An Act and Symbol of Love
Perhaps one of the most startling of the early Christian interpretations of the cross was that it was all about love. It’s easy in our day, when crosses are religious symbols, attractive ornaments, and trendy jewelry to associate the cross with love. But, in the first century, crucifixion was about as far from love as you could get. To say that the cross – a horrid symbol of Roman oppression and barbarity – was a symbol of love was to speak like a madman (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Yet this is precisely what the earliest Christians did, to the shock of their neighbors.
The Apostle Paul was one of the instigators of this paradoxical association of the cross with love. In Romans 5:6-8 he writes:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
If, Paul reasons, we had been absolutely wonderful and virtually sinless people apart from Christ, perhaps his death for us would have been merely sensible. But since we were in fact sinners, and as sinners estranged from God and even God’s enemies (Rom 5:10), the fact that Christ died for us becomes a stunning demonstration of God’s gracious love.
But the cross is not merely a symbol of love. It isn’t just a sign that says, “God loves you.” It is also an act of love. Suppose, for example, you were drowning in a turbulent river. If a friend of yours erected a sign at that moment which read, “I love you,” you might feel a tiny bit grateful. Probably you’d wonder why your loving friend didn’t throw you a rope. At that moment you need, not just an indication of love, but an act of love. By dying on the cross, Jesus not only showed God’s love, but he acted in love toward us by taking our sin and dying in our place.
Indeed, the cross, which was once a terrifying symbol of Roman domination, becomes a symbol of divine love precisely because it was first the location of God’s supreme act of love in Christ. There has never been a more complete and astounding transition in symbolism. That which once sent shivers of fear and horror down the spines of Roman subjects now fills our hearts with gratitude and peace. What an astounding transformation of a symbol!
Yet many in our day have a hard time associating the cross with love. Many non-Christian people – and even some Christians – who saw The Passion of the Christ came away from the movie saying, “I don’t see how a loving God could ever demand that Jesus die on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus was all about Roman cruelty, not God’s love.” Unless we grasp the big picture of God’s holiness and human sin, then we won’t be able to understand the cross as an act and sign of love. It is only in light of biblical truth that we will come to grasp, though never to comprehend fully, the fact that Jesus died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).