Cross of Jesus
The crucifixion of Jesus is, and has always been, the stumbling block of the Good News preached by and about Jesus. How is it that the self-proclaimed Son of God would end up dying on a horrifying Roman cross designed for political criminals? How could God permit such evil? Even the apostle Peter, from Jesus's inner circle, could not initially accept Jesus's prediction of his impending gruesome death (see Mark 8:31-32, 9:31, 10:33-34). Religious leaders outside the Jesus movement have typically shared Peter's doubt that the gruesome death of Jesus is integral to God's plan of reconciliation for humans. They have doubted that the crucifixion of the Son of God would be compatible with God's character of merciful love.
The crucifixion of Jesus seems to be nothing but failure. As Helmut Thielicke remarks: "No sentimentality and no symbolical glorification should delude us as to the fact that the Cross is the very sign of God's defeat — a towering sign that cries out to us: Here is where God went down in defeat; for 'he who loves the most', says Thomas Mann, 'is always the defeated one and always suffers the most'. And here God is the defeated one, because he loved the most. Here God was defeated, here man triumphed. Here man achieved sovereignty over his earth. [Our] philosophers and poets will glorify the men who make history, and they will extol the autonomy which is the sign of the dignity of this man who has emancipated himself from God." Getting rid of Jesus is, we suppose, our way of triumphing over God. Our wisdom, we insist, can trump God's foolish, self-giving love in Jesus.
At the same time, the cross of Jesus is the place of God's turnaround victory. Out of the defeat of Jesus, God brings loud, bright, and strong proof of His love and forgiveness toward us, His enemies. The cross of Jesus is God's grand reversal of the darkest human tragedy. As the apostle Paul says: "... the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" (1 Cor. 1:18,22-25, NIV). The power of God's self-giving love is demonstrated in the crucified Jesus, the One whom God approvingly raised from his death on the cross. This invincible power of divine merciful love overcomes even death, thereby surpassing any power of our own. The resurrection of Jesus is God's signature of approval on His obedient Son.
The crucifixion of Jesus is not about the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. It is rather about the obedience of Jesus toward his Father, in particular, toward his Father's call to give up his life for the sake of the enemies of God, that is, all humans. The cross is thus about the crucified Jesus. The apostle Paul emphasizes the role of Jesus's obedience in his death on the cross:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
(Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)
The heart of the humble passion of Jesus, according to Paul, is his obedience to his Father, not his physical suffering (see Romans 5:19). This obedience reveals Jesus's faithful love toward his Father. It also reveals his unsurpassed, self-giving love toward us, in his aim to reconcile us to his Father.
God sent His Son, Jesus, for a definite purpose, according to Paul: to prove God's merciful love for all people, even His enemies (Romans 5:6-8). Jesus came to identify with us in our troubles, while he represented his Father in faithful obedience. He thus represents both God and humans, seeking to reconcile humans to his Father via his gift of merciful love. His obedient death on the cross shows how far he and his Father will go — even to gruesome death — to bring us to God. Jesus gives us all he has in love to demonstrate that God loves us without limit and offers us the gift of unearned friendship with Himself.
The cross proves that God is merciful, forgiving. God uses the cross of Jesus as the place where our rebellion against God is judged and forgiven. This does not mean that God punished Jesus. The New Testament does not teach this, contrary to some theologians. God sent Jesus into our nexus of rebellion to undergo suffering and death that God would deem adequate for dealing justly, under divine grace, with our rebellion against God. Jesus thus removes the need for fear, condemnation, shame, guilt, and punishment among us (Romans 8:1). Jesus thereby reconciles us to his Father, as he becomes our Lord and Redeemer. The cross of Jesus is the focal point of divine-human reconciliation. It is thus the very heart of the Jesus movement and its Good News of God's amazing gift of gracious love (see 1 Corinthians 2:2). The crucified Jesus is the power and the mirror-image of God.
Jesus demands that we share his cross of faithful obedience to his Father: "Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.'" (Mk. 8:34-35). It's only in self-giving obedience that we receive and love God as the one true God and enter in to friendship with God. By dying with Jesus to selfishness, we prepare ourselves to be raised up from death as Jesus was raised by his Father. The apostle Paul sums up this lesson: "Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him" (Rom. 6:3-8, NIV). By dying with Jesus, we die to our idols and live to God. This is the only way to live.