This is the first day of Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday, continues to Good Friday, and culminates with Easter Sunday one week from today. During these days Christians around the world — almost two billion of them — will pause and remember what happened to our Lord when he entered Jerusalem for the final time 20 centuries ago.
As a way of fixing our thoughts this morning, I would like to quote from the cover story of the current issue of Newsweek magazine. Titled “2000 Thousand Years of Jesus,” the article begins this way:
Historians did not record his birth. Nor, for 30 years, did anyone pay him much heed. A Jew from the Galilean hill country with a reputation for teaching and healing, he showed up at the age of 33 in Jerusalem during Passover. In three days, he was arrested, tried and convicted of treason, then executed like the commonest of criminals. His followers said that God raised him from the dead. Except among those who believed in him, the event passed without notice. 
Everything in that paragraph is essentially correct. When he walked on planet earth, hardly anyone outside his own people knew he was here. After he left, it seemed that nothing had changed. And yet … in just a few months we will celebrate a new millennium, marking 2000 years since his birth. The entire world measures time by his coming. He is the hinge on which history turns. He is the touchstone of truth, the foundation of faith, and the final proof that God exists.
The Passion Play
One of our problems as we begin another Holy Week is that the message has lost its power to surprise us, perhaps because we have heard it so many times before. Sometimes it helps to see it in a new light. This week I preached Monday through Friday at Word of Life Florida, about an hour north of Tampa. On Thursday afternoon I attended a performance of the Passion Play presented by students from the Word of Life Bible Institute. For those who don’t know, a Passion Play is a dramatic reenactment of the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ. This particular production featured lavish sets, high-tech sound and lighting, and some amazing special effects. During the crucifixion scene, I watched from the second row as the crowd on stage gathered to watch Jesus being nailed to the cross. The music went on and on as the angry throng shouted for Jesus to die. Tension rose as we all wondered what had happened. Why was it taking so long to crucify Jesus? The music swelled to the jeers of the mob. Surely something had gone wrong. Then without warning came the sound of spikes driving into the wooden crossbeam. Seconds later the crowd parted and the cross began to rise from the ground. There was Jesus hanging on the cross, just a few feet away from me, covered with blood, beaten nearly to death, his face disfigured, nails apparently driven through his hands, the crown of thorns shoved into his scalp, the scars from the scourging clearly visible. And the crowd! The laughing, mocking, crowd. Cheering as the Son of God dies a horrible death. When I saw his face, I wanted to look away. I understood, perhaps for the first time, why the disciples fled from the scene. If I had been there, I would have run away too. Who could bear to look upon that sight?
But it was only a play, you say. Yes, and that is the shocking power of the cross of Christ. To see the cross, to really see it as if for the first time, is to be changed forever.
See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
This is the final message in the series called The Deeper Meaning of the Cross. For four weeks we have looked at the cross of Christ from different perspectives — What it meant to God, to Christ, to Satan, and what it means to the world.
Today we come to the final question: What does the cross mean to the church? Galatians 6:14 contains an important answer: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” The Apostles Creed declares, “I believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified.” When we say those words, we mean that the Son of God was murdered on a Roman cross at a place called Skull Hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem. We believe it literally happened — that if you and I had been there, we would have seen with our own eyes the slow, agonizing death of Jesus of Nazareth. We would have witnessed the humiliation of Christ as he died between two thieves, we would have seen the blood drip from his wounds, we would have heard him cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Hours of Pain
The cross is the heart of the gospel and the gospel is the reason for our existence. We have nothing to boast about apart from the cross of Christ. We cannot lay claim to any special intelligence or any special merit or any special outward beauty that recommends us to God. Romans 3:23 puts it so eloquently, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” No difference! No difference between the corporate lawyer and the drug dealer in Paris. No difference between a prostitute in a brothel in Rio and a refined graduate of Vassar College. And no difference between a gang member in Chicago and the most upright member of Calvary Memorial Church. Apart from the grace of God poured forth at the cross, we would all be going to hell. Lest we forgot what happened that day, here is a medical description of death by crucifixion:
Try to imagine yourself at Golgotha Hill on Good Friday. The cross is placed on the ground and you are thrown backward with your shoulders against the wood. The Roman Legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of your wrist. He drives a heavy, square wrought iron nail through your wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull your arms too tightly, allowing you some flex and movement. The cross is then lifted into place and fastened onto the upright set into the hill.
Your left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving your knees flexed. You are now crucified. As you slowly sag down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in your brain. You push yourself upward to avoid this stretching torment. But now you feel the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves of your feet. As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through your muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push yourself upward to breathe. Air can be drawn into the lungs but not exhaled. You fight to raise yourself in order to get even one small breath.
Now come hours of unending torture: cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps; intermittent partial asphyxiation; searing pain as tissue is torn from your lacerated back as you move up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins: a deep, crushing pain within the chest as your heart cavity fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.
It is now almost over: the loss of fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. Finally, you feel the chill of death creeping through your tissues. You welcome its approach. (From a sermon by Rev. Adrian Dieleman, “He Was Crucified.”)
“He Took My Place. He Died For Me.”
It was a horrible way to die, yet that is how the Savior of the world ended his life. I have included this description so that we will understand the physical reality of crucifixion. But it is not the physical sufferings of Jesus that the Bible emphasizes. Rather the biblical writers focus on what his death accomplished. We all know that he died for others. But what does that really mean? Perhaps an illustration will help. At the time of the Civil War there was a band of organized outlaws in the Southwest called the Quantrill Raiders. They would sweep down upon an unsuspecting community on the frontier, rob, pillage, burn, then ride away before help could come. The situation became so desperate that some people in Kansas formed a militia to search out the desperados. They had orders to execute without delay any of the raiders that could be found.
Not long afterward a group of these men were captured. A long trench was dug; they were lined up, hands and legs tied, and eyes bandaged. The firing squad was forming. Suddenly a young man rushed out of the underbrush, crying out: “Wait! Wait!” Covered by the guns of the firing squad, he approached the officer in command. He pointed to a man who was waiting to be shot, and said: “Let that man go free. He has a wife and four children, and is needed at home. Let me take his place. I am guilty.”
It was an extraordinary appeal, but the stranger insisted that it not be denied. After a long consultation, the officers decided to grant the request. They cut the ropes and released the condemned man. The volunteer was put in his place, and fell dead before the firing squad.
Later the redeemed man came back to the awful scene of death, uncovered the grave, and found the body of his friend. He put it on the back of a mule and took it to a little cemetery near Kansas City, where he was given a proper burial. There he erected a memorial stone upon which was inscribed the words: HE TOOK MY PLACE. HE DIED FOR ME. (Billy Sunday told this story originally. Dr. Robert Coleman repeats it in his fine book Written in Blood.)
There is only one thing lacking in that illustration. The young man who offered to die in the place of another was himself guilty of the same crimes. This story is about one guilty man dying in the place of another. But something much greater happened at the cross. There a truly innocent man died, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. When Jesus died, he took your place and suffered the penalty meant for you. He who was innocent paid the price that you might go free. This is truly beyond human understanding. As Romans 5:7 notes, perhaps for a righteous man some would dare to die. But who would die for sinners? Only God’s Son would do a thing like that.
The Implications of the Cross
What are the implications of the Cross for us today? In the Bible the cross is always a place of suffering and death. In a practical sense it means four things to the believer: Death to the old life–Romans 6:6 & I Peter 2:24
Death to self–Galatians 2:20
Death to the flesh–Galatians 5:24
Death to the world–Galatians 6:14
The cross is essentially a confrontation with sin. The cross means that the old life is over and we can never go back to it again. It means there is a brand-new you. It means that we make a decisive break with sin and set out to follow Jesus day by day. The cross is God’s way of saying, “You can have your sin or you can have my Son — but you can’t have both.” To die to the world means that the things that used to seem so important — the drive for money, the compulsion to power, the need to dominate, the desire to win at any cost, the lust for sexual fulfillment, the desperate search for the approval of others — no longer rule your life. You live by a new standard and that means saying goodbye to the old way of life. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). Those words mean exactly what they say. Unless you deny yourself and enter by way of the cross, you are not a genuine disciple of Christ.
These are the words of David Wilkerson: “When you kneel at the cross, you will not hear an easy, soft word — not at first. Even though the cross is the only door to life, you are going to hear about death — death to every sin!” 
The Commands of the Cross
The New Testament gives us three commands of the Cross. We dare not ignore these. If we do, we risk ceasing to be the church and simply becoming a religious social club. Carry the cross–Luke 9:23
Boast in the Cross–Galatians 6:14
Preach the Cross–1 Corinthians 1:18-21
We must lift up the cross because it is the only message we have. If we talk about politics, we may get a new man in the White House, but we won’t change the hearts of people. All around us are people who carry a heavy weight of sin. They are sick in their hearts from the burden they carry. You can see it in their eyes, read it in their faces, hear it in their voices. They long for something better, they wonder how they can be free of their sin. Where can they go?
The church has the answer — and the answer is found in the cross of Christ. When Jesus said “I am the light of the world” and “I am the door,” he was speaking of the cross. You cannot go to heaven unless you enter by way of the cross!”
Saved 20 Feet in the Air
A few days ago I received an e-mail from a friend who passed along a story that illustrates the power of the cross in an unusual way. In 1967 a young man named Charles Murray was training at the University of Cincinnati for the Summer Olympics of 1968 as a high diver. A Christian friend spent hours sharing the gospel with him. Charles was not raised in a Christian home, so the story of Jesus fascinated him. He even began to ask questions about forgiveness of sin. One day his Christian friend asked if he was ready to trust Christ as his own Savior. His reply was a definite “No.” Because he was training for the Olympic games, Charles had special privileges at the university pool facilities. Some time between 10:30 and 11:00 that evening he decided to go swim and practice a few dives. It was a clear night in October and the moon was big and bright. The university pool was housed under a ceiling of glass panes so the moon shone bright across the top of the wall in the pool area. Charles climbed to the highest platform to take his first dive.
At that moment the Spirit of God began to convict him of his sin. All the Scripture he had read flooded his mind. He stood on the platform backwards to make his dive, spread his arms to gather his balance, looked up to the wall, and saw his own shadow caused by the light of the moon. It was the shape of a cross. He could bear the burden of his sin no longer. His heart broke and he sat down on the platform and asked God to forgive him and save him. He trusted Jesus Christ 20 feet in the air.
Suddenly, the lights came on. The attendant had come in to check the pool. As Charles looked down from his platform he saw an empty pool that had been drained for repairs. He had almost plummeted to his death, but the cross had stopped him from disaster. 
No wonder Paul gloried in the cross. It is God’s plan to save us from disaster. Let me ask you a personal question. What sin is keeping you from God today? Is it anger? Is it lust? Is it a hard heart of unbelief? Is it drunkenness? Is it an uncontrollable temper? Is it cheating? Is it stealing? Is it adultery? Is it abortion? Is it pride? Is it greed?
Let me tell you the best news you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t matter what “your” sin is. It doesn’t matter how many sins you’ve piled up in your life. It doesn’t matter how guilty you think you are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been doing this week. It doesn’t matter how bad you’ve been. It doesn’t matter how many skeletons rattle around in your closet. The cross is God’s answer to your deepest needs. That is what theologians mean when they talk about the “finished work” of Jesus Christ. It’s not just a slogan, it’s a profound spiritual truth. When Jesus cried out “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant that the penalty for sin had been paid in full. What Jesus accomplished in his death was so awesome, so total, so complete that it could never be repeated. Not even by Jesus himself. His work is “finished” in every sense of the word. There is nothing more God could do to save you. There is no Plan B. Plan A (the death of Christ) was good enough.
The Power of the Cross
The story is told of an old Spartan who tried in vain to make a corpse stand upright. But after failing time and again, he declared, “It wants something within.” How true for all of us. That is what we all want — we want something within. We want a power that can break the chains of sin. We want a power that can enable us to stand upright, to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint. Where can we find such a power within? Only in the cross of Christ. I wrap up my series with this statement: All that we believe is wrapped up in the cross of Christ. It is the central truth of the Christian faith and the preeminent event of human history. The cross is our message, our hope, our confidence. It is our badge of honor and the emblem of suffering and shame. Though the world despise the cross, we rally to it. In this sign, and this alone, we will conquer. Therefore, let us love the cross, preach the cross, stand by the cross, and never be ashamed of the cross. Hold it high as the banner of our salvation. Lift it up as the hope of the world. There is no power greater than the power of the cross. It is the only power that can lift men and women out of their sins, release them from condemnation, give them new life, and set their feet in a new direction. Christianity is supremely the religion of the cross. Though the world may not want to hear it, we must preach it over and over — and then urge men and women to run to the cross of Christ. When we preach Christ crucified, rebel souls will lay down their weapons and join us in worshiping him as Savior and Lord. Someday in heaven we will still sing together, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain. This is our message to the world — that Jesus has died on Good Friday and Easter Sunday he rose from the dead. Let the people of God rejoice in the words of Isaac Watts:
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
1. Kenneth Woodward, “2000 Years of Jesus”, Newsweek, March 29, 1999, p. 52.
2. David Wilkerson, “They Have Done Away With The Cross!”, December 23, 1996.
3. I am grateful to Mark Goeke for sharing this story with me.