When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

By James R. Cope

When I survey the wondrous Cross

On which the Prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

Where the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

These are the familiar words of Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the most eminent English hymn writer in history. They well serve as the introduction to the remarks to follow.

When I survey the history of the physical cross I see two pieces of wood so attached to each other as to support the full weight of a living human body with outstretched arms attached by iron spikes driven through the hands and feet of that body. I see an instrument of death much more cruel to its victims than sword or burning-at-the-stake because its pain continued so much longer. Historians tell us that the cross was used by the Phoenicians, Cartheginians and Egyptians, especially in times of war, prior to its usage by the Romans. Probably even before the time of Christ the dread of this instrument of death symbolized the cares and burdens of life. Matthew, Mark and Luke reveal that Jesus said he would be scourged and all four gospels indicate that scourging occurred prior to his bearing his own cross to the death site. The victims of scourging sometimes died before crucifixion. Crucifixion’s victims often lingered two or three days. Breaking of the victim’s legs hastened death but “when they came to Jesus and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs” (Jn. 19:33).

The Jewish Leaders’ Hatred

When Pilot asked, “What shall I do with Jesus?” the Jewish answer bespoke their deep hatred for Jesus. Their response, “Crucify him, crucify him! ” reveals the malice which the Scribes and Pharisees, who sought to control Jewish thought, had for Jesus. When I survey the wondrous cross I see the symbol of his love for his enemies which contradicted the Jewish politicians’ hatred of him. Jesus disappointed their hopes for worldly power and prominence which they mistakenly attached to the Messiah’s reign. Just as increasingly, “the common people heard him gladly” (Mk. 12:37), so the chief priests and Scribes and Pharisee leaders saw their control of the masses slipping from themselves. The Jewish leaders were not political dumb heads. They knew Roman procedure and that they were those with whom Pilate knew he had to deal directly and officially. After all, was not “the Governor” the political appointee of Caesar? Were not they the official Jewish spokesmen for the Jewish nation? I have no reason to think that the same “multitudes” that so often heard the teaching of Jesus in rural Judea and Galilee constituted the “multitudes” controlled by the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees in the early morning hours of the crucifixion day. The longer Jesus was free to teach the masses of Israel in Galilee and Judea the less credence the officials of Judaism retained with the Jewish nation overall. These politicians were experts who hated the popularity of Jesus with the “common people” who “heard him gladly.”

When, therefore, I survey the wondrous cross I can somewhat understand the appeal of the gospel story to the masses of Jews who saw and heard the basic facts and truths preached by the apostles on and after the Pentecost of Acts 2. Increasingly God’s scheme to redeem sinners from sin became clear to those who heard the gospel.

The Cross and Paul

When I survey the wondrous cross I discover the secret of the brilliant and honest young Saul of Tarsus and his commitment to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This zealous youth had been so glued to the Pharisaic concept of Judaism that he believed the Jewish disciples of Jesus should be imprisoned or killed. Gladly he gave his vote to this end. He punished them in the synagogue and strove to make them blaspheme, persecuting them even to foreign cities until he met the resurrected Jesus on his Damascus journey of madness (Acts 26:9-20). Thereafter he gave his whole life to knowing nothing “save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The cross of Jesus became his everything and is reflected in his words, “Far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). (I pray that this may be my commitment.)

The Cross And Worldly Wisdom

When I survey the wondrous cross I see the inability of worldly wisdom to bring sinful souls to God. Nothing identifiable with the wisdom and philosophy of men apart from God’s revelation had or can ever have anything to do with man’s salvation from sins. The very thought of a Messiah who suffered at all, much less for others, was repugnant to Jewish thought. That crucifixion would be the means of such suffering was, if possible, more ridiculous because, to most Jews, crucifixion argued the justice of the guilt charged upon the one crucified. Such an attitude then as now completely ignores such a prophecy as Isaiah 53. The idea of a crucified hero was a sign of weakness to the Gentile mind. To the Gentile such a person needed to be defended rather than worshiped. No wonder that “God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame them that are wise,” that he chose “weak things” as opposed to the “strong”; that he chose “base” and “despised” things, as appraised by human wisdom, that “no flesh should glory before God.” All this helps the believer understand why “not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” were or are receptive to the simple story of infinite love and wisdom reflected in the gospel. All should consider carefully 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 for Paul’s point of view on God’s plan for conquest of honest hearts.

The Cross And God’s Grace

When I behold the wondrous cross I see the symbol of God’s grace extended to all sinners willing to accept salvation on gospel terms, not on the merits of their own good works, fleshly origin, material worth or religious inheritance. “Far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14).

The Cross And Caesar

When I behold the wondrous cross, I see the same principle of the rule of civil government in punishing evil doers which Paul declares when he says, “But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid: for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). Pilate, as a civil governor, was God’s agent to use either sword or cross to punish those whose just punishment deserved either weapon for the execution purpose. Jesus deserved not to die by means of either weapon but this does not change the principle that the cross was a means of punishing evil doers, e.g., the two robbers crucified beside Jesus. The cross for Jesus was unjust but for those deserving death the cross was optional with Pilate in punishing evil men which, for all I know, deserved death (Rom. 13:2-5). In yielding to the demands of Jesus’ critics, however, the civil power which said, “I find in him no fault” (Jn. 18:38) became a party to the very cry of those Jews who demanded the Savior’s death.

The Cross And Divine Providence

When I behold the wondrous cross of Jesus I see something about God’s over-ruling the evil purposes of men to praise him. Enemies of our Lord then and now, saw Jesus as an obstacle in their way of controlling the religious population. The elders, chief priests and scribes had long managed Jewish thought by their traditions and self-made decrees. Like a spring thunderstorm, Jesus simultaneously set afire their unauthorized religious hypocrisy and immoral lifestyle. Like a refreshing breeze there was his simple teaching in parables and word pictures of the nonmilitary nature of the kingdom of God. Then came his preachments to be the Messiah of Old Testament prophets reinforced by his sinless life and confirmation of his claims to be the Son of God. These constituted the moral and spiritual revolutionary doctrine which, in time, was to dethrone the Jewish hierarchy from its self-appointed dictatorship of self-will and self-service and replace it with the person of God’s only Son whose refreshing appeal was that of the truth which alone can release religious captives from Satan’s prison.

The Cross And The Crown

When I survey the wondrous cross upon which my Savior died, I see beyond this instrument of death a living hope for myself and all of Adam’s other children who have fallen by Satan’s deception. I say this because of what Jesus promised to do with his own life and, by my own faith, for my personal life! Yes, for me! Yes, for you – my brother, my sister! You see, my friend, Jesus came to this world of sin, sickness, sorrow, death, dying, and disappointment to “make all things new”! As the darkness of night precedes the dawn of day, so the gloom of the garden grave gives way to the glory of God. “He is not here, but is risen!” This is the song that angels sing – the song of redeeming love, the song of life eternal!

‘Tis true! ‘Tis true! “The way of the cross leads home” because the way of the cross is the way to glory, the way to God! Without the cross there is no crown; without the grave there is no glory. By his death on the wondrous cross he paid the price for my redemption. By his resurrection he validated the fact of life beyond death. That he showed himself alive is confirmed by the living witnesses who willingly gave their lives to verify their personal testimony regarding what their eyes saw and their ears heard. Because of his death I reached his blood shed in his death in my burial in baptism described in Romans 6:1-4 and from that grave of water I came forth to walk in a newness of life. Thank God for the cross of wood by which he enables sinners to become saints, to be wearers of the crown of life!

The Cross and Commitment

Finally, when I survey that wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died I see an abiding symbol of my personal responsibility as a disciple of Jesus. Many months before he was nailed to the cross of wood our Lord said, “He that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38). In similar vein when Jesus had told his apostles about his impending death and resurrection at Jerusalem and was rebuked by Peter for talking about such, he called Peter “Satan” and a “stumbling block” to the fulfilling of his earthly mission. Then, turning to his disciples, he said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 10:24). This is duty! This is our Lord’s challenge to be heeded now. Truly, “The way of the cross leads home”!

The greatest barrier between me and complete submission to the Christ of the cross is myself – my own self-centered desires which Satan always uses to draw me away from the control of Christ. Yes, always and everywhere! Jesus said of his Father, “I do always the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29) and this is the challenge of the wondrous cross in every facet of my life. There is no crown of glory apart from the cross of duty – everywhere and every moment of this life! This is complete commitment!

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 20, pp. 609, 642-643
October 15, 1987