The Strange Attraction of the Cross

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 12:31-33

There are several things singular and strange about the passage of Scripture I’m going to read you now. Listen. It’s from the Gospel according to John, chapter 12, verse 31. Jesus is speaking.

“Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He said this to show by what death he was to die.


The first strange feature of this passage is the sense it gives us that Jesus knew when He would die. We get the feeling as we read the gospel records that Jesus knew from the very beginning of His ministry that His time on earth would not be long, that He would die an early, and probably a violent, death. When He was challenged as to why His disciples did not fast as those of the Pharisees and of John the Baptist did, Jesus answered, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:19,20). In other words, Jesus envisions a time when He will be snatched away from His followers, to their great sorrow. He spoke repeatedly of a baptism He had to be baptized with, a cup that He must drink. As the time drew near for His final visit to Jerusalem, He spoke frequently of the fact that death awaited Him there. I read from Mark again, “He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed” (8:31). After He arrived in Jerusalem, He observed the Passover feast with His followers. He seemed to feel then that His death was imminent. He said things to them that confirmed that. As they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then He took a cup and when they had given thanks, He gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26-28). And in the passage I read a moment ago which clearly points forward to His death, He says that the time has arrived. “Now is the judgment of this world, now is the prince of this world cast out.”

Strange, isn’t it, that He knew He would be killed and when. If He had carefully planned a suicide, that would be understandable, but there’s no hint of that. He’s deeply aware that His life on earth is moving toward its conclusion. Forces have been set in motion that will bring about His death. He sees it in the plans of His enemies. He sees it even more profoundly in the purpose of His Father. Jesus knew when He would die.


Here’s the second singular feature. Jesus also knew how He would die. Just before He reached the Holy City, He took the twelve and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him” (Luke 18:31-33). Here He gives the details of what awaits Him. He’ll be turned over to the Gentile authorities and abused by them with spittle and scourging before He dies. He has learned this, He says, from the prophetic scriptures. Passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 seem to be pointers toward a certain kind of death. Listen to these words from Psalm 22: “A company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet” (v. 16). In His death, says the prophet Isaiah, He will “bear our griefs” and “carry our sorrows” (53:4). He will be “despised and rejected by men.” And now in the passage we have just read, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” All of those sound strangely like references to crucifixion.

Jesus had said early in His ministry, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14). He remarked later to some who challenged Him, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (John 8:28). Now we learn in this passage that this idea of lifting up, of being raised above the earth, is a clear pointer to His being crucified.

In the ancient world, when a victim was nailed to a cross (usually a criminal, a revolutionary, a runaway slave), he was first tied or nailed to the cross bar. Then the trunk of the cross was dropped into a hole dug for the purpose, suspending the crucified man above the earth. The aim was not only torture, an agonizing death, but also shame, to make someone a public spectacle. That’s why to Jews, this form of death was regarded as especially abhorrent. It was viewed as a form of hanging. Anyone suspended upon a cross or hanging from a tree was considered to be under the curse of God.

Think about what it means, friends, that Jesus knew this all along. When He called the disciples at the first, when He taught the Beatitudes, when He celebrated with friends, when He reached out lovingly to broken and despised people, He was aware all the time that one day He would be tortured, rejected, despised, strung up as an object of scorn and reviling. It must have taken enormous courage for a person to face crucifixion at all. Imagine living each day knowing that it was ahead for you! But Jesus was still amazingly free to love, to serve, to rejoice in the Father’s care, even though He knew when and how He would die.


Now for something even more strange. Jesus not only announced that He would die and how He would die, but also what He would do on the other side of death. Listen again, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He knew what would happen after He had died in this way and because He had died in this way. He would exercise then a magnetic attraction among people everywhere.

Most of us don’t think of our death as part of our life-work, do we? It’s rather what brings down the curtain on the whole performance. It’s the finale. Death doesn’t expand our influence. It signals the end of it. Loved ones may remember us, of course, for a while. Colleagues may appreciate us and somehow be molded by what we have done. But that effect of our lives, for the most part, declines rather than grows as time passes. For almost all of us, death means that after a generation or so, we will be almost completely forgotten. But here, Jesus foresees a worldwide influence, a universal attraction that will persist and grow because He dies in this way. His death, He says, will yet bring the whole world to Him.

But the claim goes beyond that. Jesus is not simply saying that the fact of His dying or the story of it will produce these results. He says that He will bring them about. “I will draw all men to myself.” Think about that! How many of us talk about what we plan to do after we die? That’s exactly what Jesus Christ is doing here. He’s claiming that after His life has been cruelly taken away, He’ll exercise a power greater by far than had ever been witnessed during His life. This is not only a claim that He will survive death, a calm confidence in His being raised by God. It’s also the claim that His dying on that cross will be the very means by which He as the risen, living One, will shape our history and govern our destiny.

And isn’t it amazing that He will do it, He says, by means of the most terrible death by torture ever devised? Death on a cross was regarded in the ancient world as the worst thing that could befall anyone. It was the most dreadful and debasing of punishments even among Romans, celebrated for the way they enjoyed cruelty. The word cross was carefully avoided in their common speech. It was unimaginable to Romans that any of their citizens should ever be subjected to such a fate. This was reserved for the vilest and worst of criminals, the most dangerous and deadly enemies of the state, for incorrigibles that were a clear menace to all society.

What a death it was! A human being was impaled on a wooden cross, often naked, sometimes head downward. He was there to be ogled at, stared at, vulnerable to wild beasts and to ever-circling birds of prey. But Jesus said that that would be His glory. More, it would be the means by which He would draw the hearts of people to Himself. His cross would be a kind of throne from which He would reign and on which He would receive tribute.

How ridiculous that would have seemed to the soldiers who nailed the spikes into His body! How His enemies would have hooted and jeered at the very thought of that when they stood beneath the cross mocking Him! “He trusts in God,” they sneered. “Let God deliver him now if he desires him.” They might have shouted in derision: “This is Your glory, Jesus. Now You’re on top of the world!”

But just think of what has happened since then. All over the world, people put crosses on their beautiful places of worship. They wear crosses of gold or precious stones around their necks and on their lapels. One of the most admired agencies in all the world is called The Red Cross. Multitudes sing, as Jesus somehow knew they would, “In the cross of Christ I glory, tow’ring o’er the wrecks of time.” Jesus has taken the ugliest symbol of crime, shame and wretchedness and made it strangely, poignantly beautiful. There are many in the world today for whom merely the thought of Jesus dying on that cross awakens deathless wonder, love and praise. Isn’t it marvelous? His deepest shame became His highest glory – and He knew it would be so.

The peculiar power by which He draws people, then and now, is the magnetism of His cross. Can’t you see the truth of that in our world today? What attracts people to Christ? What binds them to Him with the strongest of all cords? Not His teaching, nor His miracles, not even His blameless, love-filled life. Most of all, it’s His utter self-giving to death on a cross – for us.

The British missionary C. T. Studd said it well, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.” It’s love that finally draws us, isn’t it? We can be driven by all kinds of forces, but only love has drawing power. We sing it, “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.” The sight of Jesus Christ crucified for us, dying in our place and for our sake is the most powerful, magnetic force in the universe.

It becomes that, of course, only for those who understand what His dying means. If Jesus is just another man and His death merely one more crucifixion, such staggering influence is difficult to comprehend. But if He is the Lord from heaven, if His death is something He willingly endured to save us from our sins and miseries, then nothing can withstand the power of that death to grapple us to His heart.

Jesus draws people still through the word of His gospel, through the ministry of His servants, through the power of His Spirit. All of those focus on the great redeeming deed He did when He died for us. That’s what the gospel is about, friends. That’s the great theme of our preaching. To that the Holy Spirit is continually pointing us. “God so loved the world that he gave his Son . . . Christ died for our sins.”

Do you sense the wonder of that message, the power of that love tugging at your spirit today? Has it begun to touch you and move you that He, the Lord of glory, did that for you, suffered that for you because He loves you? Have you seen there the marvelous grace of God, reaching out to forgive and free you, to give you a new start and a new heart? Oh, let me invite you today to put your whole trust in the one who was lifted up for you. May you find hope, joy, commitment and a new life as you respond to the “strange attraction of the Cross.”