The death of Jesus on the cross was the single most important act in human history. Without his death, we would have no lasting hope of any kind. For the apostle Paul, like other writers of the New Testament, the cross of Christ represented salvation itself.
Paul rehearsed how he exuberantly preached Christ that is, the Messiah — on the cross. He wrote to the Corinthians, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Paul was excited about proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah hanging on a cross. The message of the cross of Christ was "the power of God and the wisdom of God" for him (1 Corinthians 1:24).
The persecutor transformed
Paul hadn't always viewed Jesus' death in this manner. Originally named Saul, he had once been antagonistic to Jesus' way. To be plain about it, Paul had been an insolent, self-righteous, religious bigot. Years later, in one of his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul would write, "I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Corinthians 15:9).
In one of his last letters, Paul would remind Timothy, and himself, that he — Paul — had once been "a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man" (1 Timothy 1:13). Before his conversion, Paul had hated Christians with a consuming passion. He had imprisoned Christians and conspired to have them murdered (Acts 8:3; 9:1-2). Paul's self-proclaimed mission was to destroy the church of God (Galatians 1:13).
To Paul, Jesus Christ must have seemed a charlatan and a hoax. Why, he was that renegade Jew who had blasphemed God. Paul must have felt Jesus had gotten his just reward when he was crucified. Yet here were these people — these followers of Christ — making a myth out of a monster.
But Paul's hate-filled view of Christ was shattered quite suddenly. It happened on the way to Damascus. As he was traveling down the road, a tremendous light flashed around him, and he was blinded. Paul fell to the ground terrified.
A powerful voice thundered out to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" A frightened Saul asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply out of the turbulence, reminiscent of God appearing to Job from the storm, was: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:4-5).
Paul had come into direct contact with the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Jesus caught Paul's attention on that road to Damascus. Then Jesus forever changed Paul's life and thinking. Paul was converted. The persecutor became a believer himself (verses 17-18). The impossible had happened.
Christ's disciples now instructed Paul from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Paul learned that the very Scriptures he had so zealously studied as a Pharisee predicted Jesus' saving work. He now understood that Jesus had been the Word of God made flesh. And, he had died on the cross for the sins of humanity. And for Paul's sins! Paul knew he had been forgiven of his sins, including his persecution of God's people. But he would never forget how much he needed the cross of Christ and all that it symbolized (Romans 7:24-25).
Toward the end of his life, Paul said of himself, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst" (1 Timothy 1:15). Jesus now called on Paul to suffer for his name, even as Jesus had suffered for humanity (Acts 9:16).
The tables had been turned on Paul. He was called to teach the faith he once tried to destroy. Soon Paul was preaching throughout Damascus, proving that Jesus is the Christ (verse 22). Jesus, the Son of Man — Jesus crucified — Jesus resurrected — became the center of Paul's life and mission.
That's when his troubles began. In the past, Paul had filled in the names of Christians on a hit list. Now, Paul's onetime cohorts in persecution wrote his name on the list. They conspired to murder their former companion (verse 23).
Sharing his sufferings
For Paul, it was the beginning of a lifetime of suffering on behalf of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. But Paul, like the other apostles, rejoiced "because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41; see also Romans 5:3).
Paul saw profound meaning in his own sufferings, which were many (2 Corinthians 6:4-5; 11:23-28). His own trials connected him to Jesus who had suffered on the cross and who had been resurrected. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings," Paul wrote, "becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:10-11).
In one letter, Paul described in three different ways the link between the sufferings Christians undergo and Christ's cross:
"Just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows" (2 Corinthians 1:5).
"We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:10).
"We who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body" (verse 11).
The suffering of Jesus on the cross is played out in the lives of all God's people. Paul wrote to Christians, "It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him" (Philippians 1:29).
Shame of the cross
It was an ironic message. Here was the gospel — the good news of eternal life and spiritual glory — based on suffering and shame. Consider how a gospel of Jesus as the Suffering Servant who leads his suffering people might have come across to others. Put yourself in the apostles' day and imagine yourself teaching this peculiar message.
There was no New Testament. Christianity had not yet swept around the world. The word Christian did not yet have a respectable ring to it. Imagine Paul, Peter or John claiming that a Jew — a crucified felon — living in an obscure part of the Roman Empire was actually God in the flesh. "Surely, you jest, must have been the retort of most people.
In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was originally the punishment of slaves. But later, foreigners and "robbers" — that is, bandits — were also executed by crucifixion. We remember that two "robbers" were crucified with Christ, one on each side (Matthew 27:38).
Imagine Paul preaching "Christ crucified" to an audience in the Greek-speaking Roman world. The listeners would have understood that this Christ had suffered a death usually reserved for rebellious slaves, political rebels or criminals.
A dead criminal?
A common theme in the early anti-Christian thought was that followers of Jesus worshiped "a criminal and his cross." This was an oft-stated objection to the claim that Jesus was the Son of God. Roman historians and literary figures contemporary with the beginning of the Christian era, such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, were not impressed with this new religion. They laughed away the Christian faith as a belief in a "dead God."
An early Christian, Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165), recognized the absurdity. He replied to critics on the "dead God" issue in his First Apology, Justin Martyr wrote, "They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world."
Jews, too, found the message of the cross offensive. Nailing a human being to a cross for execution had something in common with capital punishment as described in the Hebrew Scriptures. The law of Moses had said that a man guilty of a capital offense was to be put to death and his body was to be hung on a tree. But the body was not to be left there overnight "because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse" (Deuteronomy 21:23).
Given his background as a Pharisee, Paul would have been painfully aware that being crucified was like being hung on a tree after stoning, the Jewish mode of capital punishment. He knew that Jews would see the similarity between a public crucifixion of a living criminal and a dead one being hung on a tree.
The cross, therefore, was a symbol of humiliation. To the Greeks and Romans, crucifixion was a shameful mode of execution used for slaves and criminals. To the Jews it was a sign of being under a curse from God.
Redeemed from the curse
But Paul turned the shame of the cross on its head. He pointed out that Jesus Christ took the curse we incurred from breaking God's spiritual law and placed it on his own head. We had been the slaves — to sin. But Jesus freed us by becoming a crucified slave in our place.
Jesus, thus, transformed the curse. He made the crucifixion a vehicle for freeing all humanity from the grasp of sin and death. Paul wrote, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Galatians 3:13).
Paul saw Jesus as one who endured death on the cross humbly, obediently and voluntarily (Philippians 2:5-8). God in the flesh had taken on the nature or form of a human — a servant — to accomplish his mission (verse 7).
As Christians, we should not hide from the shameful nature of Christ's death. We instead should wonder at the mystery of it all. Why would God, the Creator and Sustainer of all, empty himself of divine power, live as a human and die the shameful death of a slave?
Yes, why would God care? Simply, because he loves us. Paul wrote, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
The cross and you
Jesus' shameful death should inspire us to ever-greater love and Christian works. As the author of the book of Hebrews told Christians of his day: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).
What about those who have not yet accepted the cross of Christ as an atonement? The truth of the matter is that without Jesus and the cross, we remain sinners — cut off from God's grace. We need the forgiveness — the reconciliation — the new life in Christ — that the cross makes possible. God is willing to apply the cross to us, and make us one with him upon our repentance. Can we be convicted? Those who heard Peter preach Christ crucified were convicted?
Peter's sermon made it evident to them that they needed Jesus' sacrifice. They then asked, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). The answer from Peter was: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (verse 38). That's the challenge to us and to all people. Will we rise to it?