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Sermon Illustrations on the cross

Background

Alexamenos’s God

One of the earliest forms of Christian art isn’t a painting, sculpture or even a catacomb fresco. It’s a patch of graffiti on plaster, discovered in the Paedagogium on the Palatine Hill in Rome and dated to around 200 ad. Imperial teachers used the Paedagogium building to educate the emperor’s staff, and perhaps an idle student etched the crude artwork. The drawing depicts a man with an ass’s head, hanging on a cross. Viewed from behind, the crucified man turns to the left, looking down at a youth with a raised arm. An inscription underneath the cross figure claims in Greek, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

Art historians disagree whether the scrawled words should be interpreted as a Christian’s profession of faith or a pagan’s scorn. On the one hand, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass, so it became an important symbol for early Christians. From this perspective, some scholars suggest drawing the crucified Christ with a donkey’s head paid homage to a hailed Savior.

On the other hand, most observers recognize the inscription as a taunt from someone who misunderstood the new religion. During this era a rumor circulated through Rome that Christians worshiped the head of an ass.

In the second century the pagan Marcus Cornelius Fronto, an orator and the tutor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, reported, “I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion…[He] who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve.”

Fronto ridiculed a sacred focal point of the nascent faith: Christ’s cross. To pagans the cross represented humiliation heaped on criminals, and anyone who worshiped a man hanging on this torture-and-death device deserved to be mocked. Why would anyone adore defeat?

Taken from The Mystery of the Cross by Judith Couchman Copyright (c) 2009 by Judith Couchman. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Centrality of the Cross

The fact that a cross became the Christian symbol, and that Christians stubbornly refused, in spite of the ridicule, to discard it in favour of something less offensive, can have only one explanation. It means that the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus himself. It was out of loyalty to him that his followers clung so doggedly to this sign.

Taken from The Cross of Christ by John Stott. Copyright (c) 1976, 2006, Kindle Location 444 by John Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Christ Is to Us Just What His Cross Is

Christ is to us just what his cross is. All that Christ was in heaven or on earth was put into what he did there…Christ, I repeat, is to us just what his cross is. You do not understand Christ till you understand his cross.

 P.T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, 1909, pp.44–45.

The Cross According to Albert Camus

[Christ] the god-man suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, and lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death. Thus is explained the “Lama sabachthani” and the frightful doubt of Christ in agony.

Albert Camus, Essais, Gallimard.

The Cross Our Spiritual Centerpiece

God could have chosen any method to save us, but he used the cross. The cross is our spiritual centerpiece, the sign of our soul’s emancipation.However, the pre-Christian cross might offer a sliver of insight to God. Some skeptics claim this ancient sign of the cross disproves Christianity. Because this image recurred in early divergent cultures, they claim Christ s story wasn’t true; that the first Christians borrowed “the cross myth” and its sign from pre-existing religions.

But couldn’t the God who oversees the universe and its events have etched the cross image into humanity’s soul before Christ appeared? Could this early sign have prophesied our need for a savior? Perhaps when the pagan ancients created their own gods and religious signs, they unwittingly patterned the way of Christ.

Taken from The Mystery of the Cross by Judith Couchman Copyright (c) 2009 by Judith Couchman. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

God Forsaken by God

Psalm 22:1 was on our Savior’s lips on the cross, and it is in that context a mystery: God forsaken by God! Christians have been trying to unravel this mystery for centuries, without reaching consensus. So Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “On Cowper’s Grave,” is only one of those efforts, but an intriguing one and quite in line with biblical theology. Her interpretation is that our Lord’s cry of dereliction on the cross was the ultimate and absolute cry of despair that had no echo in the universe so that no human being would ever have to make such a desperate cry again.

         Deserted! God could separate from His

                     own essence rather;

         And Adam’s sins have swept between

                     the righteous Son and Father;

         Yea, once, Immanuel’s orphaned cry

                     His universe hath shaken—

         It went up single, echoless, “My God, I

                     am forsaken!”

 

         It went up from the Holy’s lips amid

                     His lost creation,

         That, of the lost, no son should use

                     those words of desolation!

         That earth’s worst phrensies, mar-

                     ring hope, should mar not hope’s

                     fruition,

         And I, on Cowper’s grave, should see

                     His rapture in a vision.

Introduction by Hassell Bullock, Source Material from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Cowper’s Grave,” The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: John Murray, 1914), 143. “Cowper” is the hymn writer, William Cowper (1731-1800), who wrote such hymns as “God Moves in A Mysterious Way His Wonders to Perform” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

Heroes on this Earth

If ever mortal men found a real hero on this earth, those men were the disciples. They, indeed, were hero-worshippers. Then think of the horrid shock and shame which overwhelmed them at the Cross. It was no splendid martyrdom for a great cause, no glorious conquest won at the cost of life; no epic to be sung and celebrated. No, the Cross was simply an utter overthrow, a speechless failure. It was all sordid, cruel, criminal, a gross injustice, an intolerable defeat of good by evil, of God by devils.

…He their hero, their chosen leader, he was numbered with the transgressors. He was cast out with a curse upon him. Think how loyalty would burn to right this wrong, to clear his memory, to save his reputation, to prove that gross outrage had been done him, to magnify the life so that the death might be forgotten..

…But nothing of the kind seems to have occurred to the Evangelists. They literally glory in the Cross…They are clear, with an absolute conviction, that the best and most wonderful thing he ever did was . . . to die a felon’s death, between two robbers. It was their hero’s greatest heroism that he was executed as a common criminal.

Philip Rhinelander, The Faith of the Cross, Nabu Press, 2013, p.81-82.

Insulting the Cross?

During a recent Holy Week a cross with a mocking sign ROFL (a texting abbreviation for “rolling on the floor laughing”) was placed on Cross Campus at Yale. It stirred considerable conversation about free speech and respect for religion and whether Christians are privileged or persecuted. Some Christians complained that they are the one group allowed to be bashed in public, a complaint that—even if it were true—sounds oddly unlike the response of the early church.

This was not the first time mocking words had been associated with the cross. According to the scriptural account, Pilate had the words “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS ” printed on the cross. Jewish leaders complained that it should say, “This man claimed to be king of the Jews.” But Pilate said, “What I have written, I have written.” Churches often place the Latin acronym for what Pilate had written on crosses: Jesus-Nazareth, King-Jews, giving the Latin letters INRI. But it was not a tribute. It was a roast. ROFL.

John Ortberg, Who Is this Man? Zondervan Publishing.

Islam & The Cross

One of the saddest features of Islam is that it rejects the cross, declaring it inappropriate that a major prophet of God should come to such an ignominious end. The Koran sees no need for the sin-bearing death of a Saviour. At least five times it declares categorically that ‘no soul shall bear another’s burden’.

Indeed, ‘if a laden soul cries out for help, not even a near relation shall share its burden’. Why is this? It is because ‘each man shall reap the fruits of his own deeds’, even though Allah is merciful and forgives those who repent and do good.

Denying the need for the cross, the Koran goes on to deny the fact. The Jews ‘uttered a monstrous falsehood’ when they declared ‘we have put to death the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of Allah’, for ‘they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did’.

Taken from The Cross of Christ by John Stott. Copyright (c) 1976, 2006, Kindle Location 763-773 by John Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Did Jesus Really Suffer on the Cross?

Jesus did not descend from the cross. He was powerless, delivered up to his opponents. There was a false and erroneous form of Christianity that refused to accept that. As early as the second century the evil flower of Docetism put out its shoots. This was a belief that what hung on the cross was only the appearance of a body. Of course, the real Jesus was not miserably crucified, because the Son of God certainly could not suffer! Islam still maintains this Docetic heresy when it says of the prophet Isa (=Jesus) that he was confused with someone else, that Jesus did not die on the cross.

For Judaism, too, a crucified Messiah is simply unacceptable. The great Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204) listed criteria with the aid of which one might distinguish the true Messiah from pretenders. Clearly, for Maimonides, success was among those criteria. No one can withstand the true Messiah; in his lifetime he will gather all Israel, lead it into freedom, rebuild the Temple, see to it that all Jews follow the Torah, and establish peace throughout the world.

Taken from Gerhard Lohfink, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life, Liturgical Press.

Mocking the Early Christians for the Cross

So then, whether their background was Roman or Jewish or both, the early enemies of Christianity lost no opportunity to ridicule the claim that God’s anointed and man’s Saviour ended his life on a cross. The idea was crazy. This is well illustrated by a graffito from the second century, discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome, on the wall of a house considered by some scholars to have been used as a school for imperial pages.

It is the first surviving picture of the crucifixion, and is a caricature. A crude drawing depicts, stretched on a cross, a man with the head of a donkey. To the left stands another man, with one arm raised in worship.

Unevenly scribbled underneath are the words ALEXAMENOS CEBETE (sc. sebete) THEON, ‘Alexamenos worships God’. The cartoon is now in the Kircherian Museum in Rome. Whatever the origin of the accusation of donkey-worship (which was attributed to both Jews and Christians), it was the concept of worshipping a crucified man which was being held up to derision.

Taken from The Cross of Christ by John Stott. Copyright (c) 1976, 2006 by John Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Most Cruel & Disgusting Punishment

Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion, except in extreme cases of treason. Cicero in one of his speeches condemned it as crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium, ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’. A little later he declared: ‘To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is – What? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.’ Cicero was even more explicit in his successful defence in 63 BC of the elderly senator Gaius Rabirius who had been charged with murder: ‘the very word “cross” should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears…

If the Romans regarded crucifixion with horror, so did the Jews, though for a different reason. They made no distinction between a ‘tree’ and a ‘cross’, and so between a hanging and a crucifixion. They therefore automatically applied to crucified criminals the terrible statement of the law that ‘anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse’ (Deut. 21:23) ….They could not bring themselves to believe that God’s Messiah would die under his curse, strung up on a tree. As Trypho the Jew put it to Justin the Christian apologist, who engaged him in dialogue: ‘I am exceedingly incredulous on this point.’

Taken from The Cross of Christ by John Stott. Copyright (c) 1976, 2006  Kindle Location 415 by John Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Stories

The Cross as an Enduring Image

In 2000, the National Gallery in London put on a millennial exhibition entitled “Seeing Salvation.” That was a case in point—especially remembering that European countries tend to be far more “secularized” than the United States. It consisted mostly of artists’ depictions of Jesus’s crucifixion. Many critics sneered. All those old paintings about someone being tortured to death! Why did we need to look at rooms full of such stuff? Fortunately, the general public ignored the critics and turned up in droves to see works of art, which, like the crucifixion itself, seem to carry a power beyond theory and beyond suspicion.

The Gallery’s director, Neil McGregor…acquired a simple but haunting cross made from fragments of a small boat. The boat, which had been carrying refugees from Eritrea and Somalia, was wrecked off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, on October 3, 2013.

Of the 500 people on board, 349 drowned. A local craftsman, Francesco Tuccio, was deeply distressed that nothing more could have been done to save people, and he made several crosses out of fragments of the wrecked vessel. One was carried by Pope Francis at the memorial service for the survivors. The British Museum contacted Mr. Tuccio, and he made a cross especially for the museum, thanking the authorities there for drawing attention to the suffering that this small wooden object would symbolize. Why the cross rather than anything else?

N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, HarperOne.

The Cross at the Heart of the City

At the heart of the city of London is Charing Cross. All distances across the city are measured from its central point. Locals refer to it simply as “the cross.” One day a child became lost in the bustling metropolis.  A city police officer (A “bobby,” as they are referred to in London) came to the child’s aid to try and help him return to his family.

The bobby asked the child a variety of questions in an attempt to discover where the boy lived, to no avail. Finally, with tears streaming down the boy’s face, he said, “If you will take me to the cross I think I can find my way from there.” What an apt description of the Christian life. The cross is both the starting place of our new life in Christ, but also the place we must return to, time and again, to keep our bearings in life.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The God I Want

Some while ago, I picked up a book in a second hand bookshop. It was an old, slightly faded paperback with what looked like an intriguing title: The God I Want. Published in the late 1960s, it was a collection of essays by various public figures explaining the kind of God they could cope with, the God they could bring themselves to believe in.

None of them said they wanted a crucified God. The cross of Jesus simply bars the way to that approach by confronting us with something that so offends common sense that it makes us start back at square one. It directs us, at the start of our search for God to a scene which tells of the absence of God, the strange and counter-intuitive wisdom of God.

It tells us that if we are to find the true God, we need to give up our ideas of what God should be like and sit and listen for a while. It tells us that the journey to find God starts, not with human wisdom, human chattering and speculation on what kind of God we might like, what kind of God we can get our heads around, what kind of God we cm bring ourselves to believe in, but instead, we should stop talking, just for once. The journey to God begins in silence, not speculation.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp.27-28.

Insulting the Cross?

During a recent Holy Week a cross with a mocking sign ROFL (a texting abbreviation for “rolling on the floor laughing”) was placed on Cross Campus at Yale. It stirred considerable conversation about free speech and respect for religion and whether Christians are privileged or persecuted. Some Christians complained that they are the one group allowed to be bashed in public, a complaint that—even if it were true—sounds oddly unlike the response of the early church.

This was not the first time mocking words had been associated with the cross. According to the scriptural account, Pilate had the words “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS ” printed on the cross. Jewish leaders complained that it should say, “This man claimed to be king of the Jews.” But Pilate said, “What I have written, I have written.” Churches often place the Latin acronym for what Pilate had written on crosses: Jesus-Nazareth, King-Jews, giving the Latin letters INRI. But it was not a tribute. It was a roast. ROFL.

John Ortberg, Who Is this Man? Zondervan Publishing.

The Swoon Theory

The “swoon theory” argues that Jesus never really died, only appeared to have died, and then came back to life while buried in the tomb. It’s an interesting idea, one that was popularized in a book in the 1960s by a man named Hugh Schonfeld. Schonfield argued that Jesus had not only not died on the cross, but had in fact faked his own death and resurrection. What foresight on the part of Jesus! 

Pastor Greg Laurie shares a story about the “swoon theory” from a local newspaper on the topic:

“Our preacher on Easter said that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that His disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? Sincerely signed, Bewildered.” So somebody at the newspaper wrote back, “Dear Bewildered, beat your preacher with a cat o’ nine tails with 39 heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross, hang him out in the sun for six hours, run a spear through his heart, and embalm him, and put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from Greg Laurie, Article: “Could Jesus Have Survived the Crucifixion?”, Christianity.com

Analogies

And So Was Raised the Cross…

And so he was raised on a cross, and a title was fixed, indicating who it was who was being executed. Painful it is to say, but more terrible not to say. . . . He who suspended the earth is suspended, he who fixed the heavens is fixed, he who fastened all things is fastened to the wood; the Master is outraged; God is murdered.

Melito of Sardis 

The Cross at the Heart of the City

At the heart of the city of London is Charing Cross. All distances across the city are measured from its central point. Locals refer to it simply as “the cross.” One day a child became lost in the bustling metropolis.  A city police officer (A “bobby,” as they are referred to in London) came to the child’s aid to try and help him return to his family.

The bobby asked the child a variety of questions in an attempt to discover where the boy lived, to no avail. Finally, with tears streaming down the boy’s face, he said, “If you will take me to the cross I think I can find my way from there.” What an apt description of the Christian life. The cross is both the starting place of our new life in Christ, but also the place we must return to, time and again, to keep our bearings in life.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

God Forsaken by God

Psalm 22:1 was on our Savior’s lips on the cross, and it is in that context a mystery: God forsaken by God! Christians have been trying to unravel this mystery for centuries, without reaching consensus. So Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “On Cowper’s Grave,” is only one of those efforts, but an intriguing one and quite in line with biblical theology. Her interpretation is that our Lord’s cry of dereliction on the cross was the ultimate and absolute cry of despair that had no echo in the universe so that no human being would ever have to make such a desperate cry again.

         Deserted! God could separate from His

                     own essence rather;

         And Adam’s sins have swept between

                     the righteous Son and Father;

         Yea, once, Immanuel’s orphaned cry

                     His universe hath shaken—

         It went up single, echoless, “My God, I

                     am forsaken!”

 

         It went up from the Holy’s lips amid

                     His lost creation,

         That, of the lost, no son should use

                     those words of desolation!

         That earth’s worst phrensies, mar-

                     ring hope, should mar not hope’s

                     fruition,

         And I, on Cowper’s grave, should see

                     His rapture in a vision.

Introduction by Hassell Bullock, Source Material from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Cowper’s Grave,” The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: John Murray, 1914), 143. “Cowper” is the hymn writer, William Cowper (1731-1800), who wrote such hymns as “God Moves in A Mysterious Way His Wonders to Perform” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

Jesus at the Cross, a Poem by George Herbert

O all ye who passe by, behold and see;

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;

The tree of life to all, but onely me:

Was ever grief like mine?

George Herbert

Earrings with a Mushroom Cloud

What would you think if a woman came to work wearing earrings stamped with an image of the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima? What would you think of a church building adorned with a fresco of the massed graves at Auschwitz? Both visions are grotesque. They are not only intrinsically abhorrent, but they are shocking because of powerful cultural associations. The same sort of shocked horror was associated with cross and crucifixion in the first century. Apart from the emperor’s explicit sanction, no Roman citizen could be put to death by this means. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves, aliens, barbarians.

D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages from 1 Corinthians Baker Publishing Group.

Let Us Not Turn the Cross Into a Metaphor

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the

faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

……………………………………………

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous.

For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,

we are embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” Telephone Poles and Other Poems, Knopf Publishing.

Our Brokenness and Taking up the Cross

In their excellent book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton describe the reality of what it means to “take up our cross” in our daily lives:

Sometimes we suffer under the illusion that our incompleteness, our brokenness, our deadness is something like a sweater that we can easily unbutton and slip off. It is not that easy. Our brokenness is us. Like Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” This is what Jesus indicates when he speaks about losing yourself.

That part of you which has not yet been formed in the image of Christ is not simply a thing in you—it is an essential part of who you are. This is what Jesus is pointing to when he calls us to take up our cross.

Our cross is not that cantankerous person we have to deal with day by day. Our cross is not the employer we just can’t get along with. Our cross is not that neighbor or work colleague who cuts across the grain in every single time of relationship.

Nor is our cross the difficulties and infirmities that the flow of life brings to us beyond our control. Our cross is the point of our unlikeness to the image of Christ, where we must die to self in order to be raised by God into wholeness of life in the image of Christ right there at that point.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Per Crucem Ad Lucem

There’s an aphorism repeated often in the writings of the medieval church: per crucem ad lucem, through the cross to the light. God loves us passionately and wants to bring us joy and flourshing, but this doesn’t preclude a cross. God’s love is refracted through the cross, which often makes it hard to see or recognize. But if we are to learn to trust—to place the weight of our lives on the love of God—we can only learn this through the cross.

Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Humor

The Swoon Theory

The “swoon theory” argues that Jesus never really died, only appeared to have died, and then came back to life while buried in the tomb. It’s an interesting idea, one that was popularized in a book in the 1960s by a man named Hugh Schonfeld. Schonfield argued that Jesus had not only not died on the cross, but had in fact faked his own death and resurrection. What foresight on the part of Jesus! 

Pastor Greg Laurie shares a story about the “swoon theory” from a local newspaper on the topic:

“Our preacher on Easter said that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that His disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? Sincerely signed, Bewildered.” So somebody at the newspaper wrote back, “Dear Bewildered, beat your preacher with a cat o’ nine tails with 39 heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross, hang him out in the sun for six hours, run a spear through his heart, and embalm him, and put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from Greg Laurie, Article: “Could Jesus Have Survived the Crucifixion?”, Christianity.com

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