In ancient times, the cross represented death. The cross many today wear as a necklace was the equivalent of someone wearing an electric chair on a necklace in the ancient Roman Empire. A means of capital punishment, criminals were either tied to two crossbeams in public view outside of the city or fastened to the boards by nails (as in the case of Jesus), causing a slow, painful death.
After the crucifixion of Jesus, the cross became a symbol of the risen Savior. He is no longer on the cross—He is alive! But why did He die? A fulfillment of God's promise of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, Jesus gave His perfect, sinless life as a substitute for the sins of humanity. Through Him, those who believe can have eternal life (John 3:16).
In addition to the meaning of the cross as death and the new understanding of the cross after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, we also find another reference to the cross spoken of in the Gospel accounts. Matthew 16:24 quotes Jesus teaching, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Luke 9:23 includes, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." In both cases, the emphasis is upon giving one's life up and instead being ready to suffer and die to follow Jesus.
In addition to a symbol of death, the cross was also considered an offense or humiliation. Paul writes in Galatians 5:11, "But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed." Yet the cross of Christ represented something for believers to boast about as well, as Galatians 6:14 shares, "But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."
Hebrews 12:2 offers yet another perspective on the meaning of Christ's cross: "Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." The cross was considered shameful, yet Christ endured its shame and pain as part of His plan of redemption.
Finally, Paul uses the imagery of the cross to show what Jesus accomplished through His death. Colossians 2:13-14 explains, "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross." Our record of sins can be forgiven because the price has been paid—the priceless death of Jesus on the cross.
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