The Cross of Christ and You

 

 
 The Cross of Christ And You 
         By Donald E. Neill
 
Purpose
The objective of this message is to present from scripture the incredible story of Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross with direct and vital application to your life.
Contrasted with this stated intent, the purpose is not to sell or to “market” the joining or identification with a particular church. This is not to say that church is unimportant. In fact, a later section addresses the relationship of Jesus (as the central figure) and the church from New Testament writings within the first century context.
Since an authentic view of Jesus and the cross is obtained through the revealed Word of God, scriptural references are provided. In utilizing these references, the goal is to avoid “proof-texting” that takes scripture out of its context and abuses the intended meaning. You are encouraged to read and study the referenced verses to verify an application that does not violate the scriptural context.
 
 
An Incredible Life and Death
The Apostle John tells us an astonishing story of God taking on flesh to live among mankind and providing the light of his message and life. (See John 1:1-14). The love and humility associated with this action is beyond human imagination when we consider the Apostle Paul’s words that this One who took on flesh and walked among the human race was the creator of the Cosmos and is the One who sustains it. (See Colossians 1:16-18).
However, the New Testament account becomes even more stunning as we consider the content of his life and message as well as his death on the instrument of an executor. He comes offering an entirely new existence to all irrespective of their current life circumstances. We read an account of the Lord ministering to a woman who pious Jewish society would classify as repulsive and unworthy of association with those of virtue. She is of despised Samaritan heritage, low moral character (married five times and currently living with a man outside of wedlock) and a gender considered inferior in first century society. Yet, Jesus offers her eternal life in the metaphor of living water, and she becomes the one who introduces Jesus to her community with many becoming believers! (Read this stirring account in John 4:7-42).
Volumes, let alone this brief account, cannot capture the depth and extent of his life; however, here are some of the highlights that illustrate his impeccable credentials as one sent by God and intent on bringing salvation to mankind rather than promoting his own self-interest:
Miracles that testify to his deity and sovereignty over creation. It is remarkable how these events avoid sensationalism and demonstrate Christ’s compassion and concern for the well-being of mankind. A reading of John 20:30-31 shows that an important intent of his signs was to establish belief with the ultimate objective of bringing life to humankind. Jesus refuses a sensational exhibition of the miraculous when he refuses Satan’s admonition to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to demonstrate heavenly protection from harm. (See Matthew 4:8-10).
 
Narratives, sermons and parables within the gospel accounts that focus on the true source, definition and practices of a significant life. His words establish the path to a meaningful, serving and loving relationship with God and humankind. He describes an abundant life within a kingdom (under the rule of God) that begins in this life under his lordship and ultimately extends into eternity with a resurrected body. The good news is that the offer of life is extended and available to all.
Christ’s death and resurrection providing the means of reconciliation with a righteous and holy God of justice. (See next section)
His ascension to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God and reigns as Lord with all authority in heaven and on earth. (See Matthew 28:17 and Acts chapters 1 and 2).
Jesus’ life provides a wonderful revelation of the character and heart of the Father, God. When one of Jesus’ apostles asks him to show them the Father, he asserted that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. He further establishes his identity with the Father in the words that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. (See John 14:8-11.)
 
Centrality of the Cross
Today our concept of the cross is “sanitized.”   We often see it portrayed as beautiful and artistic symbols on church buildings, attached to bracelets or necklaces, included on religious literature covers (including this one) and in other ways associated with Christianity. How historically we are removed from the true nature of crucifixion on a cross!! In the time of Christ under Roman rule, the cross was a means of capital punishment and was repugnant and offensive. There was the association of serious criminal activity or offenses against the empire calling for punishment by death. In addition, the execution normally occurred in public bringing an acute awareness of intense suffering and agony. Often, the bloodied and conscious body literally hung for hours by nails driven through the flesh before relief through death. It would be unnecessary for a US Supreme Court to rule this as cruel and unusual punishment. Even the lowest court would decree such a verdict without fear of being overturned.
New Testament writers confirm the public humiliation and shame associated with a cross and in particular the cross associated with the death of Jesus. In encouraging Christian endurance, the writer of Hebrews tells his readers to look “to 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.” (See Hebrews 12:1-2). The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians speaks about how we should have the same mind as Jesus who left his position of equality with God to become human and a servant. Paul goes on to say that Jesus “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (See Philippians 2:5-8).
Yet, in spite of the acutely negative aspects of a cross and the fact that crucifixion normally brought an end to any activity or mission of the victim, the cross associated with Jesus’ death becomes a central feature of God’s story for mankind. The apostle Paul in the closing of his letter to Galatia writes “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” (Galatians 6:14). This statement follows his exposure of some religionists who want to impose an unnecessary feature of the Old Testament on Gentile Christians and boast concerning their success.
The cross as a central tenet of Paul’s preaching is further attested by his statement to the Corinth church. He told them that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Prior to this statement, he clearly indicates that this contradicts a worldview that values human eloquence, wisdom, strength and pride in spiritual accomplishments. Listen further to his words, “Therefore, as it is written ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (See 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5).
Why is the cross the exceptional feature of the message concerning Jesus? Within scripture, perhaps it is the Apostle Paul who provides the clearest answer to this question. In his great teaching on the importance of belief in a resurrection, he says “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”   Please see two things of particular note. First, Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins-a simple and yet profound answer to the purpose of the cross. Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus is included in the preaching of the cross. Without his resurrection, presented as a foretaste of our own future resurrection, Paul states that our faith is futile. (See 1 Corinthians 15: 1-23).
Other passages from the pen of Paul give further insight to the relationship between Christ’s death and our salvation. In Romans 5:6-11, he says that Jesus’ death was for the ungodly and his blood brought justification (declared innocent), his death reconciliation to God (a relationship with God) and his life (he is resurrected) salvation. Within this same passage, Paul indicates that Jesus’ death was a demonstration of God’s love. Salvation is not only forgiveness of sins, but release from a life dominated by sin with its attendant guilt and is a new existence where we are free to focus and become slaves to righteousness. (See Romans 6:1-23). Jesus in his death bore the consequences of our sins. This is stated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21 this way: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The writer of the book of Hebrews presents Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins and relates this to a new covenant wherein God does not remember our sins and lawless deeds any more. The effectiveness of his sacrificial offering is seen in these words:” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (See Hebrew 10:11-18).
These passages give extraordinary meaning to that familiar passage in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
 
An Appropriate Response
Paul in his letters to both the Romans and Galatians echoes the same theme of John 3:16 by stating that we are not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. In both of these letters, he contrasts those who seek justification through their own meritorious works (in these instances through the keeping of the Old Testament law) with a faith in Jesus Christ that gives access to God’s grace. For example in Galatians 2:15-16, the apostle in addressing Peter and fellow Jews writes: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Jesus Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 3:21 extends this statement to any meritorious law system since none is superior in this regard to the Old Law. Here Paul states: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.”
The wonderful message is that our response and access to God’s grace is our faith and not an uncertain human effort attempting to earn our salvation. Recognizing this path to our salvation, the critical question is: What is this saving faith?
Content of a Faith Response
The New Testament presents this message of faith as good news (gospel) and tells us what a faith response includes. This is not a formula or dogma as we shall soon see, but a response that allows the elimination of our slavery to guilt and sin and places us in a reconciled relationship with our Creator even within this present life. As we examine the components of faith, we must never forget that the ultimate benefit derives from the shed and sin-cleansing blood of Jesus and his resurrection. What a demonstration of grace!
Repentance – a part of faith
True faith is demonstrated when one places their dependence and trust in someone or some thing. Within the New Testament, transition to this state is termed as repentance. This is a change of mind that is so resolute that it results in a corresponding change in life. Perhaps this is illustrated best in the account of two sects of the Jewish religion coming to John to be baptized as recorded in Matthew 3:7-10. He tells them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and not to depend on their human heritage of Abraham as their ancestral father. The call is for a personal commitment that goes beyond traditions and identity with a particular religious heritage. It is one from the heart that subsequently becomes visible through fruit-bearing – from loving and merciful actions toward others as well as worship to God.
Repentance, the decision to commit oneself as part of our faith response, is a continuing theme in the New Testament. The first conversion story after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension back into Heaven is provided in Acts, the second chapter. Beginning in verse 14, Peter preaches to a large audience of Jews assembled in Jerusalem during their observation of the Jewish Pentecost. They hear Peter’s message concerning the Christ including his death on the cross, his resurrection and his position on the throne as Lord and Christ (anointed one).   They are cut from the heart and cry out “Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter’s answer is “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This call for repentance is not simply a change in mind to stop committing a certain list of sins, but a commitment to follow the teachings of a new Master and Lord. This will become evident through a new worldview, new behaviors, new values resulting from a life focused on learning about Christ and pleasing him.
True repentance may be the most difficult part of faith – the renouncing of self and perhaps deeply ingrained values and behaviors and deciding that Christ is Lord-that he is going to govern all aspects of our lives.
We should not, however, think that a prerequisite of repentance is a complete knowledge of Christ’s teaching and what that entails in our walk with him as our Lord. But it does mean that we are willing and committed to learn and follow those teaching as we grow spiritually. As we examine examples of conversion from the book of Acts, the depth of knowledge at the time of conversion varied. Consider, for example, the inspiring story of a Gentile jailer’s conversion recorded in Acts 16:16-34.   Paul and his companions are in prison when they are miraculously freed through an earthquake. When the jailer is on the verge of taking his own life, Paul assures him that no prisoners have left and the jailer responds by asking what he must do to be saved. Paul tells him that he must believe in the Lord Jesus and then proceeds to provide the word of the Lord to him and his household. That very night he and his household are baptized. From the circumstances, it is evident that the jailer’s knowledge is very limited, but he believes and responds to the Lordship of Jesus as evidenced by his baptism and those of his household.
Baptism – a component of faith and natural consequence of repentance
Earlier when we examined the response to Peter’s sermon from Acts 2, his answer indicated not only a need for repentance on the part of his audience who previously rejected Jesus, but also baptism. As we look at other scriptures associated with this event, we see it as a part of our faith response and a wonderful act reflecting the grace of God.
First, baptism is closely associated with the cross - the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the source of our salvation. In his letter to Roman Christians, Paul reflects on their baptism in chapter 6 beginning in verse 3. Noting that baptism is translated (actually transliterated) from a Greek word meaning immersion, Paul provides a deeply meaningful picture of this event as a union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. We are buried together with Jesus as we are submerged into the water and are resurrected into a new relationship.
Baptism is that universally singular act within our faith response when we can say “that’s when it happened!” That’s when my sins were forgiven and I began my journey in a state of salvation and relationship with God and his Son. See Acts 2:38
That’s when I received the Holy Spirit, the very active presence of God in our lives, and I began a new life (a new existence) with my old self crucified. See Acts 2:38 and Romans 6:3-7.
That’s when I took on a new identity as one clothed with Christ and a child of God irrespective of my gender, ethnicity or economic and social status.   See Galatians 3:26-28
As a repentant person, there is no need to wonder when or if our faith was sufficient to enter into this unique relationship because of this wonderful gift of baptism, a grace that defines when it occurred. The book of Acts provides a number of conversion accounts and the one common feature mentioned in all is baptism as part of their faith response.
What an incredible and wonderful story that we have before us. As we emerge from the water of baptism, we are indwelled with the Spirit in an entirely new state of existence and relationship with God that is continuously maintained throughout our life if we continue to walk in the light, in fellowship with other Christians. I John 1:7 states, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. In the original language, “purifies” is a term of continuous action. Therefore, the blood of Christ is not only effective in our forgiveness at baptism, but remains as a cleansing agent within our Christian walk.
This does not mean that our lives are now free from sin. First, if that were the meaning, there would be no need of purification. Secondly, in the next verse (I John 1:8), the Apostle says “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” In fact, he continues by stating that it is the one who acknowledges his sins who receives forgiveness and purification.
In summary, note that entry into this new existence does not require conformance to a list of righteous works or a period of proving ourselves, perhaps based on the degree of our sinfulness. Instead, through the grace of God and our faith response of repentance and baptism, we receive atonement through the blood of Jesus and are added to the number of the saved. It is a new birth, and whether we are a babe of one day or a Christian of 50 years, we are all in the family!
It is important, however, to recall that repentance is a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and if we are unwilling to commit our life to Him, an important element of faith is missing and baptism is not appropriate.
From the time of our new birth, the New Testament shows that growth is an important part of our Christian walk, but all of us whether mature Christians or still needing the milk of the word are full-fledged children of God.
It is then no surprise that after his resurrection Jesus’ great commission to make disciples includes the command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 
Christ’s Community of Believers
A popular concept of the church within our culture is an institution with all the trappings of a hierarchical structure, building, budget, functioning committees, charter and programs. Many find such an image unattractive as they perceive of a people primarily interested in enhancing their own image and reputation through the “magnificence” of a finely-tuned worship performance, institutional accomplishments and attractive physical structures. Excellence in these areas may be based on sincere and humble effort in service to the Lordship of Christ; therefore, it is important to withhold judgment based on appearances and our own limited first impressions. However, these are not criteria for a pleasing and dedicated community of believers and it is important to understand the essence and function of the church from a New Testament perspective.
The Establishment of the Church
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus told Peter and the other Apostles that he would establish his church (or “assembly” which was the use of the Greek word translated “church” in the first century). 
The first New Testament reference to the existence of such an assembly is found in Acts 2. From the previous section recall that within this chapter Peter admonished a large crowd gathered for the Jewish Pentecost to repent and be baptized. The chapter continues by relating the response to this plea. Those who accepted the message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day.   The following verses demonstrate that this “number” have the characteristics of assemblies or gatherings of people as they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42). The chapter also describes other important activities such as meeting everyone’s needs and praising God.
Finally, in Acts 5:11, the term “church” is used for the collection of people responding to the Gospel message and continues to be used an additional 18 times within the book of Acts. At times it refers to the total number of Christ’s disciples irrespective of location and other times to local assemblies in which case it is sometimes used in the plural.
Importance of the Church for Christians
The New Testament portrays the church as integral in our walk with Jesus Christ. First, the Apostle Paul says that it is the body of Christ and that Jesus is the savior of this body. This is consistent with Jesus statement that he would build his church and demonstrates that Christians as a fellowship are to be centered in Jesus. Together as the very body of Christ, the church continues his work of service and bringing his good news to a broken world.
Rather than stress on an individualistic identity so popular in Western culture, the New Testament presents a “fellowship and belonging” identity. Consider that most of the books following the Gospels and Acts and even the book of Revelation are addressed not to individuals, but churches. Within this fellowship, the Bible provides a beautiful portrait of Christ-centered activity within a community.
As we examine parts of this picture below, please note that these are ideals integral to goals of churches that strive to spiritually grow into a loving community centered in Christ. However, because of human frailties, the level of spiritual maturity varies. In some cases difficulties within a church result from conversion of those who have only a limited and initial understanding of the beliefs, values and conduct consistent with a disciple of Christ. We can quickly add that all of us are on that journey of greater understanding and spiritual maturity. Other times, those who are “older in the faith” allow pride and other distractions to dictate their attitudes and behavior.
However, in reading several of the epistles such as First Corinthians and the second and third chapters of Revelation, we quickly learn this was also the situation in the first century. Spiritual immaturity and disappointment in Christ’s church does not mean we disassociate ourselves from this family of God. Rather, we become an active and loving participant in contributing to her unity and spiritual growth in accordance with the gifts that God provides us.
Let us examine several aspects of the New Testament portrait of Christ’s church.
Serving and building each other up. This means that as we grow in maturity, our focus shifts from ourselves to others. At the same time, when we are new in the faith or are facing times of discouragement, weakness or crisis, we have the support and help of our fellow Christians. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he admonishes Christians to consider others more significant then themselves and not only look to their own interests but also to the interests of others. We are to have the mind of Christ. His own conduct is powerfully illustrated as one leaving his elevated position of equality with God and taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient even to death on a cross. As a result, Paul concludes that God has highly exalted him and describes the high degree of that exultation. You are encouraged to read this incredible passage found in Philippians 2:1-11.
Acceptance of each other as family members irrespective of ethnic, gender, economic or social circumstances. Listen to Paul’s letter when he states that those who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ and are all one in Christ whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. This along with Paul’s earlier statement that we are all sons of God provide a strong statement of family and community, not individualism
Respect and use of a diversity of individuals and talents. In two letters, Paul compares the community of believers to a human body. In his first letter to Corinth ( I Corinthians 12:12-26), he emphasizes, that particular Christians cannot exclude themselves and their important function from the body. He also argues forcibly that certain members are not to be excluded, but that all with their diverse functions are important to the functioning of the body. Even those that might be considered less important by human standards are to be regarded with honor. In the letter to the Romans (Romans 12:3-8), we are told that the gifts of body members are not all the same and they are encouraged to use their individual gifts within the context of that body.
Serving others outside of our immediate fellowship. The four gospels were written after the resurrection and ascension of Christ and provided and continue to provide important instruction and examples in shaping our spiritual formation and walk. Jesus’ compassion and healings serve as strong examples to the church of providing love, comfort and provisions to a broken world. Particularly, noteworthy is Christ’s relationships and service to those on the margins of society. In Matthew’s gospel account, a final judgment scene is portrayed in chapter 25, and the common action of those who inherent the eternal kingdom is the provision of needs expressed as providing food, clothing and prison visitation.
Sharing the good news of the cross. Shortly after the resurrection of Jesus, the gospel according Matthew records the great commission given to his disciples. He first declares that all authority in heaven and earth was granted to him. (In the words of John in the book of Revelation he is King of kings and Lord of lords.) He commissions them to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus had commanded them.  See Matthew 28:18-20. Thus, the mantle for sharing the gospel passes from Christ to his Apostles to those that become the “made disciples.” Therefore, the assemblies of Christians today continue this chain of responsibility to share the good news and make disciples or in the words of the Apostle Paul to be the “pillar and support of the truth.”
A worshipping community. This activity is most likely the first thing that comes to mind when the term church is mentioned. However, as already noted, the functioning of Christ’s body involves much more than just assembling for worship each week. Nevertheless, the New Testament reveals the importance of worship as a community of believers.
As we noted earlier, Acts, chapter 2, pictures the disciples devoting themselves to the apostles teaching, the breaking of bread (a common term for partaking of the Lord’s Table) and prayers. We see these same elements of worship today in preaching, communion and praying.
We also see the practice of giving as the new Christian’s even sold their possessions to meet the needs of other members. Later when Paul was collecting funds for the poor saints in Jerusalem, he encourages the church at Corinth to lay aside their contribution for this work every first day of the week, which was the day that the church came together for worship.
Even though congregational singing is absent from the example cited earlier in Acts, chapter 2, Paul’s admonition for edifying worship in I Corinthians 14:26 includes the proper conduct of one coming forth with a hymn. 
Although Paul is not specifically addressing corporate worship, a reference to singing in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians endorses and encourages it as a worship practice. Historians tell us that singing was a part of the First Century culture, and sometimes was done under the influence of liquor with content inappropriate for the Christian. Perhaps this was in the mind of Paul when he encourages Christians (in Ephesians 5:18-20) to not get drunk “but be filled with the Spirit addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...” In his letter to the Colossians (3:16), Paul tells them in addition to other practices to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In Acts 16:25, Paul and his companion, Silas, serve as outstanding examples of this practice as they were praying and singing hymns in a Philippian jail within earshot of the other prisoners.
Among the listed worship practices, “breaking of the bread” or “the Lord’s table” occupied a prominent position to the extent that Luke in Acts 20:7 describes their Sunday assembly as coming together to “break bread.” It was instituted by Christ shortly before his death as a memorial to his body and blood. It was a practice that was unique to Christian assemblies as contrasted, for example, to Jewish synagogue practices. An examination of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:23-30 shows the multi-dimensional character of this observance. One commentator observed that it can be tied to every New Testament-based lesson. The bread as a memorial to Christ’s body also signifies the unity of his body as the assembly of saints. We are reminded by the cup that Christ’s blood was the means of establishing the New Covenant with its forgiveness. As we continue to observe this supper, we are proclaiming his death (if you will, the cross) and this only ends when he returns. The church is blessed as she participates in this weekly table observance with its rich meaning and on the same week day of Jesus’ resurrection. What a wonderful observance with its close tie to the cross of Jesus!!
And so as the community of Christ, we carry on the worship tradition of 2000 years as we hear the word, pray, sing, give and observe the Lord’s Table. The author of Hebrews tells the Christians to not neglect meeting together within the context of stirring each other to love and good works. See Hebrews 10:25. This demonstrates that the assembly is important for both offering our worship to God and encouraging each other in our Christian journey.
In light of the important position that the church occupies in New Testament writings it is important to participate in a Christian community that recognizes and submits to the authority bestowed upon our resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ as revealed in scripture. This means recognition and practice of core principles and practices including, but certainly not limited to, those presented from scripture in this booklet.
 
Conclusion
In the beginning of this discourse, the stated objective was to present from scripture the story of Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross with direct and vital application to your life. We discussed the incredible life of Jesus who as God left his exalted heavenly position and lived a life of humble service in this world. The centrality of the cross was claimed as we examined his death and resurrection and the resulting benefits offered to all of us including salvation, justification, reconciliation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We examined how scripture further reveals God’s grace in calling for our response of faith that includes several important components including repentance, baptism and living a life submissive to the lordship of Jesus. Even though, the purpose was not to “sell” a particular church, we covered the vital importance of identity and participation within the Christian community as a fundamental experience in our service to Christ and humankind.
It is my prayer that the information presented in this booklet encourages further study, reflection and action toward a committed life to our king of kings, Jesus, the Christ.
 
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
© 2010 by Donald E. Neill