Last year a fifth grade student in a religious education class asked me to explain why we refer to the Friday of Holy Week as “Good Friday.” I explained to her that while I understood her distaste for the term, some Christians refer to that Friday as Good Friday because Jesus’ death on the cross anticipates the Resurrection and our salvation.
Her response: That’s no excuse!
One of the few themes that is consistent across the New Testament writings – the Gospels and the Pauline epistles – is the meaning of the cross. It is a term understood by the Orthodox, Catholics, high church protestants and evangelical Christians.
The cross is not merely two pieces of wood. Nor is it a symbol of death. The cross symbolizes the path or the way – the via dolorosa – that Jesus chose, in obedience to the Father, in order to redeem humankind.
Many non-Christians do not understand the use of the symbol of the cross. For some, the crucifix is particularly un-nerving, since it symbolizes the horrific tool that the Empire of Rome used to deal with those who were serious threats to its political stability. Crucifixion was used as a means of terror throughout the Empire until 337 C.E., when its use was banned by Constantine.
Paul uses the image of the cross twelve times in six books: 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Hebrew. In his letter to the Colossians, he uses classic terminology: our sins are “nailed to the cross.” Here is Colossians 2:13-15:
He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
I would discourage my readers from interpreting the “written code” to mean the works of the law. This interpretation is too narrow and misses a broader implication that Paul specifically alludes to here and there. The “written code” is the rule (slavery to sin) that governs this world (Mt 4:8-9) , rather than the next:
Again, the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
The “written code” is the law of sin (which is disobedience to God), which was introduced by man, and that alienates us from God and enslaves us to the Adversary (the accuser):
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned– for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. (Rom 5:12-14)
The cross does not merely triumph over the law in the narrow sense. It goes beyond that. The cross reverses the sin of Adam, and the damage done by the sin of our earliest ancestors. Where by Adam’s sin, paradise was lost, through the cross, humankind’s redemption was again made possible. I need not do more than quote Paul in Romans 5:18:
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to “take up the cross” in verses 10:38 and 16:24. Not only is it an exhortation to discipleship, but his words are also astonishingly accurate in the way they predict his own death. Biblical scholars such as R.T. France argue that the phrase to “take up the cross” must have been known to first-century Judeans, even before the trial of Jesus. He says that the historians Cicero (106 – 43 BCE) and Josephus (37-100 CE) spoke of crucifixion as a barbaric and notorious practice. The Romans did not merely crucify political enemies, they forced them to carry the cross through the streets as a further humiliation.
In John’s Gospel, the theology of the cross is referred to indirectly. Jesus alludes to his mission in the Gospels in gradual fashion, slowly and deliberately revealing to his disciples his purpose and destiny. Of course, his mission is “foolishness” for those who do not believe, but for the Christian believer, the cross (and the crucifixion) is a sign of triumph because it anticipates the Resurrection three days later.
“And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die. So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. Then how can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”
But perhaps Paul summarizes the meaning of the cross best when he speaks not of the cross, but of God’s decision to become like man and suffer the trials of a man:
Brothers and sisters: Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.