Will Graham: Preaching the Cross of Christ

It was the summer of 1953, and my grandfather Billy Graham—still a young preacher and only a few years into his evangelistic ministry—was holding a monthlong series of meetings at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. 

On one particular evening, he was feeling rather discouraged. People had responded at the invitation, but he felt like his preaching had lacked spiritual depth and power. 

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After the meeting, a friend named John Bolten confronted my grandfather:

“Billy,” he said, “you didn’t speak about the cross. How can anyone be converted without having at least one single view of the cross where the Lord died for us? You must preach about the cross, Billy. You must preach about the blood that was shed for us there. There is no other place in the Bible where there is greater power than when we talk or preach about the cross.”

The rebuke stung, but my grandfather quickly realized that Mr. Bolten was right. He made a commitment never to preach again without making the Gospel as complete and clear as possible, centering on Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection.

The Cross

The cross was an ancient form of torture and execution that was humiliating, grotesque and singularly cruel. It wasn’t just used to kill. It was used to inflict the most severe agony and shame in the process of killing. As if that wasn’t enough, the condemned was even forced to carry the heavy burden of his own cross to the place of his suffering.

It was as much a deterrent for would-be criminals and insurrectionists as it was an instrument of punishment. One did not want to run afoul of the Roman government and be publicly shamed, left to die (and remain) for all to witness. It came into use long before Jesus’ birth, and those who were alive in that time period knew what the cross meant.

Given that, it’s interesting how often the cross appears in Scripture, not just during Christ’s crucifixion, but before and after as well.

Dying to Self

In Luke 14:27, Jesus is speaking with a great multitude when He shares an extreme statement: “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” 

He later reiterated it directly to His inner circle. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’” (Matthew 16:24-25).

Imagine the horror of those hearing these words. Perhaps the disciples understood the reference, since the Bible says that Jesus had previously foretold His coming death and resurrection. The multitude, however, certainly did not. For them, this statement about a cross—a torture with which they were frighteningly familiar—came out of nowhere. 

Given the gravity of the cross, I doubt that the multitude (or the disciples, for that matter) viewed the statement as a simple object lesson. Jesus was telling them directly that following Him came at a great price. And like the condemned of their day, they would need to take ownership and carry their own cross. They would need to put to death their personal ambitions, their pride, their passions and certainly their sin. In fact, physical death may also be required of them.

The Great Sacrifice

Not long after, the cross became a literal place of sacrifice. Jesus was condemned to die by Pontius Pilate. “Then they took Jesus and led Him away. And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center” (John 19:16-18).

This represented the greatest act of love ever shown, and there is tremendous sorrow in it. Jesus had done nothing wrong, yet He was punished with a ferocity reserved for the worst of criminals. He became a public spectacle—beaten, hung, mocked and killed. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

It was a dark day (literally and figuratively), but from the grave came victory! The cross wasn’t the end. Neither was the grave. “He is not here, but is risen!” the angels exclaimed at the tomb (Luke 24:6).

Victory in the Cross

When Jesus conquered the grave, the cross went from being a symbol of terror to a symbol of salvation. What was once a punishment for lawlessness in the Roman age now broke the eternal chains of sin and death for those who believe. 

It’s no wonder, then, that the New Testament writers didn’t speak of the cross in hushed tones. They spoke of it in terms of triumph. The cross paved the way for reconciliation between man and God: “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote, “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

It’s impossible to overstate this transition in thinking. In a matter of years, followers of Christ went from fearing the cross to boasting in it, holding tightly to the eternal hope it offered. 

Take Up Your Cross

The cross meant sin, punishment, shame and sorrow. Now it means hope, peace, joy and salvation. Everything changed with Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. What hasn’t changed is His command to us. We are to take up our cross, put to death the sin that ensnares us, accept His forgiveness and follow Him. As we do, we share in His victory, today and for eternity. ©2023 BGEA

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.