Choosing the symbol
Almost every religion and ideology has a symbol. The Jews have the Star of David, to remind them that a Messiah will come from that king's line. The Muslims have the Crescent (or slice of the moon), which symbolises the sovereignty of Allah. The Soviets had the hammer and sickle, signifying the union of worker and peasant, and of factory and field. The central symbol for Christians is the cross.
The cross was not always the main symbol for Christians. You see, many early Christians were persecuted and the cross would have been a dangerous symbol to choose. For the cross had a direct association with Jesus. So the Christians used more subtle symbols, like the fish. Only the initiated would know that the fish (Icthus) was a Greek acronym for 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.'
But from at least the second century onwards Christians drew, painted and engraved the cross. They also made the sign of the cross on themselves and others. Although the crucifix (a cross with a figure of Christ attached to it) does not appear to have been used before the sixth century.
One key moment in the church's use of the cross came with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. He was the Roman Emperor in the fourth century. Whether or not Constantine was actually born again is open to debate, he certainly was not exempt from corruption and violence, even killing his own wife and son. The evening before Constantine went into a famous battle he apparently claimed to have see a cross of light in the sky along with the words 'conquer by this sign.' He immediately adopted the cross as his sign and had it emblazoned on the standards of his army.
Is the cross the best symbol to use?
So if the cross was not the first most common symbol of Christianity and is owes some of its prominence to a corrupt emperor is it the best symbol for us to use? Without doubt it is! For the cross is central to our message. As P. T. Forsyth, a congregational minister, wrote in 1909, 'You do not understand Christ till you understand his cross.'
Roman people of that time would have considered the cross a strange symbol for a religion to use. After all crucifixion was a most shameful and humiliating way to die. It was reserved for the worst criminals. Could you imagine a religion setting up in America that had the symbol of an electric chair or the needle from a lethal injection? Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion and were discouraged from speaking about it in polite company. What a strange we are to always want to be reminded of the death of our king!
Jewish people from that time also regarded crucifixion with horror. They made no distinction between a tree and a cross, and so applied the words of Deuteronomy that stated, 'anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse' (Deut. 21:23). Jews could not bring themselves to accept that God's Messiah would die under God's curse. However, the apostle Paul taught the Galatian Christians, explaining, 'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole”' (Galatians 3:13). He was cursed for our sin!
The first three gospels are sometimes referred to a the synoptic gospels because of the similarities between them. These synoptic gospels devote between a quarter and a third of their words to the days surrounding Jesus' death and resurrection. The gospel of John is often divided in two by scholars, the second part, almost half of the gospel, dealing with the days surrounding the cross and resurrection. Mark records three occasions where Jesus taught the disciples plainly that he was meant to suffer, die and rise from the dead. Luke describes how Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, determined to endure what awaited him. In John, Jesus refers to his time/hour, which is linked with his return to the Father via the cross and resurrection.
Writing to the Corithians the apostle Paul quotes an early creed, saying 'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures' (1 Corinthains 15:3-4). The Christians had looked at the Old Testament and had their eyes opened to see that it foretold the Messiah who would die of the cross. I remember as a young student in a Christian Union being amazed as I listened to a speaker speak on Isaiah 53 (a passage that clearly portrays the cross hundreds of years before Jesus died).
The apostle Paul called his gospel the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). He declared, 'we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles' (1 Cor. 1:23). The cross remains a stumbling block to many. The cross tells me that our guilt is so serious that nothing less than the death of God's eternal Son was sufficient to deal with it. We can't truly accept that message and remain proud! It is a great offence to the self-made person who wants to proclaim their own virtue. Respectable people want to make Jesus a non-judgemental moral teacher who would affirm our petty acts of charity; rather than a dying God sent to rescue fallen people living as part of an evil world.
Opposition to the cross
There are many opponents of the cross, both ancient and modern. Muslims see no place for a sin-bearing Saviour. The Quran states five times that 'no soul shall bear another's burden.' Muslim theologians commonly claim that God cast a spell over the enemies of Jesus and that Judas or Simon of Cyrene was substituted in his place. Although Hindus may accept the historicity of the crucifixion, they reject its saving significance. Gandhi wrote, '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.'
The cross is politically incorrect. It does away with the commonly held notion that we can work our way to heaven. If there was any other way for people to be put right with God would the Father have sent his beloved Son to die in our place? I once head a clergyman state that 'God has given us many religions but only one world.' A year later that same man said that one of the questions we will have to ask in the twenty-first century is 'who is God?' Needless to say that such a clergyman does not hold to an evangelical understanding of the cross!
Anglican Bishop Stephen Neil claimed that the death of Christ is the central point of history. Is it the central point of our history? Is it central to our understanding of who Jesus is? Do we worship, as they do in the Book of Revelation, 'the Lamb who was slain' (Rev. 5:12)? Do we remind ourselves every day that our confidence is to be based on a Saviour who rescued us from guilt and sin? Do we allow this truth fill us with thanksgiving? Do we let the cross erode our pride and make us humble? Do we see such sacrificial love as the model that we are called to follow? Do we live by faith in Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20)?
I want to finish with some words of assurance from the great eighteenth century evangelist, John Wesley. He preached about the person who has truly put their faith in the cross:
His sins, all his sins, in thought, word, and deed, are covered, are blotted out, shall not be remembered or mentioned against him any more than if they had not been. God will not inflict on that sinner what he deserved to suffer because the Son of his love hath suffered for him. And from the time we are "accepted through the beloved," "reconciled to God through his blood," he loves and blesses and watches over us for good, even as if we had never sinned.' [from Wesley's sermon entitled 'Justification by faith'].