Sign of the Cross
March 24th, 1978 @ 12:00 PM
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-24-78 12:00 p.m.
And thank you dear Mrs. Law and welcome to a great throng who listen to this hour on KCBI, the radio of our Bible Institute. And once again, welcome the many visitors and guests who share this moment with us.
The theme of the pre-Easter services this week has been “The Signs of God: The Signs of Heaven”: on Monday, The Signs of the Times; on Tuesday, The Sign of the Virgin Birth; on Wednesday, The Sign of the Prophet Jonah; yesterday, The Signs of the Coming of our Lord, the Return, the Parousia or Jesus; and today, The Sign of the Cross.
It was just about this hour, and about two thousand years ago, at high noon that the sun hid its face, and the Lord exclaimed, called out in agony, “Eli, Eli— My God, My God—lama—why—sabachthani ”; Aramaic for “Why has thou forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46]. And in keeping with the solemnity of this day and this hour—Good Friday, it’s been known through the centuries of Christendom—in keeping with that day, the message is entitled The Sign of the Cross. The text is in the last chapter of Galatians and the fourteenth verse, Galatians 6:14, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
You see, the Galatians—those churches that were formed on Paul’s first missionary journey—were turning aside from salvation by grace and were seeking to present themselves before the Lord in their own works of righteousness [Galatians 5:4]. And he writes to them:
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified?
This [only] would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?” [Galatians 3:1]. Could I take the terminology and apply it to our world today? “O foolish rationalists, O foolish humanists, who has bewitched you? You worship at the shrine of a cheap toy of skepticism. You are drawn in adoration to the fetid and failing and frail flower of human speculation. You seek other scriptures than the divine Holy Revelation. You look for other saviors than the great Intermediary and ambassador plenipotentiary from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. O foolish modernists, pseudoscientists, specularies, secularists, materialists who has bewitched you?” As though there were some other way to be saved, some other Bible to be discovered, some other god to adore than the One that we have learned from this sacred Book and whose name is Jehovah, the Lord Jesus [Acts 4:12].
But Paul says, “As for me, I shall glory in the faith and in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Galatians 6:14]. At the mouth of the Pearl River, right up from which is Canton, China, is a city called Macao, a Portuguese colony. And in that city is an astonishing thing. From the level of the ocean, up a high hill, in the city of Macao, is a ruin. There was a cathedral there, built, oh, four hundred years ago. And a great hurricane, followed by a devastating fire, destroyed all of it except the facade. All that remains on that tall hill overlooking Macao is that front part, the facade of that ancient cathedral. And very prominent, most prominently displayed, still stands the tall cross, the great stone cross, on the front of that ancient cathedral.
And as I stood there looking at it, I thought of John Bowring who, a century before my time, stood in the same place looking at the ruins of that vast cathedral, at that front wall and that great stone cross standing there, silhouetted against the sky. And I thought of the lines that he wrote:
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
[In the Cross of Christ I Glory by Sir John Bowring, 1825]
The sign of the cross enduring forever: of all symbols there is none so dramatic and so appropriate, so inclusive, so expressive as the sign and emblem of the Christian faith—a rugged cross. There’s not a schoolboy but that remembers when Constantine was battling for the control and subjugation of the Roman Empire, he said that he saw a burning sign in the sky. It was a cross and underneath these words: in hoc signo vinces; “In this sign, conquer.” That has always been the sign and aegis and emblem of the Christian faith, the cross. The sign of the Christian faith is not a sword. It is not a scimitar. It is not a hammer and a sickle. It is not a fascistic bundle. It is not a swastika. It is not two tables of stone. It is not a burning bush. It is not a seven-branched lampstand. It is not a halo above a submissive head. It is not a golden crown. It is a cross, a rugged cross.
And it speaks an universal language. Wherever you see it and wherever you follow its story, it is dramatic. It is impressive. It is unforgettable. I sat all day long at Oberammergau—from the morning hour until the twilight hour—watching, listening to the passion play in Oberammergau, in German, all of it in German. They were there from the ends of the earth. I would suspect there was hardly a nation in modern times, in modern civilization not represented in that vast audience.
How many of them knew German? I do not know. Many of them, I would say, not. And yet, as the play unfolded, it seemed to me that everybody understood the passion of our Lord, the crucifixion [Matthew 27:32-50], and that cross silhouetted against the Bavarian mountains. It speaks to all men of all time in every language, everywhere, and maybe one reason for it is because of its actuality, its dark, cruel, rude, brutal reality. For the cross is not just a decoration around a woman’s neck. It’s not just a piece of silver or gold or gem-studded jewelry. It was awesome!
I sometimes think the most powerful representative of the actuality of that cross is the one in the Roman Coliseum in the imperial city. In memory of the Christians who were fed to the lions and who lost their lives in that awful arena, there is in the Coliseum, the roughest, heaviest cross I ever saw. It was like that. Only twice in secular history is the death of Jesus mentioned; one by Suetonius and one by Tacitus, and in both instances, the secular reference is because the historians say He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea.
There has never been a torture invented by man that begins to rival the awesomeness of the agony of the death on a Roman cross. Usually the felons who were crucified suffered in convulsive agony for at least three days. In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Pilate calls for the centurion for an official report because, the Book says, “He marveled that Jesus were dead so soon” [Mark 15:44]. It was an awesome execution.
Who did that? Who brought Him to that trial of suffering? The answer of the Book is: we all did. This is our sins who scourged His back [Matthew 27:26], pressed on His brow the crown of thorns [Matthew 27:29], drove the nails through hands and feet [John 20:25-27; Luke 24:39], and crushed that spear through His side [John 19:34]. We all did it.
I remember a man who said that he’d dreamed that he was watching Jesus scourged by a Roman soldier. And as that legionnaire brought down on the naked back of our Lord that scorpion—that cat-o’-nine-tails with the leather thongs imbedded with pieces of metal—as he brought down that scourge with all of his might, and the blood poured out, he could stand it no longer. And when the Roman soldier raised his hand again to bring down the lash, the dreamer said, “I seized his hand! And the Roman soldier turned around in astonishment.” And the dreamer said, “I recognized myself.” We did it. We did it.
And that sign of the cross is the gathering together of the whole love and compassion and grace of God for lost humanity [John 3:16]. That’s what it means. There is no theological overtones in the death of Socrates drinking the hemlock. There are no divine repercussions in the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar at the foot of the statue of Pompey. There are no divine gospels arising out of the sufferings of King Lear or the assassination of President Lincoln. But there is divine meaning in the crucifixion of the Son of God [Matthew 27:32-50]. This is the great moment in history toward which all creation moves, and back to which all eternity looks. “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” [Hebrews 9:22; Leviticus 17:11; Matthew 26:28]. There’s no pardon, there’s no penalty paid without blood and without death. And there’s no atonement without the cross [Romans 5:11]. This is God’s gracious, loving kindness to lost humanity: that we might be saved, washed, cleansed, purified, redeemed, bought by the blood of the Crucified One [1 Peter 1:18-19].
And in that cross, somehow there gathers together the meaning of all time and of all history. It is the center of creation. It is the center of history. It is the center of redemption. It is the center of the Bible. It is the center of all that God means and has done in this world of creation. The bottom of it points toward the earth and lost mankind. The head of it is raised and points toward the sky, toward God in heaven. And the arms are outstretched and extended to include and to encompass the whole world; all of lost humanity [1 John 2:2]. It is the sign of all signs of our hope and redemption in God. I remember, and I cannot remember when I didn’t hear the story, so long but still so precious. England had a king named Edward 1. He had a lovely queen named Eleanor. She died in Northern England at the border of Scotland. And bringing her body back to the capital of London, wherever the body rested overnight, he built a cross. The last place that her body rested was in the west end of London. And there he built the final cross. It is called Charing Cross, a place in the city of London.
Upon a day, a little girl in the city, being lost, was wondering through the streets sobbing piteously. A London bobby—their name for a policeman—seeing the child wandering, sobbing, put his arms around the little girl and asked her why. And she said she was lost; she was lost. “Well,” said the bobby, “sit down here by my side.” So the little girl sat down by the side of the policeman on the curb, and he said, “You don’t know where you live?”
“The name of the street?”
“No.” She was just too little; she was too young.
“Well,” he said, “let me name places here in the city and see if you recognize them. Piccadilly Circus?”
“No,” the little girl shook her head
“Trafalgar Square?” “No.”
“Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street, Westminster, Whitehall?” Whatever he named the little girl shook her head. Then he named, Charing Cross?
“Ah,” said the little girl. “Ah, yes, Charing Cross. Take me down to the cross, and I can find my way home from there.”
How beautifully said for us and all humanity. “Take me down to the cross, and I can find my way home from there.”
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.
[The Way of the Cross Leads Home by Jessie B. Pounds, 1906]
Isn’t that what He said? “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Galatians 6:14]. And our Master, with humbled hearts, bowing at Thy dear feet, saved by Thy suffering, and sobs, and tears, and blood, and atoning sacrifice [Isaiah 53:5], loved when we are unloved [John 15:18; 1 John 4:19], forgiven when we do wrong [1 John 1:9], saved to eternal life because of the grace abounding [John 10:28; Ephesians 2:8]. O blessed Jesus, give us bigger hearts to love Thee more. And now as we wait through the days of Thine entombment [Matthew 12:40], when Sunday comes, when Easter day comes, when the Lord’s Day comes, may it be with paeans of praise, and shouts of acclamation, and songs and words of love and adoration. “Jesus lives! He has been raised from the dead! He cannot die!” And He goes before us, for us who follow after, into the triumph of that kingdom that shall last forever and ever. In His saving name, amen, amen.
OF THE CROSS
A. The Galatians were
seeking to glory in the flesh (Galatians 3:1-3)
Letter could have been written to modern world
B. Paul’s one glory –
the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ(Galatians
in Macao inspired John Bowring’s “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”
II. Emblem of the Christian faith
A. Conversion of
Constantine – the flaming cross in the sky
Sign of Christian faith not a sword, scimitar, fascistic bundle, but a rugged
B. Speaks a universal
1. Passion play
in Oberammergau is in German
III. Emblem of the tragedy of our sin
representative of the actuality of the cross in Roman Coliseum
1. Never a
torture invented that rivals the Roman cross(Mark
B. We sent Him there
1. Man who dreamt
of thescourging of Jesus – he held the whip
IV. Emblem of God’s love
A. Christ died for the
remission of sins(Hebrews 9:22)
meaning of all time and history – the center of all that God means and has done
1. The Charing Cross in
2. Poem, “The Way of the
Cross Leads Home”