On the eve of the Easter Weekend I thought I’d post an article I wrote for our church magazine. (Warning: It’s a fair bit longer than my average blog post):
Once a year the period of Easter brings the church to think about and embrace, perhaps more deeply than any other time, the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is at this time of the year that we remember with sobering clarity the hands struck through with nails, the thorn pierced brow, the pain and the anguish of a king who would come into this world and die for his people. I’ve often thought that the third verse of Isaac Watt’s famous hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross‘ best captures the emotion of the scene:
“See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?” (Isaac Watts: 1707)
Charles Wesley, probably the greatest hymn writer of all time, once reportedly remarked that he’d give up all his other hymns to have been able to write this one.
At no other place in the grand story of God is our mind and heart so engaged as when we reflect on the cross of Christ. Perhaps what grips us most is that this act of enormous magnitude involves us – it involves you and me. It was our collective sin that saw Jesus die on the cross, it was our eternal forgiveness that was earned in that moment and it was our unending joy that overflowed as he exited the empty tomb three days later. The cross fundamentally affects us in every way by what it achieves.
Usually, and rightly, our focus at Easter time is on exactly that, ‘what the cross achieves’. We focus on the reality that at the cross Jesus stands in our place to take the punishment against sin thereby satisfying God’s justice and at the same time making forgiveness and reconciliation between God and man a possibility. The cross is the centerpiece of God’s grand plan to fix this world and undo the horror of the fall in the Garden of Eden. And so we rightly meditate on the achievements of the cross at Easter time.
But I want to shift gear slightly – not shift from the cross – but rather shift from how we normally think about the cross at Easter time. A large part (if not all in some sense) of the New Testament reflects upon the significant effects of the cross upon humanity and yet Jesus doesn’t only talk about what his own death will achieve but he also sets it out as pattern for the life of his followers.
Notice his words to his disciples and all the other followers gathered around him in Mark 8:34-35:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it”
Just a few verses earlier Jesus announced to his disciples that he was to suffer and die at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law. The striking issue in this text is that the first thing Jesus announces to the crowds, after making a prophetic declaration about his own death, is a call to join him in death.
Whilst contemporary culture has romanticised the image of a cross, to the point of obscuring its significance, a first century crowd knew that the term ‘cross’ meant only one thing for them: a shameful, cruel, death. Jesus was inviting them to die.
Now once again for us the significance of the cross rests in how it bears out on you and I. Well here we’re not left to wonder how. Jesus is explicit, “if you want to follow me”. If you want to come into this big thing we call Christianity, if you want to be a follower of Jesus then the invitation stands for you to come and die.
Our popular culture has significantly veiled the meaning of this invitation. So you’ll often hear people say things like, ‘we’ve all got our crosses to bear,’ by which they mean ‘life is rough, bad things happen’. That really shifts the blame to circumstances and the ups and downs we face as a result of things outside of our control. But that’s not at all what Jesus is talking about here. Here Jesus wants us to adopt a pattern of life, a way of living that is shaped by and informed by his own sacrifice on the cross. He’s not talking about being tossed about by harsh circumstances he’s talking about choosing to live according to a certain pattern. And the best way Jesus can describe this pattern is by alluding to death, and his death in particular.
The cross doesn’t only achieve marvelous things for us it also sets the agenda for how we should live in light of it’s great achievements. One way that I like to talk about this is to use the word Cruciform – literally: in the form or pattern of the cross.
So what does a cruciform life look like? Well to state the painfully obvious, it looks like Jesus’ death on the cross. Now obviously we can’t all go back to the first century and be nailed to a cross to die a death that atones for the sins of the world – that’s not the call of the cruciform life. The cruciform life has more to do with the character of the cross and the events surrounding the cross.
At the cross the King of the world, the king for whom this world was created (cf. Col 1:16), comes and humbles himself to receive a criminal’s death. It’s a complete reversal of expected norms and values – a complete reversal of our values. And when we get this complete reversal it shapes absolutely everything we do.
So Paul, for example, picks up on this in Philippians 2 and he calls on believers to be humble, unified, to do nothing out of selfish ambition and to be caring about others more than they care about themselves – all things that are often the reversal of what our culture glories in. And the way Paul gets us, as believers, to move from our current (expected) values to the way of the cross is by pointing to Jesus and his very example on the cross. So in that famous line in Philippians 2:5 he says, ‘your attitude (literally: your mind) should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…’ and then he proceeds to unpack the story of the cross where the King of the world humbles himself to death, even death on a cross.
The reality is that you and I are living lives that are, more often than not, conditioned by our culture and not by the cross. Daily we look out for opportunities for self-promotion, opportunities to make ourselves look bigger and better – and that often at the expense of others. Our careers and social status continually push us to aspire after the world’s values and to shape our lives accordingly. And we will cave in to those values because the pressure around us is immense.
Only if our hearts can savour and taste the cross of Christ in all its fullness will we begin to see our lives shaped in a cruciform way. Only as the gospel sinks down deep will we be able to resist the pressures that call us to abandon cruciform living and turn to self-centered, self-glorifying living. And only as God’s Spirit burns calvary into our hearts will we begin to know what it means to take up Jesus’ invitation to die as he did.
This Easter let the cross of Christ become a deep reality for you through study, meditation, prayer and meeting with God’s people. Marvel at what it achieves but also begin to note how you might have your life conformed to the pattern of the cross as the truth of the cross sinks in deep.