What does the cross mean to you?

Someone posted in social media recently and asked the question, “What does the cross mean to you?”

ImageI find this intriguing because I am teaching a course on the cruciform church at the moment. I looked at the responses to the question, and here is my paraphrase of the answers.

  • Grace.
  • I come to the cross to tell Jesus how much I need him.
  • Unconditional love.
  • Everything.
  • It means that my life will never be the same again.
  • It tells me how much he has done for me.
  • It symbolises two thousand years of effective protection for Christians.
  • Forgiveness and hope.
  • When I look at the cross, I know that he answers the prayers of the individual.

The other responses are very similar.

I certainly think that the cross represents the unconditional love of God. And I share the experience of a totally changed life when I came to faith in Christ. At a personal level, the message of the cross—the cruciform death and resurrection of Christ—has the most profound impact on my life.

But I wonder whether the above answers highlight some issues we have to face as a church at large?

First, almost all the responses above are about what God has done for us, or will do for us. There is very little about what the cross demands.

For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about cross-bearing.

Then he [Jesus] said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (NIV; Luke 9:23; cf. Matt 10:38; Mark 8:34)

And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27; Matt 16:24)

The cross is certainly very important to the apostle Paul. In Galatians he talks about his co-crucifixion with Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:20a)

Paul also speaks of a cruciform leadership pattern that is about identifying with Christ’s death so that the life of Christ may manifest through his weakness.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor 4:10–11)

Much more can be said. But it is clear that the New Testament does not only talk about what the cross does for the followers of Jesus. It also has much to say about what the cross means to the daily life of Christ-followers.

No wonder Isaac Watts says in his great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,

Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Second, almost no-one cites or alludes to the Scripture in their responses to the question “What does the cross mean to you?” in the above question raised in social media. This (at least partially) explains why the responses are all fairly similar, and that they ignore cross-bearing and the cross-shaped faith. I think many will agree that biblical literacy has been declining in recent years, and this is a very unhealthy trend.

Third, I wonder whether the responses also reflect a “what’s in it for me” church culture today? I am glad to see that people do love Jesus because of the cross. But one’s love for God needs to be expressed through cruciform commitment to Christ. I personally find this commitment very challenging. But nonetheless this is what we are called to do, and so let us do so by relying on God’s grace and the help of his Spirit.

Four, I wonder what teaching we receive in our churches and on the Internet today? Do we still focus on the Scripture? Do we challenge Christians to focus on the cross and be faithful to God? I hope we do.

Fifth, I really hope that Christians in the West do not export a truncated understanding of the cross to other parts of the world. I mean, we need to present and live out a gospel message that truly reflect the meaning of the cross. The cross is about the good news of the Jesus for humanity, and at the same time it demands Christ-followers to embody the self-giving love of Jesus in the world.

Let me close by citing the words of Miroslav Volf.

In a world of violence, the Cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lives at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal . . . there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge. (in Volfs book, Exclusion and Embrace, page 26)

I find this very challenging. May God give us the courage and grace to follow Jesus.

The Cross Shatters All Norms

Beautiful quote from John Barclay’s new book.

Faith Improvised

I am thoroughly enjoying John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. He has developed a unique vocabulary and grammar to articulate the shape of Paul’s theology.

Barclay, Paul and the Gift

It’s simply beautiful to read and I find myself re-reading and savoring many of his paragraphs. In his discussion of Galatians 6:11-16, he powerfully captures Paul’s argument regarding the power of the cross:

The cross of Christ shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly “natural” order of “the world” (cf. 4:3). In form (as unconditioned gift), in content (as death), and in mode (the shame of crucifixion), the cross of Christ breaks believers’ allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right. Whereas Philo took “the world” (ὁ κόσμος) to be the properly ordered gift of God, whose stable values were reinforced by gifts to worthy beneficiaries, Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm…

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Spirit-led cruciform leadership (insights from Gordon Fee)  

I am reading Gordon Fee’s commentary on Galatians (Deo Publishing: Blandford Forum, 2007). In his reflection on Gal 6:11–18, Fee says the following (page 255).

Whatever “authority” we might have in the church — and I doubt whether it is very much at all — it is totally derived, and it has nothing to do with position and everything to do with what has been earned by one’s character, as that is in process of being shaped into Christ’s own character by the indwelling Spirit.

And . . . my experience with those keen on their own authority in the church is that to a person they are not very keen on being shaped by the cross. That is, they may preach the cross well as the means of salvation; but that is only part of Paul’s concern in this passage [Gal 6:11–18]. His greater concern has to do with living cruciform, to have his life “shaped” by, and in the likeness of, Christ’s own crucifixion. (Emphasis added)

I like Gordon Fee as an “older” scholar, who is passionate about the Scripture and is a devout follower of Jesus. Here I feel that he is speaking as a father in the faith to encourage us to practise Spirit-led cross-shaped leadership.

But of course we should, most of all, hear from Paul himself.

But as for me, may it never be that I boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14; Lexham English Bible)

The crucified Christ in 1 Corinthians (Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s insights and my reflections)  

I am reading 1 Corinthians at the moment. Yesterday I thought I might take a look at Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s Thinking Through Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), expecting that they would provide me with a good overview of the letter. I was not disappointed, for I came across some succinct and insightful comments about 1 Corinthians.

Longnecker and Still think that the centre of the letter’s vision is “nothing but Christ crucified,” which I wholeheartedly concur.

A good passage to cite here would be 1 Cor 2:1–5.

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (NIV; emphasis added)

I do wonder how often preaching today is characterised by eloquent speech, human wisdom and power, rather than weakness, fear and trembling?

I do believe that well-prepared sermons and thoughtful biblical reflections are very important. But that’s very different from eloquent motivational talks that say little about the crucified Christ and primarily appeal to the emotion.

This is what Longnecker and Still say regarding the crucified Christ.

As Paul unpacks the phrase “Jesus Christ crucified,” he shows that it involves a radical redefinition of life and a sweeping reconfiguration of lifestyle. If “Jesus Christ crucified” is something of a slogan for Paul, it is a slogan that informs the repatterning of whole sectors of life—individual and collective, ethical and ecclesial . . . (Page 116; emphasis added)

These words from [1 Cor] 2:1–5 exemplify what Paul does throughout much of this letter. That is, he highlights a strand of the gospel that subverts the Corinthians’ cultural norms and expectations and applies it to their situation in ways that reorient them along the path of the gospel’s outworking. (Pages 116–7; emphasis added)

The cross is not only for our benefit. The grace of God through Christ also calls for a radical reorientation of every sphere of life.

Longnecker and Still continue to say,

At the heart of all this is what Paul calls “the message of the cross.” As he readily recognizes, that message is “foolishness” when analysed in reference to the quest for honor that enraptured the Corinthian ethos. Paul calls the Corinthians to look beyond that perception of foolishness in order that they might be empowered with “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18; also 2:4–5), enabling them to be reoriented to the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. (Page 117; emphasis added)

The challenge for us, then, is to abandon using our human wisdom to achieve the mission and purposes that God has given the church. Instead of asking how “successful” we are, and measure “success” in terms of the value system of the world, we should ask whether our message is “foolish” from the perspective of the world.

This does not mean that we don’t use wisdom or that we should abandon learning. Neither should we present the gospel in ways that are not thoughtful. But we should always be careful that we don’t deviate from the message of the crucified Christ and a (corporate and individual) life that embodies the cross, which will always appear to be foolish in the eyes of the world.

Longnecker and Still make the following comments regarding Paul’s own life.

The apostolic pattern of Paul’s ministry itself demonstrates that God’s wisdom runs against the grain of cultural constructed systems of honor. So Paul characterizes his ministry as, among other things, foolish, weak, and dishonorable by cultural standards (4:9–13), concluding that he has “become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.” (Page 120)

Here is something that every Christian leader needs to take heed of. Our celebrity culture today is fertile ground to foster leadership patterns that seek honour and glory in front of the world. Personality cult in the Christian circle is all too common. Paul would have nothing to do with it.


Suffering and the cross, the counter-cultural symbol (Miroslav Volf)

Some years ago I read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). I really enjoyed it. Here are some insightful words from the book regarding suffering and the cross.

All sufferers can find comfort in the solidarity of the Crucified; but only those who struggle against evil by following the example of the Crucified will discover him at their side. To claim the comfort of the Crucified while rejecting his way is to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology. (Page 24)

In a world of violence, the Cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lives at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal… there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge. (page 26)

As the Gospel of Mark reports, the first disciples followed and were scandalized (14:26ff.). Yet they continue to tell the story of the cross, including the account of how they abandoned the Crucified. Why? Because precisely in the scandal, they have discovered a promise. In serving and giving themselves for others (Mark 10:45), in lamenting and protesting before the dark face of God (15:34), they found themselves in the company of the Crucified. In his empty tomb they saw the proof that the cry of desperation will turn into a song of joy and that the face of God will eventually “shine” upon a redeemed world. (pages 26–27)


Michael Gorman’s Good Friday reflections

Michael Gorman has posted some insightful Good Friday reflections on his blog, which can be found here.

Here are two short quotes from Gorman’s post.

“The main purpose of Jesus’ death was to create the people of the new covenant, who would be empowered by the Spirit of God to resemble Jesus himself: faithful to God and loving toward their neighbors and enemies.”

“Christlikeness is Godlikeness; through participation in the cross of Christ, we are transformed most fully into the image of God.”

Scandal of the cross: Gordon Fee on Philippians 2:5-11

I am reading Gordon Fee’s commentary on Philippians (NICNT). Here is a great quote on Philippians 2:5-11.

“[H]ere we see again why the ‘scandal of the cross’ was so central to his [Paul’s] understanding of everything Christian. For in ‘pouring himself out’ and ‘humbling himself to death on the cross,’ Christ Jesus has revealed the character of God himself. Here is the epitome of God-likeness: the pre-existent Christ was not a ‘grasping, selfish’ being, but one whose love for others found its consummate expression in ‘pouring himself out,’ in taking on the role of a slave, in humbling himself to the point of death on behalf of those so loved. No wonder Paul cannot abide triumphalism — in any of its forms. It goes against everything that God is and that God is about. To be sure, there is final vindication for the one who goes the way of the cross; but for believers the vindication is eschatological, not present. Discipleship in the present calls for servanthood, self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Hence Paul concludes the narrative with a further call to ‘obedience’ on the part of the Philippians (v. 12), which will take shape as God works out his salvation among them for his own good pleasure (v. 13); but for God to do so, they must stop the bickering (v. 14) and get on with ‘having the same love’ for one another (v. 2) as Christ has portrayed in this unparalleled passage.”

(Source: Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 197.)

The message of the crucified Christ and its bold claim

In his first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul speaks of his determination to preach the crucified Christ. He says: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God”. (I Corinthians 1:22-24; TNIV)


First century Jews looked for signs because they were expecting their God to send a powerful leader like Moses or David to deliver them from the hands of the Romans. They wanted God to do what He did in the Exodus story. That is, to use powerful and splendid signs to overcome their enemies. Jesus, however, did the very opposite. He died on a Roman cross, which was a symbol of shame and humiliation. Indeed, it was the means by which the Romans showed their superiority and control over the people they had conquered.

First century Greeks looked for wisdom because they were zealous for all kinds of learning. It was simply beyond human reasoning to think that the saviour of the world would be a weak and defeated criminal on a Roman cross. For the ancient Greeks, it was not right for the alleged saviour of the world to be dishonoured in public and suffer disgrace. Yet this is the type of saviour Paul proclaimed in his Gospel.

The offence of the message of the crucified Christ is its bold and counter-cultural claim against the basic idolatry of humanity. Professor Gordon Fee helpfully summaries how that basic idolatry of humankind looks like: “God must function as the all-powerful or the all-wise, but always in terms of our best interests – power in our behalf, wisdom like ours! For both the ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how “the God who makes sense” ought to do things.” (Emphasis added)

We should not shy away from preaching the crucified Christ in our churches. As we reflect on the love of Christ during Easter, let us also remember that our way of life must model after Him. The Christian life is not about the pursuit of power and human wisdom. It is not about miraculous signs or a supreme philosophy that make us superior. Neither is it about an endless pursuit of blessings. Nor is it simply a matter of seeking peace and harmony. Instead, it is about following the Messiah, the Son of God — who humbled Himself, suffered and died on the cross, and was exalted to the highest place to the glory of God the Father (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). Deviating from proclaiming the crucified Christ and following His ways means that we slowly go down the path of fashioning God after our own image and hence the path of idolatry. But living out this basic truth means that authentic Christianity is preserved and that the church can truly bear witness to the Gospel.

(The above is an excerpt of an article I wrote in 2009. Click here for the article.)