We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23–24)
How can a cross be wonderful? It is perhaps the most horrific and odious form of execution ever created. In the sordid history of human evil, likely no more painful and shameful path of execution has ever been devised than death by crucifixion.
Saying that the cross is wonderful is like saying that the electric chair is magnificent, or that lethal injection is delightful, or death-by-firing-squad is beautiful. It seems only a sick and deranged person would put words like wonderful and beautiful with such horrible events as the execution of human life — with the cross being the most horrible.
Unless something supernatural is at work. Naturally, there is simply nothing wonderful about crucifixion. But God’s ways are not our ways; his thoughts are not our thoughts; they are higher (Isaiah 55:8–9). And with the eyes of faith, we see they are more wonderful.
God Chose to Shame the Wise
Few other places, if any, help us see what’s so wonderful about an otherwise horrible crucifixion. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23–24,
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Without faith, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth — whose followers claimed he was not only “the Christ,” the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but God himself in humanity — was not wonderful. It did not seem powerful or wise.
For his own people, the Jews, a crucified Christ was a stumbling block, a great obstacle to embracing him as the one on whom God’s special favor rested. How could God allow his Christ — indeed, his own Son — to be condemned and executed by the Romans? “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree,” said the Jewish Scriptures (Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 21:23). Surely, this couldn’t be the long-awaited Messiah, they thought, apart from faith and the illumination of God’s Spirit. God would never have let such a lowly and powerless end come to his Anointed One.
For the Greeks, such a shameful and terrible execution had nothing of the ring of human wisdom, which they were seeking. It is counter to every instinct in us that the God in whom we live and move and have our being would bring such a fate on his own Son. This is sheer foolish, thought the Greek-trained mind, apart from the Spirit.
But Paul counters both the Jewish and Greek suspicions with the unsuspected power and wisdom of God, and the wonder of the cross:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27–29)
That Terrible, Horrible, Wonderful Cross
We call that dreadful day on which Jesus died on the cross “Good Friday,” because when God’s Holy Spirit has opened our eyes, we see beyond the horror of that day to the glory of Easter Sunday. When we see that the death he died, he died not for his own sins, but for ours, so that we could be restored to relationship forever with him and his Father, we begin to see the wonder of the cross breaking through all the awfulness. We say “how marvelous,” even as we cringe at the tragedy. We say “what beauty” even at this very moment when sin rises to its ugliest height in the conspiracy to murder God himself.
For those of us who have received the gift of the new birth, and now believe, and have begun to taste the joy of life with Jesus — which will only grow and sweeten and deepen for all eternity — this is a wonderful cross. This is where the old me decisively died, and where the true me came to life.
And this is where God himself showed climactically, for the eyes of faith, what wondrous love he has for us (Romans 5:8).