Of first importance

Tom Holland’s magisterial volume Dominion demonstrates the profound influence of Christianity on Western civilisation, and has the sub-title, ‘The Making of the Western Mind’.  The very first page of the first chapter describes the extreme horror of crucifixion and the visceral revulsion good Roman citizens felt about it.  It is therefore all the more extraordinary that a Jewish rabbi who was nailed to a cross outside Jerusalem should be worshipped as the Son of God.  It would have seemed impossible that anyone who suffered the utter humiliation of this punishment of slaves and traitors could ever turn the Roman Empire upside down.  His death on a cross overturned the values upon which Roman society was built.  By embracing the shame he dealt a mortal blow to the pursuit of honour, the glorification of power, and the delight in violence.  With time his example of humility, service and compassion came to shape the ethics of the Western world. 

Holland’s point is that however influential Jesus’ life, teaching and miracles may be, it is his crucifixion that paradoxically has the greatest power to transform.  It is no coincidence that the universal symbol of Christianity is the cross, for that is indeed the centre and the essence of our faith.  As Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:3, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”

‘Of first importance’ because it was by his death that Jesus secured the great solution to all the fundamental problems that afflict humanity, and even creation.  He died for our sins, in our place, dealing with the deep root of all the evil that tyrannises our world.

Fear: Ever since Adam and Eve’s rebellion separated them from God, we have been prey to fear, afraid of the dark, of each other, of the wildness of nature, and of a remote and threatening God.  Jesus’ death reconciles us to God, reassuring us of his presence and love.

Shame: As Adam and Eve were ashamed when they realised they were naked, we too feel shame when our inner rottenness is exposed.  Jesus took the disgrace of insults, spitting, and nakedness, so that we could be clothed and honoured.

Guilt:  God’s very being is the ultimate definition of what is good and right, and therefore the standard which he expects us to live up to, and by which he also judges us.  We are all guilty before him, but the sacrificial death of Jesus secures our pardon and our righteousness.

Death: The terrible consequence of The Fall of our first parents was death, spiritual and then physical, for us and all creation.  Jesus’ resurrection was an intrinsic part of his passion, securing the hope of new life.

Because Paul understood the crucifixion to be ‘of first importance’ it was at the heart of his message.  “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23).  We may be tempted to preach a more palatable message of God’s niceness, but let us never forget that his love, power and wisdom are above all demonstrated by the cross.