THE BEAUTY OF THE CROSS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Luther Burbank took an interest in the common field daisy that was an outcast weed despised by the farmers in the East. He crossed it with the Japanese daisy and an English daisy and produced the Shasta daisy, a flower whose beautiful bloom has grown as much as two feet in diameter, and which will last up to six weeks when cut. Burbank went on to transform other despised and worthless plants into plants of beauty and usefulness. He said, "It is my theory that there are no outcasts in nature; everything has a use, and everything in nature is beautiful if we are eager to ennoble it. Every weed is a possible beautiful flower."
His theory has been demonstrated as fact in many cases. A group of women in Pasadena years ago inaugurated the first weed show in history. It was an instant hit. People were astonished at the beauty in weeds. The word weed implies ugliness and uselessness, but as someone said, "Beauty is where you find it." Queen Anne's lace, for example, is a common weed in New England, but in California it is raised as a choice flower. The Kansas Gay Feather, which is a mere weed in the Midwest, is a garden flower in New England. The same thing is both ugly and beautiful depending upon the perspective from which it is seen.
This is also the paradox of the cross. We could as easily consider the ugliness of the cross as the beauty of it. One is as real as the other. At one time in history the cross was the most gruesome object of horror that could be imagined. Cicero the Roman said, "The cross speaks of that which is so shameful, so horrible, that it should not be mentioned in polite society." It was so horrible to die on the cross that no Roman citizen was allowed to be crucified no matter how guilty they were. This fate was reserved for only the worst kinds of killers, renegades, and robbers. Even Scripture says, "Cursed is every man who is hanged on a tree."
No one could have ever dreamed that the cross would someday become a universal decoration and design for jewelry. You can buy a cross made of every precious metal and with diamonds or any other precious stone. This would have sounded as incredible to the ancients as the idea would sound to us of wearing a hangman's noose as a silver pin, or hanging a picture in your living room of a gas chamber. It would be ugly and morbid. Weeds being transformed into flowers is amazing, but nothing can compare with the wonder of the cross being transformed from a symbol of horror and death to a symbol of beauty and life. Jesus converted everything He touched, and one of the most radical conversions of all was the conversion of the cross.
From Calvary on the cross became a symbol treasured and loved, and Paul could say, "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Christ." You have heard the phrase ugly as sin. If sin is the ugliest thing is the world, then that which forgives it and cleanses it has to be the most beautiful thing in the world, and that is the blood of the cross. Jesus so transformed the cross that it became the central theme of Christian preaching and song. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world is even the theme of the saints as they sing in heaven.
Be the cross our theme and story
All through time and into glory.
In our text Jesus says some things that explain why the cross became a symbol of beauty. First of all we see in the cross-
I. THE BEAUTY OF ITS PURPOSE.
When Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the whole city was in an uproar. The Pharisees were so amazed they said to one another in verse 19, "Look the whole world has gone after Him." Then to illustrate the truth of their impression John tells of some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. They were Gentiles who had become converts to Judaism, and to the one true God, for verse 20 says that they came to Jerusalem to worship at the feast. This is the last public event in the life of Christ that John records before the cross. When Philip and Andrew told Jesus some Greeks wanted to see Him, He answered and said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."
All through His ministry He had been saying that the hour has not yet come. He said to His mother at the wedding of Cana, "Mine hour has not yet come." He said to His brethren, "My time is not yet come." And again we read, "No man laid hands on Him, because His hour was not yet come." And once more, "No man took Him, because His hour was not yet come." Now all of the sudden when some Greeks want to see Him Jesus announces that the hour has come. The countdown in God's timetable of salvation is about to be completed, and zero hour has arrived. The central hour of all history was approaching, and when it was over the most crucial act for time and eternity would be completed, and God's purpose fulfilled. The beauty of the cross is the beauty of a finished project, plan, and purpose.
Marie Zwiller painted the picture, "The First Night Outside Paradise." Adam and Eve have been driven from Eden, and they are looking back at it. An angel with a flaming sword guards the gate. They are not looking at the angel, however, for above him illuminating the sky is the bright outline of a cross. Their eyes are lifted, and they are gazing wonderingly at that. The cross was in God's plan from the beginning. There was only one bridge that could span the gulf between paradise lost and paradise regained, and that was the cross. No one could get past the angel's flaming sword until God solved the sin problem through an atonement for all men. When the Greeks came to Jesus they were ready to receive Him as their Lord, and Jesus knew their hearts. He knew that His hour had come to fulfill the purpose of God for all men, both Jews and Gentiles. No longer would He be limited to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He says in verse 32, when I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself."
From the perspective of the divine plan and purpose the cross was the beautiful fulfillment. Jesus demonstrated the reality of the completed work by saying to the thief, "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise." The hour had come for opening the gate of paradise where man could again enter the presence of God. On the cross Jesus reconciled God and man, and made it possible for man to be forgiven and cleansed of all sin. What could be more beautiful than the gate to paradise? The cross was that gate.
This was the hour of glorification for Jesus. Others were horrified at the cross, but Jesus was glorified. It was for this purpose that He came into the world, and in fulfilling that purpose in deep humiliation God exalted Him and gave Him a name above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow. The cross was the hour of man's redemption and Christ's coronation. The life of Christ is beautiful, but the death of Christ is even more beautiful when we see it's purpose.
Christ does not save men by His life,
Though that was holy, sinless, pure,
Not even by His tender love,
Though that forever shall endure;
He does not save them by His words,
Though they shall never pass away;
Nor by His vast creative power
That holds the elements in sway;
He does not save them by His works,
Though He was ever doing good-
The awful need was greater still,
It took His death, His cross, His blood!
Napoleon once took a map, and pointing to the British Isles, remarked, "Were it not for that red spot I would have conquered the world." The devil can take the chart of history and point to the hour of the cross, and say the same: "Were it not for that red spot I would have conquered the world." Jesus came to satisfy His Father, to redeem man, and to defeat the devil, and He did it all on the cross. That is why it is a symbol of beauty. In verse 24 Jesus gives us another basis for the beauty of the cross, for there we see-
II. THE BEAUTY OF ITS PRODUCTIVENESS.
Jesus says that a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die or it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit. Death is a means to productiveness in nature. Jesus uses an illustration from nature, for the Greeks would understand this. Proof from the Old Testament would not be as valuable with them as with the Jews. The Greek mystery religions made much of the reproductive cycle of nature, and so Jesus was using a very contemporary and relevant illustration.
Jesus is saying that abundance in nature requires death. A seed must be mortified to be multiplied. You can preserve a seed by putting it in a box and not planting it, but it will abide alone and produce nothing. It must be buried and perish as an individual seed if it is to grow into a beautiful fruit bearing plant. Jesus, the Creator of all nature, built right into creation the law of self-sacrifice and death as a means to glorification.
In nature He made it clear that death and abundant life are not incompatible, but in fact, death is a necessary means to life. To plant a seed is to glorify it by opening up to it all the potential God implanted in it. The same principle applied to Christ and the cross. Had He not died His potential as a Savior of all men could never have been realized. He could have been a great Jewish leader, prophet, and teacher, but not a universal Redeemer, for without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin. St. Augustine said, "The death of Christ was the death of the most fertile grain of wheat." The great Sower sowed the most productive seed when He sowed Himself, and laid down His life. This was the seed that brought forth again the beauty of Eden. The cross was not the termination of His life, but the germination of His life.
Faithful cross! Above all others,
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peers may be.
The cross became the most productive tree ever. It is the very tree of life, and all of the fruits of the Spirit, and all of the fruits of Christianity in history are offshoots from the cross. The beauty of the cross is the beauty of its productiveness. Plato, the Greek philosopher, said, "The beautiful consists in utility and the power to produce some good." Who can think of anything that has produced more good than the cross of Christ? It is the basis for the salvation of every human being who has ever lived, or who ever will. On the basis of the philosophy of the Greeks; on the basis of the principle of nature, and on the basis of the historical effects of Calvary, we can say that nothing has ever been more beautiful than the cross of Christ.
If a grain of wheat insists on remaining what it is, it will be a grain of wheat and nothing more. If Jesus had insisted on remaining the Jewish Messiah, He would have been that and nothing more. But He chose to follow the principle of the sacrifice of the lower for the production of the higher, and the fruit of this sacrifice we read about in Rev. 7:9-10, "...behold, a great multitude which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb." Jesus saw these Greeks as the beginning of that innumerable multitude, and He knew the hour for His planting had come. Jesus saw the beauty of the productiveness of the cross, and so He approached it with joy. Jesus does not stop with reference to His own cross, however, for He spoke of the beauty in its purpose; in its productiveness, and then goes on to speak of-
III. THE BEAUTY OF ITS PRINCIPLE.
Just as the principle of life through self-sacrifice applies to all seeds in nature, so the principle of bearing the cross as a means to abundant life applies to all men. In verse 25 Jesus says, "He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." The world says that self-preservation is the law of life, but Jesus says we must go beyond this law into the higher law where self-sacrifice is the way to life. People who seek only to preserve their life and refuse to risk it, or invest it in the lives of others, abide alone like a seed in a box. They reason, "The wider one's sympathies the bigger target does one offer to the arrows of fate." If you fall in love, your chances of being hurt are greater. If you have children they are greater yet. The more you get involved with people, the more you open yourself up to wounds and heartache. The way to escape all of this is to live for self alone. Love your life only, and no other, and then your problems will be few, and your burdens light. This is the logic that leads to loss of life is what Jesus is saying. The way to abundant life is in following the principle of the cross, which is self-sacrifice.
Many people feel it is such a waste for missionaries to bury themselves in pagan lands, and give up so many of the good things of life, but from the perspective of Christ it is beautiful. The world says survival at any cost, but Jesus says sacrifice at any cost. He said, "Take up the cross and follow Me." It is the way to life. Walter C. Smith wrote,
But all through life I see a cross,
Where sons of God yield up their breath;
There is no gain except by loss,
There is no life except by death.
This principle is one that Jesus repeats more than any other: Twice in Matthew, twice in Luke, and once in Mark, and here. The beauty of this principle of the cross is that it will lead to our lives being purposeful and productive, as was that of Christ. On a lesser scale each of us, like Christ, can fulfill God's purpose in history, and be productive of fruit that will last for eternity. To become a part of the beauty of the cross we must abandon the principle of self and safety first, and follow Christ in sacrificing ourselves for others.
H. R. Mackintosh rebukes the modern Christian with words we know are true. He writes, "I feel that the great reason why we fail to understand Calvary is not merely that we are not profound enough, it is that we are not good enough. It is because we are such strangers to sacrifice that God's sacrifice leaves us bewildered. It is because we love so little that His love is mysterious. We have never forgiven anybody at such a cost as His. We have never taken the initiative in putting a quarrel right with His kind of unreserved willingness to suffer. It is our unlikeness to God that hangs as an obscuring screen impeding our view, and we see the atonement so often through the frosted glass of our own lovelessness."
If we expect to see the beauty of the cross and be a part of that beauty, we must obey the principle of the cross, and be willing to bear the burden of the cross, and be buried for the glory of Christ. In verse 26 Jesus says we must follow Him in obedience to the principle of the cross if we hope to reign with Him in the beauty of His kingdom. By a life of self-sacrificing service each of us can magnify the beauty of the cross by continuing to fulfill its purpose, by extending its productiveness, and by demonstrating the truth of its principle.
If you have never come to the cross, and asked Jesus to be your Lord and Savior, I urge you to do so. Stop being a seed in a box-dead and unproductive. Die to self; yield to Christ, and blossom into life abundant. For those of us who have come to the cross, but who are still holding back and are stunted in our growth and fruitfulness, let us also come again to the cross and see it in all its beauty and potential, and commit ourselves anew to the way of the cross.
Out of my shameful failure and loss
Jesus I come.
Into the glorious gain of thy cross
Jesus I come to thee.
A little girl once spoke to her mother and asked, "Why are you so ugly mother?" The mother said, "Come here my darling and I will tell you." It was time for the secret to be told, and so she explained why her face had terribly disfiguring scars. She told her that a fire had broken out in the home when the girl was only a baby. The mother was at a neighbor's house, and when she rushed home she plunged into the flames to get to the child. She saved the child, but not without great cost to her own body. The scars she bore were the result. After the child heard this story she was overwhelmed with love, and in tears she cried out, "Mother, you are the most beautiful person in the world." Ugliness can become beautiful when you can see it from the right perspective. When we see the sacrifice of the cross and what it did for us as sinners, then we see the beauty of the cross.