The importance of the cross as a theological motif in the New Testament is impossible to overestimate. It stands as the center of the New Testament theology of salvation and is the starting point for not only soteriology, but all of Christian theology. It is the means by which we finally and fully understand the work of Christ on our behalf. The Gospel of Mark indicates that it is at the cross that we recognize Jesus as God's divinely appointed Savior of the world ( 10:45 ; 15:39 ). While the larger notion of the death of Christ may carry a broader and even deeper significance in New Testament theology, the cross as a symbol of God's action in Christ and a motivator for us to follow is worthy of discussion.
The cross of Christ is the center of the work that God did in Christ, "reconciling the world to himself" ( 2 Co 5:19 ). Paul emphasizes this work most notably in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians. The emphasis there is on power; the cross is held up as the power of God, which is seen as weakness by men. The statement of 1:17 belongs with the passage before, and introduces the thought Paul develops in 1:18-2:5. He is concerned "to preach the gospelnot with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power, " and declares the message of the cross to be foolishness. However, this foolishness of God destroys the wisdom of the wise and is therefore central to the biblical notion of the salvation of God being a wise salvation because God is a wise God. The wise man, scholar, and philosopher of this age are dumbfounded by what appears to them to be foolishness.
The link of the cross with God's wisdom and power is intriguing, but perhaps most significant is the linking of the cross to Christ himself. Paul says that he preaches "Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" ( 1 Cor 1:23-24 ). The structure of this sentence equates the "Christ crucified" with "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Hence the cross is seen as a defining revelation of who Christ is: the messianic wisdom of God and the dynamic power of God predicted in the Old Testament.
The cross is also seen as God's deliberate choice. He did not stumble onto it by accident but chose the weak and foolish things of the world in order deliberately to confound the wise and to shame the strong. Thus, a fourth element, and perhaps the most radical, of God's character is demonstrated in the cross: the love of God for the despised of the world. The cross is a symbol of shame in the Old Testament ( Deut 21:23 ; cf. Gal 3:13-14 ) and thereby serves not only to state the radical nature of Christ's humiliation, but by implication to judge the world and all its inhabitants as being "the despised" who must identify with a crucified messiah in order to receive God's salvation. Thus, the statement in 1 Corinthians becomes not only a statement of theology but also a statement of anthropology.
Paul continues this theme in the statement about himself and his own weakness, which becomes a major theme of 1 Corinthians. He claims to have not come to them with eloquence or superior wisdom, but as one who resolves to know nothing except "Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom but on God's power" ( 2:2-5 ). Hence the passage comes full circle back to the wisdom and power of the cross, which seems to be foolishness and weakness to men. The central focus now, though, is not Christ but Paul himself who, as a minister of Christ, must come only in weakness and foolishness. So now a third theological category is defined by the cross, that of ministry in the world. It is to be characterized by foolishness and weakness. Of course the background of the passage is the contrast of Greek wisdom, which looked only for eloquence and style, not substance, and a power that was emotional, and for the moment, not lasting. Hence Paul comes with the power of substantial argument that can "demolish strongholds" ( 2 Co 10:4 ) and operates with a power that suffers and dies rather than victoriously triumphs.
While the cross is the means of the redemption of humankind and that fact is essential to any theology of the cross, the imagery used to discuss the cross has been highly disputed. The cross is displayed as a "sacrifice of atonement" in the well-known passage, Romans 3:24, which links it with the sacrificial death of the animals in the cultus of the Old Testament. The shedding of blood and the death of the sacrificed one are the two major links to this metaphor. The debate about this passage revolves around whether Christ's death merely obliterates the sin that caused the death to happen or assuages the wrath of God that is poured out upon humankind because of that sin. The link is clearly there with the wrath of God; the question seems to be how to understand that wrath. In any case, the wrath is not to be seen as the capricious anger of a malevolent God, but rather as the careful, considered fury of the Holy One of Israel against the evil that keeps man from his rightful place as God's highest and most prized possession.
Not only is the language of the cultus used in Romans 3, but also the language of justification (the law court) and redemption (the slave market). In this context the cross of Christ pays the penalty for the sins of humankind and therefore serves their sentence, freeing them from death, and pays the ransom needed to free the slaves from the power of sins and allow them to live.
Lastly, the cross of Christ speaks to the ongoing nature of the Christian life. In Galatians, Paul argues that those who have started so well need to come back to where they started, the cross of Christ. While crucifixion is not mentioned often in the book, two key places let us know that it is never far from Paul's mind. In 2:20 Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ, yet no longer living, but Christ lives in him, and the life he now lives in the body he lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him. This crucial verse describes the whole of Paul's attitude toward Christ, the Law, and grace in the book. The Galatians have gone back to observing the Law, when they started by being empowered by the Spirit through believing in the message of the cross ( 3:1 ). Thus, while Paul concentrates on faith versus observation of the Law as the mechanism for applying for the application of grace and the obtaining of righteousness, in the background is the means by which God has achieved this possibility for humankind: the cross.
The closing verses of the book show the centrality of the cross for Paul as well. Those who are compelling others to be circumcised are avoiding being persecuted "for the cross of Christ" ( 6:12 ), and Paul expressly declares that he will never boast in anything except "the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (v. 14). Thus the cross is as central to living the Christian life as it is to entering into it.
Andrew H. Trotter, Jr.
Bibliography. E. Brandenburger, NIDNTT, 1:389-405; C. B. Cousar, A Theology of the Cross; E. M. Embry, NIDNTT, 3:865-70; J. B. Green, DJG, pp. 146-63; idem, DPL, pp. 197-99, 201-9; M. Hengel, The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament; M. Hengel, Crucifixion, A. E. McGrath, DPL, pp. 192-97; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross; idem, The Cross in the New Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Cross, Crucifixion'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".