This is the first part of a ten-part series. For more information, see the introduction.
Approaching the Cross
The first of four sections of the book is titled Approaching the Cross. Stott lets us dip our toes, as it were, into the cross-shaped pool we’ll explore more deeply later in the book. He does so in three chapters, which I have summarised as follows:
1.The Centrality of the Cross
Christians used a number of symbols before settling on the cross, the best-known of which is probably the ichthys, or fish. Not until around 200 AD did the cross appear as a symbol for Christianity (the crucifix, i.e. a cross with the figure of Christ attached, did not appear until the 6th century). The choice of this symbol is surprising, considering the ancient world’s view of crucifixion. In Roman culture, one couldn’t even mention it in polite company. The Jews, of course, considered it accursed (Deut 21:23).
Faced with the reviling and ridicule they endured, why didn’t the early Christians opt for something less controversial? They understood the centrality of the Cross to Christianity. This predominant position occupied by the cross was introduced by none other than Jesus himself. In the Gospels, he frequently alluded to his betrayal, death and subsequent resurrection (e.g. Mark 8:31-32; 9:31; 10:32-34). The apostles pick up on this, and Paul, for example, resolves to know nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). More proof on the importance of the cross is found in Revelation. As someone said, “Heaven can’t get over the cross”, referring to the song sang by the thousands upon thousands of angels, the living creatures and the elders in Revelation 5:11-14.
Even today, despite the ongoing repudiation ( a contemporary atheist describes it as “divine child-abuse”), and even trivialisation (think of rappers with their blingy-bling) of the Cross, it hasn’t been emptied of its significance and power.
2. Why did Christ die?
Who was responsible for his death? There are a number of responses, depending on how one approaches the question. We could look to the human participants—the Roman soldiers, Pilate, the Jewish people and their priests, Judas Iscariot— as culpable parties. All are held responsible by the writers of the gospels to some extent, with the exception of the Roman soldiers. Judas handed Jesus over to the priests; the priests handed him over to Pilate; Pilate handed him over to the soldiers who crucified him (they were simply following orders).
The ultimate response, however, is God. The Father gave the Son up, and the Son gave himself up to die for us. It was a deliberate act and it had to be done because of our sin. As Stott says: “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance)”.
3. Looking below the surface
What was so important about the cross that God planned it beforehand, and Christ endured it? The answer to this is progressive:
- Christ died for us: the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep—for their benefit
- Christ died for us that he might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18)—the beneficial purpose was reconciliation.
- Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3, 1 Peter 3:18, Heb 9:26, Rev 1:5-6)
- Christ died our death—He endured the penalty our sins deserved (Rom 6:23)
At the last supper, Jesus taught at least three lessons:
- the centrality of his death: In instituting the Lord’s Supper, he was saying that we are to remember him by his death.
- the purpose of his death: His blood was the blood of the new covenant, as prophesied by Jeremiah.
- the need to appropriate his death personally: He involved the disciples, blessing and breaking the bread and passing it on to them; blessing the cup and passing it on to them. They had to eat and drink (John 6:53-55). In the same way, we have to receive God’s gifts by faith.
In conclusion, says Stott, the cross enforces three truths—about ourselves, about God and about Jesus Christ:
- our sin must be extremely horrible
- God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension
- Christ’s salvation must be a free gift