As we follow Jesus in Christian discipleship, it would be helpful to reflect a bit on the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ. The biblical writers assume the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and focus their attention on its significance. Paul, for example, portrays Jesus as: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,” and “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8).
Death by crucifixion demonstrates the ultimate humiliation. Yet it affirms that the death of Christ was the will and act of God with eternal significance. Foundationally, the crucifixion of Jesus was the means by which God provided salvation, the forgiveness of sins (1 Cor 15:3). Christ crucified is the summary of the Christian message. The cross of Jesus is the great act of the love of God for the sinfulness of humanity. The condemning legal demands set against humanity have been “cancelled,” and nailed to the cross (Col 2:14). The word of the cross is God’s word of reconciliation.
The cross is also the symbol of Christian discipleship. To first-century Palestinians, who often witnessed the condemned person carrying the crossbar to the site of their final torture, hearing Jesus’ word, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38), must have been very shocking. Jesus insisted that the humiliation and suffering that culminated in his crucifixion were to characterize the experience of his followers. “It is enough,” he says, “for the student to be like his teacher, and servants like their masters” (Matt 10:25).
Crucifixion becomes a part of the identification between Christ and the believer, who is “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). While many of us will not actually be nailed to a cross, it does mean followers of Jesus must die to self in order to follow Jesus. The challenge of following Jesus involves having “crucified” sinful natures and desires. Paul writes, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
When understood in its historical, social context, Paul’s statement that the proclamation of the Christ crucified is a “stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishness” to the Gentiles makes logical sense. Yet for Christians it remains an act and demonstration of “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24).