opposed God, but God would bless those who took refuge in Him (2:7–12). Sadly, the Davidic kings failed at times, and God had to “remove the turban and take off the crown” (Ezek. 21:26) until One would come through whom He would accomplish His purpose.
The turning point in the tragic story of human sin and failure finally came at the Cross. God gave His own Son to the human race as the greatest gift of love and grace to raise human beings from the depths of their debased condition. Jesus adopted human nature and was born as the Seed of the woman (Luke 3:23–38), the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), and the Son of David (Luke 1:32, 33). His mission was to recover what Adam had lost and fulfill the mission Israel and the Davidic kings had failed to accomplish. Scripture’s descriptions of the achievements of the Cross are multifaceted, because they were God’s solution to a multifaceted problem. At the Cross, Jesus paid the penalty for Adam’s rebellion, but He also defeated the devil, recovered the lost dominion over the world, and laid to rest forever the doubts raised regarding God’s character of love and righteousness. Thus, the tragedy in the Garden of Eden, with its devastating and wide-ranging consequences, found a unified and astonishing solution at the Cross, whose meaning and depth has been the focus of intense research ever since Jesus died, and will continue to be the focus throughout eternity.
The Cross and the Wrath of God
The Bible teaches that Jesus died under the wrath of God at the Cross. Divine wrath is a relational concept. Scripture relates God’s presence to both the highest good of Israel and the ultimate penalty for sin. So God punished His people by forsaking them (Hosea 1:9; Zech. 7:13, 14; Num. 32:15), withdrawing His presence (Hosea 5:6; Isa. 1:15; Zech. 7:13), or hiding His face (Deut. 31:17, 18; 32:20; Micah 3:4; Ps. 89:46), which resulted in catastrophes and defeat. Note the following lament: “‘How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” (Ps. 89:46; italics supplied).
Jesus’ and Paul’s descriptions of the penalty for sin included both aspects. Jesus described the punishment for sin both as the breaking of a relationship—the wicked will be rejected and barred from the kingdom and left in outer darkness—as well as retribution and destruction. Similarly, Paul described divine wrath in terms of the breakdown of the relationship between God and sinners and destruction. Romans 1:18 to 32 affirms that the wrath of God results from humanity’s suppression of the truth and that, as a result, God gives people up to the lusts of their hearts, to their degrading passions, and to their debased minds (vss. 24, 26, 28). Wrath, then, is a life devoid of God, given over to sin, whose final destiny is complete exclusion from a relationship with God (Rom. 9:3; 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Paul also described this punishment as the total extinction of sinners. The wicked, he warned, would die (Rom. 6:21, 23), perish (2:12), and be destroyed (Gal. 6:8; 1 Cor. 3:17). They will never come back, for their destruction will be “eternal” (2 Thess. 1:9). Thus, the most profound manifestation of God’s wrath is the termination of a relationship, which results in destruction.
This relational understanding of the wrath of God helps to explain why divine punishment is both the normal consequence of committing evil deeds as well as an act of God. Though it is true that final, eternal punishment is God’s abandonment of the sinner, which results in destruction, this abandonment is the outcome of the sinner’s previous abandonment of God. Therefore, by destroying sinners, God honors their freedom to choose to be without Him forever. Death is the penalty for sin (Rom. 1:32; 5:12; 6:23) because it separates from God those who have intentionally separated themselves from Him, the Source of life.
Scripture asserts that Jesus died under the wrath of God. Jesus was hanged on a tree (the Cross), which, according to Deuteronomy 21:23, meant that God had cursed Him. Jesus described His death on the Cross as a cup He had to drink (Matt. 26:39). The Old Testament authors often describe God’s judgment upon the wicked as a cup He gives them to drink: “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, . . . and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Ps. 75:8).
The Gospels also say that Jesus was “rejected” (Mark 8:31), delivered over “‘to the Gentiles’” (10:33), mocked at the Cross, forsaken by God (15:34), left in total darkness (vs. 33), and finally destroyed (John 19:33, 34), all of which were signs of the wrath of God in the Old Testament.8
But why did Jesus die as a convicted criminal under the judgment of God if He never committed any sin (Heb. 2:17, 18; 4:15; 7:26–28; 9:14)? He died this death because He suffered God’s wrath in our place. For Jesus, the Cross was the dreadful moment in which God’s wrath on humanity’s sin would be poured on Him without mercy. According to Paul, Jesus redeemed us from the curse “by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). He was referring to the curse upon those who broke the covenant (Deut. 27:26) and the curse upon humanity and creation as a result of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16–19). He also said that Jesus became sin so that we might “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21) and be saved from His wrath (Rom. 5:9, 10). As I. Howard Marshall explains, “It is hard to understand this [Christ’s becoming sin for us] in any other way than that in dying Christ exhausted the effects of divine wrath against sin.”9 According to Scripture, Jesus bore the ultimate penalty for sin in our stead (Rom. 5:6, 8; 2 Corinthians 5:21) and experienced in our place the eternal punishment reserved for the wicked (1 Tim. 2:5, 6; 1 John 2:2). Ironically, this action of bearing our sins reveals Jesus’ divine identity because in the Old Testament, only God can bear our sins. He is the only One who can forgive, because He bears our sin (Ex. 32:32; Isa. 43:24, 25).
We may wonder why God would not simply forgive Adam and Eve when they sinned against Him. The problem is that Adam’s sin was more than a personal affront against God. It was, in fact, a challenge to God’s rule and the moral order of the universe. The existence of order in the universe depends, in the end, on the divine reaction to a breach of that order. If no reaction followed a breach of order in the universe, then “there would be no seriousness in the world at all; there would be no meaning in anything, no order, no stability; the world order would fall into ruins; chaos and desolation would be supreme. All order in the world depends upon the inviolability of his [God’s] honour, upon the certitude that those who rebel against him will be punished.”10
The principle of love and service to others is foundational to the well-being of creation. Adam and Eve introduced to this world selfishness and distrust, which are devastating to the order of the universe and human well-being. There is a notion in the Old Testament that “a wicked action—just like laws of nature which operate so that an action inevitably is followed by a reaction—inevitably results in disastrous consequences.”11 This is especially clear in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, which suggests that evil actions have destructive, built-in consequences. Evil actions have in themselves a weight that weighs down the sinner (Ps. 38:4; 40:12). Thus, sin engenders sadness and tragedy, but the commandments of God are a blessing, a gift, and a wisdom (Deut. 4:5, 6; Isa. 48:18). God cannot tolerate sin. If He loves his children, He will eliminate it. Thus, God’s very love for creation requires the destruction of evil. Sin cannot be tolerated; it must be eradicated.
Scripture balances both God’s wrath against sin and His love for the sinner by describing Jesus’ death on the Cross as a sacrifice in which He substituted His life for ours. He died so that we don’t have to die eternally. In the Levitical system, when people sinned, they could bring an animal to be offered as a sacrifice to make atonement, namely, to bring reconciliation between himself and God: “If he brings a lamb as his offering . . . he shall . . . lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill it. . . . [So] the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven” (Lev. 4:32–35). The sacrifice substituted the life of an innocent animal for the life of the sinner (17:11). Isaiah 53:7 had predicted that the Messiah, God’s servant, would be “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” Thus, John the Baptist called Jesus the “‘Lamb of God’” because as a sacrifice for sin, He would carry the sins of the world (John 1:29, 36). Jesus died at the hour of the sacrifice of the paschal lamb. It was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that God would lay on the Messiah “the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); number Him “with the transgressors” (vs. 12); and “crush him” (vs. 10). This is why Isaiah 53, which explains the death of the Messiah as a sacrificial death in the place of the deaths of many, was the most important Old Testament passage for the New Testament writers. So Jesus died giving His life as a sacrificial death (Mark 10:45; Eph. 5:2; 1 Cor. 5:7, 8; Rev. 5:6, 12; 7:14).
The Cross and the Victory of God
Scripture also affirms that Jesus defeated Satan at the Cross and delivered us from his power. When Adam and Eve sinned at the tree in the midst of the garden, they not only committed an offense that required atonement but also became subjugated under the power of an enemy, which required deliverance. Adam’s sin was not only a crime but also a defeat. Romans 5:12 to 21 says that because of the sin of one man, death reigned over all human beings—all sinned. Adam’s transgression was similar to being infected with a mortal disease that was then transmitted to all humanity because no one had the resources to fight it. Thus, humanity was subjugated under the power of evil (2 Cor. 4:4; Ephesians 2:2). Paul showed this to be evident by the fact that even though human beings may want to do what the law says, they cannot because there is a law in their flesh that wars against them and makes them captive to the law of sin (Rom. 7:14–25).
Death reigns because humanity is powerless before sin. And sin is the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:56). These are the factors that made possible Satan’s oppressive rule over humanity (Heb. 2:14, 15). Satan rules over us by tempting and deceiving us into sin, and then by accusing us, which results in death. In this sense, he has the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Thus, George Smeaton argues that “sin was the ground of Satan’s dominion, the sphere of his power, and the secret of his strength.”12
God promised, however, that this subjugation would not be total and would finally be overcome. There would be “‘enmity’” between the serpent and the woman and her descendants, and one of her descendants would smash the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). This was accomplished at the Cross, where Jesus defeated Satan, the usurping ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).
When Jesus began His ministry on earth, it was very clear that He had come to destroy the power of the enemy. He cast out demons (Mark 1:23–25) and healed sicknesses (Matt. 4:23, 24), and nature recognized His lordship (Mark 4:39). His disciples also participated in this assault on the enemy. When they told Jesus how the demons were subjected to them in His name, He told them: “‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’” (Luke 10:18). He later explained His power over demons as that of a “‘stronger’” man who “‘overcomes’” his adversary and “‘divides his spoil’” (Luke 11:22).
The victory over Satan was achieved at the Cross. Three times Jesus said that Satan would be overthrown at the Cross (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Ironically, Jesus defeated Satan by dying on the Cross. Hebrews says that “through death” Jesus destroyed the one who had “the power of death, that is, the devil” (2:14). Paul explained this in the following way: God gave us life “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the Cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:14, 15). The power of Satan resided in humanity’s helplessness to overcome sin and the legal demand of death for those who sinned. But Jesus stripped Satan’s weapons from him by living a perfect life and by satisfying the legal demands against humanity. Thus, Scripture relates Satan’s defeat to God’s ability to forgive sins because of the Cross of Christ.
The original sin of Adam and Eve was that they rebelled against God at the tree when trying to become like God and take His place. The Son of God, however, took human form and was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). The defeat suffered by Adam and Eve at the tree in the middle of the garden was redeemed by the victory of the Second Adam at the Cross. The rebellion at the first tree was solved by total obedience at the second “tree.” Satan had been tireless in his attempts to make Jesus sin, but Jesus defeated him (John 14:30; Heb. 4:15). He tempted Jesus repeatedly to avoid the Cross but was rebuked (Mark 8:31–33). Finally, when Jesus hung on the Cross, Satan made desperate attempts to get Him to come down from it (Matt. 27:39–50), but Jesus refused. When Jesus said, “‘It is finished’” (John 19:30), He stripped Satan of his power and exposed before the universe his weakness.
The victory over sin and death was not achieved at the Resurrection, but at the Cross. Jesus rose from the dead because He had achieved the victory at the Cross. The Resurrection was a demonstration of that victory. And we are invited to participate in Jesus’ victory. Paul says that Jesus “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4). As the church preaches the gospel, the victory of Jesus is extended to those who believe in Him (2 Cor. 10:3–5) and will be consummated in the end when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10).
Jesus’ victory at the Cross was total, and we are invited to enjoy its benefits. We can overcome the devil thanks to the Cross (Rev. 12:11). Our victories do not add anything to Jesus’ victory; they serve only as corroborating evidence that Jesus stripped Satan of his weapons and defeated him at the Cross. Jesus conquered, and we enjoy the benefits.
The Cross and the Glory of God
Finally, Scripture also affirms that the Cross revealed the glory of God and the Son. When Jesus died, the veil of the temple, which protected the people from the glory of God, was torn in two, revealing the Most Holy Place, which represented the throne room of God (Matt. 27:51). Among other things, this was a powerful symbol that the Cross had given us the possibility to look closely at God and into His rule. Jesus expressed this clearly in the Gospel of John. When some Greeks requested to see Him, Jesus said, “‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’” (12:23) and then explained that this would be accomplished through His death (vss. 24–28). Also, when Judas had left the upper room to lead those who would apprehend Him, Jesus said, “‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him’” (13:31).
Finally, in His last prayer before dying, Jesus said, “‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you’” (17:1). In each case, the reference to the Cross was indisputable. Jesus Himself had said at the beginning of His ministry that He would be “‘lifted up’” just as Moses “‘lifted up the serpent in the wilderness’” (3:14), implying both the manner of His death and its significance. He would die on a cross, but that would be, in fact, an exaltation—a glorification.
Similarly, Paul asserted that God gave His Son to die on the Cross to demonstrate both His justice and His love, that is, to reveal His character. Jesus’ death on the cross “was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25, 26; italics supplied). A couple of chapters later Paul added, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8; italics supplied). The Cross was, therefore, a revelatory act.
This understanding of the Cross actually substantiates John’s assertion at the beginning of his Gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This assertion is very significant. It is an allusion to God’s proclamation of His glory to Moses at the mountain (Ex. 34:6). John’s expression “full of grace and truth” reflects the Hebrew expression in Exodus, “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” These are covenantal terms. Love refers to the firm loyalty that characterizes relationships between relatives, friends, and others with whom one is bound by ties of love and honor. Faithfulness refers to the truth that was spoken when a covenant was made and that is evidenced in acts of loyalty according to the covenant terms.
Our relationship with God has always been based on a covenant relationship of trust and love with Him. Adam broke this covenant (Hosea 6:7), but God maintained it with Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:9), Abraham (Gen. 15:18), Israel (Ex. 24:7, 8), and David (2 Sam. 7:8–16; 23:5) and finally restored it fully through Jesus (Luke 22:20). God’s protection and blessings have always shown that He is a loyal and loving God. His judgments upon the trespassers, however, also show that He spoke “truth” when He made the covenant with them. Thus, Paul says that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17), because the Cross revealed the depth of God’s love as well as His unmovable commitment to truth and justice. It revealed His righteousness, because at the Cross He punished fully the transgressions of the wicked. This commitment to truth was so strong that it could result only in God’s full wrath poured on His own Son, who died in our place (Rom. 3:21–26).
But the Cross also revealed the depth of God’s love for us. His commitment to us was so strong that not even the worst of our rebellions and betrayals shook His commitment to our salvation. Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). The Cross shows, then, that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
Ironically, the Cross reveals not only God’s love and righteousness but also His greatness and power. According to the Old Testament, God is glorified by His actions. The most important of these are creation and the liberation of Israel from Egypt. “The heavens” (Ps. 19:1), the animals (vs. 9), and “the whole earth” (Isa. 6:3), that is, all of God’s creation, proclaim His glory. Even Solomon, with all his glory, could not match the glory of the lilies of the field and of the grass, the most simple of God’s creations (Matt. 6:28, 29). God also revealed His glory when He delivered Israel from Egypt (Num. 14:22), and the prophets predicted that God’s glory would be revealed again when God would bring Israel out of Babylon and restore it to its land. They considered this both a new exodus and a new creation. Jesus revealed His glory by performing powerful miracles (John 2:11; 11:4, 40), but His greatest act was His victory on the Cross (as described earlier), which New Testament authors considered both a new exodus (Luke 9:31) and a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
Jesus also explained that greatness is attained differently in the kingdom of God than in the world. When James and John, the sons of Zebedee, said to Jesus, “‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’” (Mark 10:37), they were thinking that Jesus, being the Son of Man, would be gloriously given “dominion and glory and a kingdom” by the “Ancient of Days” in fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 7:13 and 14. But Jesus knew that, paradoxically, this glory would be attained at the Cross (Mark 10:33, 34). Thus, He asked the brothers whether they could drink the cup that He would drink (vs. 38). This cup was the cup of God’s wrath that He accepted at Gethsemane as the only way to save humanity (Mark 14:34–42). Then He explained to them that the greatest in the kingdom of God, the one who exercises dominion and authority, is the servant and slave of all (Mark 10:42–45). This reminds us of Adam, who was given dominion over creation but whose function was to “keep” (serve) creation (Gen. 2:15), and especially of the Messiah, the servant of Yahweh, who would reveal “the arm of the Lord” (Isa. 53:1) and be highly exalted; and who also, paradoxically (at least for us), was burdened like a slave with our sins and grief (Isa. 52:13–53:12).
In the kingdom of God, the greatest is the one who serves. Thus, God Himself, who “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness” (Isa. 40:22, 23). The One who created the universe “by the greatness of his might” and who “is strong in power” (vs. 26) was ““burdened” with our sins and “wearied” with our iniquities (43:24). The Hebrew term for “burdened” means “to serve” and is the source of the noun servant or slave. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows is Yahweh, the Creator of the universe, who has dominion over all. Thus, the Cross also revealed the greatness of God, because it was in this act of deepest service that His role as Head over the universe was expressed. Adam and Eve forfeited their exalted position by wanting to become God and rule in their own right when they ate of the tree, but the Son of God exalted His name above every name when He became a man and died as a slave for the benefit of all (Phil. 2:5–11). There is no greater act than this.
This paradox of God’s kingdom—exaltation and victory are achieved through sacrifice and abasement—was an integral part of the greatest Messianic prophecies. The Seed of the woman would smash the head of the serpent by having His own heel bruised (Gen. 3:15). A “‘star’” would rise from the “‘dust of Jacob’” (Num. 24:17; 23:10). A “‘son’” would be born to a “‘virgin’” (Isa. 7:14). “‘An anointed one’” would be “‘cut off’” and “‘have nothing’” (Dan. 9:26). A “‘servant’” would be highly “‘exalted’” and “‘crushed’” by God (Isa. 52:13‒53:12).
By revealing both His power and the depth of His love and righteousness through Jesus’ death on the Cross, God got to the bottom of the problem of sin, to its very root. The serpent had affirmed at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that, contrary to God’s warning, humans would not die should they eat of the tree. Instead, they would become “‘like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gen. 3:5).
At the root of the problem of evil is distrust of God—of His motives and His actions. The serpent had impeached God’s character of love and righteousness and misrepresented the nature of His rule. These two things, the impeachment of God’s character and the dispute over the dominion of the world, are at the core of the great controversy between God and Satan, between good and evil. But Jesus cleared God’s name (John 12:27, 28). At the Cross, He demonstrated that God loves us, is loyal to us, and is committed to justice and truth even at the cost of His own life. Jesus also demonstrated the true nature of His government—that His rulership consists of service.
This is why there is power and wisdom in the cross (1 Cor. 1:18–31). The love and righteousness demonstrated there compel us in ways that nothing else can (2 Cor. 5:14). The Cross reveals that only God can satisfy our deepest desires. It demonstrates that God loves us more than His own life, that we belong and are cherished by Him despite our shortcomings and transgressions, and that we are safe because His rule is benevolent and trustworthy.
What did Jesus accomplish on the Cross? The answer to this question depends on one’s understanding of the problem of sin. The Cross was the solution to the problems that arose from the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What was lost in the tree of knowledge of good and evil was recovered on the Cross. On the Cross, Jesus endured the full measure of God’s wrath against our sins in our place so that we could be restored to a righteous relationship with God. At the Cross, Jesus defeated and mastered the enemy, liberating us from the power of sin and death and recovering for us our dominion over the world. At the Cross, Jesus revealed the full measure of God’s love and righteousness. Because of that supreme revelation, we have learned to trust and love Him.
There has always been a resistance to the Cross both inside and outside Christianity. Paul argued that the circumcision party that opposed the gospel and those whose minds were set on earthly things wanted to rid themselves from the offense of the Cross (Gal. 6:12; Phil. 3:18, 19). Later, Docetism, an early Christian heresy, argued that Jesus did not actually die on the Cross but only seemed to die. Similarly, Islam also denies that Jesus died on the Cross—only that His enemies thought He did. For Islam, the Cross is inappropriate for a major prophet of God, and the Koran rejects the notion that the Cross was necessary, declaring, at least five times, that “no soul shall bear another’s burden.”13 Hindus, on the other hand, accept the historicity of the Cross but reject its saving significance. Gandhi once wrote, “I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept.”14 Philosophers have also struggled with the Cross. Nietzsche, toward the end of the 19th century, rejected Christianity as decadent because of its sympathy toward the weak, and contemptuously dismissed Jesus as “God on the cross.”15
Yet, during all this time and despite all the attacks, the Cross has remained the center of the Christian faith and message. Yes, we glory only in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14) because it is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–31).
Félix H. Cortez, PhD, is Associate Professor of New Testament Literature at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES