The Sign of the Cross
April 15th, 1960 @ 12:00 PM
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-15-60 12:00 p.m.
All of us would express our appreciation to the management of the Palace Theater for their wonderful kindness to us. For the life of this theater, our First Baptist Church has conducted pre-Easter services in its auditorium. This is the forty-first year we have shared in these tributes to our blessed Lord and Savior.
Anytime that you must leave, it is all right. There is no discourtesy in your going. This is your busy lunch time. Stay as long as you can. If you must leave in the middle of a sentence or even a prayer, it is all right. This is the day toward which the theme of these messages has gradually been moving. I might speak just a little longer today. Ordinarily, I do not preach this shortly, as briefly as you hear me in this theater. If anybody comes to the Baptist Church expecting to listen to a seventeen-minute or twenty-minute sermon, you will be much disappointed. They will be longer than that. I work and strive valiantly to condense the message delivered here in the theater, and this morning, in your clemency and kindness, it may be a little longer.
The theme of the week has been "The Emblems of Grace": Monday, The Blood of the Passover; Tuesday, The Type of the Tabernacle; Wednesday, The Serpent of Brass; yesterday, The Breaking of Bread; and the climactic and final one, The Sign of the Cross, the emblems of grace.
And the passage of Scripture is in the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia, the fourteenth verse: "God forbid that I should glory – that I should boast, exalt, rejoice – save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" [Galatians 6:14].
In the previous verse, he had written concerning the members of those Galatian churches who desired to glory in the flesh [Galatians 6:12-13]. They sought to be saved, not by the grace of God in the atoning death of Christ Jesus, but they sought the plan of salvation through their own devious devices and through their own ingenuities. Turning aside from the truth of God, they were turning to the sophistries of men and the precepts and teachings of human leaders.
In the third chapter of this book to the churches of Galatia, Paul says, "O foolish, foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified?" [Galatians 3:1].
How we could say that same exclamation today, "O foolish, foolish secularists and rationalists." They worship the toy of skepticism. They idolize the flower of philosophical speculation. They want new scriptures instead of the old. They want another savior instead of the Galilean. They want to be saved from sin in a different way. They desire a strange song and not the song of Moses and the Lamb [Revelation 15:3-4].
But Paul says, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ" [Galatians 6:14]. The cross in all of its naked hideousness as the Roman would have it, in all of its philosophical irrationality as the Greek would have it; in all of its shame and offense and suffering as the scribes would have it, but in all of the story and meaning of its message of the love of God, and the grace of glory, and the redemption from sin, and the salvation for our souls, as Paul would have it.
"God forbid that I should boast – that I should glory – save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time,
All the meaning of sacred story
Gathered round its head sublime.
["In the Cross of Christ I Glory," John Bowring, 1825]
The emblem, the sign of the cross: it is the sign of the Christian faith. The whole course of human history was changed in that unusual conversion, about 300 AD, of the Roman Emperor Constantine. In one of his tremendous campaigns with his Roman legionnaires, Eucevius, the church’s historian, says that Constantine told him that he saw in the midday the sign of a blazing cross burning in the sky and underneath these words written, "In hoc signo vinces" – in this sign, conquer.
It is the sign, the emblem of the Christian faith. The emblem of the Christian faith is never a sword, or a scimitar, or a fascist bundle, or a star, or a hammer, or a sickle. The sign of the Christian faith is not even a seven-branched lampstand, or a flaming fire, or an altar, or bread and wine. But the sign and the insignia of the Christian faith is a cross, a dark, rude, crude, naked, bloody cross.
I think the best representation of it I’ve ever seen is in the Roman Coliseum. Many of you have been there, and as you enter, to your left is one of the roughest, crudest pieces of crossed wood I’ve ever seen, not chaste with gems, not made out of gold or of silver, not hanging on a golden chain – there in that Roman Coliseum, rude, and rough, and rugged, erected there many years ago in tribute to the Christian martyrs who lost their lives in the Roman amphitheater.
The language of that cross is universal. Every decennial the Oberammergau Passion Play is presented, and I saw it, as many of you did, in 1950. And many of you will see it this decennial year of 1960. I studied German. I had to pass an examination in it, but I cannot speak it, nor am I familiar enough with it to listen to it as others speak in knowledge and understanding. And as I sat there for eight hours and watched that passion play, no small proportion of that congregation, that vast audience, were like me. They didn’t understand the language of the actors and the players, but all of us understood the language of the cross. And when He died, the great throng was melted together in a common emotion and a common love.
It’s not a fiction; it’s not a storybook; it’s an awful historical reality. There are only two profane, historical references to Jesus. The passage in Josephus, I think, is an interpellation, but two ancient Roman historians referred to our Lord, Tacitus and Suetonius. They did it incidentally. In writing the story of the burning of Rome by Nero, they told how that Nero, in order to escape the conclusion that he himself was the arsonist, Nero blamed the Christians.
Now, both Suetonius and Tacitus, who were almost contemporary, had to explain who the Christians were. Both of them said the Christians were a sect that came out of Judea, and they were followers of one Jesus, called the Christ, who was crucified as a felon under Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, in the emperor days of Tiberius Caesar. The only reference that is made historically, outside of the Book, to the Lord Jesus refers to His being crucified as a felon.
Crucifixion was invented by the Romans as an instrument of horror and of torture against slaves and malefactors. There has never been devised a death as cruel and as agonizing as the death on the cross. Sometimes the victims hung there for days.
When the centurion came to report to Pontius Pilate that He was already dead – our Lord – the Book says, "And Pilate marveled that He was dead so soon" [Mark 15:44], and yet our Lord had been hanging there six dark and interminable hours.
No Roman citizen could be crucified. The law interdicted it. It was especially repulsive to the Jews. In this third chapter to the churches of Galatia, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:23, "It is written in the law, Cursed is the man that is hanged on a tree" [Galatians 3:13].
The Jews went to Pontius Pilate before the day was done and asked that the bodies be taken down. Pilgrims, streaming into the Holy City from the ends of the earth for the Passover feast, and passing by those awful silhouettes against the sky; take them down, and how much more repulsive to the tender, and chaste, and faultless Lord Jesus, for they crucified Him naked, on a public road [Hebrews 13:12; John 19:19-24]. The artists always draw the picture in kindness, covered, but He didn’t die like that.
They took His clothing and divided it between the quaternion soldiers that crucified Him [John 19:23]; His sandals to one, His headdress to another, His girdle to another, His outer garment to another. And the fifth piece was the robe, woven without seam. And the quaternion of soldiers said, "Let’s don’t rend it. Let’s gamble for it, at the foot of the cross" [John 19:23-24].
It’s a strange thing how carefully all of the Gospel writers point out the fact that He was not crucified alone. He was crucified between thieves, insurrectionists, murderers. And prophecy and history met on Friday, that day, on Calvary, when Isaiah said, "And He shall be numbered with the transgressors" [Isaiah 53:12], and the Gospel said, "And He was crucified between thieves" [Matthew 27:38; John 19:18]. In His lifetime, He was known as the friend of publicans and sinners [Matthew 11:19], and in His death, He was number with the transgressors [Isaiah 53:12].
Now this was not an isolated, unusual incident, that a Jew be crucified. Careful historians have reckoned that between Pontius Pilate and Titus, no less than thirty thousand Jews were crucified in Palestine. When Jesus was eighteen years of age, a village near Nazareth, accused of harboring Zealot nationalists against Rome, was burned to the ground and every citizen crucified.
But this was somehow extraordinary and unusual. The Roman centurion who supervised it, to whom the task and assignment of such murder had been given many, many times, when he saw how Jesus died, he lifted up his voice in the darkness and cried, "Surely, truly, this Man was the Son of God" [Mark 15:39].
Well might the sun and darkness hide,
And shut His glories in,
When Christ the mighty maker, died
For man, the creature’s sin.
[Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed," Isaac Watts, 1707]
The sign of the cross is an emblem of the stark, universal tragedy of our world. It is a sign and an emblem of the tragedy of our sin.
In Bethlehem, just five miles away, just out there at White Rock Lake, the first Christmas had brought to a lost humanity the nativity of the Prince of Glory. He was born there, as the angels sang and as all heaven rejoiced [Luke 2:11-16]. And here in the great city, in Jerusalem, the gift of God’s love and mercy was handed back to the Lord God in glory on the point of a Roman spear [John 19:30-34]. And the angels wept, and God hid His face [Matthew 27:46].
That such a thing could have happened in history, in this earth, among humanity, among our people! Whose fault, to whom is chargeable that such a tragedy could have ever happened in the story of the human race?
"It’s God’s fault. Curse God and die" [Job 2:9], says the investor. "It’s His own fault. He should have been a better manager, a better politician. He made His own bed, let Him lie in it."
"It’s the rulers’ fault [Matthew 27:2]; they delivered Him." "It’s Iscariot’s fault [Matthew 26:14-16]; he sold him." "It’s Pontius Pilate’s fault; a weak and vacillating ruler in the miscarriage of justice." "It’s the soldier’s fault; didn’t they nail Him to the cross?"
Pontius Pilate rises, "No, no, not my fault," and he washes his hands in a basin of water. "I’m not chargeable" [Matthew 27:24].
And the soldiers rise at the great judgment day of God and say, "It’s not our fault. We were men under authority, just carrying out the orders and mandates of the Roman government."
The Jewish people say, "Would you charge us with the blood of this just Man?"
Whose fault? Who nailed Him to the tree?
We all did, all of us, all humanity, of which we are a part. A dreamer one night dreamed that he saw Jesus scourged in the court of the pavement. And as he watched that great legionnaire, heavy and strong, raise his hand again and again, and bring back down upon the bleeding back of our Lord that heavy scorpion whip made out of thongs of leather, tied intermittently with pieces of lead, and every heavy stroke brought the blood and the blood, the dreamer said he could stand it no more, and he rushed forward and seized the uplifted hand of the legionnaire, lest he strike again! In his dream, the soldier turned and looked, and the dreamer recognized himself.
We planted on His brow the crown of thorns, and we drove the nails in His hands and in His feet. It’s the tragedy of humanity. But it is more. It is the sign and the emblem of the love of God. It is the insignia and the aegis of our hope and of our salvation.
Christ died – the historical fact, yes. But He did not die as Socrates, drinking the hemlock, or as Julius Cesar, murdered by Brutus, or as King Lear, a tragedy in a royal household, or as Abraham Lincoln, with an assassin’s bullet. "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" [1 Corinthians 15:3]. His death had a superlatively divine meaning. This is the great hour toward which all of the ages have been moving. This is the consummation of the divine redemptive purposes of God from before the foundation of the world! [Ephesians 1:4].
The cross, it’s not just another piece of wood. It is the revelation of the expiation of our sins, the doctrine of the atonement, the washing away of our guilt [1 John 2:2]. It is God’s way of saving the world [John 3:16]: no pardon without sacrifice [Malachi 1:8, 9]; no remission without shedding of blood [Hebrews 9:22]; no reconciliation without the payment of debt. God in Christ was reconciling the world unto Himself, and there He who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him [2 Corinthians 5:19, 21].
The cross was to Paul what the raising of the brazen serpent in the wilderness was to Moses [Numbers 21:8-9], a sign and an emblem of the healing of the world. It is the Christian sign of the love of God and the hope of salvation in this life and in the life that is to come. That sign has an upward piece, the head piece, and it points to God and to glory. And it has arms stretched wide on either side, as wide as the world is wide. There is no frontier. Wherever a man stands, as far as the east goes east and the west goes west, is the love, and mercy, and compassion, and forgiveness of God – the embracing sign of the cross. Before it, assembled every tongue, and language, and nation, and people in the earth, kneeling in humble adoration at the crucified feet of our blessed Lord Jesus [Philippians 2:9-11] – the Greek and the barbarian, the Roman and the provincial, the Jew and the Gentile, the bond and the free, the wise and the unwise, the heathen and the pagan, the lost and the undone; mercy from heaven upon all, salvation from God upon all, kneeling at the foot of the cross.
God has planted the cross in the center of time and in the heart of the world. Our world can never, ever be the same again because Jesus has died for it and suffered in it. It has become the sign, and the insignia, and the aegis, and the emblem of our faith and of our hope.
If in Flanders Fields the poppies grow,
It will be between the crosses, row on row.
[adapted from "In Flanders Fields," John McCrae]
If at the funeral memorial service a wreath of flowers is made, it will be made in the sign of the cross. On the tombstone in the cemetery will be engraved the sign of the cross. If we have any hope, any destiny, any forgiveness of sins, it lies in the cross.
In my hand no price I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
["Rock of Ages," Augustus Toplady]
There’s a story that gave birth to a beautiful Christian hymn. A little girl, a very small child, lost on the streets of London and sobbing in her lostness, and a bobby, a London policeman, seeing the little girl sobbing, sat down on the curb and drew her to his side and said, "There, there, don’t cry. We’ll find the way home. Let me name you some places and see if you recognize them, and then we’ll find the way home from there."
And then he began to name the places: Piccadilly Circus? Child, "No." Regent Street? No. Oxford Street? No. Trafalgar Square? No. Westminster? No. Whitehall? No. Charing Cross?
"Ah," said the little girl, "Charing Cross. Yes. Take me down to the cross, and I can find my way home from there." Out of that beautiful, precious little story, this man wrote the hymn:
I must needs go home
By the way of the cross,
There’s no other way but this;
I shall ne’er get sight
Of the gates of light
If the way of the cross I miss.
I must needs go on
In the blood sprinkled way,
The path that my Savior trod,
If I ever climb
To the heights sublime,
Where my soul is at home with God.
The way of the cross leads home,
It is sweet to know,
As I onward go,
The way of the cross leads home.
["The Way of the Cross Leads Home," by Jessie Brown Pound]
The emblem, the sign, of His grace and His glory.
May we pray? O blessed, blessed Master, take these stammering and feeble words, and on the wings of the Spirit, bear to our hearts the glorious reality of which they are so poor and feeble a representation, that our Lord should die for me. O love excelling, that God should condescend to come down in the likeness of men in human flesh and pour out His life for us [Hebrews 10:4-14; Luke 19:10]. O love amazing, love divine. God, bless our people, as with humble hearts and subdued spirits, unworthy as we are, we make our way to the foot of the hill called the Place of the Skull [Matthew 27:33], there sob out the story of our sins, there confess the derelictions of our lives, and there in faith look up to Jesus crucified, in whose blood the stain of our soul is washed away [Revelation 1:5]. Then, in the glory of His resurrection triumph, then someday in the wonder of His personal appearing [2 Timothy 4:8], may we be numbered among that blood-bought throng, who’ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb [Revelation 7:13-15]. In His saving name, amen.
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
A. The Galatians were seeking to glory in the flesh(Galatians 3:1-3)
1. Letter could have been written to modern world
B. Paul’s one glory – the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ(Galatians 6:14)
1. Poem, "In the Cross of Christ I Glory"
II. Emblem of the Christian faith
A. The change of the course of history in conversion of Constantine
1. Insignia of Christian faith not a sword, scimitar, star, or halo
2. Best example of a cross I have seen is in the Roman Coliseum
B. Speaks a universal language
1. Passion play in Oberammergau is in German
C. The cross is not mythical romanticism, but historical fact
1. Two historical references to Jesus – both of the cross
2. Roman invention of torture, reserved for felons(Mark 15:44)
a. Repulsive to theJews (Galatians 3:13, Deuteronomy 21:23, John 19:31)
b. A humiliation to the pure, sinless Son of God(Matthew 27:35, Luke 23:32-33, Isaiah 53:12)
3. Not an unusual incident that a Jew be crucified
a. But this was no ordinary crucifixion(Mark 15:39)
III. Emblem of the tragedy of our sin
A. Bethlehem five miles away from Golgotha(John 19:34)
B. Who is to blame?(Job 2:9, Matthew 27:24)
1. Our sins nailed Him to the cross
2. A man dreamt of the scourging of Jesus – he held the whip
IV. Emblem of our atonement, salvation and hope of glory
A. Divine meaning in the death of Christ(1 Corinthians 15:3, 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21, Hebrews 9:22)
1. The brazen serpent (Numbers 21:8-9)
B. The emblem of God’s love
C. A sign of our hope of glory
1. Poem, "In Flanders’ Fields"
3. Poem, "The Way of the Cross Leads Home"