Given the centrality of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross, it is interesting that He never refers to it as His cross.1 He spoke of the disciples’ individual crosses, but that referred to their identification with persecution for His sake, as well as death to the old life (Matt. 10:38; 16:24-26; cf. Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20; 5:24; 6:14). Rather, He used five different expressions to depict His sacrificial death. Collectively, they describe the wonder of the Lord’s work for His Father’s glory and His people’s good.
His Cross’s Height
To Nicodemus, the Lord Jesus spoke of His suffering in terms of height: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14). The mention of the serpent recalls mankind’s fall (Gen. 3:1). Reptiles are associated with the ground, signifying humiliation and death—a ubiquitous reminder of the curse. But in the flood’s aftermath, after Noah’s sacrifice the Lord promised to remove the curse (Gen. 8:21).
In Numbers 21, God’s judgment arrived in the form of “fiery” serpents. Their deadly bite was incurable by human means, but God provided an antidote: the bronze serpent on the pole—the image of that which was killing them provided their deliverance. Similarly, 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains Christ’s substitutionary death: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” This “lifting up” would eventually result in many people being drawn to the Savior—phraseology uniting His death with His ascension (John 12:32).
Initially, the cross does not seem to be an elevated state. After all, this was a shameful place, the final end for humanity’s worst criminals. Nonetheless, it was God’s intent to use it as the centerpiece of His great plan of salvation. Only God’s own Son was found a completely sufficient propitiatory sacrifice for the world’s sins (1 John 2:2). Throughout His life, human examination found Him to be sinless in His person, demonstrated by His impeccable words and deeds. Truly, we may marvel at His challenge to His enemies: “which one of you convicts me of sin?”, drawing only stunned silence (John 8:48). His worth’s greatest proclamation came from heaven itself: “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Thus, only He could ascend to the height of Calvary’s cross, with the requisite sinless perfection, to fulfill the “determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” in the saving of mankind (Acts 2:23).
His Cross’s Depth
His crucifixion’s depth is manifested by His statement: “But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). He called it a baptism: something that submerged Him in suffering under divine wrath. Prophetically, Psalm 69:1-2 graphically describes this: “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.” Another psalm speaks of deep calling unto deep, using the rushing rivers and waterfalls near Mount Hermon as a metaphor for the relentless pounding of God’s wrathful waves against the Lamb of God (Ps. 42:7). His propitiatory death brought the Man of Sorrows into unfathomable depths of suffering.
His Cross’s Bitterness
Christ’s cross was the divinely appointed location where He drank the cup of judgment to its dregs (Ps. 75:8). When a well-meaning Peter erringly arose in the garden, sword in hand, to prevent Christ’s capture and ultimate crucifixion, we hear His settled intention: “the cup which my Father gives me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11). After venting their hatred against the Messiah, men sat down to callously watch Him expire. But the worse suffering occurred when He willingly died as a sacrifice for sins (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
His Cross’s Duration (Agony)
As His earthly ministry neared closure, He said: “…The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified” (John 12:23). Though He spoke of it as an hour—a drop of time drawn from eternity’s endless well—how horribly long it was. Both at the beginning and end of this hour He would cry to His “Father.” But during the darkness of His agony His language changes and we hear that great and awful cry – “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!” Justice demanded that people suffer throughout eternity for their sin; thus, Christ suffered through the infinite depth of agony for my sin. Though we may measure His time on the cross by hours, we cannot plumb its agony, for that yardstick has no markings visible to us that we may measure His suffering, loss, and pain. His agony was far greater than the sum of all human pain. His offering fully and justly satisfied God’s wrath during the three hours of darkness. Now, no other sacrifice is required: “…every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:11-12).
His Cross’s Glory
Since our Lord first referred to His cross as a “height,” His final reference to it fittingly speaks of Glory: “…Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee” (John 17:1). Just as we may not initially see the cross’ height, we also may miss its glory. Was it indeed glorification for the Son of God to suffer, bleed, and die on a cross? Praise God, indeed it was! With the cross just days away, our Lord focused on His return to glory (John 13:1). He spoke of His death, resurrection, and ascension as all part of one work for the good pleasure of His Father (John 14:1-31). This great paradox of suffering is seen as glory, when one understands that the cross accomplished reconciliation. This was the culmination of His obedient work for the Father (John 18:37), and through it He would be able to “reconcile all things unto Himself” (Col. 1:20). Thus, He saw the cross not only as the means by which He and the Father would reunite in a previously known glory, but also as the method of bringing “many sons to glory,” those who would come to Him by the cross!
Small wonder that from henceforth, all true believers join Paul in glorying in the cross. Like him, our boast is in His identity and work on that Roman tree. With him we may say: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). Rightly viewed, the cross is the eternal demonstration of God’s incomparable character.
1. This refers to the noun “cross.” He does use the verb “crucify” in describing
His suffering; see Mt. 20:19, 26:2