A conversation took place between a beloved Bible professor and one of his students who had just returned from her Easter break. She asked, “Our preacher said on Easter that Jesus just swooned on the cross and the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think?”
The wise old professor, tongue in cheek, replied, “Next time you are home, beat your preacher 39 times with a cat-o’-nine-tails. After that, nail him to a cross and hang him out in the afternoon sun for three hours. While he is hanging there, run a spear through his heart. When he looks dead, embalm him and leave him alone in a musty, damp tomb for a few days and see what happens.”
At the heart of one of the great Christian Creeds there is a statement that brings us also to the heart of God’s love: “He was crucified, dead and buried.” It is the apostles’ message of the cross of Jesus.
I. The Preaching of the Cross
“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” (
Winston Churchill is one of my life heroes. After he had lost an election following World War II, Churchill was approached by a certain contemporary of his who admired Churchill’s magnificent oratorical skills. That fan of Churchill’s suggested that the former Prime Minister turn his way with words towards preaching. “Any man,” Churchill said, by way of response, “who thinks he has the ability to speak to the same audience week in and week out and hold their attention is a fool. I may have lost an election but I am not a fool!” It was, perhaps, the dumbest statement Churchill ever made for it betrayed his seeming inability to distinguish between great preaching and great oratory.
A preacher’s first responsibility before Almighty God is to deliver Christ’s cross in a different envelope every time he or she preaches. The tragedy is that we are seeing in our generation that Churchill was not alone. Much that is offered in seminary homiletics classes today makes the same mistake. As a result, we have lost the cross and the urgency of the message of the cross in much of our preaching. So many pulpits deliver mediocre psychology and abominable theology. No wonder the church is so gummed up with seemingly unsolvable social issues about which the Bible gives us clear teaching! We’ve lost our passion for great preaching because we have lost the sense of Christ’s great passion for us.
“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” (
Charles Haddon Spurgeon taught his students that when they mounted the pulpit they should jump over the hedges and ditches until they brought God’s people face-to-face with Christ’s cross. It was good advice. Every verse in the Bible hangs on, and points to the cross. You can get there easily.
The crucifixion of our Leader makes us different from all the other major religious systems. A man in my church told me once that I should mention the cross less often in my sermons for, said he, “Research says the cross is an unpopular topic with people today.” I remembered that a magazine I read in a waiting room not long ago said that a cross is the most desirable item of jewelry in a woman’s wardrobe today and thought of the irony in his statement. It seems that a gold cross is a desirable thing to wear but that the cross of Jesus is not something we want to hear much about. I reminded him that the devil in Hitler despised the cross too! One of the expressed goals of Hitler’s Third Reich was to replace the crosses in every church in Europe with Swastikas. Perhaps the same spirit in some of us today can’t stand it either.
I thought about that again this week when I visited one of our local Christian bookstores and observed a clerk take some Bibles from a prominent display place in order to make room for something called, “Promise pops.” Each of these pops is imprinted with an upbeat verse of Scripture that you can suck away. Now, I like pops but only a real sucker would think a lollipop could ever take the place of God’s Word. There were other cheap, gaudy trinkets and cute looking play pieces there. Looking a little further, my attention was drawn to some crosses on display in a jewelry case. They looked nice until I looked closer and saw these words on a sign beside them: “Gold plated.”
I wonder, is that your life in Christ? Is the sum and substance of your faith found in a cheap reminder of the cross this Easter? Let me assure you that Christ’s death on the cross for your sins was no cheap imitation.
If it is faith that looks good only on the surface you are looking for, you will not find that in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ goes much deeper than that, and it can be very demanding for its devotees. Yet, truth is, there are preachers who preach a trinket message. They preach “feel-goodism,” the undemanding gospel not found in the Bible. Its key focus is “me” and “mine” and “you” and “yours.” It calls for no commitment, save that which serves the hearer. We need to revisit those words from St. Francis de Sales when he said, “The test of a great preacher is that his congregation goes away saying not, ‘What a lovely sermon!’ but, ‘I will do something.'”
Some fifty years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison camp where he was being held, and finally hanged, for preaching the message of the cross in the face of Nazi tyranny. He entitled his message, “Costly Grace,” and in it he compared this costly grace of the Bible with cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church…. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices.”1
Bonhoeffer knew when he wrote those words that a fellow can get in trouble for refusing to preach the theology of the gold-plated cross. There is a price to be paid for preachers who will forsake cheap grace and sloppy agape and preach the hard, cold cross of Jesus and its demands on those who follow its way. The way of the cross is still a hard one for preachers and laity alike.
Every day Christians suffer because of their commitment to Jesus. Our only consolation comes from knowing that our sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the suffering Christ endured for us. Nothing came cheap, or was imitation or inauthentic, about the cross of Jesus Christ. It cost God the very best He ever had. If the cross was real for Christ, then let our faith be also. Christ has said, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will save it” (
The theology of the gold-plated cross may look good on your desk or around your neck, but it won’t do you any good when the boss tells you your job is gone or your wife tells you your marriage is over or the doctor says, “It’s cancer!” And never, in a million years or with a million tears, will it ever get you to heaven.
Preachers are to preach the cross and Sunday School teachers are to teach the message of the cross with passion and urgency. Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified on a cross.
II. The Pain of the Cross
“And they crucified Him. Dividing up His clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get. It was the third hour when they crucified Him” (
During a trip to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II called the death penalty a sin. He declared it cruel and unnecessary punishment. As a response, Missouri’s governor commuted the sentence of a man convicted of multiple murders. The fact remains, however, that today’s death penalty in the United States brings very little physical pain, although it is surely emotionally painful.
Christ’s death penalty was different. Emotional? Absolutely! Rome had no more shame-filled punishment. But, it went far past that. The victim was forced to lie flat on two rough-hewn crossbeams. Hardwood nails were driven through the wrists and ankles. The cross was raised, its victim pinned in place, and jarred into a hole in the ground, tearing flesh and bringing excruciating pain to an already scourged body. That unnatural position multiplied the agony of any movement. The lacerated veins and crushed tendons throbbed with incessant pain. The wounds, inflamed by exposure to filth, became gangrenous. The arteries of the head swelled with surcharged blood to provide pulsing agony. There was burning, raging thirst, provoked by the heat of the afternoon sun. After a while, the legs of the person on the cross were usually broken with a billy club to prevent the crucified one from trying to ease the intense pain by raising his body. You will remember Christ’s legs were not broken because He was already dead and in order that the prophecy would be fulfilled that, “None of His bones shall be broken” (
Soldiers often were assigned to cross patrol as punishment. It was not an honorable assignment. Those who carried it out were often the scum of the earth among the Roman army. Their mission was so ghastly they were supplied enough strong drink to numb their senses. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, they often were sick at their stomach as they carried out their assignment. It was not unusual for them to be unable to keep food down for days afterwards as they reflected on what they had done. Christ hung in that company for three hours thinking of us and died.
My Great Mystery
I share with you today, from a pastor’s heart, the greatest mystery I know about human nature: How can some Christians think sitting through a twenty or thirty minute sermon about the One who took that kind of treatment in their place is too much to bear? Or, that giving a tenth of their income to His church is too much for Him to ask? Is that your life? If it is, Christ has a question for you through Jeremiah the prophet: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the LORD brought on me in the day of His fierce anger?” (
If we understood what Christ’s crucifixion cost Him and accomplished for us, we would never complain again. We would be driven by this question: “What can I do for Him today?” The primary topic every time the church met would be, “How can we tell those who have not heard or cared?”
III. The Pomp of the Cross
“God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (
The Letter to the Galatians is a fascinating letter, not only because Paul speaks directly and succinctly to some serious issues in the Galatian church. It is a great letter for another reason that you miss if you read too fast. Paul seems to start out full of his own importance. In his signature line he asserts that his is the highest office the church on earth would ever see: “Paul, an apostle — sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father” (
He concludes by saying that any glory he possesses is rooted in the cross of Jesus: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now Paul sees himself as he really is; a brilliant mind, an outstanding teacher, a lucid writer and a great preacher who possesses nothing but what comes from Christ Jesus who loved Paul and you and me all the way to the cross.
If Paul was here today, preaching where I stand, he might say to you, “Titles and honors are a grand thing but don’t allow yourself to get blinded by the pursuit of them.” Our only real and lasting glory is “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have no glory worth having but the glory of the cross.
The Three Glories We Find in Christ’s Cross
As I consider the message of the cross in Scripture, it seems to me that three glories are inherent there for us:
The first glory of the cross of Jesus is that it demonstrates how deep God’s love is for us. I have a son about Christ’s age when He died. I could never give him up for you nor anything this world can offer. Yet, “God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (
The second glory of the cross is it covers all our sins. “God … loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (
The third glory of the cross is that when this life is over, we shall never die. John Owen, the prolific Puritan wrote a wonderful treatise called, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. He bases his message on this: “Christ Jesus … has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (
Think about it: You are loved! Your sins are all forgiven! You will never die! All because of the love God expressed for you on the cross of Jesus. Is that not a thing of glory?
What will you do in response to a love like that? Whether you realize it or not, to paraphrase the words of Francis de Sales, “You will do something.” The question is what will it be?
1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship; translated by R.H. Fuller. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957.