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The Necessity of the Cross

February 25th, 2016

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly…  And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:31-32,34)

After the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi, the Lord clearly turned his face to the cross. He began to teach the disciples about his rejection, death, and resurrection. Matthew says, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…” (Matt. 16:21).

A time of spiritual retreat: The time in Caesarea Philippi had been a spiritual retreat in the mountains of northern Palestine. A place where the ruling families had built personal villas where they could go and relax, getting away from the heat of the climate and the pressure of their daily grind. It was in that place that they grasped, by the revelation of the Spirit, who Jesus truly was.

Christ’s public ministry in the first year, as Mark so well documents, was a demanding one, with the crowds following after him, their broken bodies clamoring for healing and their hearts for his teaching. In the pressure of those days he rose up early in the morning for prayer times, to commune in private with the Father. And he often took his disciples on a brief retreat for a few days. There are matters, in our lives and in our understanding of God’s purpose and will, that only get resolved when we pull aside and spend some time in reflection and prayer. Even in Christian ministry we can become so overwhelmed with the detailia and regular responsibilities that we need to take time for spiritual retreats, for inner renewal and for refocusing on understanding and doing the will of God. Otherwise we will be like the man who said, “Well, we have lost our way but we are making good progress.”

Christ’s spirit was not governed by a desire for fame and popularity, nor wealth and power. His heart was entirely given to his mission, to destroy the work of the devil (1 John 3:8). So he did not see these times of retreat as some sort of personal perk or reward for his work. Rather all of his life was given for the glory of God, to fulfill his mission. Paul correctly grasped this reality when he described his goal was to “gain Christ,” “to know him,” and become “like him in his death” (Phil. 3:8-10). And this “one thing” he did: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

The cross was the center of the mission of Christ: The time of retreat was not a distraction from his mission but rather a time of clarification for his mission. Miraculous healings and even demonic exorcisms would have only temporary benefits unless a blow was struck at the root of the human problem. The prophet’s words, “By his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5), referred not to the temporary healings we have today in our natural bodies. If that was the limit of his work than he was just like every other physician in history – they all fail their patients in the end because we all die in the end. But Christ’s healing he came to provide was more than just to make our broken bodies well again. He has come to undo all that sin has done.

The heart of his work was to make atonement for our sins. Today people – even those who profess not to believe in God at all – blame God for all our problems. But God sees it differently. It is our fault, the result of our sin, the failure of the human race to measure up, in our fallen estate, to be who we need to be in Christ. Before the world can be made right, sin must be atoned for and forgiven. Christ must be enthroned. The old order of things must pass away and a new order must be established (Rev. 21:1-8). Satan must be destroyed and his accusations against humanity must be answered. This would only happen through the cross.

If all Christ came to do was to heal a few diseases, cast out a few demons, and teach morality, then his work would merely be a little brief improvement on the human condition that vanished away shortly after his life, if not before. But Christ came to do infinitely more. He came to pay in himself for the sins of the world.

The cross is the model for Christian discipleship: This was a turning point in his public ministry, for after this “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). They liked to follow him as long as he healed their diseases and fed them when they were hungry. They had seen the damage demons did when they inhabited people, so they were glad when he cast out demons, though the average man still wanted to have a little bit of fun with the devil. But Christ saw it all as the evil it was and called us to him, to consider ourselves dead to the world and alive to him.

The cross did not become clearly the means by which Christ would die until near the end of his life. Death by stoning was the Jewish form of execution; crucifixion was the Roman form. It was the Jewish religious leaders who wanted him dead, so it would have been assumed that he would be stoned, like Stephen was (Acts 7:58). But Christ knew how he would die and gave hints all along. John records he said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” then added, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:32-33).

When Christ used it for a teaching method, it still had some detachment associated with it. This was a cruel means of execution that Rome had used heavily. It was intended to send a message to the masses. In the roman tradition the condemned criminal was forced to carry his own cross to his execution. This was the image in the mind of the disciples when Christ said this. To take up your cross and follow Christ meant to consign yourself over to death out of devotion to him and to his cause. It meant to be a willing participant in one’s own death.

That this was taught before the cross and the resurrection of Christ meant that it had a meaning that was entirely negative for the disciple. All they could see was Christ, and though he taught them about his resurrection they did not grasp its meaning (Mark 9:32). When he turned to Jerusalem for his final trip there, Thomas his disciple said, “Let us also go that we may die with him” (John 11:16). It was only after the resurrection that it was fully grasped that we die to sin in order to live to him. As Paul wrote:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

Application: The cross was necessary for our salvation and it is necessary in our daily lives as a means of dying to sin and self and living to God. Through the cross comes eternal life and life in abundance today. And there is no life that God gives us that does not come through the cross. As an event in history it is the one and only place that sin was truly atoned for, and through the cross alone can people find forgiveness and life. As a model for Christian discipleship it is likewise indispensable. We must die to sin and self in order to live to God.

There is for us today an experience that is similar to those disciples. When we come to Christ for salvation, or when we turn to him for a deeper commitment, we often see only the price of commitment, not the blessings of commitment. We see the death we must die to our egos, our reputations, our power, our agendas, our desires – all of which are tainted by sin. We are afraid he’ll ask us to do too much, or to give too much, or to be embarrassed and ridiculed. We are blind to the process of God, so we hold on so tightly to these meaningless things.

But if by the grace of God we are able to come, like Paul did, and say “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” (Gal 6:14), then we find the goodness of God, the joy of his Spirit, the true life of grace, his peace and fullness. We find that a resurrected life in Christ is greater than we had ever imagined. We had merely died to what will pass away anyway, in order that we might receive something infinitely greater and better – life in him!

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