Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Irony of the Cross

"Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Corinthians 15:57

In the states where the death penalty is still legally in place, inmates often spend nine to ten years awaiting their fate on death row as the appellate process is worked to its conclusion. Death row is a part of the prison system reserved for the worst of all criminals. Their actions have caused death and pain to many others. Now they themselves are condemned to die. There is great shame in having landed on death row. No one is proud to live there. To die by capital punishment is to be included among the most notorious group of criminals in our country’s history.

The cross was regarded by those living in the Roman world to be the punishment reserved for the lowest of the low. Only slaves and the worst types of criminals were punished in this way. It was the cruelest and most degrading form of punishment that existed at the time of Christ. Paul expressed the deep shame of Christ’s death by crucifixion when he wrote to the Philippians. As Paul lists the rungs down the metaphorical ladder Christ took from glory to utter humility, the last step down was this: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)

It was the most despicable, shameful way to die. Yet that was the punishment God chose for His Son to endure in order to pay for the sins of the world.

The cross is one of the many ironies we see in the Scriptures that contrast what the world would instinctively choose as a better way.

Have you ever tried to accomplish a task by using a mirror? When I taught school, the overhead projector was a piece of equipment I used in nearly every lesson I taught. I liked it because I could write on the board while facing my students-- a teacher never likes to turn her back on a class. I often used transparent math manipulatives or prepared overhead sheets. It was always a challenge to move things around on the projector while looking at the screen where the image was projected. Because the image is a product of a mirror, it goes against what your brain instinctively tells you. In order to move something to the left on the screen, you must move it right on the projector. It is a truly counterintuitive process.

Much of how God has chosen to work seems counterintuitive to us. He uses the weak over the strong. The more humble we are, the more usable. The rich and the privileged of this world are at a disadvantage when it comes to eternal life. Their very independence and strength threatens their capability to put their trust in a Savior to save them. The most expensive price possible was paid for our sin. Yet the resulting salvation is offered to us as a completely free gift. The Bible is full of ironies. Yet the greatest irony of all is the cross.

It was a place of ultimate suffering and shame. Yet it was the place where God was glorified the most. From all appearances, Christ’s death on the cross was His ultimate defeat. Yet in fact it was really the place of His ultimate victory. The most appallingly violent death possible became the source of our peace. God hanging like a guilty criminal produced for us a verdict of innocent.

We wear a tiny replica of a cross to symbolize belonging to Jesus Christ. In a way it is a little like wearing a charm of a hangman’s noose or an electric chair around our necks. First Corinthians 1:18 tells us the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” The cross was always a symbol of shame. But for the Christian, it is a symbol of victory and the glory of God revealed. And we rejoice in the irony.

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