The Figurative Meaning of the Cross

By Ernie and Mary Kroeger

The true meaning of the cross was an enigma to me for many years because I only saw it as a means of torture.  I knew that Jesus had died on the cross for me, but my eyes were only focused on the physical cross – the shame, suffering and torture - and this blinded me to the spiritual.

The Greek word for cross is STAUROS, and it comes from the Greek verb HISTEMI  (root STA), "to stand", and originally meant an "upright pointed "stake" or "pale" or "tree".  Initially the arms of the victim would be raised above the victim's head and nailed or tied to a stake or tree.  STAUROS, in the New Testament, apparently was a pole sunk into the ground with a crossbar fastened to it, giving it a "T" shape.  Often the word "cross" referred only to the crossbar. Rome borrowed this method of punishment from the Phoenicians, and perfected it as a means of capital punishment. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves, robbers, assassins, and the like, or for rebellious local rustics.  Roman citizens were seldom subjected to this kind of treatment. The Jewish nation, unlike the Roman, did not crucify living persons.  However, they sometimes suspended the bodies of the executed upon a tree to expose them to public shame. The populace considered those who were hung as being accursed by God.  (Taken from The Complete Word Study Dictionary by Spiros Zodhiates)

We know that Jesus was literally put to death on a physical cross.  After being flogged He was forced to carry His own cross (crossbar). In His weakened condition, even the crossbar was too heavy for Him to carry.  After being fastened to the crossbar by nails at the execution site, He was then hoisted up onto the upright stake that was already in place, and then left to die.  In this article we will not focus on the physical cross but on the figurative meaning of the cross. 

When Jesus spoke to the multitudes, He did not elaborate on the meaning of the cross, because crucifixion was a frequent occurrence, and because the spectacle of condemned men carrying their crosses to the place of execution was common.  They all knew that the cross was a death sentence, and that it was not an easy, comfortable death, but a harsh and painful one. Jesus' words about taking up the cross and following Him are difficult for us to understand, both in the natural and spiritual sense.  As we look at some scripture references about the cross, we want to see how the cross applies to us spiritually.

As  Christ was teaching the disciples He said, "And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me…Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple…And He was saying to them all, `If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me''" (Matt. 10:38; Luke 14:27; 9:23; see also Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34)    What did Jesus mean by "taking up his cross"?  Jesus was not referring to a literal cross.  Symbolically the cross represents a death sentence. Jesus was saying that anyone who wanted to follow Him had to take up a death sentence to his own desires.  Jesus lived a life of sinlessness, and this cannot be achieved when we are alive to sin's passions and lusts.  So we see that the cross symbolizes death to all our selfish desires.   

Jesus knew that humanity is dead in its trespasses and sins, but humanity is unaware of its true state. Therefore it tries to  preserve its sense of being   by  pleasing and catering to its self-life. However, self-life is death - not life. Only God is life, and no one can destroy His life.   We can only receive life in union with Christ, so those who wish to follow Jesus have to be taken out of the death by being resurrected into life.  Jesus knew that He was to be crucified by those who wanted to retain their self-life.  On the cross our old humanity was put to death.  Death to our old humanity can only be received in our identification with Christ.  So to deny oneself does NOT mean abstinence from certain foods, pleasures, etc.  Self is who you see yourself to be without Christ, and it caters to the fleshly desires.   Followers of Jesus have disowned the self-life, and received the life of Christ.  Unlike the convict who is compelled to carry his cross, followers of Jesus do it voluntarily.  

Christ's death on the cross was a death to sin. In Romans 6: 10 it states, "For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God."  Jesus' death to sin enabled Him to live to God. By keeping our eyes focused on the physical sufferings and death instead of seeing His victory over sin, we fail to see the victory that is ours in Christ.

Christ's death to sin did not begin in Gethsemane; His whole life was a death to sin, and it climaxed on the cross.  He never did His own will; He always did the will of the Father!  He never obeyed the voice of the enemy.  He only did the miracles the Father showed Him to do!  Think of the physical pain He endured.  His hands and feet were nailed to the cross; His head was pierced with a crown of thorns; His face was bloodied by the tearing out of His beard; His back was bloodied and torn to bits by the flogging He had received with a leather whip loaded with metal or bone.  This flogging was so cruel that it became known as an intermediate death.  In the midst of all that torture, pain and insults that were hurled at Him, He humbled Himself to receive all the cruelty that His creation could inflict on Him!  This proved that He was dead to sin! 

His death to sin was so complete that all this inhumane treatment could not get Him to think angry thoughts or to come down from the cross!  He could have come down, but He remained on the cross because it was the Father’s will!  In His absolute obedience to the Father under the most horrible conditions, He proved that His death to sin was complete!  His death on the cross was the culmination and climax to His life of death to sin!  He did this for us and as us!

God's wisdom is awesome!  He takes death, the result of disobedience, and then brings life out of death!  Our identification with Christ's perfect death to sin brings us into life.  The cross symbolizes that death.  Living in the life that flows out of that death accomplishes the will of God.  To help us to understand this concept, Jesus gave us the example of abiding in the vine.  Just as the branch needs to abide in the vine to receive its life and nourishment through the vine, so we have to abide in Christ in order to constantly receive His life as our life and our nourishment!


The cross also symbolizes the power of God over sin.  "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.  For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Cor. 1:17-18)

We need to keep the simplicity of the good news.  Cleverness of speech draws attention to self instead of to Christ; it also clouds the issue.  Those who are perishing cannot understand spiritual realities, so truth sounds like foolishness to them.  In my younger years I met a man who believed the earth was flat.  The truth that the earth was round was foolishness to him.  So the unbelieving cannot understand the true meaning of the cross of Christ, and it appears to them that the cross is victorious, since Christ died on the cross.  They just see the shame and humiliation the cross brings to people. They cannot see the victory that Christ achieved in remaining obedient to the Father’s will and maintaining an attitude of love and forgiveness throughout  His horrible ordeal.  The cross could not force Him to be disobedient to the Father's will; it could not bring unforgiveness to His heart, nor could it keep Him in death, for He is the resurrection! 

Believers see that the word of the cross symbolizes power over sin!  In our union with Christ we have died to sin together with Him.  Since we are dead to sin, sin no longer holds any fascination for us.   Being dead to sin gives us power over sin!

The Jews did not want to leave their distinctives and their works for righteousness, and neither do we!   The cross symbolizes the uselessness of all our works FOR righteousness.  "But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?  Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished." (Gal. 5:11)  What is the stumbling block of the cross?  Isn't it people's desire to add externals to the finished work of Jesus Christ?  Many churches pride themselves on their distinctives – their creeds, doctrines, rituals and works, so when Christians depart from their church's norm, they are often persecuted or asked to leave the church.  Any additions to the righteousness that is ours in Christ undermine the work of the cross.  Our behavior and works have to flow out of the righteousness that is ours in Christ!

The cross separates us from the world.  "But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Gal. 6:14)   The cross symbolizes the destruction of everything (and this includes institutionalized religion) that would keep the believer from following Christ.  This is exemplified in the life of Paul. His love for his crucified Savior was so great that the world had no more attraction or charm for him.   Even as an expiring criminal doesn't take any delight in the worldly things around him, or as the corpse of a crucified malefactor is dead to the world, so Paul had lost interest in worldly things.  This is also the work of the cross in us.  Honor, prestige, position, power and riches, no longer have any fascination for us.  Their power over us has been broken by the work of the cross in us.

In Christ’s identification with humanity, we were with Him in His crucifixion.  "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me…Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal. 2:20; 5: 24)  (The Concordant Literal New Testament states, "I am living in faith that is of the Son of God.")  By faith we appropriate what Christ has done for us!

Those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit have a new nature, namely, the nature of Christ.  This new nature is one of love and righteousness and abhorrence to sin.  This new life can only be lived by the same faith that enabled Jesus Christ to overcome every temptation to sin.

To crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts is to live in complete obedience to whatever God tells us to do, for obedience to God does away with the deeds of the flesh.  Just as a person cannot crucify himself, so the crucifixion of the flesh cannot be accomplished by self-effort.  It is the work of Christ in us so that His nature will radiate forth from us in all we do and say. 

The cross of Christ symbolizes the enmity of the self-life against Christ. "For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things." (Phil. 3:18-19)  Those who desire to retain their self-life and self-indulgence are enemies of the cross.  Self has become their god and the object of their worship.  They are against anyone who proclaims a message that is against fleshly indulgence.  Therefore their antagonism is easily understood, for the cross robs their god of benefits.  Furthermore, the very redemption that is achieved by the cross was brought about by the deepest humility, not by the display of power and glory. (Phil. 2:5-8)

The cross symbolizes reconciliation. "And through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven." (Col. 1:20)  In this verse Paul combines the two words "cross" and "blood" and states that God has made peace by the blood of His cross.

The blood of Jesus represents His death as a sacrifice and shows that He is the fulfillment of the OT sacrifices. The correct translation of Lev. 17:11 says that the soul (NOT life) is in the blood, and the soul symbolizes one's sense of being. Our sense of being is formed by our thinking, emotions and will.  The blood of Jesus symbolizes the soul of Jesus.  His sense of being came from His knowledge that God was His Father, and that He could totally trust Him!  His greatest desire was to do the will of the Father. When we receive Christ's sense of being, it takes down the barrier that existed between God and us, and enables us to live at peace with God and with our neighbor.  The cross of Jesus represents His death, suffering and shame, and connects it with the curse of sin. Christians have to endure the same type of affliction as their Master endured, and overcome them by the power of the Holy Spirit just like Jesus did. 

God has purposed to reconcile all things to Himself.  Many Christians think that God is angry with them, but when God sees them through Jesus, His anger turns to love.  This verse nullifies that myth.  God never quit loving us!  He was not angry; He did not need to be reconciled - it was humanity that needed reconciliation!  God so loved the world that He gave His Son to bring about this reconciliation.  The death of Jesus on the cross gave us a revelation of the wonderful love of God.   Through His death and resurrection and the pouring out of His Spirit into our hearts, this wonderful reconciliation is accomplished in all who believe. The rest of creation will some day come into this realization!

The cross symbolizes our redemption from the curse of the law.  " Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us- for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a treeFor through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God (the correct translation reads: "I live by the faith of the Son of God") who loved me and gave Himself up for me…Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin." (Gal. 3:13; 2:19-20; Rom. 6:6) 

The law has no knowledge of mercy, grace and forgiveness.  Every infraction of the law carries with it a penalty.  Since no man is able to keep the whole law, everyone is guilty before God.  In fact, this was the purpose of the law!  It was to show us our inability to keep the whole law, and therefore our need of a Savior.  The greatest penalty was the death sentence.  Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb of God, took our sins upon Himself and paid the death penalty for us - not as our substitute, but as us and for us.  Our new birth puts us into the spiritual corporate Christ - the second man. We are either in the old man, Adam, the first corporate man, or in the new man, Christ, the second corporate man.

It is interesting to note that Christ is not the second Adam, but the last Adam.  Adam is the first man, and Christ is the second man.  There can be no one between the first and the second man.  Therefore all the people who have ever lived and will live, are either in the first man or the second man.  The first man is called Adam and the second man is called Christ, the last Adam. Why?  It is because the first Adam ends in Christ.  All fleshly desires, all carnality, all earthiness and all corruption end in Christ!  Living in union with Christ releases us from our bondage or slavery to sin.

The cross symbolizes the peace that is ours in Christ.  "But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace. and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity." (Eph. 2:13-16)

Customs, beliefs, behavior patterns, rituals, creeds, doctrines, etc., form barriers and bring division and enmity among people.  How can this situation be rectified so that all can live in peace with one another?   God, in His wisdom, has the perfect solution!  In Christ’s death on the cross He was united with sinful humanity, and won the victory over sin and death!   He did this as the Son of Man, the corporate Christ.  In Christ we have a new humanity in which there are no barriers, no divisions and no enmity. In Christ we have a new law - the law of the Spirit of life.  The old laws have no place in Christ.  The barrier that existed between the Jews and Gentiles (that includes all people) is taken away when both groups are put into Christ – the new Man, the new humanity! 

In Christ we receive His sense of being as our sense of being, and we are set free from our sin-consciousness, for we know that He did not have a sin and guilt complex.   We too receive the knowledge that God is our Father, and that He is totally trustworthy.  Receiving Christ's sense of being takes down the barrier that existed between God and us, and between us and others.  It enables us to live at peace with God and others.  Since the Law of commandments has been fulfilled in Christ and since all believers are in Christ, all divisiveness has been taken away. The enmity has been put to death, and out of that death flows life. 

The cross symbolizes our freedom from our transgressions.  "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him." (Col. 2:13-15)

Forgiveness frees us from the penalty of our transgressions, and 2 Cor. 5:17 tells us that our past is gone because we are now new creations in Christ.  A new creation does not have a past.  We are entirely new in Christ.  A new dress is not partly old and partly new.  That would only be a remodeled dress.  In Christ we are born from above, and this new creation has no earthiness in it.  In our union with Christ we have been made alive, and we have His Spirit to teach us and to guide us into all truth.

The cross symbolizes Christ’s perfect obedience and perfect humility. "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:5-8)

Christ exemplified perfect obedience and perfect humility.   It is so hard for us to live in forgiveness when we are unjustly maligned.   It is so easy to forget that this is the Father's will for us!  The pride of life belongs to the world, not to the followers of Christ.  Jesus said that He had finished the work God had given Him to do.  In the knowledge that He was in the will of the Father, He humbled Himself as He was subjected to the greatest possible degradation to which man could be subjected. While being mistreated, we can humbly rejoice in the knowledge that we have done the will of God.  

In summing up the figurative or symbolic meaning of the cross, let us remember that it reveals God's great love and redemption for the human race.  Since the cross was reserved for criminals and those accursed by God, it symbolized the suffering, shame and humiliation Jesus endured for the human race, and proved the depth of His obedience to the Father.

The followers of Christ identify with Christ's death to sin, symbolized by the cross.   They identify with Christ's obedience and His willingness to do whatever the Father calls them to do.  Since the flesh is always against the Spirit, the believer must have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying, and a heart that desires to do the will of the Father.  In essence, this is what it means to take up your cross daily.  You lose sight of your fleshly desires and have your sights focused on Christ. So the cross is a symbol of a life lived in voluntary obedience to the Holy Spirit.

Return to the Insights into Living Articles Index