The “Basic” Meaning of the Cross

Rereading is an unusual activity, especially when years have elapsed since the first reading.  I referred to that in my previous post*, that I am commenting on an important book that I read thirty-five years ago, John Stott’s Basic Christianity.

Basic is a “primer” for new believers.  One can read the book cover and see comments that attest to its content.  “Sensible guide,” “brief, well-written clear presentation,” “for those who are seeking a satisfying presentation of the Christian faith”.    I look at my seventy-five cent copy that I bought in a used book store and I see all kinds of evidence that the book meant a lot to me.  When I began reading it in 1985,  I “made it mine,” writing in the margins, underlining and writing paragraphs at the ends of chapters.  That’s how I can tell that a book has meant a lot to me.  Thirty-five years ago, Basic delivered a message that resonated with me, a message that I sorely needed.

Until Chapter Seven…

That was when the writing, underlining and paragraphs ended.  Like many Christians, I guess I struggled with understanding that Christ came to this earth and died for mankind, for you and for me.  It seemed unbelievable, too hard for anyone to do, too good to be true. 

Anyone who has been reading this blog for some time knows that I alternate between commenting on The Cross of Christ (also by Stott) and Basic.  Maybe thirty-five years hence, I should have better answers to why Christ came to this earth.  Maybe The Cross has helped me understand.

Maybe…

Understanding Christ’s purpose for His life is a common Christian dilemma, a problem that Stott addresses on page eight-six of Basic.  “Christians believe that the cross the pivotal event in history.  Small wonder that our puny minds cannot fully take it in!… ‘Now we see in the mirror dimly.’”  Remember that Basic is just what the title says it is; it is a basic explanation of the faith and Stott knows he has written a book for seekers.

Stott does not plunge into a four-hundred page exposition of the meaning of the cross.  Instead he tries to illustrate the importance of the cross by writing about one man, Simon Peter.  He turns to Peter for three reasons.  Peter was part of the “inner circle” of the Apostles.  If anyone could have understood the purpose for Jesus’ death, it should have been Peter.  Secondly, Peter struggled with the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross.  He was the first to acknowledge the divinity of Christ, but he was the last to come to terms with His death.  When the resurrection occurred however, Peter became a changed man.  He turned into a strong advocate for Christ, addressing crowds of seekers that His death and suffering was foretold, God intended Jesus to die and God’s glory is seen in His death.  It was all part of God’s plan.  Lastly, Peter writes that fellow believers should live life as patient sufferers and look to Christ on the cross as their inspiration.

One may wonder why Stott elaborates so much on the idea of Christ as an inspiration.  Everyone suffers in this life (Christian or non-Christian) but persecution of Christianity was extreme in First Century A.D.  Emperor Nero’s cruelty put fear in many believers’ hearts.  In the midst of this climate, Peter preached the message of suffering for righteousness sake.  Like Jesus, First Century Christians did not deserve the punishment they were receiving and like Jesus, they tried to suffer in silence.  Peter preached that followers must follow in Jesus’ steps, that submission to unjust punishment was “the way.”  Imagine the message this sent to non-believer observers, that these “Christians” took this abuse and did not waver in their faith.  Observers were astounded, “what faith these Christians have, that they are willing to die for their beliefs.”  Persecution led to martyrdom and martyrdom led to increasing numbers of followers.  “The cross bids us to accept injury, love our enemies and leave the outcome to God” [Stott, 88].

Jesus’ death was more than just an example.  Jesus said “I give My life as a ransom for many” and “I shed My blood of the covenant” and “for the forgiveness of sins.”  Even though I found it hard to understand thirty-five years ago, I read Basic now and see that Jesus came to save mankind from our sins.  Sinning is just an inevitable part of human life and we are better off admitting it.  Why did Jesus beg His Father to take the cup of punishment from Him in the Garden of Gethsemane?  He knew He was about to accept the sin burden of the world on His shoulders and He had lived a sinless life.  [Imagine Jesus pondering the darkness that would envelop him in the coming days].  As Jesus died on the cross, there was no more evil place in the world that on that hill at Golgotha.  To that point in human history, nothing seemed to resonate with man about the need to live a righteous life.  God’s communication had not worked.  He had to send His Son to earth to die for us.  This sent the message that belief in God would cleanse us of all our sins.  Stott writes “An example can stir our imagination, kindle our idealism and strengthen our resolve but it cannot cleanse our defilement of our past sins, bring peace to our troubled conscience or reconcile us to God….The death of Jesus is more than an inspiring example” [Stott, 89].

He met hatred with love and wickedness with forgiveness but with His death on the cross (taking responsibility for all our sins) He brought mankind close to God.  No longer did we have to depend on a High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies to ask for our forgiveness. No longer did we have to sacrifice animals to appease God.  The bridge between God and man was built from the wood of that cross.  The curtain in the temple was torn from the top to the bottom.  We could approach God with our need for forgiveness directly.  For Christians, the Spotless Lamb of Jesus Christ died on the cross.  What stronger message could be sent to us all than God sending Himself in the form of His only Son to die on the cross for all our sins.  God appeased Himself by dying for us.

Hard to understand?  Yes…

More than an example?  Yes…

Do we need a savior?  Yes…

Thirty-five years hence, I appreciate the message of Chapter Seven of Basic [maybe I understand it better?].   Is it an easy message to comprehend?  Not really, but it is essential for Christians to know what God did for us on Golgotha.  None of us is perfect; God knows that we sin, but He wants us to move on from our sin and live better lives.  Move beyond our weakness and gather strength from Him.  Our weakness is His time to provide the strength we need.  We need to take our sins to Him, ask Him for forgiveness and know that He understands.  Jesus proves that He understands because Jesus was human and Jesus was God

His Son is our Shining Example.

His Son is our Savior.

We need Jesus; we need God.

*The Big Picture, St. John Studies, April 22, 2022

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