The cross has become a symbol used by many Christians, worn as jewellery and depicted on stained glass windows and in statues and pictures in churches. In fact, it is possible to identify Catholics and Protestants from the types of crosses they wear or display in their houses. Catholics tend to have a cross with the figure of Jesus on it, while a cross worn by a Protestant is usually plain, without a figure on it.
There is no mention of a cross in the Old Testament, although there are many prophecies about the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet Jesus himself linked his crucifixion to an incident in the Old Testament.
Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, “a master in Israel” who knew his Old Testament. “…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Looking back at the incident Jesus referred to, in Numbers chapter 21, the people of Israel had sinned by speaking against God, and He punished them with “fiery serpents” which bit them and killed them. The words used here could also be translated “burning ones”. If you have ever been bitten by anything poisonous, you will know the burning sensation it gives you.
These snakes, or scorpions, were poisonous, and without the right treatment a bite would lead to death. So what was the right treatment? Moses prayed for the people and God told him to make a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole. So Moses made a serpent of brass and put it on a pole. Those who looked at the serpent would be healed from their bite.
Jesus was referring to this when he told Nicodemus that he himself must be lifted up. This was not the only time that Jesus referred to it; look at John 8v28, where Jesus said to the Jewish leaders who hated him, “…When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am…”
Also, in John 12v32, Jesus again referred to himself being “lifted up”. The people understood that he was speaking of his death, because their response was, “We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth for ever: and how sayest thou, The Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?” They did not understand that the Christ would give his life before being glorified.
The cross has become a symbol of Christianity that is seen as having special powers of its own, and so-called fragments of the cross are kept and worshipped all over the world. (If they were all genuine, the cross would have been impossibly huge! See wikipedia for more details.) This goes against everything Jesus taught. Human nature has not changed – in Old Testament times, the people of Israel kept the brass serpent and worshipped that. It was only when Hezekiah became king that he put a stop to it. 2 Kings 18v4 tells us: “He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.” Nehushtan means “a piece of brass”. Likewise, the cross was a piece of wood.
Jesus simply spoke of being “lifted up”, and this can mean “exalted” or “set on high”. We know from Hebrews 12 that Jesus was always looking beyond the suffering. Ch 12v2: “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” The “lifting up” on the cross would pass, and he would be lifted up by his Father to the right hand of the throne of God. He did also speak of being crucified, in Matthew 20v19 but even then, you can see that he was thinking beyond that: “And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.”
Jesus did not focus on the cross, and we can be sure he didn’t want his followers to do that either. It was the instrument of a cruel death, and we can only marvel at the love he showed to us when he allowed himself to be nailed to it. But we are not supposed to stay at the foot of the cross. The disciples didn’t – they had work to do. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations… Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…”
They were not to teach people to worship a piece of wood, but to teach them the things he had commanded them. This included being baptised and remembering Jesus in bread and wine, looking forward to the time when he will return and rule over the whole earth.