Many people had seen victims spiked to crosses. If they hadn’t personally witnessed the horrific torture of crucifixion, they still felt its imminent presence in their society. Though crucifixion had occurred for a few centuries, Rome had brought it to the forefront as the common means of crushing rebellions and of executing odious slaves and foreign criminals. Citizens were exempt. The stigma of the cross was etched in the minds of the people.
The cross symbolized death. The cross was repulsive, disgusting, and vile. Victims suffered from impaling spikes, from shallow breathing and attempts to rise up for a deep breath, and from dehydration. They wasted away, spiked to timbers that displayed their drying blood. There were flies and hot days and cold nights and shame. The only consolation for most people stemmed from knowing that those so executed had been judged worthy of death.
Within that setting, the apostles, who had recently endorsed the concept that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, heard him say, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matthew 20:18, 19). No wonder the glorious image of Messiah and the heinous image of crucifixion could not merge in their minds. By human reasoning you could not have both. And so, they wondered what he meant by that statement.
However, those contrasting images did merge. By the grace of God, the Lamb of God was sacrificed in that excruciating and shameful manner. By way of the cross, the holy and just God provided the sufficient sacrifice to make removal of sin a possibility.
The cross that symbolized death transformed into a glorious symbol of life. Rugged, bloody timbers have been replaced by molded, carved, and painted images that form jewelry, set atop communion trays, and are displayed on pulpits and tombstones.
Such an unexpected and dramatic change came to earth from heaven. In various cultures, people still attempt to reach up to God with insufficient sacrifices that can never atone for the sin problem. The only solution was handed down by the love of God.
At the right time, God accomplished the greatest metamorphosis of a symbol that could ever occur. But don’t let the beauty obscure the brutality. Don’t let the gild cover the gall. Don’t let the varnish vail the vile. Never forget what stands behind that symbol of salvation and makes it the glorious cross.
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).