Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. (John 13:16)
A cross at someone’s ‘final resting place’ isn’t an uncommon sight. While on one hand it has become synonymous with Christianity – the symbol of Christ – and thus with eternal life, it is ironically also a universally recognisable symbol of death. Anyone, be they a believer or not, encountering a cross stuck in the ground, even in the middle of nowhere, will instantly respond with the automatic recognition that this is likely a grave. This apparent contradiction perfectly presents the paradox that is Jesus. Life and death contained in one single image, both inherent parts of the same whole.
Using a cross as a headstone originated way back when, and the intention was essentially to indicate that the person buried there was a Christian. In other words, even in death, they identified fully with Christ and belonged to him. The principle behind it, then, is not wrong. The problem is though, as with most man-made things, this became a ritual and lost it’s real relevance in the usual products of human frailty. Wealthy families would commission elaborate and ridiculously expensive headstones which ultimately were a representation of their wealth and status rather than their faith.
The church often took this ritualistic attitude to death to extremes. The concepts of hallowed ground and who could or could not be ‘properly’ buried overlooked the condition of the heart and did not take into account the fact that God alone is the judge of a man’s faith. Often enough, it was the church who initiated compulsory traditions and rituals that had nothing to do with salvation and being in Christ. They were the trappings of humanity seeking to impose their own conditions or interpretations of Scripture not only those living but also on the dead.
It is always the perceptions, attitudes and interpretations of man that cloud the real truth contained in the Gospel. The result of an extended history of manipulating the Bible and doctrinal truth to suit ourselves is that we have lost sight of the duality of Jesus. Christianity today worships, by and large, in an entirely unbalanced way. We see only the risen, victorious, conquering Christ and ignore the suffering saviour. The cross, as a symbol, still represents the essential truth of salvation. It remains the perfect meeting place between life and death, just as Jesus is the embodiment of the old covenant of law and death and the new covenant of life in Him.
There’s a familiar saying about how ‘all roads lead to Rome,’ the significance being, of course, that Rome stood in history as the ‘centre of the world’ due to the fact that the Romans had conquered such a huge chunk of the known world. Yet Rome has also become something of a symbol of oppression of depravity, cruelty, oppression and suppression – one of the offspring, as it were, of Babylon. All wicked empires have their roots in Babylon. So, in essence, this statement has remarkable truth. Rome represents the centre of all things not of Christ, the antithesis of Christianity and righteousness, the headquarters of a fallen world.
But it can be just as truthfully said that all roads lead to the cross. The cross is, in essence, the crossroads. As the meeting place of life and death, it is the point at which mankind faces the ultimate choice – to live in Christ or die in Rome. At the cross, the two opposites – life and death – are inverted, however. They are presented in the spiritual, rather than the material, and the spiritual involves a reversal of conventional understanding. To live in Christ, we must die to Rome – the centre of self-indulgence, self-gratification, and self-absorption. To live in Rome involves dying to Christ – dying a spiritual death in order to achieve material satisfaction.
The duality of Christ will, I believe, become more and more pronounced as this world rushes faster and faster along the road to Rome. As Christians, we may have been able to coast along on the coat tails of the conquering King and ignore the full reality, but the world is rapidly deginerating to the point where ‘be you separate’ is becoming far more than mouthing belief and pretending righteousness. Already, various legistlation passed in various countries is compelling the people of God to ‘plant their cross’ and declare their unwavering faith in Christ. In doing so, they enter death – it may even be physical, depending on circumstances, but it is essentially spiritual. The message is the death of self in favour of the life of Christ.
Human error is always prone to favour one thing and leave out the rest, but the teachings of Jesus are filled with reminders and illustrations of the full meaning of the cross. We are told to take up our cross, sell all we have, face humiliation, be persecuted, lay down our lives… The list is endless. At the same time, however, we’re told that all things are possible, that we have eternal life, that we are more than conquerors… Above all, we are taught that we must follow in the Master’s footsteps. He has set the path and, as servants, we cannot expect to be exempt from anything He endured on the road to life.
While modern Christianity, in general, has a strong focus on the conquering King, there is the other extreme – we see only on the suffering saviour. Both are unbalanced. Both are dangerous. Both created an entirely skewed perception of Calvary and of salvation. Christ has to be seen in totally. His resurrection would never have taken place but for His death. To be raised from the dead, He had to first be dead. That is our example. All of us will, as committed followers of Christ, face increasing persecution. Our conquering King has in fact told us that Himself. Focusing only on Jesus and on His ‘victory’ will not provide an escape. It will simply set us up for failure.
The reality is that some of us may even face physical death. Our persecutions may manifest physically in different ways, but we can be absolutely assured that they will come. That is the nature of conflict between Rome and Calvary. But one thing is clear: Christ’s physical death was the final step in His spiritual death. The road to the cross led Him through Gethsemane. It was His spiritual agony, His desperate and very human wrestling with self, that brought Him to the place of total surrender. It was this yielding to the will of God that enabled, strengthened and empowered Him to face the cross and complete separation from the Father.
Jesus showed us, with poignant clarity, the cost of righteous obedience. We can rejoice in the sure and certain knowledge that Christ defeated the powers of darkness and was raised up and resurrected. This is the hope of eternal life that being in Christ brings to those who are saved. But it would not be possible without full and final death. In the words of John the Baptist, I am not worthy to bend down and untie his sandal straps. In Christ, we are certainly victors and overcomers, but the very first thing we are required to overcome is ‘me’ in me, and to accept that taking up our cross is unavoidable. He who is greater had to do it, and so do we. This is the very real truth of the conquering King.
If we are to stand in the persecutions and struggles and opposition that are still to come but which are gathering momentum, we need to face this crossroads and make our choice. There can be no lukewarm response to the truth of the cross. We need to willingly walk the road to our own Gethsemane and face ourselves, and in Him find the way to lay it all down in unreserved obedience. To imagine otherwise is to set ourselves above our Master. It is to assume that we are exempt from the unpleasant and granted only the pleasant. Assumption leads to presumption, and from there to destruction.
Deuteronomy 30:19 says this: I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live. God has not changed. The choice He gave to His people then is still the choice before us today. But if we are to stand in the evil days ahead, it is a choice we need to commit ourselves to, fully and completely, so that when we are required to stand, we do so only in Him. To try to stand in our own strength, which is based on our preferred doctrines, will be the very reason why we will fail.