The Victory of the Cross

By Neil Earle

Rome’s greatest orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, once said: “Even the mere word, cross, must remain far not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their ears.”

The sheer abominableness of execution on the cross was so hideous that Roman citizens were spared its fate. When the Spartacus slave rebellion was put down in 70BC the Romans lined the Appian Way to the imperial city with 6000 crosses – a scene grimly restaged in the famous Kirk Douglas movie of 1960.

Ugh – what a memory.

Rome Rules – or does she?

Then, in 6AD, a Galilean rebel named Judas led an army against Rome, captured a major city not far from Nazareth, was finally defeated and saw 2000 of his people crucified. Some have even speculated that Joseph the carpenter and his little son Jesus – down the road in Nazareth – may have been busy cutting wood for all those crosses. A jarring thought. It was upon this wooden instrument of sheer torture that the One Christian’s believe was Savior of the world was hounded to his death, in full public view, naked and disgraced, the insults of the passers-by added to the ignominy.

In every way, the unadorned contemplation of the cross is most uncomfortable. The Romans intended crucifixion to be the supreme object lesson of their power and authority over the whole world.

What could have possessed the Christians, then, to take this as their preeminent symbol?

In his writings, Paul the apostle practically revels in the idea of the cross.

“God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of Christ,” he said (Galatians 6:14) and he really lived those words.

He came preaching not fancy words flowered by Greek oratory, but touting the simplicity of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:16).

In Galatians 6:12 he says he was persecuted for preaching the message of the cross. His enemies are labeled “the enemies of the cross” (Philippians 3:18).

The astute Paul knew of course that this message was controversial. He knew the setting forth of the hated cross was an offense to First Century people (Galatians 5:11). He knew his sophisticated Greek audiences saw the argument as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Why then did Paul speak this way?

Rome’s Power Limited

A Roman centurion changed his mind about Jesus.

Paul knew that the Romans saw the cross as their brutal emblem of political control – “Don’t mess with Rome!” But it was for the very reason that the death of Jesus Christ was so thoroughly carried out by the Romans that Paul saw Jesus’ resurrection from a humiliating, certified, public death as the plainest statement that it was God, not men, who ruled in the Kingdoms of this world. To the Ephesians Paul wrote about God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe”.

And how was that power manifested?

“That power is like the working of his mighty strength which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:19-21).

The “title” not mentioned here of course is “Caesar” and the power and dominion that the Romans thought belonged to them was ultimately in the hands of the One who went from the cross to the tomb to the upper room and back to heaven again. Jesus was even ruling and conquering from the cross. He converted the thief on his right hand and when a hardened Roman solider saw the darkness, felt the earthquake and saw Jesus in control of the scene he blurted out “Surely, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

So the victory of the cross consisted in showing the world rulers who really was in charge. Jesus was arrested and crucified in great weakness but the weakness of God was stronger the n the might of Rome. The Jewish leaders could not end his preaching, the Romans could not ultimately kill him and the grave could not hold him. The cross begins the process whereby God reminds his people through all time exactly who rules this world and it is not the devil and his minions.

The Cross as Boundary Marker

The cross also stood symbolically as ushering in a new era between God and humanity. Whereas the Temple and the Levitical system had been God’s main way of communicating with people on an institutional level, now the Cross would replace the sometimes stringent dictates of Torah. To any Jews willing to embrace Jesus they had to leave the religion of Moses to whom they had given loyalty and go symbolically outside the Jerusalem city gates where Jesus was crucified (Hebrews 1313).

By doing so converted Jews – Peter and Andrew, James and John and the women who followed them – accepted the reproach of the cross. They had to acknowledge the One as Lord and God whom the Romans considered a traitor and the Sanhedrin a blasphemer That took the kind of believing faith that could only be given to us by God. As Jesus told Peter, this knowledge comes not from flesh and blood (Matthew 16:17).

Our Brother in Suffering

The cross also stands as a reassuring symbol for those who suffer in the name of Jesus. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann (pictured, left) saw after narrowly surviving World War Two and being interned in a prisoner of war camp, thinking his life was at an end the downward spiral was only halted by his reading the words of the dying Jesus on the cross. “When I came to Jesus’ death cry (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) I knew: this is the one who understands you and is beside you when everyone else has abandoned you…I began to understand the suffering, assailed and God-forsaken Jesus, because I felt that he understood me. And I grasped that this Jesus is the divine Brother in our distress. He brings hope to the prisoners and the abandoned. He is the one who delivers us from the guilt that weighs us down and robs us of every kind future.” (Jesus Christ for Today’s World, page 2).

Moltman knew that the crucified Jesus was our Brother in suffering and the Liberator from guilt. Jesus offered his generation liberation from the guilt of the Nazi concentration camps. There was healing and forgiveness available even after the Holocaust. The Jewish Messiah hanging on a cross offered with his outstretched hands the healing that flows from God, the blood issuing from his wounded side.

“At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light” – the old hymn still rings true. Thank God for the cross of Christ.