The cross is one of the most displayed and recognizable symbols in world history. In the ancient world, its found on carvings, jewelry, and books. In the modern world, people see crosses on clothing, screensavers, and tattoos. Sometimes crosses are ragged, aged, and even blood-stained. At other times, people decorate crosses with flowers, colorful sashes, and artistic shapes and designs. But what does the cross itself mean?
The cross symbol recalls the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the world in obedience to the Father and as an act of love for people. Jesus spoke of the cross figuratively and literally, as did the Apostle Paul. Thousands of years later, it remains an important symbol to billions.
Where and why did Jesus speak about the cross in a symbolic way? How did Paul refer to the cross in a non-literal way? What other symbols are common in Christian history, and why do believers prefer using the cross as their faith’s primary symbol? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
The Cross as a Symbol in the Teaching of Jesus
Before Jesus died on a cross, he used it figuratively in his teaching. This means that he used the cross in a figurative or non-literal way to describe a concept, principle, or application. The main idea behind Jesus’ symbolic use of the cross in his teaching was to encourage people to surrender to God. For example, Luke 14:27 reads, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (ESV).
- Mark 8:34, “And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
- Matthew 16:24, “Then Jesus told his disciples, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
- Luke 9:23, “And he said to all, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
The Apostle Paul built on Jesus’ symbolic use of the cross in his teaching. He did so after the crucifixion, which may have helped the first Christians understand surrendering to God more fully. In Paul’s metaphor, a cross is a place of surrender, sacrifice, and dying to self. Galatians 5:24, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (ESV).
- Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
- Romans 6:6, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
Bible scholar Grant Osborne explains the New Testament’s figurative use of the cross this way: “The believer relives the death and resurrection by putting to death the old self and putting on the new… both at conversion and in spiritual growth, the believer must relive the cross before experiencing the resurrection life. The Christian paradox is that death is the path to life.” 
The Cross in the Life and Death of Jesus
The cross wouldn’t have symbolic importance in the New Testament if it didn’t have a literal purpose in Jesus’ life, death, and reason for becoming a human being in the first place (cf. John 1:1, 1:14). The symbol isn’t merely a creative metaphor that Jesus made up; instead, he borrowed it from the moment he gave up his life to save those he loved (John 3:16; Eph. 1:4-5).
- Jesus was forced to carry his own cross: “As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross” (Matt. 27:32).
- Jesus was mocked on the cross: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matt. 27:40; v. 41-44).
- Jesus saved the man hanging on the cross next to his: “And he said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
- Jesus died on the cross: “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).
Jesus was born to die. His purpose was to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), which he accomplished through his death. Mark 10:45 reads, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” The Greek word translated as “ransom” is lutron (λύτρον) and refers to the price that is paid to free a prisoner. Jesus’ death freed people from sin (John 8:32; Rom. 8:2).
Why Did Early Christians Use the Cross as a Symbol?
Christian theologian John Stott writes, “Crucifixion seems to have been invented by ‘barbarians’ on the edge of the known world, and taken over from them by both Greeks and Romans.”
Stott continues, “It is probably the most cruel method of execution ever practiced, for it deliberately delayed death until maximum torture had been inflicted. When the Romans adopted it, they reserved it for criminals convicted of murder, rebellion or armed robbery, provided that they were also slaves, foreigners, or other non-persons.” 
Christians have used many symbols over the centuries, including doves, fish, and lambs. This leads many people to wonder why one of those images, each of which is more peaceful and pleasant in nature, isn’t the primary symbol of the Christian faith. Why has Christian history insisted that the cross, a place of inhumane punishment and death, be displayed on churches, Bibles, and gravestones?
American pastor James Montgomery Boice answers such questions this way: “The cross stands as the focal point of the Christian faith. Without the cross the Bible is an enigma, and the Gospel of salvation is an empty hope.” 
English Pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones adds, “The Cross not only shows the love of God more gloriously than anything else, it shows His righteousness, His justice, His holiness, and all the glory of His eternal attributes.” 
 Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. p. 371.
 The Cross of Christ by John Stott. p. 24.
 Philippians by James Montgomery Boice. p. 144.
 The Cross, The Vindication of God by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. p. 17.
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