The Cross of Christ

‘God had one son on earth without sin,’ wrote Augustine. ‘But never one without suffering.’ The paradox of a perfect and just man dying a brutal, unjust death for the sake of others hardly sounds like an uplifting focus for a group study. Yet Christianity, of course, is a religion of the cross. It is through Christ’s suffering that God is able to bring the glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, ushering salvation for those who choose to follow him. It is on this contradiction between Jesus’ passion – his suffering – and the good news of his death and resurrection that Reed Jolley’s The Cross of Christ focuses on. Written for Santa Barbara Community Church, the study compromises nine chapters that consider the message of the cross as seen in Revelation, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Ephesians, Romans, and Hebrews, addressing questions about the enduring symbol and implications of the cross. The study contains a wide range of sources and quotations, notably from Derek Tidball, John Stott, and Charles Spurgeon, as well as a balanced mix of questions and exegesis. The result is a lucid and accessible synthesis of the meaning of Christ’s death and his role as savior.

The Cross of Christ does not make light of the weight of sin that burdens humanity. The problem is stated clearly in the Old Testament: ‘Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God’ (Isaiah 59:2). Such a rift requires a human sacrifice to heal it, and it is clear that Jesus saw his earthly mission as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53, as a suffering servant ‘wounded and crushed for our sins’ (Isaiah 53:5). Modern society tends to downplay sin, declaring it man’s innate right to ‘make mistakes’ and ‘live a little’ without feeling regret. ‘Guilt’ is an unpopular word, and Christians are often accused of losing out on life’s pleasing indulgences by living too strictly by a code of values that seem outdated.

As this study makes clear, the risk of downplaying humankind’s sin is that it also diminishes Jesus’ significance. If the world does not need a savior, then Jesus is irrelevant. Yet the Bible makes clear that ‘it was not the Jews or the Romans who put innocent Jesus on the cross, it was our sins that compelled Jesus to die’. He became a ‘deliberate victim’ in order to seal the new covenant with guiltless blood so that we might not die as a result of our transgressions. Jesus, Jolley writes, became a ‘glorious substitute’ when he died for our sins, offering himself as a final sacrifice and superseding Old Testament law with a new order.

As a man who ‘inaugurated his kingdom by dying’, the implications of Jesus’ death on the cross are central to our understanding of Christianity. The contradiction of the suffering servant as triumphant king completely overturns the worldly view that life’s purpose is to seek wealth, power, or glory. Jesus reversed all human ideas of greatness when he ‘voluntarily veiled his glory as the Son of Man…and assumed the form of a slave who performed his service unto death because this was the will of God’. It is not easy to put faith before the temptations of this world – in many ways it is contrary to nature, for man is contrary to God – and Jolley encourages participants to examine their own prejudices and priorities in order to find fulfillment beyond their daily trappings.

Perhaps the most difficult chapter to grasp is Study Eight, which deals with the themes of atonement, propitiation, and redemption, though it is worth remembering that the chapter corresponds to a study session in which participants would have several hours to discuss the themes found in Romans 3. Jolley does well in explaining the different ‘images’ associated with atonement, from redemption (with its connotations of a marketplace transaction, like purchasing a slave from his owner) to justification, propitiation (denoting pagan sacrifices and the act of appeasing God’s wrath) to reconciliation. Jesus makes propitiation for our sin, providing redemption from iniquity in order to reconcile us to his Father. As Charles Surgeon says, sin is not a trifle, and we must not ‘degrade the remedy by underrating the disease’. Study Eight helps participants understand the full significance of Jesus’ role as mediator and savior. Though the weight of sin is heavy, Christ bore it willingly, and is therefore integral to our reconciliation with God.

The Cross of Christ promises to explore the significance of the cross in New Testament writings, and delivers just that. It balances a historical understanding of Christ’s mission with an encouragement for participants to assess their own attitudes towards these truths. It is concerned with the reception of the Bible by the individual self, asking participants to share their emotional responses to the texts studied. Asking whether their acceptance of Jesus is ‘intellectual, emotional, physical, or spiritual’, the study prompts each person to examine themselves and their relationship with Christ. It encourages note-taking and the freedom to ask questions; one of The Cross of Christ’s greatest strengths is its flexibility, its ability to pose probing questions without making the format too rigid, and without expecting answers that are too formulaic. It provides a good mix of text-based questions that can be answered by searching and re-reading a text alongside more personal questions that will motivate each participant to become more assured and firm in their faith.

Suffering is man’s inheritance, inherent in the human story since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But we have another inheritance, an unearthly and enduring one – the promise of everlasting life as followers as Christ. Part of the cross’ reassuring message is that through immense pain and injustice, good things can be made manifest, and justice carried out. This truth is most apparent not through any heroism on our part, but through the God of the universe offering the blood of his Son as a ransom for many. Though the passage of the Suffering Servant is in some ways disturbing to read – ‘It was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and fill him with grief’ (Isaiah 53: 10) – it becomes clear that what at first appears to be a great tragedy is really the most beautiful act ever done.