Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:
I Believe In Jesus Christ and Him Crucified
I Corinthians 2:1-2
1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
The Cross in Today’s World
We have come today to the third statement out of six about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed. Here’s what we have affirmed so far:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
And today we sum up our belief in the passion of the Christ — his suffering, crucifxion, death, burial, and descent into hell during the three days his body was in the grave. We believe in Jesus Christ, who…
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
You may remember Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of The Christ, which hit movie theaters in 2004. Because of the controversial nature of the film, Gibson distributed it himself, turning a $30-million investment into the highest grossing English language film ever, and the most profitable R-rated film in the United States. The movie was rated R for its horrific and graphic violence, done mostly to the character of Jesus himself.
But despite the film’s success in America, Christians in the United States have a very different view of the cross of Jesus Christ. We wear delicate crosses made of precious gold and silver around our necks, and dangling from our ears. Hip hop artists wear gigantic caricatures of the cross dangling from outlandish chains, and pop artists like Madonna use the cross as a background prop in their music videos.
The cross itself has become the international symbol of the Christian religion, and of the humanitarian organization, The Red Cross. It is an iconic symbol, but for much of the Christian community, the cross is strangely absent in our worship, devotion, or Bible study. Seeker-sensitive churches intentionally leave all the signs and symbols of Christianity, which might be confusing to non-Christians, out of their buildings, including the cross.
As those who came from the Radical Reformer stream of the Protestant Reformation, we Baptists were offended by the crucifixes of our Roman Catholic friends, which graphically depict the Christ in agony on the cross. Our theological position is that Christ is no longer on the cross, but is risen; therefore, Jesus should not be depicted as the suffering Christ, but as the risen Christ.
So opposed were the radical reformers to the crucifix, and the statuary and iconography of Roman and Orthodox churches, that they banned all images and statues of religious figures, including Jesus, as a form of idol worship. Church buildings were constructed simply, and called meeting houses, to avoid the confusion with the Catholic church buildings from which they were separating themselves.
Rather than a high altar with a crucifix above it, the pulpit took center stage in the meeting houses of these radical reformers. Catholic churches were constructed with a center aisle so that worshippers entering the sanctuary could have an unobstructed view of the altar and the crucified Christ hanging above or behind it. Baptist meeting houses were intentionally constructed without a center aisle, in contrast to the Roman Catholic church buildings. Even in our architecture, our theology finds physical expression in the ways we configure and appoint our spaces for worship.
What About The Cross in the New Testament Church?
Paul explains his time with the fledgling church at Corinth in this way —
Why did Paul make a statement like this — “…to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Why not Jesus Christ and his miracles? Surely Paul would want to tell these non-Jewish believers about the miracles of Christ.
Why not Jesus Christ and his ethical teaching? In the brutal world of the Roman empire, where power dominated, and military power held an iron grip on the civilized world, why not tell the Corinthians about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and loving your neighbor as yourself?
Why not Jesus Christ and him risen? The resurrection is the hinge-pin of the story of Jesus, for if we leave Jesus on the cross or in the tomb, his story becomes the sad story of another failed revolutionary, a Don Quixote figure tilting at the windmills of the Roman empire’s strength.
But Paul says, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Leon Morris, in his massive volume titled, The Cross in the New Testament, begins his introduction with these words:
“This is principally a book about the cross, since in the New Testament salvation centres [sic] on the cross.” He goes on to say, “The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith. Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.”
The gospel writers are not in agreement on all the details of the life of Christ. Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that describe the conception and birth of Jesus. So, even the event in the Apostles’ Creed that we examined last week — “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary” — is not included in two out of four of the Gospel accounts.
The gospel writers include different miracles, different parables, and different events in the life of Jesus. Even those dramatic times of healing, feeding the five thousand, raising the dead, and walking on water are not included in all four of the Gospel accounts.
But when it comes to the cross, each of the Gospels includes the story of the cross and the crucifxion of Jesus.
Why did the apostles consider the cross central to the story of Jesus, and why are we so ambivalent about the cross today?
The History of the Cross
Why is it then, that in our 21st century sophistication, we’re so uncomfortable with the cross? I grew up singing hymns like The Old Rugged Cross, At the Cross, Lead Me To Calvary, Power in the Blood, Nothing But The Blood of Jesus, and Are You Washed in the Blood, and other old-time hymns which reminded the singers of the cross, and the shed blood of Christ. But, today’s praise songs seldom refer to the cross or its result, the bruised body and shed blood of Jesus. We sing about he awesome God, the glory of God, the wonder of God, the friendship of Jesus, and the majesty of heaven — anything but the cross and the blood. The history and setting of the punishment known as crucifixion will help us understand some of the difficulty we have with it.
Paul introduced the centrality of the cross in the first chapter of I Corinthians with these words —
Corinth was an outpost of the Roman empire. It was an immoral, corrupt city even by the standards of the first century. The reputation of Corinth was so bad, that to be called a “Corinthian” was to be insulted and slandered. Corinth was home to the temple of Aphrodite, where over 1,000 temple prostitutes performed the rituals of the temple. It was a wild and wooly town, but Paul visits there, Aquila and Priscilla, and plants a church.
Upon Paul’s departure, the Corinthians quickly stray both theologically and morally. We know more about worship in the Corinthian church than any other church in the New Testament because the Corinthians were doing just about everything wrong in worship that they could do. They were trying to out-do one another in the practice of their spiritual gifts — speaking in tongues, interrupting each other with prophecies, shouting out words of supernatural knowledge, and letting worship degenerate into a frenzy of one-upmanship. Even when taking the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians turned communion into a drunken, gluttonous affair. The well-to-do brought their own food, which they refused to share with those who had none. In short, they were a train wreck of a church.
Paul’s letter calls them back to the center, and he reminds them that when he came to Corinth, he preached the cross of Christ. That was his central message.
If they were such an immoral people, why not the ethical teaching of Jesus? The Corinthians knew the great philosophers. They knew the arguments for a kind of detached morality, even in the midst of their immorality. They lived in the shadow of one of the great temples of the civilized world, the temple to Aphrodite. A simple appeal to “live better” would have been totally lost on them.
But, if they wouldn’t listen to the call to live life according to God’s instruction found in the Ten Commandments and in the teaching of Jesus, what about the miracles of Jesus? Surely, they would be impressed with those? But Roman culture had its own mystical experiences. The oracles, mystical figures who seemed to speak the words of the gods themselves, were located throughout the Roman world. The most famous was the oracle at Delphi, but others existed as well. Demon-possession, magic, the dark arts, and other forms of the supernatural were as common in the first century as they are in our world today. Just as Pharaoh’s sorcerers and wisemen counterfeited the miraculous staff of Aaron with their own, the magicians and pagan practicioners of the first century also practiced the equivalent of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Ecstatic speech, foretelling the future, speaking as the voice of a god, healing, and other dark practices were well-known in the ancient world.
But the cross of Christ was the center for the Corinthian church, and for the Christian faith Paul knew. Why? And why did Paul refer to the cross as foolishness, and in another passage as a stumbling block or scandal to the Jews?
From the Roman perspective, crucifixion as capital punishment was borrowed from the Persians and others. Crucifixion was reserved for criminals, rebels, slaves and the lower-class. Seldom were Roman citizens or the upperclass foreigners executed by crucifxion. Slaves and robbers particularly were crucified as a deterrent to those who might either try to escape their masters, or steal from others.
Crucifixion was gruesome business. It was one of three methods of capital punishment used in the empire. Crucifixion, being torn to death by wild beasts, and burning were the three methods of capital punishments. Being torn by wild beasts required a public festival and an arena, so that was more difficult and involved. But anyone could be crucified at anytime, and in a variety of methods.
Sometimes the stake was a single straight piece of wood. At other times, cross pieces were used either in the form of a “T” with the crosspiece on top, or in the form most familiar to us — two pieces of wood that intersected with space above the victim’s head for some type of placard identifying his or her crime. Limbs were either lashed to the cross, or fastened with nails. Flogging and torture most often preceded the actual crucifxion, and the condemned was required to carry his cross, if able, to the public place of execution.
Public humiliation was as much as part of the punishment as was the victim’s actual death. Stripped totally naked, the nude body was beaten, nailed to the cross, and lifted up for all to see as they passed by. Jeers and taunts would greet those who had been robbers particularly, because the rural Judeans were often victimized by roving bands of robbers and criminals.
Bodies were often left on crosses to decompose, or be picked apart by wild animals and birds of prey. The denial of burial was a further humiliation, particularly to the Jews.
As if all of that were not enough, the Jews had a special aversion to crucifxion and wooden crosses because of Deuteronomy 21 —
The Jews had a special aversion to crucifixion and crosses because they equated it with the Old Testament curse of being hung on a tree. So, the offense of the cross, the scandal of the cross, the revulsion of the cross is that the Jews could not imagine that the Messiah of God, the Anointed One, would ever be hung on a tree. How could he, for anyone hung on a tree was cursed by God. It becomes impossible for Jews to reconcile Jesus’ manner of death with his claim to Messiahship.
What of the Cross For Us Today?
But we are just as scandalized by the cross, just as offended by the gore, the brutality, the blood, and the stench. Just as offended by the nakedness of Jesus, the taunts of the bystanders, the ridicule of the placard over Jesus head saying, “This is the King of the Jews.” Like passing a bad car wreck on the highway, we don’t like the cross, and we turn our eyes from it as quickly as we can, and move on to other more pleasant aspects of our faith.
I have done that myself because the cross and Jesus’ death on it seems so barbaric, so crude, so primitive, and so messy. My sensibilities are offended, and my sophistication and education rail against this as the central story of Jesus. I like the Sermon on the Mount, or the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus, or even the resurrection of Christ himself as the central story of our faith. But, none of those are, nor can they be.
We do not follow just an ethical teacher who gave us startling instructions on how we are to treat our neighbors. We do not follow a mystic who could somehow gather the forces of the unseen world to make blind eyes sees, lame legs walk, and diseased bodies whole. We do not follow a rebel, or an insurrectonist, as some would have us believe, who only sought to overthrow the unjust systems of society.
No, we follow the crucified Son of God. And, Jesus himself was well-aware of the horror, the humiliation, and the inhumanity of the cross. And yet, all the gospel writers tell us that at the end of his ministry, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, not for the praise of Palm Sunday, but for his death on the cross.
Mythology is full of stories of gods who were punished. Prometheus was nailed between two rocks in the ancient fable of the anger of Zeus. But Prometheus was freed and resumed his place in the pantheon of Roman gods. Even in the popular literature of the day, the equivalent of our pulp novels, the hero of the story could be threatened with crucifixion, but just in the nick of time always escaped it.
But in Jesus, we have God who dies. Jurgen Moltmann calls him “the crucifed God” — a story unlike any that has ever been told in literature or fable. Gods don’t die, and certainly are not killed by mere mortals. But in Jesus, God dies. God provides a sacrifice for Himself of his only Son, who is himself God. It is an event so radical, so impossible, so unlikely that those who think they know the One, True God best, cannot get past it.
In the cross, Jesus identifies with the slaves caught seeking freedom. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus takes the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of his own hometown, Nazareth. He unrolls the scroll and reads from Isaiah 61 —
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners
Freedom for the captives, the slaves, can only be bought with a price. Release from darkness for the prisoners can only come from the one who holds the keys. By the way, and we don’t have time to dig deeply into this, the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed —
is meant to reflect Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.” Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:18 — “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”
Scholars disagree on exactly what that verse means, but I believe it means Jesus did what he said he would do, what he proclaimed his mission to be — to release from darkness those imprisoned, even if they’re imprisoned in world of the dead. That is what Jesus meant when he said “the gates of hell” will not prevail, will not stand, against the onslaught of the Kingdom of God.
Paul, in my favorite passage about Jesus says —
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
It’s all there in these seven verses —
- Jesus willingly choosing to set aside all that is rightfully his;
- Jesus taking the nature of a servant, a slave;
- Jesus making himself nothing, becoming a human being;
- Jesus humbling himself in obedience to God:
- Jesus obedience even extends to his death on a cross — the worst, most heinous death one could die;
- But Jesus being exalted to the highest place;
- And Jesus being given a name above all names;
- That at the name of Jesus every knee bows — every angel knee in heaven, every human knee on earth, every demonic knee in hell — every knee bows regardless of location or previous allegiance;
- And every tongue belonging to the hosts of heaven, the citizens of earth, and the condemned to hell, confesses that Jesus The Messiah is Lord;
- And God the Father is glorified.
Mel Gibson, who was both producer and director of The Passion of the Christ, used his own hands in the camera close-up of the Roman centurion nailing Jesus to the cross. Gibson did that he said, because, “It was me that put Him on the cross. It was my sins [that put Jesus there].” — Wikipedia
But that’s not right. Our sins did not put Jesus on the cross. He put himself there. He walked straight to Jerusalem knowing the death that awaited him. He put himself on the cross to die for us, for the world, and for God’s creation. He put himself on the cross to say to the slaves both living and dead, “I know your suffering, I endured your pain, I took your place.”
He put himself on the cross to suffer for us, to share our sorrow, our despair, our misfortune. He put himself on the cross as though he were the people of God, the Temple and the sacrifice — as though he were the last hope of a sacrificial system that no longer worked.
He put himself on the cross as the Lamb led to the slaughter, as the scapegoat, as the fulfillment and final chapter in the broken religious imagination of God’s people.
Jesus put himself on the cross so that we would not be hung there. He put himself on the cross so that we would not be abandoned by God as he was. He put himself on the cross as example and embodiment of God’s love.
No, we did not put Jesus on the cross, and neither did the Jews or the Romans. Jesus put himself there, suffered unspeakable torture, endured the ridicule of Romans and Jews alike, humiliated between two thieves. His last act of redemption was to save a condemned thief, and ask his Father to forgive those who did not know what they were doing.
We need the cross. Without it we are doomed. Without it the incarnation is meaningless. Without the cross we do not see the love of God, the suffering of God, and the sacrifice of God. All for us. All because of our sin. All because we couldn’t do it for ourselves. For even our death would not have brought us into fellowship with God, nor paid the penalty for our sin.
We need the cross, the scandal of our intellect, the offense to our sensibilities, the foolishness of preaching. We need the cross because it stands at the center of Jesus’ story. If all we know of theology and the Bible is that Jesus died for us on an old rugged cross, then we know enough.
Paul said, “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
When a right-wing death squad broke into the living quarters of Jesuit priests in San Salvador in 1989, they killed six priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Father Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the university, was one of the priests killed. The killers then drug the bodies of their murdered victims back into the house. As they did so, they bumped into a bookcase, knocking a book to the floor.
When their bodies were found the next morning, lying in a pool of innocent blood was the fallen book — Jurgen Moltmann’s book titled The Crucified God. Thousands around the world wept for those slain. And I am sure God must have wept that day, too, for He knew the suffering and death of the cross.