Why the Cross?

I had never thought of the question before, but while reading through my daily dose of Calvin’s Institutes the other day the great reformer began explaining why it had to be a cross that Jesus died on and nothing else.

Think about it for a minute. If we take as a given that Jesus did have to die to reconcile us to God (which in itself is a fascinating mystery of divine proportions), why did that death happen on a cross? It could have occurred a hundred other ways, right? He could have died of a disease, been murdered by a crazed follower, fallen off a rooftop, or just grown old and passed on. Why a Roman execution? Why so public? Why so bloody? We know there is significance in the fact that God lived as a man and died as a man, but is there any significance in the specific means of his death?

Calvin points out at least three reasons the cross (specifically) illumines exactly what was happening as our God died to reconcile us to himself:

1. Before being crucified, Jesus was found guilty before a court

Calvin writes:

“If he had been murdered by thieves or slain in an insurrection by a raging mob, in such a death there would have been no evidence of satisfaction. But when he was arraigned before the judgment seat as a criminal, accused and pressed by testimony, and condemned by the mouth of the judge to die – we know by these proofs that he took the role of a guilty man and evildoer.”

Christ’s death had to be a criminal punishment. He had to have been accused of evil, sin, wrongdoing and, above all, found guilty for these (false) charges. Why? Because the essence of our salvation is that OUR guilt is transferred into HIS guilt. We are the sinful ones, but in his death he took on our sin – our guilt. The guilty charge of a court verdict and the criminal execution of a guilty man show exactly what was happening on a fundamentally spiritual level.

2. Crucifixion is itself a curse


“The cross was accursed, not only in human opinion but by decree of God’s law [Deut 21:23]. Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse. It had to happen in this way in order that the whole curse – which on account of our sins awaited us, or rather lay upon us – might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him.”

The passage Calvin references from Deuteronomy says, “a hanged man is cursed by God.” This may sound familiar because Paul references the same passage when he says:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”… (Gal. 3:13)

Just as Jesus took on our “guilty” charge by standing before the Sanhedrin and Pilot and being accused of sin, he also took on the curse that sin carries by hanging on an accursed tree. The very means by which Romans executed criminals in this era symbolized the very curse that Christ took on for us during his death.

3. Promises are sealed by blood


“Blood is accordingly mentioned wherever Scripture discusses the mode of redemption. Yet Christ’s shed blood served, not only as a satisfaction, but also as a laver to wash away our corruption.”

Jesus could have been found guilty before the court and, like Socrates, killed by poison: quietly, privately, and without any loss of blood. Why the gore and blood? Why the spectacle of a publicly humiliating death?

The pattern in the Bible is that when promises and covenants are made, they are sealed or stamped by a bloody sacrifice. The imagery has deep roots in the Old Testament.

In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham. He promises to give him an heir through whom he will have decedents and bless all the nations of the earth. To seal this promise, God tells Abraham to bring a series of animals (a cow, a goat, a ram) and to cut them in half. He set each half of the animals apart from one another creating a bloody walkway in-between. Then God himself walked down the middle of sacrificed animals.

Odd? Yes, until you understand what it is that God is communicating in this moment. God is saying that the promise he made to Abraham is binding, that he is faithful, that he will see it through to the end, even if it costs him his own blood. Period.

As we know, the shedding of God’s blood is exactly how he does keep his promise in the end.

The cross was bloody, gruesome and painful. In that blood, however, Christ made good on the promises of God throughout the entire Bible. His death is the ultimate sacrifice, the perfect death, the fulfillment and accomplishment of all the promises and covenants that God has given to his people. And his blood is the seal that binds them forever. Period.

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