Gospel:  John 3:13-17

The Meaning of the Cross

How do people use the cross in our culture? Which is appropriate? Which is inappropriate?

Religious symbols have power. Consider the cross. It is found on jewelry, in advertisements for contractors and car repair shops, on buildings. Not only do these crosses convey faith. Many are used to attract a certain clientele so the advertisers or creators make money. While these uses may not be inappropriate, they do beg the question. What do we truly mean when we use symbol of the cross?

Jesus changed the symbolism of the cross from one of death to life, from one of guilt to one of acquittal and freedom.

Popular Translation

Jesus said to Nicodemus the Pharisee:

13 No one has gone up to heaven,
except the Son of Man, who came down from heaven.
14 Just as Moses lifted up a snake image made from bronze in the desert,
the Son of Man needs to be lifted up,
15 so that everyone who places their trust in him
will live forever in him.
16 God loved the world so very much
that he gave the world his only Son.
Everyone who places their trust in the Son
will not be lost,
but will live forever.
17 God did not send his Son into the world
to judge the world 'guilty,'
but to save the world.

This passage can be divided into two sections: 1) the parallel between Moses' serpent and the cross, and 2) the love of the God for the world.

Literal Translation

13 No one has ascended into heaven, only except the (ONE) having come down from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted the (bronze) snake up in the desert, so it is necessary for the SON of MAN to be lifted up, 15 that all believing in HIM might have eternal life (in HIM).

3:14 "Moses lifted up the snake" is a reference to Numbers 21:6-9:

6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he takes away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (RSV)

John paralleled the symbols of the bronze snake and the cross. According to Genesis 2, the poisonous snake personified evil (i.e., Satan). John saw everyone in the world had been bitten by that snake. And the only way to be saved was to look up to the crucified One, just as the Israelites looked up at the bronze snake to be saved.

3:15 Greek allows the phrase "in him" to be used either with the participle "believing" or the object "eternal life." In the Jewish mind, "eternal life" meant "life in the coming age," of life in the Kingdom. It was a condition or quality of life filled with "Shalom," God's peace, comfort, and love. "Eternal life," then, could be experienced in the present, as well as after death. Trust in Jesus led to this condition of God's Shalom, here and now. Early Christians held Shalom could only be found in Christ. (Hence, "trust in him" and "eternal life in him")

In John's gospel, Jesus painted an interesting parallel between two striking images: the bronze serpent and the cross. Both were symbols of horrible death and evil. Just as the serpent symbolized Satan, the cross made the evil of the Roman empire very personal. Both images were cast in colors of damnation.

But in the eyes of faith, both images became symbols of life. Notice the spacial placement of the images in this passage. People looked up to them. In the world view of ancient culture, heaven (the home of the divine) was up, the world was level, and hell (the home of evil) was below. The snake was an image of evil because it slithered on the ground (close to the home of evil) and, in Exodus, was poisonous. The cross was an image people "looked down upon" simply because of its function: an instrument of capital punishment. The one executed was shamed. People insulted the condemned and treated them as "beneath contempt."

"Raised up," however, the images became instruments of salvation. In the hands of Moses, the serpent image saved the Israelites from death. When the Son of Man was raised up, the cross image became a sign of God's activity.

The upshot? In the hands of God, these symbols changed, for he drew them to himself. For God used evil to create a greater good.

16 For God loved the world so much that he gave (his) only begotten SON, that all trusting in him might not be destroyed but might have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the SON into the world that he might judge (against) the world, but that the world might be saved through HIM.

3:17 " . . . judge (against) the world . . . " The ancient world equated judgment with condemnation.

The change in images set the stage for the famous John 3:16. God would send his Son into the world as an instrument of his presence. Where the divine acted, there was no condemnation, simply because evil would flee. God's initiative, however, demanded a response: faith.

When these two sections are taken together, an interesting interpretation of the cross comes forward. How can the image of the cross change into a sign of salvation? It was because God himself gave his Son over to the evil of men. In other words, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, his subsequent trial, passion, and death, were caused by the love of God. The cross in the hands of the Romans was a sign of extreme judgement. But, in the hands of God, it became a sign of freedom. The symbol of condemnation, indeed, became a symbol of acquittal.

Reflect on the meaning of the cross. How has it freed you?

The cross is a symbol of Christ in the world. It communicates faith in the One who came to free us. And tells us of eternal life. It is more than a sign that identifies us as Christians. It is a sign that evangelizes.

As Christians, we are to give the cross meaning. We are to communicate Christ to the world. We can only do that if Christ is at our core. Faith is more then assenting to the truth; it is allowing Christ to be with us, in us, and through us. Our challenge is to give the Lord Jesus this opportunity.

How do you represent the cross and Christianity? How have you allowed God to use you? What meaning have you given the cross in your life?