The Shadow of the Cross
March 1, 2002 - "This is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." —1 John 5:11, NIV
by Richard Bewes
"The cross? We know all about that—it's basic. I thought we’d moved on from there."
That's what some might say.
But we never have moved on from the cross. Its shadow falls backward and forward across time; we’ll never get beyond it, and we'll never improve on it. We’ll never plumb its depths fully and say, "We understand the cross now; let’s move on to other things."
Holy Week represents the centerpoint of all history. Christ is the sum and substance of the whole plan of God, which centers on the cross—a single, tiny grain of sand in the hourglass of history; and yet, as the hymn writer puts it, "Towering o'er the wrecks of time."(1)
The All-Time Cover of Calvary
The cross is like a razor cutting through civilization—the death of Jesus marked the splitting of the dispensations! Until then we had the foreshadowings; now we live in the light of the reality. Every day of Christian living is touched by the power of Calvary. In the Old Testament the animal sacrifices symbolized what was to come, but the sacrifices had no power in themselves to achieve the actual removal of guilt for sins. They were a God-given device to provide cover for the repentant sinner until the complete and final sacrifice of Jesus Christ was provided once and for all time.
Drivers who insure their cars are familiar with the principle. If time is short, the insurers will provide you and your car with a "cover note" until the document proper comes through. You haven't received your documentation, "but you're insured as of now," they will tell you. So with the cross. The Old Testament sacrifices were like a cover note—keeping those believers of old sheltered from judgment—in the firm knowledge that the true and only valid sacrifice for sin was on its way!
This is why the great curtain of the Old Testament Temple was made redundant by the death of Christ: "When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."(2)
The curtain had said to every worshiper: "Keep out! You may not enter at this point!" Only the high priest had access to the holiest part of the building—and then only once a year and after special cleansing. As Jesus died, the Temple curtain was ripped from top to bottom. The message was clear: "You can come in." The way to God has been opened.
Wrath and Love Satisfied
God longs to forgive every sinner! But every unforgiven sinner is not only "in need" of God. Each sinner also is an offense to Him and deserves everlasting judgment!
Both wrath and love were satisfied at the cross. According to Romans 3:25, Jesus was the One whom "God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood."(3) God is Somebody to be propitiated. His wrath has to be averted if we are to be forgiven at all: "If [anyone sins], we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins."(4) God in His love wanted to forgive us, but His justice had to be satisfied. The cross provided for both to happen.
The Importance of Blood
The Bible says, "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."(5) And also, "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."(6) Here is stated what Bible students call the principle of "penal substitution"—Christ was the Substitute for us. For His sacrifice—our substitution on the cross—to be effective, His sacrifice had to be deemed sufficient. And it was.
Christ did what we could never do for ourselves. The Old Testament tells us, "The life of a creature is in the blood."(7) Because of that, it is death alone that provides atonement and the averting of divine wrath. At the cross God was intercepting His own judgment—Himself in the Person of His Son. If we deviate from that truth, we allow human pride to elevate itself, and people assume, "I can find my own way to God. I don't need this done for me."
Discipleship and the Cross
What about the disciples of Christ? They are to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him.(8) To carry one’s cross is the willingness to put oneself last to the very point of death: death to self-interest, death to self-advancement, death to self-esteem, death to self-indulgence, death to self-satisfaction, death to self-promotion—all those speak of self upon the throne of one's personality. Just as the cross characterized and distinguished our Master, so it characterizes and distinguishes the disciple.
Jesus doesn’t tell us that we are only half-hearted disciples if we don't carry our crosses. According to the Bible, Jesus is saying that we can't be His disciples at all!(9) Nor is self-denial the way to forgiveness and new life in Christ. Rather, self-denial is the natural proof of the new life—its logical consequence.
Christ transfixes us with His gaze, and we respond, accepting Him into our lives and saying farewell to the past. It is the power of the cross that brings this about.
No Glory Without the Cross
But then, on following Jesus, we find that the way of the cross is difficult. We may even say, "My problems have multiplied since I first began!"
But from the outset we have to teach young believers to expect persecution and hardship when they begin with Christ. We have to remind them that "through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God."(10) There can be no glory without the cross! We need to "rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed."(11) Throughout the New Testament, it is axiomatic that glory and suffering run side by side.
The New Testament writers don’t exclaim, "Isn't the cross wonderful? Look at it and applaud." Rather, they say, "Carry it! Be involved!"(12)
Walking With Christ
When Christians wake up to each new day, they do so not as sinners but as saints! It's Calvary that brought about the transition. As our heads come off the pillow, we can say to God, "I want to walk with You into this new day. I have certain problems, aches and concerns. But I'm on the other side of the cross now. Keep me in its shadow, and fill me with Your Spirit for everything that I'm going to touch today. Another day of adventure with You, Lord, here on planet Earth!"
Identified With Christ
I’m so glad that the Apostle Paul didn't say that Jesus "gave Himself for us." He says that He "gave Himself for me." We can echo that: "I have been crucified with Christ. ... The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."(13)
No, in this life I will never be perfect. I can live with that tension providing that I understand my need to come to Him regularly and say, "I failed You today. I'm sorry; may the blood cleanse me. I'm going on with You. Forgive me. I'm back with You once more in the fight for purity and holiness of life."
Knowing Jesus Christ and being identified with Him in His death means that forever we live under the shadow of the cross. It means that He will escort us through the turbulence of a fallen world. The martyrs of the 20th century showed us how it is done. Our sisters and brothers in those societies where the preaching of Christ is forbidden are carrying the torch today. Let's learn this truth afresh during Holy Week: "In Christ I died. And in Christ I am alive—forever!"