We see crosses everyday. Gold embossed on leather book covers. Delicate silver necklaces, perhaps adorned with rhinestones or jewels. Wall decorations in the homes of Christians. Sometimes on the highway; always in churches.
There are many types of crosses. The Greek cross has all four bars the same length. The Latin cross has a longer bar at the bottom–with proportions more like an upright sword with a broad hilt. A crucifix is a cross with Jesus on it. A Celtic cross has a circle around the intersection, and is often adorned with intricate woven designs.
The cross is well known as a symbol of Christianity, and it is known that Jesus death on the cross is central to the Christian faith. But the symbol of the cross is so very different now than it was in the first century that it is hard for us to imagine what it meant then.
The cross in the ancient world was a means of execution. Can you imagine anyone today wanting to wear a silver electric chair on a chain? A cross meant death. It was a particularly gruesome means of execution, usually reserved for the “worst of the worst”. If a Roman citizen was convicted of a crime punishable by death, he would be killed by beheading. Quick and done. Crucifixion was for lower class criminals. It was a slow and painful death, and the public display (sometimes left long after death) was intended as a deterrent to crime. The cross was a symbol of torture and shameful death.
The earliest known example of a cross being used as a Christian symbol is a bit of vulgar graffiti mocking a Christian.
Early Christians chose other symbols:
- The Good Shepherd. From Jesus description of himself in John 10:1-18
- A fish. From a Greek acrostic “Jesus Christ, God’s son, savior” forming the Greek word for fish “ichthus”
- An anchor. This symbol of our hope in Jesus is in Hebrews 6:19-20
- Alpha and Omega. The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet for the Lord who is the first and the last. Revelation 22:13
- A dove. The Holy Spirit which plays such an important role in the baptism of each Christian took this form at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew 5:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:22.
Still, Jesus’ death is central to the gospel message. By it he completed the work of salvation (Hebrews 2:9). He carried the cross toward his own execution because he willingly laid down his life (John 10:18). The early church knew many persons had been crucified, but only one was crucified and resurrected.
Perhaps the shame and scandal of the cross kept it from being a more popular symbol, or perhaps it was the emphasis on the resurrection which made other symbols more attractive. (Yet crossing oneself was already a familiar Christian sign in the second century.) Once Christianity was accepted by the Roman Emperor, the cross was viewed differently. In Byzantine art, the jeweled cross is associated Christ the All-Powerful (Pantokrator).
Jesus warned his followers of his death before it happened (Matthew 16:21; 17:22; 20:17-18), and he warned them to expect similar persecution (Matthew 24:9). When Jesus said “take up your cross” (Matthew 16:24 CEV) it meant go humbly to your death. But perhaps not always death as we usually think of it. Both Luke (Luke 9:23) and Paul (1 Corinthians 15:31) speak of daily death. We must die to ourselves if Christ is to live in us (Luke 14:27; Galatians 2:20; 2 Timothy 2:11).
“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”
Galatians 2:20 (KJ21)