The Church: 16. The Church of Christ our Saviour: The Meaning of the Cross
[A reflection for Holy Week]
If we had witnessed Jesus’ week leading up to his crucifixion, we might have seen it as a week beginning with hope for religious, social, and political change that ended terribly. His execution would have been seen as the result of a hasty and unjust verdict by a corrupt judicial system, as yet one more example of the horrific and violent acts carried out by persons with power, the fickle views of an ignorant mob seething with anger and eager for political change, and even an act of betrayal by a friend. If a video camera had recorded the actual crucifixion, nothing ‘religious’ would have come to mind except, perhaps, the thought that here was an example of the righteous sufferer of the Psalms—the problem of evil itself with no apparent resolution as Jesus breathes his last in utter agony on a Roman cross just a short distance from the Temple of God in Jerusalem.
What could make the fact of someone’s death the most powerful event in human history? The fact of the cross of Jesus Christ cannot be separated from our interpretation of Jesus’ death. Knowing who Jesus was makes all the difference. No single identification could suffice for the early Church, as Jesus filled up each designation and yet was more. He was the prophet, the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of God, the servant of God, the high priest like Melchizedek, righteous sufferer, the Lord worthy of our worship. He took on the roles of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, King David, and Israel itself. To see him was to see God himself. To say all this about Jesus and to say that he willingly died upon a cross requires a fuller understanding of God.
Moreover, the lenses that make this death different from all the other unjust trials and sufferings of the human race are the lenses of the Old Testament writings, of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his death, of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead three days later, of his several appearances to many disciples to confirm his resurrection, and of the countless, transformed lives of those who have put their faith in him through the centuries. Through these lenses, we see not just another crucifixion illustrating the problem of evil in our world but God’s own offer of salvation for that world—our world. Through these lenses we gain a fuller understanding of the gravity of sin and of the mercy of God.
Jesus’ death on the cross cannot be explained through a single interpretation. It must be seen in the multiple dimensions of divine salvation that our lenses of interpretation afford. To contemplate this, imagine an old, stone chapel with stained glass windows and murals at the top of a hill. Call it ‘The Church of Christ our Saviour,’ or, if this is too traditional for you, ‘Grace Chapel’—but you’ll have to keep the stained glass and murals. The church has nine windows on each side. At the front of the church building hangs a large, wooden cross, with two murals on each side in the alcove behind the Lord’s Table. Opposite this, at the entrance to the building, are three windows—one on each side of the wooden doors and one situated above them. This is the architecture needed to enable deep reflection on the meaning of the cross.
The cross in this imaginary church building is rugged. It has holes and blood stains from previous use. But it is also empty of any form hanging upon it, for no adequate reflection on so cruel an instrument of torture and death will be adequate or appropriate without at least the hint of resurrection. Christ no longer hangs on the cross, and the meaning of the cross must be seen from the whole narrative of Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection, and exaltation.
Scenes of Relational Change
The three windows at the entrance to the church depict the change in relationships that the cross of Jesus Christ brings. The window to the left of the doors depicts repentance and forgiveness with a scene from John the Baptist’s ministry of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To the right of the doors is a scene depicting the transfer of a slave from an evil taskmaster to a kind, new master. It is a scene of liberation, not of the freedom of self but of the freedom found in life now lived in obedience to God, Maker of the universe, whose laws are not only the laws of physics but also of moral order for living the good life as God intended. The window above the church doors depicts the third change in relationship found in the cross. It sits exactly opposite the cross and depicts the love, peace, and reconciliation between God and others that emerges from Christ’s bearing of our sins and shame, and his abandonment by God on the cross due to becoming sin for us. The love and peace depicted above the doors of the church are the pathway for entering into the profound reflection on the cross that one can only appreciate from within the Church of Christ our Saviour.
Scenes of Exchange
On the left wall of the church are nine windows depicting scenes of exchange that interpret the cross of Christ our Saviour. The first window depicts the exchange of association. It is a scene of Israel’s liberation from Egypt to become God’s own treasured possession (cf. Exodus 19.5-6). Combined with this Old Testament imagery (that might just as well have been illustrated by Abraham’s departure from Ur) are words from Jesus’ prayer to the Father, ‘They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world’ (John 17.16). The reflective worshiper will remember that the separation of which Jesus spoke was not a taking of God’s people out of the world but of keeping them from its evil (v. 15) and was of a purification that allowed them to undertake an effective mission to the world (v. 17).
The second window depicts transference of sins, as when a person transferred sins to the head of an animal. In this window, the priest of Israel, Aaron, is shown with his hands on the head of a live goat that is about to be sent away into the wilderness, bearing away the sins of Israel (Lev. 16.21).
The third window is a scene of the payment of ransom. It depicts payment of a large ransom for a slave, but the circumstance from which the slave is being ransomed is death itself. On the window are words from Psalm 49, ‘For the ransom of life is costly’ (Psalm 49.8).
The fourth window depicts the similar exchange of redemption. Here, joyful exiles are being redeemed from their captivity by foreign nations and are being returned to dwell in the Kingdom of God. God is shown as the ‘kinsman redeemer’ in this scene, and words from Isaiah accompany the scene: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43.1).
The fifth window offers a depiction of the exchange of identification. This is the logic of one person identifying with and playing the role of another person or persons. It entails the notion of one person suffering for others, or of the many participating in the righteousness of another. As Jesus took on the role of Israel, we, too, might take on his role by identifying with him, by ‘being in Christ,’ as Paul phrases this notion of identification or participation with Christ. Jesus, though without sin, entered the waters of baptism—a baptism for the repentance for the forgiveness of sins—with all Israel: he took on the role of sinful Israel so that sinners might take on his righteousness. The scene depicted should be of Jesus exiting the water of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist baptized, dripping wet. With this scene might be the words, ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5.21).
The sixth window of exchange depicts sacrifice, where the blood of the pure and holy life is shed for the impure and unholy life, the righteousness of the righteous one is imputed to the unrighteous. Such a scene should capture the words of Isaiah, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (Isaiah 53.5).
The seventh window of exchange should capture the notion of exchange through the imagery of taking off filthy rags and putting on the clean clothes of righteousness. This can be depicted with the scene of the return of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15.21-24). Perhaps the deeper message of this exchange in Revelation 7.14 could accompany this scene: ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ That, too, could make an amazing scene: person’s emerging with whitened robes from a pool of blood at the foot of the altar on which the Lamb of God, Jesus himself, has been slaughtered.
The eighth window of exchange is that of paying a penalty. It involves the combined image of a free gift and of justification in the law court whereby the debt owed by a sinner is cleared by another. The scene in this window involves Jesus’ free gift of his own life and righteousness for the ungodly before the justice and wrath of God, and the appropriate words from Romans to capture this theology of the cross might be, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God’ (Romans 5.8-9).
The last window of exchange on the left side of the Church of Christ our Saviour depicts enrichment of the poor, needy, sinful, and marginalised. This is not to be the heretical teaching of the Prosperity Gospel but its exact opposite. It depicts the exchange of Christ himself: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8.9). The correct theology of this verse involves understanding this first as metaphorical—wealth is not merely material wealth. Second, to the extent it might involve anything material, the notion is that Christ’s example of giving rather than of obtaining, keeping, and enjoying for oneself is being expressed. Perhaps this could be captured with a scene of Jesus welcoming to a lavishly prepared dinner the poor, the little children, the widows and orphans, the Gentiles—a Scythian slave—the sick, and repentant sinners. It might even imitate Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper, but with these disciples, not the traditional twelve, to make the powerful point of Christ’s enrichment through his incarnation and death. Remarkably, the theology of 2 Cor. 8.9 is not that Jesus was rich and cared for the poor out of his wealth, but that he, by becoming poor, made others rich. The cross is not philanthropy—which might be the basis of a Prosperity Gospel. It is rather exchange, taking on the identity of the poor in order to enrich them according to their needs.
Scenes of Personal and Corporate Change
On the right side of the Church of Christ our Saviour will be found nine windows depicting the change of personal and corporate relationships in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first window will depict the personal and corporate change symbolized by covenant relationship. The death of Christ, symbolized by the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table, is the establishment of the new covenant predicted by Isaiah (59.20-21), Jeremiah (31.33), and Ezekiel (36.26-27). It is the culmination of the previous covenants of God with Abraham (Genesis 12.1-3) and Moses (Exodus 19-20). While God’s choosing a people to be holy and blameless in his sight, electing them to fulfill his purposes, and making a covenant with them is not equivalent to salvation—for, as we learn repeatedly in the Old Testament, an elect people may turn away from God to idolatry and other sins—the covenant relationship is the relationship God establishes to work out his plan of salvation in the world. One symbol of covenant that depicts both individual and corporate separation from sin to live in obedience to God is circumcision. While it was a physical sign of the covenant God made with Abraham and his offspring (Genesis 17.10-14), it became a metaphor for the circumcision of the heart God expected from his people (Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; Jeremiah 4.4; 9.25-26) and that was the hallmark of the new covenant prophesied by the prophets and established by Jesus through his death and resurrection. Paul uses the metaphor of a circumcised heart to explain baptism in Colossians: ‘In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross’ (Colossians 2.11-14). Thus, the first window could depict covenant symbols with imagery of circumcision, baptism, or the Lord’s Table, with the last of these being the clearest image (and baptism has already been used) of the new covenant in Christ’s death. Perhaps the words of institution for the cup might appear with a depiction of the Last Supper: ‘Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26.27-28).
The second window will depict the change of heart a believer experiences, not only of belief but also of the moral life. Christ, through his sacrificial death, established the new covenant of God with his people: ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31.33). Jesus’ call for a deeper righteousness in God’s Kingdom was a call for this new covenant morality that was not only a matter of outward acts but an ethic of the heart, not only righteous deeds instead of unrighteous deeds but also acts that overcame unrighteousness, not only practices that brought about personal transformation but ones that also made possible an end to vicious cycles of sin and brought about social good and justice, even through sacrifice. Perhaps the scene to capture this vision of the heart set free from sin, the oversight of the external Law, and the resultant death from transgressions is Paul’s own conversion on the road to Damascus.
The third window depicting change of personal and corporate relationships is the change of mind such that those caught in sin to the extent of no longer knowing the will of the Creator have their minds renewed. The two verses in Romans that capture this theology of the changed mind are Romans 1.28 and 12.1, 2: ‘And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done…. By the mercies of God… do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ The two examples of the depraved mind Paul offers in Romans 1.18-28 are those of people who have turned from worshiping the Creator to the worship of idols in the form of what God created, and of people who have given up natural relations of men with women as God intended in creation in order to engage in homosexual acts. This perversion of God’s intention in creation is counter-balanced in Romans 12 with a depiction of restored fellowship as members of Christ’s church use their God-given gifts for the sake of the body of believers. Instead of the distortions of community represented in idolatry and homosexuality is the restored fellowship and community of believers. The artist working on this window needs to capture both the depravity and the change to a restored mind by the mercies of God in Christ Jesus. Paul captures this with the image of believers presenting their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12.1). In Ephesians he says, ‘You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds….’ (Ephesians 4.22-23).
The fourth window of personal change through the cross is the Pauline image of the old man/new man contrast. The passage from Ephesians goes on to speak of this and also involves the image already mentioned for another window of exchanging clothes: ‘… and to clothe yourselves with the new self [Greek: ‘new man’], created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’ (Ephesians 4.24; cf. Col. 3.9-10). This change takes place through identifying with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: ‘We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.’ (Romans 6.6-7). Perhaps an alternative to Michelangelo’s depiction of creation on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome would capture this—not God’s first creation of Adam but God’s recreation, his restoring to new life of an old man burdened by sin and death.
The fifth window of personal and corporate change might extend the previous image with a depiction of participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says in Romans 6, ‘For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (Romans 6.5). Paul’s imagery for this participation is our own baptism, and the baptism of a multitude in waters between the cross and the empty tomb might be a way of depicting this truth of the cross. The relational change would entail both our individual relationship to Jesus because of his death and resurrection and our new relationship to the Church, the body of Christ. As Paul says in Galatians, ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3.27-29).
The sixth window on this right side of the church building depicting personal and corporate change would be indicate the cleansing or purifying work of the outpoured Holy Spirit. Ezekiel’s depiction of the new covenant entailed the imagery of a valley of dry bones—the exiles of Israel—coming back to life as the ‘breathe’ or Spirit of God recreated life within them. A scene of the valley of bones coming to life might be accompanied with Ezekiel 37.14 (ESV): ‘And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live….’ This verse follows the earlier reference to God’s new covenant: ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances’ (Ezekiel 36.26-27). This is the basis for Paul’s teaching on the Holy Spirit, as, for example, in 1 Corinthians 6.11, where the work of Christ on the cross is combined with the new life of the Spirit to explain the remarkable personal and corporate change that believers experience: ‘And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’
The seventh window depicts repentance and conversion to capture personal (and corporate) change effected through the cross of Jesus Christ. Luke offers a powerful story of personal reception of Jesus’ death (Luke 23.39-43). While one criminal derides Jesus for not saving himself if he were the Messiah, the other acknowledges the justice of his own condemnation and pleads for Jesus’ to remember him (save him) when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus accepts his words, demonstrating the effect of the cross in bringing forgiveness of sins even if the words are not explicitly stated here. Yet this incident is nothing different from what we read in 1 John: ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 John 1.8-10). Thus, this seventh reflection on the meaning of the cross for personal change depicts the two criminals crucified with Jesus while quoting the words we find in 1 John 1.8-10).
The eighth window will depict the personal and corporate change for believers in terms of making persons righteous. The work of Christ is not just a forgiving grace, it is also a transforming grace. There is no logic to sinning so that God’s grace may abound all the more if the correct theology of the cross is one of both forgiving and transforming grace. This theology has already been expressed above in terms of dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6) or being washed, cleansed, and ‘made righteous’ (as ‘justified’ can be and probably should be translated in 1 Corinthians 6.11, quoted above, and in Titus 3.7, ‘… having been justified [made righteous] by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life’). This theology of being made righteous through the cross would fit well as the other dimension to justification, depicted on the opposite side of this church in its eighth window.
The ninth window depicts new life and healing. Revelation offers the picture of a restored Eden for the salvation God extends to his creation. We read, ‘On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’ (Revelation 22.2). As the ninth window, it is opposite the window of exchange that depicts enrichment of the poor, needy, sinful, and marginalized through Christ’s becoming poor in this age. On the right side of the Church of Christ our Saviour, where the focus is on imagery that interprets the cross in terms of personal and corporate change, a picture of the healing of the nations with the leaves of the tree of life would extend the message from the exchange Jesus brings to the personal and corporate change in the age to come.
Spiritual and Cosmic Change
The significance of the cross is not only personal, corporate, and universal. It is also spiritual and cosmic. At the front of the Church of Christ our Saviour will be four murals. The cross hangs on the middle of five walls making an alcove behind the Lord’s Table. To the left of the cross are murals of spiritual change that the cross brings. First, the cross brings a victory over Satan, freedom from demonic power. This was anticipated in the disciples’ ministry of the Kingdom of God when, like Jesus, they cast out demons. Jesus replied to the disciples ministry report that he saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky (Luke 10.18). A similar vision is captured with reference to Jesus’ ministry in Revelation, when the dragon is conquered in heaven but persecutes the church on earth (Revelation 12). The spiritual victory over evil spiritual powers is stated in Colossians: ‘He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]’ (Colossians 2.15). Thus, we might combine the passage from Colossians with the scene from Luke 10 for this first mural capturing the spiritual significance of the cross.
The second of the two murals depicting the spiritual significance of the cross would depict the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first believers at Pentecost (Acts 2.1-4). Verse 4 says, ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ Believers are not only set free from spiritual wickedness and Satanic forces but are set free in the Spirit to live holy and righteous lives as a testimony to the nations by God’s empowering presence, the Holy Spirit. Through Christ’s death, God’s mission to the world is inaugurated by the outpouring of his Holy Spirit on the renewed people of God.
To the right of the cross will be two other murals depicting the cosmic and creational change effected by the death and resurrection of Christ. The first would depict Paul’s Adam/Christ typology, which he uses explicitly in 1 Corinthians 15 in clarifying the doctrine of the resurrection and in Romans 5 in contrasting the first Adam’s trespass and the second Adam’s act of righteousness, with their effects on humanity. Similarly, in Colossians 1.15-20, there is an implicit contrast of Adam with Christ. Christ is not the first human creature, as was Adam, but in fact the Creator and sustainer of the universe. He was not the first living human being but the firstborn from the dead. Whereas Adam was created in God’s image, Jesus was always the image of the invisible God in whom all God’s fullness was pleased to dwell. Along with a mural depicting Jesus as the second Adam, we might, then, have the full words of this passage along with a mural of Christ the Lord, conqueror of death: 'He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1.15-20).
The second mural depicting the cosmic and creational change effected by the cross would expand the notion of Christ as victor to his ultimate rule—to the end of the unfolding story. While the risen Christ has been exalted to heaven and presently rules as Lord, he will bring his rule to its climax one day when everyone will acknowledge that he is, indeed, Lord. In fulfillment of Isaiah 45.23, Paul tells us, at the name of Jesus—his name that identifies him with the one God (Isaiah 45.22-25)—all will bow: ‘… at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2.10-11). With these words might be depicted a mural of the crucified Christ ruling, perhaps as Revelation does with the image of a lamb that was slain and yet endowed with authority (seven horns) and spiritual power (seven eyes) on the throne of God (Revelation 5.6-7). This lamb is able to receive the scroll with the names of the redeemed and to open its seals because he was slaughtered—by his blood the saints of God were ransomed (v. 9). The full imagery of this scene would include the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, many angels, and peoples from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation worshiping the Lamb that was slain and yet, by that victory, reigns upon the throne of God.
No single interpretation of the cross can fulfill its significance, and each interpretation overlaps with and develops the thought of another. Attempts to limit the significance of the cross or to focus on only one or two interpretations of it are akin to the worship who wishes to sit in the same seat every Sunday. In the imagined Church of Christ our Saviour, worshippers must move around and reflect on the multiple dimensions of meaning for the cross of Jesus Christ.
So, for example, the current trend in some halls of theology is to reject an interpretation of the cross of the ‘imputed righteousness’ of Christ. This simply cannot be sustained when contemplating the multiple dimensions of exchange that interpret the cross, particularly that of sacrifice. Nor can certain theologies who like to diminish the need to acknowledge our personal sin and the need for personal transformation and holiness feel comfortable beside depictions of the cross in terms of personal and corporate change. Moreover, certain theologies that focus Christ’s death on personal conversion, while correct, need to be expanded with realizations of the larger picture of corporate, spiritual, cosmic, creational, and eschatological change.
Finally, the cross itself is essential. Imagine the meaninglessness of such a church building’s windows and murals without a cross. This seems obvious, but there have been not a few attempts to have some dimension of the theology of the cross without the cross. Some people, for example, wish to interpret Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross as a symbol of universal love without remembering that this love was expressed sacrificially in his death for our sins. Christian theology is not about forgiveness, reconciliation, and love without sacrifice and death for sins. It is not a mere acceptance, welcoming, and tolerance of diversity without calling people to repentance and transformation of their ways through Jesus’ death on the cross.
I am told that one seminary in the Midwest of the United States removed all the crosses from its campus as an offensive and violent symbol for those wishing to emphasize the positive message of peace and love. It would be shocking enough to hear of a local church engaged in this sort of revisionist theologizing, but for a seminary to do so is nothing short of incredulous. How profound the ignorance of the wise. As Paul said, ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1.22-24). Through murals and windows of the imaginary Church of Christ our Saviour presented here, the rich meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ can be contemplated.