Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
April 2, 2021
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Jesus. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
There is no symbol so closely associated to the Christian religion than the cross. Christians put crosses on their church steeples and in all places of the sanctuary. A cross or crucifix is always prominent in the chancel of any Christian church. Christians wear crosses and crucifixes around their necks and hang them on their walls. We make the sign of the cross in our daily prayers. We’re not bothered by the image of the cross. Rather, we cherish it. The cross is for us a symbol of God’s love and our salvation. It is a tradition to hold a cross before the eyes of the dying, so that they see the source of their salvation until they meet their Maker.
Yet, the cross has not always been a symbol of love and salvation. The cross was not invented to communicate any message of love or peace or charity. No sane person would have worn a cross around his neck or erected it on top of a building. The cross was invented to be an instrument of punishment and extreme torture. When we consider the three uses of the Law: the curb, which prevents outbreaks of sin; the mirror, which shows a person his sins; and the rule, which guides a Christian in godly living; the cross primarily functions as a curb. Governments don’t crucify criminals to gain the love of the people. They crucify to gain fear and obedience.
The provinces of the Roman empire were not like our United States, which voluntarily united on account of their shared political and economic interests. The provinces of Rome were conquered nations kept in subjugation by force. In order to preserve peace and maintain functioning trade routes to bring wealth to its imperial cities, Rome could not have insurrections, robberies, and murders run rampant. In order to curb such crimes, they crucified criminals. Lawbreakers were tied or nailed to cross-beams and lifted up high for all to see. Their crimes were inscribed above their heads to warn other would-be criminals that this is what happens to insurrectionists, murderers, and robbers. Crucifixion was the most horrible way to die. It was hours or even days of continuous torture. Even the word excruciating was invented to describe the extreme torture of crucifixion. Cicero called crucifixion the most cruel and terrifying of punishments. For this reason, the cross was hated and feared by men. The Romans used the cross to compel obedience and fear with the threat of torture.
The cross functioned primarily as a curb against crime, but that does not mean that the cross did not function as a mirror of the law. The thief on the cross recognized that he was receiving his due reward for his crimes. When we look at Jesus agonizing on the cross, whose only crime inscribed above his head was, “King of the Jews,” we see what we deserve on account of our sins. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the word. Behold, him on whom the Lord has laid all our iniquities. Big deal. What are sins? That can’t be such a heavy load. But listen to the words of the hymn:
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may see its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.” (LSB 451)
The torture of the cross reveals the severity of our sin. It is not a small thing to offend God. It is not a small thing to spurn the Creator and pollute his creation with hatred. Think your sins are a small thing? See the blows and wounds they lay upon Jesus; the weight they lay upon his outstretched arms. See how your guilt presses upon him until the blood oozes from every pore.
No one went to the cross freely. The cross was forced upon people unwillingly. The function of the cross was not to create love, but fear. The cross was a symbol of oppression, slavery, cruelty, and servile obedience. Yet, Jesus went to the cross willingly. Though the chief priests and elders sought many times to arrest Jesus to kill him, yet they said, not during the feast of the Passover, lest a riot breakout, Jesus chose to be delivered over to them at the Passover. Though Jesus could fell a band of soldiers with a word or commission twelve legions of angels to come to his aid, he chose to let them bind him and take him away. Although Jesus had silenced the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes with his words and persuaded the crowds with his teachings, so that his opponents were fearful to try to arrest him, Jesus spoke not a word in his defense to try to persuade the crowd or save his life.
Jesus was not compelled to the cross by the Roman government. He chose the cross in order to bear our shame and pay our debt. Love compelled Jesus to the cross. Love for us and the desire to pass over our sins and remember them no more drove Jesus to the cross. And on the cross and by means of the cross Jesus fulfilled God’s love for us. Now, when we see the cross, we see the instrument by which God’s love was perfected for us; we see the tool Christ used to set us free from slavery to sin and from the threats of the Law. The cross for us is not a symbol of tyranny or threats of punishment, but of God’s deep love for us and of freedom from everlasting punishment and death.
The cross was the most draconian form of punishment many centuries before Vlad Dracula ruled. Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, was a fifteenth century ruler from present-day Romania, who was known for his cruel and excessive forms of punishment. The word draconian describes a punishment that exceeds the crime. Yet, strangely, the more familiar Dracula, the demonic vampire from Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name, was terrified of the cross. Stoker named his vampire Dracula, because Dracula was synonymous with bloodthirst. Yet, the bloodthirsty vampire was terrified of the most draconian form of punishment. Stoker of course did this, because the vampire was from the devil and the cross was the symbol of Christ, who vanquished Satan.
Yet, this proves to be a fitting image this Good Friday as we ponder Christ’s cross. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. The cross was the law’s instrument against sinners. It was men who were terrified of the cross, revealing their terror of the law. And you could imagine Satan and his demons prancing about the crosses of the condemned like jackals around a lion’s kill. But When Christ willingly went to the cross to bear the terror of the law on our behalf, he changed this around. Now, it is no longer men who fear the cross, but he, who once danced and feasted around it. The cross sends Satan fleeing like a vampire into the darkness.
The cross is a symbol to us of God’s love and forgiveness, that he did not spare his only Son, but gave him up for our trespasses. The cross is a sign that our debt is paid and that the law cannot condemn us. The cross is our comfort when Satan attacks and our consolation when our conscience burns. We are not offended to see Jesus’ body hanged on the cross, because we preach Christ crucified, which is God’s power of salvation to all who believe. Men once fled the cross to escape the law and Satan’s jaws, but now it is Satan who flees and the laws mouth which is stopped at the image of the cross. So, may we ever cling to Christ’s cross and the message of the cross, for there we find love and eternal freedom.
Let us pray:
On my heart imprint Your image,
Blessed Jesus King of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may Your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation! Amen.