The Cross: Symbol or Image?

By Dean Gibson

The cross of Jesus Christ. What does it mean to you? What does it symbolize? Is it an image to be worn proudly by a Christian? It is referred to in the Bible as the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). It is also referred to as a symbol of shame (Heb. 12:2)! Symbols can be very strong messages of attitude. Consider the sign of the swastika during World War II, unleavened bread and fruit of the vine, or the “sign of the cross.”

Let us consider the cross in both history and Scripture. The first time we read of “a cross” in the Bible is in Matthew 10:38 and 16:24, where Jesus says if one wants to follow him, he must “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” This does not refer back to Jesus’ cross, for he had not yet been crucified. It is unlikely, at that time, that his disciples knew what he meant. “The Greek word stauros means merely `a stake'” (Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1863 Ed., Vol. 1, p. 364). Whether Jesus spoke in Greek or not, the word is not used literally, but from this context we can see that the idea which best fits for the word “cross” is “attitude of self-sacrifice.” This, then, is one way the word “cross” is used as a literary symbol (a “word” symbol as opposed to a “thing” symbol).

What other ideas are symbolized by the “cross” in Scripture? First, where the four witnesses of the Gospel describe the actual crucifixion of Jesus, there is no metaphorical or symbolic meaning at all. He did not carry a symbol up the streets of Jerusalem; nor was he symbolically nailed to a metaphorical cross. It was as real as pain and as literal as the blood from his side.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul wrote, “For the preaching (lit., “word”) of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” He referred to the part of the gospel which says that God died on the cross by Roman hands, a fact which seems self-contradictory to unbelievers (“How could men kill a god?”), but the most wonderful of miracles to the saved! In the parallel passage of Romans 1:16, Paul says the “gospel of Christ” is the “power of God unto salvation.” So, sometimes the word “cross” stands for “the gospel.”

Again, in Ephesians 2:16, Philippians 2:8, Colossians 2:14, and Hebrews 12:2, the word means his “death by crucifixion.” The “cross of Jesus” is, then, a literary symbol of several scriptural ideas. The songs that we sing about the cross, which use the same metaphors as the Scriptures, do not misuse or abuse the word.

But what about the cross as an image: used as the “logo” of Christianity; an architectural design on buildings; worn as a talisman or charm against evil in the form of a crucifix (the body of Christ on a cross)? Historians are in unusual agreement about these practices:

As the emblem of a slave’s death and a murderer’s punishment, the cross was naturally looked upon with the profoundest horror, and closely connected with the ideas of pain, of guilt, and of ignominy (shame DG, E. Gibbon, Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2, p. 153).

The early Christians generally avoided representing the body of Christ on the cross, for the first evidence of such representation comes from the 5th century. In fact, until the 4th century, even the simple cross rarely appeared in public (New Catholic Encyclopedia [NY: Catholic Univ. of America, 1967], Vol. IV, p. 473).

It was not till the 6th century that the emblem of the cross became the image of the crucifix (Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, p. 366).

It is often hard for present-day people, after the cross has been glorified for so many centuries, to imagine the disgrace linked with crucifixion during Roman times. For the ancients, the word itself carried not a single positive connotation. . . . Centuries were to pass before Christians felt at ease representing Jesus on the cross pictorially (emphasis mine  DG) (After Jesus: The Triumph of Christianity [Reader’s Digest: 1992], p. 7).

Where did the glorification of the cross come from? What brought about such a change of attitude?

But after the celebrated vision of Constantine (312 A.D.), he ordered his friends to make a cross of gold and gems, such as he had seen, and the towering eagles resigned the flags unto the cross (R.L. Fox, Pagans and Christians [New York: Harper & Row, 1986], p. 613).

Thus under Constantine the church experienced a profound alteration in its attitude toward reproductions of the cross

The discovery of the word of the Savior’s cross, together with the worship and honor rendered to the cross, rapidly transformed the former reticence into conspicuous public devotion (The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1987], Vol. 4, p. 162).

For those of us who are dedicated to restoring first century faith and practice, when the churches were built by the “apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, we should limit the cross to a literary symbol and use the proper symbols to “show the Lord’s death till he come” (I Cor. 11:26).

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 9, p. 5
May 20, 1993