This Palm Sunday morning there will be no exposition of a text, but rather a general consideration of the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus on the cross, that event that lies at the very center of our faith and is nothing less than the only hope of the world’s salvation. Paul speaks extravagantly about the cross here and it is my task to help us think and feel still more about the cross as he did.
v.14 Without taking time to remind you of the argument of Paul’s great letter to the Galatians let me summarize Paul’s point in this verse. He doesn’t mean the literal cross, the gibbet, the pieces of wood, of course. He means Christ as he was crucified for us to bear in our place the punishment of our sins. Embrace that reality, that message, that gospel, that Savior and all that the world finds important and necessary falls away. By that cross, the Holy Spirit had wrought a mighty change in Paul. The world had been crucified to him. All those honors and pleasures that drew his heart away from God before had, consequently, lost their charm, their allure. And, he goes on to say, the reverse was also true. In the same way that the world had lost its allure for Paul, Paul had lost his allure in the estimation of the world. This is what is meant by the last phrase, “and I to the world.” He had become to the world an object either of complete indifference or active contempt. In other words, Paul had made a radical reassessment of life in the light of the cross. In fact, it seems clear that, as Calvin argues, Galatians 6:14 and Philippians 3:7-9, are simply two different ways of saying the same thing.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” [3:7-9]
Now what was there about the cross that had so transformed the thought and the life of this great man; the one real genius of the first century? It is a question worth our careful thought. And it will help if first we carry ourselves back to the first century and think again about how people then thought about a cross or a crucifixion.
We Christians have cast such a halo around the cross that it is very hard for us to appreciate how repugnant the very idea of salvation through crucifixion was in the first century. We sing of the “old rugged cross,” we build our churches in the shape of a cross and adorn them with beautiful crosses of wood or metal; we wear crosses of gold or silver around our necks. The cross is emblazoned on the flags of many nations and on millions of tombstones all around the world. Many Christians make the sign of the cross as an emblem of prayer. This was all unheard of in the first century; unheard of and literally unthinkable. As Paul wrote in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, his message about the cross, about the Messiah dying on the cross, about the world’s salvation depending upon the death of the Son of God on the cross, was a scandal or stumbling block to the Jews and utter foolishness to the Gentiles.
The Jews, of course, were incensed by the claim of the Christians that the Messiah had come but that he had come to be crucified. They had an expectation of the coming of the Messiah — they were longing for him indeed — but weakness, suffering for sin, and in ignominious death had no place in their expectation. The Messiah’s coming would be in glory not humiliation. The Christian doctrine of Jesus Christ was such a complete repudiation of Jewish thinking about the Messiah that it is no wonder they found it profoundly offensive. But all of that repugnance to the Christian message of the Messiah dying for our sin on the cross had been greatly heightened by the Jews’ experience of crucifixion.
That manner of execution had been used excessively by the Romans in the pacification of Judea and so was associated in the Jewish mind with their humiliating mistreatment at the hands of the Romans and with their subjugation. In other words, the cross to the Jew in the first century was something akin to the Auschwitz crematorium to the modern Jewish mind. What is more, the Jews took Deuteronomy 21:23 (“If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body I hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day.”) at least to indicate that crucifixion was a sign of God’s curse. So the idea of a crucified Messiah was even more completely ruled out. Earlier in Galatians, in 5:11, Paul referred to “the offense of the cross.” He meant the offense that Jews took to the very idea that salvation would come through the ignominious humiliation of the Messiah on a cross.
But the Gentiles also found the cross offensive, though for quite different reasons. The notion that the meaning of the world should be found in a Jewish rabbi who was crucified by Roman authority outside Jerusalem was, in their view, more than faintly ludicrous. People of the Greco-Roman world found the Christian celebration of crucifixion some evidence that Christians were actually unhinged.
In fact they actually spoke of Christian belief in Jesus Christ, who had been crucified as a state criminal, as a “sick delusion” (figmenta male sanae opinionis) and a “senseless and crazy superstition” (vana et demens superstitio). And chief among the monstrosities of this new faith was that the Christians worship one who had been crucified. [Hengel, Crucifixion, 3] No criminal deserves to be worshipped, they thought, and certainly no criminal deserves to be thought a god! They would have thought about Jesus of Nazareth the way we think of a terrorist put to death for mass murder: hardly someone we should worship as the savior of the world! Imagine today hanging around your neck, ladies, a small, gold electric chair, or a gurney with the paraphernalia of a lethal injection attached to it all in shiny silver.
In a fascinating and important study of crucifixion in the ancient world, the German scholar, Martin Hengel, pointed out that references to crucifixion were few and far between in the literary remains of that culture even though it was happening all the time. The elite culture was ashamed of crucifixion, they thought it was beneath a culture as sophisticated as their own and, having witnessed it, they had a deep aversion to it. He goes on,
“…for the men of the ancient world, Greeks, Romans, barbarians, and Jews, the cross was not just a matter of indifference, just any kind of death. It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word.” 
The cross may have precious associations for Christians, but for the people of that day, it was a terrible, brutal, cruel thing. Certainly nothing to boast about, to venerate, or to consider precious. You get a taste of the pagan reaction, how ridiculous they thought the message of the cross, in this jibe of Celsus reported to us by Origen. Celsus had written a witty and significant exposé of the new Christian faith in the second century. We would know nothing about it except for the fact that Origen, some seventy years later, still thought it important to write a refutation of Celsus’ exposé, in which work he quoted a great deal of Celsus’ own. So we know what Celsus said.
“Everywhere they speak in their writings of the tree of life and of resurrection of the flesh by the tree – I imagine because their master was nailed to a cross and was a carpenter by trade. So that if he had happened to be thrown off a cliff, or pushed into a pit, or suffocated by strangling, or if he had been a cobbler or stonemason or blacksmith, there would have been a cliff of life above the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a holy hide of leather. Would not an old woman who sings a story to lull a little child to sleep have been ashamed to whisper such tales as these.” [Contra Cel. 6:34]
There is a graffito that has been discovered by archaeologists who excavated the quarters of the imperial pages on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It dates from the 3rd century, the 200s. It is drawn in a youthful hand and depicts a boy, standing in the attitude of worship, with one hand upraised. The object of his devotion is a figure on a cross. The figure has the body of a man and the head of a donkey. Underneath the picture are scrawled the words: “Alexamenos worships his God.” One of the pages was a Christian and his fellows were mocking his beliefs. And chief among those beliefs that made the boy’s faith so silly to them was this notion that he should worship someone who died on a cross. [Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 174-175]. By the way, nearby is another inscription, in another hand, which reads, “Alexamenos is faithful.” Perhaps it was the Christian boy’s own response to the cruel mockery, or perhaps it was one of his classmates who was beginning to see what a difference the cross of Christ really made.
But there was a common thread to these Jewish and Gentile rejections of the Christian message about the cross of Jesus Christ. In neither case did these people reckon with the threat of God’s wrath against them for their sins. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” They are perishing precisely because they do not know themselves to be perishing and have, therefore, no conception of their being in desperate need of redemption. As Paul says of himself in Romans 7, Christ never made any sense to him until he first realized himself a sinner, in bondage to sin, and in desperate need of redemption. The cross is a desperate measure and makes sense only to those who realize that nothing short of a desperate measure would be sufficient to meet their need.
The cross was a sacrifice for sin: the way, the only way to avert the wrath of God that threatened us on account of our sin. God’s wrath against our sin cannot be averted. That is justice. But it could be borne by another in our place. That is love. The two together—justice and love—is the cross. But these people did not think themselves sinners in need of being saved. And that is as true today as it ever was in the first century. The cross makes sense only to those who know that our sins must be paid for and that the price must be extraordinarily high. As we have often noted as we have worked our way recently through the Gospel of Luke, the Jews of Jesus day had lost all touch with the biblical reality of sin and guilt. They did not fear sin the way they should have. They had domesticated sin, defined a great deal of it out of existence, and thought they could deal with the rest themselves. They had lost all touch with the idea of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world. Religious as they were, the cross made no sense to them because they didn’t imagine that they were in such desperate need of redemption.
The Greeks’ religion was very different from that of the Jews, of course. But in that respect it was much the same. It had no real fear of sin or of the judgment of God. It was not shaped by a concern for divine forgiveness nor did it understand human sin to be the great obstacle to entrance into heaven. In fact, it had comparatively little concern with the world to come. Greco-Roman religion had rather to do with ways of acquiring prosperity and happiness in this life. There was little reflection on eternal life or life after death. It is very interesting, for example, to read through the numerous personal questions asked of the oracle at Delphi:
How may I become a parent?
Shall I succeed?
Where shall I go or settle?
All the questions are about affairs in this life and about how things will turn out in the here and now. The questions are prompted by sickness, famine, war, career opportunities, desire for marriage, infertility, and the like. It was an entirely this-world perspective. For such people, salvation had to do with health and happiness now, not peace with God and fellowship with God in the world to come. It is, of course, very much the same today, as you know. Western culture is very like the Gentile culture of the first century. We are not nearly as much like the Jews as the Gentiles. The Jews thought more of the world to come, even if they took their place in it largely for granted. The Gentiles hardly thought of it at all. But the result was the same: neither had any need of a Redeemer who would suffer and die for their sins. They didn’t need forgiveness, they needed a wife or a husband or a child; and so it is today: people, so they think, need a spouse, or a new job, they need a child, or a better car; they need better health or they need a bigger house; they need a lighter heart, they need, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, “personal peace and affluence.”
If Jesus Christ did not come to give them that, what good is he? And if he cannot give me what I need, why in the world should I take seriously some long ago Jewish rabbi whom the Romans summarily dispatched in the most ignominious way. It’s absurd. Is this not the problem today? This is one of the reasons why even so many Christian churches today are moving away from the message of the cross – the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life through the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. They talk of other things. Christ can heal your marriage or give you satisfaction in your job or even help you make more money. Now, Jesus Christ can do all of those things, to be sure; though he does not always by any means; but when he does them, he does them by changing our lives by the message of the cross. You can’t get to a better job or a better family or a better marriage through Jesus Christ except through the cross. Those other things come only because the great problem, the chief problem, the principal problem of human life — our sin and guilt and therefore our estrangement from a holy God — has been resolved through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.
But surely there are other ways to improve my job prospects or my marriage? There is simply no sense in the hearts of a great many people that they have any need of what the Christians say Jesus Christ alone can supply. While they can appreciate the heroism of someone who lays down his life to save another, they don’t see that in Jesus’ case because they can’t see what connection his death could possibly have with anyone’s present life. And the reason they cannot see that is because they have no sense — none! — of their terrible need to have their sins forgiven by a God whose perfect justice prevents him from simply looking the other way. Am I right about that? Is that the problem people have today with the cross?
Well consider this. A survey by the Baarna Group published early this year reports that the “sins” Americans struggle with the most today, or so they say, are — wait for it — procrastination, overeating, and spending too much time on media. People were asked which sins they struggle with the most and that is what they said: procrastination, over-eating, and spending too much time on media. I don’t hesitate to say that those three behaviors are sinful, though in older, wiser times they would be made to sound more sinful: irresponsibility, gluttony, and sloth. That sounds a lot worse! But, really, these are the great sins of American life today? Of course not. These are simply the sins that people are willing to admit to, willing to confess to a survey taker. No one would be particularly embarrassed to admit to any one of these sins. In fact, admitting to sins of this type is virtually virtuous. You get points for humility without confessing to anything that would actually lower you in the estimation of your peers. Who doesn’t waste time on the internet? Who doesn’t eat potato chips in bed?
But in a culture such as ours, a culture of broken relationships, of sexual betrayal, of systemic dishonesty, of self-righteousness raised to an art form, of self-absorption now glorified as common sense (“You have to look out for number one!”), what of those sins? What about covetousness in a materialist society that is now spending billions on gambling because what people have is simply not enough; what of malicious gossip which has become the stuff of the internet, what of indifference to the poor and needy, what of adultery or lust; what of drunkenness or drug use; what of anger that has blighted and destroyed the lives of so many American children and so many American homes; what, for goodness sake, of pride? And, of course, what of a failure to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love God, our maker?
Most of these sins didn’t even make Baarna’s list and others of them were at the very bottom. 11% of Americans said they were tempted by drug use, though considerably more than 11% use drugs or overuse alcohol; 9% said they were tempted by sexually inappropriate contact, though considerably more than 9% of Americans engage in sexual activity and sexual contact not only outside of marriage but outside of the norms of fidelity they expect of one another. What hypocrisy!
Even young people put sex and drugs way down their list of sins to worry about. Only 21% of millenials (those born between 1984 and 2002) considered sexually inappropriate behavior their chief temptation. As a class they were primarily tempted to worry too much and to procrastinate.
What all of this is, of course, is evidence that we live in a morally frivolous age; that we are no longer a morally serious people. We have defined many sins out of existence — such as promiscuity or homosexuality — and have diminished the significance of many others. At the same time, we have simply learned to ignore the perverse, corrupt, and vicious forms of human pride and selfishness that increasingly mark our common life, our dying life, as Americans.
No wonder then that the cross remains foolish or a positive scandal to so many Americans today, who would otherwise admire a man who gave his life for others. The cross makes sense only to a morally serious person, who knows and feels the vast difference that separates what he is from what he ought to be. No wonder that in our time in particular, a time that has systematically and enthusiastically taught its people to be self-indulgent and self-righteous, the cross should be scorned by feminists as a form of child abuse, by social reformers as a glorification of violence, and by the whole antinomian and permissive culture as unworthy of God, as if the Almighty were at the cross simply demanding his pound of flesh. The cross is the last place such people would look to find salvation, whatever it is they think salvation is.
But, you see, it is the offense of the cross, its cruelty, its inhumanity that is its entire point. On the cross the Lord Jesus bore our curse, our damnation. Of course it was terrible; of course it was a death from which men would turn away their faces. It was horrible because it had to be horrible to be sufficient to atone for our many and terrible sins, one of the worst of which is our unwillingness even to admit how many and how terrible our sins actually are! The cross is the decisive revelation of the enormity of human sin and guilt, that God himself, now also a man, should have to suffer that ignominious and brutal death to pay the price of our sin so that we would not have to pay it ourselves.
Once you admit the reality of human sin and guilt the cross rises above you, terrible but luminously beautiful at the same time. It becomes for you the supreme demonstration of God’s love. For it met our need, your need, my need in the only way it could be met. How can I face God with my sinful life? It is the only question; the only fundamentally, eternally significant question. I can do nothing, but Christ has done everything. On the cross, he bore in our place the punishment of our sins. Believe in him and you will be saved! The logic is irresistible once the premises are accepted. Paul boasted in the cross or in Jesus for dying on the cross for this reason. He knew he was a great sinner, he knew God was just, and he recognized the cross as the only possible deliverance for him.
Here is Malcolm Muggeridge, a late convert to Christianity, who lived a long life thinking about himself and his life as most people in our world do today.
“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets: that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue: that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions: that’s pleasure. And it might happen, once in a while, that something I might have said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time: that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.” [Jesus Rediscovered, 77]
Ah, but there is that word and that truth; “…to the spiritually thirsty.” To those who are thirsty the cross is the water of life; but to those who are not, it is dry wood. For those who are honest about themselves and the supreme moral failure of their lives, for those who judge life as God judges it, the cross is not ugly it is supremely beautiful, not a tragedy but a triumph, not a failure but the perfect fulfillment of the greatest project ever undertaken by God or man. But one must see the need for it to see the cross for what it is.
The difference lies here and always lies here. The view of things that the worldly wise have is false. However compelling their philosophy of life may be to them, it is false. It is untrue at the bottom. It is not reality. They have a view of themselves that is wildly out of touch with the facts. The message of the cross is true however much it presupposes some very hard and unwelcome truths about human beings! There is the great difference. Let us face facts. This message of the cross has never been generally popular. It cuts across the grain of human pride. It offers a different salvation than human beings expect or desire. That has always been true and is true today.
There is no need for us to sell out, no need to give up the cross for another, more popular message. Honesty and faithfulness compel us to go on with this same gospel. It is the only message that will do people real and lasting good. Fact is, the message of the cross was an impossible message in the first century, impossible as a message to Jews; impossible as a message to Gentiles! But multitudes of people believed it and were transformed by it and are in heaven today because of it.
Let them talk of worrying too much or spending too much time in front of a computer screen; let them comfort themselves on what good people they are. Let them think such things until, by God’s grace, they are made to see what everyone else already knows. They aren’t nearly as good as they think they are.
The cross liberates me to face the truth about myself and about everyone else. I can face that truth, hard and unwelcome as it is, because I know there is a solution, a perfect solution to the problem created by the fact that I am such a galactic moral failure and that I deserve to be punished for my willing, systematic, and relentless disobedience to God. Someone else, someone infinitely worthy was already punished, punished terribly, for that moral failure of mine. Jesus gave himself for me, the just for the unjust, to bring me to God. If the cross hadn’t been so horrible, it wouldn’t have been enough. I think that is one of the reasons why the Lord came in the first century. He needed to be in a place where the worst form of execution ever imagined or ever introduced by human beings to be used against other human beings was in widespread use. My goodness, the Nazis didn’t crucify people. That it was for others is what makes the cross the grandest possible demonstration of God’s love. Sacrificial death that meets our great need, a death made necessary by justice and motivated by love: that is the cross, and that is why Christians have from the beginning celebrated the cross of Jesus Christ as the greatest thing that has ever happened in the world.