How many songs do you know that ascribe beauty to the cross of Jesus? There are many songs that use the adjective “wonderful” in some form or another to describe the cross of Christ. Isaac Watts penned, “When I survey the wondrous cross.” In the song, he writes these words:
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.
When was the last time you were singing about the wondrous cross and paused to ask yourself why something so harsh could be considered so wonderful? The words wonderful and cross don’t seem to go in the same sentence naturally, and that points to the heart of the gospel (1 Pet. 2:24).
The Ignominious Cross
The Roman cross was an instrument of execution. To die on the Roman cross was by far the most shameful way to die. It was greatly despised by people in Jesus’ day and greatly feared. The Romans referred to the cross as “the infamous stake.” Every single movement while on the cross would send shocking waves of pain through the body. In order to breathe, the person nailed to the cross would press with his feet and move the body upward to inhale and then back down to exhale. That pattern would result in terrible pain.
Beyond the physical pain, execution by way of the Roman cross would deliver a heavy blow of emotional stress and pride crushing shame. As people watched the criminal hanging on a cross beam naked and exposed—words of derision would be hurled upward like spears. The Roman soldiers were not hospice nurses committed to making criminals comfortable. They were executioners who found joy in watching people suffer.
The Wonderful Cross
The only way we can describe the cross of Jesus as a wonderful thing is to look at the whole story of what was being accomplished on that horrid instrument of suffering and shame. Seven centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a prophet wrote these words, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Is. 53:10). As horrible as the cross was, it was the plan of God to save sinners. It pleased the LORD to crush his own Son on the cross.
As we read in Psalm 22:1, we find these familiar words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As Jesus died on the cross, he was quoting Psalm 22 in his anguish and pain. Yet, we read on in the New Testament, and we find words of hope, words of light, words of salvation. For instance, in 1 Peter 2:24, we find these glorious words written by Peter to describe what was accomplished on the cross:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
Unlike the common criminal of the day, as Jesus was put to death, he didn’t take any of his own sins to the cross. He took the sins of his people on himself as he was nailed there as the lamb of God (John 1:29). It’s through Jesus’ death and suffering that we find hope and healing from the penalty of our sins. Jesus suffered in our place as he received the crushing blow of the Father’s wrath. Paul, writing to the church at Philippi, said these words:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11).
Jesus, in his humanity died, but not just any death. Notice the language of Paul as he emphasized the fact that Jesus was obedient to death—even death on a cross. The second Person of the Trinity took upon human flesh and died in the most painful and shameful way during his day—the Roman cross. Yet, it was a glorious scene of God’s saving grace. The drama is intense, but the outcome is a wonderful thing to behold as Jesus saves his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). J.C. Ryle writes,
The sufferings described in it [the crucifixion] would fill our minds with mingled horror and compassion if they had been inflicted on one who was only a man like ourselves. But when we reflect that the sufferer was the eternal Son of God, we are lost in wonder and amazement.
Only the cross of Jesus could be described as a wondrous cross.