Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:7-8 (NLT)]
When driving on I-70 near Effingham, Illinois, you can’t miss seeing the 198-feet tall, 180-ton cross erected near the highway. Once America’s largest cross, its builders call it “a beacon of hope” to the over 50,000 travelers who pass by it each day. In 2018, Effingham’s cross was outdone when a 218-feet high cross was erected in Walnut Shade, Missouri. Near Branson and visible from Highway 65, because of its height, the FAA requires beacons on it. These two crosses, however, are small when compared to the world’s largest cross—the 500-feet tall Holy Cross from the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) in Spain or the 300-feet high Shrine of Valor in the Philippines.
Crucifixion was an extremely cruel form of execution that forced the condemned to suffer a prolonged agonizing death; it was such a horrible way to die that the Romans rarely used it on their own citizens. The disgrace and shame of crucifixion was used primarily for slaves and the worst kind of criminals and yet God allowed His only Son to endure the unbearable agony and horror of dying that way! Jesus’ torture began even before the cross when He was beaten with a flagrum (a short whip with pieces of bone and metal woven into its thongs), taunted by soldiers, had a crown of thorns driven into his head, beaten again and then dragged to his feet and made to carry the cross to the Golgotha. So battered, bloodied, and broken that He was unable to do so, Simon of Cyrene was called into duty. Once there, our Lord was stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross. Before long, Jesus would have been unable to support himself with his legs. As his body’s weight was transferred to his arms, his shoulders would have been pulled from their sockets and breathing would have become extremely difficult. Without a doubt, it was a horrific and brutal way to die.
You’d never expect to see an electric chair, guillotine, or gallows erected as a monument and I question why we identify ourselves with something as grotesque as this ancient instrument of torture. Nevertheless, we wear crosses around our necks, place them on our walls, hang them in churches, set them on steeples, etch them into headstones, put them up as roadside memorials, and erect giant crosses that can been seen for miles. How did a symbol of disgrace, defeat, and suffering become a beacon of hope, triumph, and salvation?
I suppose the facetious answer to “Why the cross?” is that it’s too difficult to depict the empty tomb, a symbol which certainly would better represent the resurrected Christ! Yet, when we focus only on the resurrection and empty tomb, it’s easy to forget the suffering that preceded it. The cross of Jesus Christ is as essential to our faith as the empty tomb. Throughout his ministry, Jesus knew exactly what He was doing and the pain He would endure but it never deterred Him from His mission. He willingly suffered for all of us and it was His suffering and death on the cross that frees us from the penalty of sin. The cross represents the pardon for which a condemned criminal awaits, the forgiveness that none of us deserve, and the sacrifice of a perfect man for an imperfect people.
Until the 4th century, Christianity was illegal. Because of its close association with Jesus, Christ’s followers were scared to use the cross as a symbol because it exposed them to contempt, danger, and persecution. Oddly, it was Emperor Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky that led to his conversion to Christianity in 312 AD. After seeing it, he vowed to worship no other god than the one the vision represented and he sought out church leaders to explain its meaning. The bishops explained that Jesus was the Son of God and the cross in Constantine’s vision symbolized Christ’s victory over death. In 313, Christianity was legalized and crucifixion was abolished. After that, rather than being a symbol of unspeakable horror, the cross became a symbol of victory.
I usually wear a small cross; when I place it around my neck, it reminds me that God sacrificed His only son for me and of the enormous price Jesus paid for my salvation. My life was purchased at a great cost to Him and the cross reminds me to whom it is I belong. It’s a daily reminder take up my cross and follow Him.