The Old Rugged Cross
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Galatians 6:14 (NIV)
The word ‘old’ so often carries with it the thought of having little or no value, and the word ‘rugged’ can suggest roughness and absence of beauty or grace. So, when you add the word ‘cross’ also, as an “emblem of suffering and shame,” the image is presented of a graceless, valueless, wretched looking spectacle: “so despised by the world,” yet one which forever holds “a wondrous attraction” for those who have eyes to see.
It was during an already despairingly difficult time for evangelist George Bennard, when, at a revival meeting at Albion, Michigan in the autumn of 1912, he was repeatedly heckled by some youths in the audience, who not only mocked his preaching, but, as he made repeated references to the cross of Christ, hurled even louder taunts, until his preaching was drowned out by the vociferous rabble. However, those cruel jeers only resulted in George being drawn ever closer to the glory and majesty of the cross and, in prayerful reflection, that same evening, he was inspired to write down the opening verse to the now famous hymn: The Old Rugged Cross.
The apostle Paul knew the value of ‘clinging’ to the cross of Christ, before which all other trophies are laid down (Philippians 3:7-8, 10). The hymn’s inspired chorus echoes the apostle’s absolute identification with his Lord’s suffering and death, so that Paul could remind the Galatian church of his ministry among them, whereby: “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1).
As the Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf* puts it: “Christ’s death doesn’t replace our death. It enacts it…” So closely are we identified with the cross of Christ that when Jesus died, we died on the cross with him (Galatians 2:20), or as Paul reveals in another place: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
Jesus Himself spoke of the cross as God’s invitation when he said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). To quote Clarence Jordan’s New Testament paraphrase: “God was in Christ, hugging the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 Cotton Patch Version).
“Love must be sincere” Paul instructs us in Romans 12:9. “I will cherish the Old Rugged Cross” is the song’s earnest refrain. “Cling to what is good” admonishes the apostle. “I will cling to the old rugged cross,” the chorus proclaims, “and exchange it someday for a crown.”
For Christian believers, to embrace the cross means to receive and to rest upon the perfect work of Christ as the whole ground of our acceptance with God.
Heavenly Father, help us to rest in Jesus’ perfect work on the cross, to cling to him, to abide in his love and to share that love with others, through our participation in his death and in his life.
Study by Richard Dempsey
*Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace – Miroslav Volf (Zondervan)
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