The cross. What a terror. Extremely, almost inconceivably terrible. It was designed to be that way — to strike profound terror into the minds of any who could potentially be tortured upon one.
Two thousand years removed from the reality of Roman crucifixion and having become familiar with the cross as an abstract theological term, it can be hard for us to emotionally connect with what it really was: the terrible means of Rome executing its wrath upon its worst offenders.
“The death of Christ was real, and it was really terrible. He was an object of wrath.”
And Jesus was executed on a cross. He was counted as among the worst offenders. His death was real, and it was really terrible. He was an object of wrath. But not just of Roman and Jewish wrath; in fact, not mainly of Roman and Jewish wrath (John 19:11). Jesus was primarily the object of his Father’s wrath — the most just, righteous, and terrible wrath there is. And he became that object willingly, even when his every human impulse longed for escape (Mark 14:36). It’s the very reason he came.
For This Purpose He Came
Jesus knew what his mission was long before circumstances took their terrible turn toward the cross. He told a Sanhedrin member early on that he had come to be “lifted up” as Moses had lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14). He explicitly warned his disciples,
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Luke 9:22)
To a crowd seeking more divine bread from Jesus, he said,
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)
And as time drew near for the horrible events to take place, Jesus grew more determined to face them (Luke 9:51), even as his anguish also intensely increased:
Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. (John 12:27)
Jesus had come “for this purpose.” What did he mean? He had come to glorify his Father’s name (John 12:28). He had come “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). He had come to express his Father’s and his own love for sinners like us (Romans 5:8). He had come to draw all people to himself (John 12:32). He had come to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29) by becoming the propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).
Divine Wrath Satisfied
The coming of this great Propitiator had been prophesied centuries before:
He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6)
And to ensure we’d understand the substitutionary nature of his coming, and whose wrath he would propitiate, the Spirit said through the prophet,
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:10–11)
“Who would have ever dreamed a Roman cross would become a symbol of the greatest love ever expressed?”
The old-covenant-era hearers would have understood what this meant, for guilt offerings were sacrificed to God as substitutes in place of those who had sinned against him, so that the sinners themselves would not bear God’s righteous anger. And the old covenant foreshadowed the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 12:24), where the great Servant, the great Propitiator, would offer himself as the final once-for-all substitutionary sacrifice in the place of sinners (Hebrews 9:26).
That’s why Jesus came, and that’s what the cross was all about. On the cross, the Father made the sinless Son to be sin for our sake that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, our Propitiator, absorbed the Father’s wrath against our sin and satisfied it in full, so that “whoever believes in him should not perish” but instead enjoy the Father’s favor forever (John 3:16). As the great song says,
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on him was laid —
Here in the death of Christ I live. (In Christ Alone)
In This Is Love
The cross. What a terror. The cross of Christ. What a terror and glory. The worst brutality meets the mightiest meekness. Unfathomable horror meets unsurpassed beauty. The most righteous condemnation meets the most gracious pardon. The greatest justice meets the greatest mercy. The fiercest wrath meets the most bountiful favor. And such love.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9–10)
Who would have ever dreamed a Roman cross, one of the worst, most fearsome devices of torture ever devised, would become a symbol of the greatest love ever expressed? For “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” and saved us “from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8–9).