The Old Rugged Cross

gospel song written by George Bennard
commentary by:
P.B. Mistretta III

It is amazing to me, when I look over these old-time gospel songs, as to how many times phrases like "the cross," "the blood," "the fountain of blood," and "freedom from sin” are used. Many of these songs were written during the eighteen-hundredths. Many of these songs are so rich in gospel truth, that if one would simply open his ears to its message, he would hear the pure gospel that could enlighten his heart and save his soul. Other songs, even though they may not contain these certain phrases, speak of a forsaking of the pleasures of this world, and of a giving of oneself to the Redeemer and to His cause in this present evil world.

It is sad that the modern church has abandoned many of these gospel songs. These old-time gospel songs are not shiny and glittery enough for much of the modern church. They do not fit into the “five piece” production of their modern song services. Some are not upbeat enough to hold the people’s attention, and surely they cannot sing a song that might offend the masses of people that are attending some of these “fun” churches. So, slowly but surely, over the last several decades, as the preaching of the cross has decreased, likewise, these songs have been phased out and replaced by the new “worship” songs. 

It was several years ago that I realized what was being sung in one of these “worship” songs. This particular song is called, “Blow the trumpet in Zion.” It is taken from the book of Joel, where Joel is calling for a “solemn assembly” for the people of God to pray and seek His face that His judgment may be averted. The “army” in Joel is the locust that God commands to destroy the land. But, in this anything but solemn song, the church is the army of God that “runs through the city and runs up the wall.” How blind and backslidden has the modern church become, when we can blatantly misinterpret Joel’s simple call of repentance and prayer, and “worship” and “rejoice” in such a song? The blowing of the trumpet, in Old Testament times, was done as a warning to the people as the watchman saw the enemy approaching the city. Joel calls for the blowing of the trumpet, because he sees the enemy destroying the land, and calls to “rend your heart” in fervent prayer toward God, “with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping, and with mourning,” that He may “leave a blessing,” and restore what the enemy has destroyed. His message is relevant in all times, especially in these last days, where we can see the judgment of God upon this nation and upon this world.

One of the songs that the modern generation has largely forgotten is our featured Gospel Song of the Month called “The Old Rugged Cross,” written by George Bennard (1873-1958). This song definitely does not fit into the “glitzy and glamorous” category. Even its name gives it a rough connotation. There is nothing pretty, of this world, about the cross. It was a place of execution. Crucifixion was one of the most cruel and barbarous forms of death known to man. Our Savior was first stripped of His clothing and beaten with a whip by the Roman soldiers. This “whip” consisted of up to twelve leather cords, which had pieces of bone or metal at its ends. Each blow was capable of cutting and or bruising its victim’s flesh several times. (The Roman scourging was particularly brutal and some even died from their beatings.) Part of His beard was plucked out, He was beaten, He was spat upon, and a crown of thorns was forced down upon His scalp and forehead. He was then lead outside of the city of Jerusalem to be crucified. There on Mount Calvary, He was crucified between two thieves, as His hands and feet were nailed to the cross, where He languished in excruciating pain for several hours until His death.

No, there is nothing pretty about the old rugged cross. But, it was at the cross that our redemption was paid, and it is in its message where the power of God is invested to save the soul of man. Let us explore its message through this gospel song and see why the songwriter was so captivated by “The Old Rugged Cross.”

 

Vs. 1     On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, The emblem of       suffering and shame; And I love that old cross where the dearest and best For a world of lost sinners was slain.

“And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him, and two others with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst. (John 19: 17,18)

In the Hebrew tongue, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion was called Golgotha. Luke records another word, which in Latin is called “Calvaria,” thus the English word Calvary. Mount Calvary is the most common wording for the place of the crucifixion of Christ. It is a hill outside the gates of the city of Jerusalem.

Even though the place of Jesus’ crucifixion is not terribly important, it does hold some symbolical and spiritual meaning. The bodies of the beasts that were sacrificed in the Old Covenant, were commanded to be burned “without the camp.” (Exodus 29:14, Leviticus 4:21) The leper, or the one suffering from the terrible skin disease of leprosy, was commanded to live “without the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46) Also, everyone that had a physical secretion of some sort or have been defiled by the dead, were to be put “without the camp” until their condition improved. (Numbers 5:3,4) Those that were to be stoned were to be stoned “without the camp.” (Numbers 15:35) Generally speaking, “outside the camp” was a place of reproach. The leper, for example, was commanded to “put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean,” whenever someone approached. (Leviticus 13:45)

When Jesus first announced that He was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah, in the temple of Nazareth in the beginning of His ministry, he was driven “out of the city,” and unto a cliff that they might “cast him down headlong,” but he escaped and “passing in the midst of them went his way.” (Luke 4:29,30) Stephen, the first martyr, was cast “out of the city,” and stoned. They laid their clothes at the feet of a man named Saul. After his conversion, the Apostle Paul, who is believed to be the author of the book of Hebrews, ties all of this together in the thirteenth chapter. Starting in verse eleven, he writes, “For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.”

 “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people and nation.” (Revelations 5:9)

Jesus did not die for himself, but as the songwriter says, “For a world of lost sinners was slain.” He will forever be the Lamb that was slain. In Revelations 5:6, he is seen as “the Lamb that was slain.” He redeemed us to God by His blood that was poured out at the cross. That is why the songwriter says, “I love that old cross.” Because, it was at the cross where He redeemed a lost humanity. He first loved us at Calvary. Those who have been redeemed to God by His blood will forever praise Him, as they are in heaven, as recorded in the book of Revelations.

 

Vs. 2     Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, Has a wondrous attraction for me; For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above, To bear it to dark Calvary.

“And if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” (John 13:32)

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus made this statement referring to Himself, as being crucified (lifted up) at the cross. I have heard some say that “lifting up Jesus,” is to talk about Him or praise Him. But, Jesus has already been lifted up at the cross almost two thousand years ago. It is the preaching of the cross under the anointing of the Holy Spirit that draws men to repentance. Paul said, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greek foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:21-24) Notice he says that Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Let me ask you a question. Is your church preaching Christ crucified? Most people would respond with a quick, “Yes, of course.” I caution you not to answer so quickly. I recently visited one of these large “fun” churches. The preacher’s specific message was on salvation, and not one time in his whole message did he even mention the cross, or that Jesus even died. How can you preach a message of salvation and not even mention the means by which we are saved? This church is growing by “leaps and bounds.” It is, as the Pastor says, “A happening church.” How can one get saved if the gospel of Christ (cross of Christ) is not being preached? The lack of the preaching of the cross is not an exception, but sadly mostly the rule, in many of our modern churches. It seems that if one is relatively good looking, has a strong personality and speaks well, that the masses of people are his.

Allow me to quote a few verses of Scripture from the Apostle Paul. We will then see how the modern preacher stacks up to this mighty man of God.

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-8)

Does the typical modern preacher come to you in weakness, fear, and trembling in hope that your faith, in no way whatsoever, would be placed in anything other than in the finished work of Calvary? No way. He has to show that he has everything under control. He has to show that he has “arrived.” He has to exude his strong personality. After all, that is what is drawing the people in; it is certainly not his preaching of the cross of Christ, because he is not preaching it. He has to catch you with his “enticing words of man’s wisdom” or his “gift of gab,” because he does not possess the “wisdom of God.” He knows nothing about the “wisdom of God in a mystery,” which is the gospel of Jesus Christ, Christ crucified. He has to keep his people’s faith in the wisdom of man, because he has not, nor does he preach “the power of God.” Therefore, he preaches “another gospel,” because he does not preach the crucified Christ. (Galatians 1:6)

The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, says this in II Corinthians 10:10, “For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” In other words, others were saying of Paul that, “You would think, according to his powerful writings that he would have a great physical presence and great personality about him, but when you see him, he is short and does not speak very well.”

Tradition tells us that Paul was small and short in stature. Also, judging from all of his physical persecutions such as stoned and left for dead, beatings, imprisonments, 195 lashes upon his back over the years, etc. (II Corinthians 11:23-33), he had to have a rough appearance. To put it bluntly, he was not very “good looking.” STRIKE ONE. Whether it was his manner of speech, or just what he said that was contemptible, in any case, the Greek definition for contemptible is “despised, and least esteemed.” STRIKE TWO. One would think that because of his physical infirmities, he would do his best to make up the difference by preaching a message that would be popular among the people, and maybe even compromise a little bit; maybe even tell a few jokes to make the people laugh, and not be so staunch in his gospel in hope that he would somehow be accepted more among the masses of people. But, this “weak” Apostle said in Galatians 1:10, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” STRIKE THREE.

I think it is safe to say that the Apostle Paul would not be accepted in many of our modern churches. Certainly, his gospel is not.

Now, getting back to our song. When the gospel is preached, people are attracted to the cross. The songwriter says that it has a “wondrous attraction for me.” It is wonderful, because he sees that it is through the cross that he is redeemed to God. He sees that Christ “left His glory above,” for the express purpose of sacrificing Himself at the cross for man’s redemption. He was introduced to the world, at the river Jordan by John the Baptist, as “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.”

 

Vs. 3     In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, A wondrous beauty I see; For ‘twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, To pardon and sanctify me.

In verse two, the songwriter was wondrously attracted to the old rugged cross. In verse three, the gospel attraction has done its work in Him and he now sees not only the pardoning power of the cross, but also the “beauty” of the wondrous sanctifying power of the blood and cross of Christ.

It is a sad state in the modern church that most never do see the beauty of the sanctifying power of the blood and cross of Christ. How can they? Remember, some are not even told about the cross of Christ in a salvation message. They are told that they need to get saved, but are given no means of doing so. There is no conviction of sin to be repented of, because sin is not mentioned, and if sin is mentioned it is only forgiveness and not freedom from. They are told that God has a wonderful plan for their lives, and all they have to do is “accept” Christ, and repeat a “sinner’s prayer.” They are robbed of the working of the Spirit to convince of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment, because they are not hearing the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and are rushed into a “decision” for Christ.

As was quoted earlier in Hebrews 13:12, the purpose of Jesus’ suffering was to sanctify the people with His own blood. He died to make the believer holy. Sanctify means to “make holy.” The “saints” of God, as referred to in several of the salutations of the epistles, are “the holy ones.” There are many today that are denying the sanctifying power of the blood and cross of Christ. They say, “We are all sinners.” You cannot be a sinner and a saint at the same time. You are either in darkness or light (II Corinthians 4:6); a child of Satan, or a child of God (Colossians 1:13); dead in sin, or dead to sin (Ephesians 2:1, Romans 6:2); a corrupt tree producing evil fruit, or a good tree producing good fruit. (Matthew 7:18) The Holy Scripture says in Hebrews 10:14, “For by one offering he hath perfected (completed) for ever them that are sanctified.” Through Jesus’ offering, (death on the cross) we are completed in and through His finished work, and are made holy. 

Will you believe the Holy Scriptures, or will you put your experience above the Word of God? Don’t listen to those who have a “form of godliness, but are denying the power thereof.” (II Timothy 3:5) That is one of the things that Paul listed as something we should “know” about the perilous times of the last days. As the songwriter says, the old rugged cross was stained with “blood so divine.” Can you allow yourself to see the “wondrous beauty” of the blood stained cross for your sanctification?

 

Vs. 4     To the old rugged cross I will ever be true, Its shame and reproach gladly bear; Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away, Where His glory forever I’ll share.

“Because for thy sake I have borne reproach; shame hath covered my face. I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children. For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.” (Psalms 69:7-9)

“Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:13,14)

The Psalmist prophesies of the reproach that Christ faced during His ministry and at the cross. Paul quotes part of this verse in Psalms in the fifteenth chapter of Romans. Paul then exhorts us in Hebrews to go “outside the camp” where Jesus was crucified, to bear His reproach. The songwriter says that he will “gladly bear” the “shame and reproach” of the old rugged cross.

When was the last time you heard about bearing the reproach of Christ from one of these modern preachers. That is too negative of a message. Everything has to be positive and upbeat in today’s backslidden churches. But Jesus told His disciples in John 15:20, “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute also you…” Much of the reproach that Jesus faced was from the religious crowd, not the sinner on the street, and so it is for the saints of God of today. Sure, you will have the occasional verbal warfare from the liberal elitists of our society who hate all religion, however, the majority of the reproach will come from them who call themselves the people of God. That has always been the case, however. God has always used those from outside of the normal confines of religion to challenge and stir the people’s heart to true repentance and revival.

Moses was one who was used of God in Old Testament times. After their deliverance from the great armies of Egypt, the great majority of Jews had corrupted themselves in the wilderness. Exodus 33:7 says, “And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation. And it came to pass, that every one which sought the Lord went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp.” Only a small remnant of people was left seeking the Lord.

Paul tells us to go outside the camp bearing Christ’s reproach. In Paul’s time, the camp of religion was corrupted. The Jews had conspired to use the Romans to kill and persecute the true people of God. Even in the Christian circles, they were beginning to accept false teachings and other gospels. Paul warned with tears that after his departure grievous wolves would come in and speak perverse things, not sparing the flock. (Acts 20:29,30) John said that antichrist was already in the church deceiving. (1 John 4:3) After the early disciples left the scene, within two hundred years, an apostate church was fully formed. Christianity became the state religion in Rome and persecutions ceased for a season, until the Roman Catholic Church, under the pretense of serving God, began to murder thousands of true believers whom they called heretics, and ruled the world with religious and political power for over a thousand years, which ushered in the darkest period in world history known literally as “The Dark Ages.”

As horrible as the Dark Ages were, I submit to you that the religious times we are living in are much worse. The religious in America today are not murdering anyone, however, in our age of enlightenment, they have no excuse for the ignorance they have. They are willfully ignorant of the Word of God. They have the King James Version of the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek concordances at their disposal, all of the freedom and free time in the world to search the Scriptures, and yet what sin. They not only have forsaken the truth of the gospel which their forefathers had, as contained in these gospel songs, but they make excuses for their sin. Many actually boast that they are sinners. Also in the forsaking of the truth, they have brought in other gospels. Covetousness (prosperity gospel) is prevalent in our day.

Paul, when prophesying of the “perilous times” of the last days in the II Timothy chapter three, lists the backslidings of the present church world. This list paints the perfect picture of the modern church. The list includes – lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, UNHOLY, heady, high-minded, and having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.

The songwriter says that, “He’ll call me someday, to my home far away, where His glory forever I’ll share.” Peter tells us that if we are reproached for the name of Christ that the spirit of glory and of God rests upon us. (1 Peter 4:14) I thank God that He still has a remnant of people that are believing His Word, and are seeking His face to be used of Him in prayer and ministry for this nation and world. These are they who realize their kingdom is not of this world. They understand that they are just strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13, 1Peter 2:11) They see that “here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” As long as they are living in the flesh, they will seek to be used of Him to reach the lost, yet at the same time, not holding to anything of this world.

 

Chorus:    So I’ll Cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it someday for a crown.

“For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but to all them also that love his appearing.” (II Timothy 4:6-8)

Oh, what a mighty testimony this Apostle leaves us with. He labored for the Lord more abundantly than all of the other disciples, yet acknowledged that it was not he, but the grace of God that was with him. (II Corinthians 15:10) He cherished the old rugged cross and preached it wherever he went.

And, as children of God, so should we. In these last days, God is looking for some men and woman, as the Apostle Paul, who are willing to finish “their” course. Your course may not include a “big-time ministry.” But, every child of God can do at least two things. Firstly, to pray for America – its leaders, its church, and the lost. Secondly, pray for God to use you by His grace to fulfill the ministry of reconciliation. (II Corinthians 5:18) God has given every child of God this ministry after He “reconciled us to himself by Christ Jesus.”

Will we fulfill His ministry on earth? Will we fight the good fight, finish “our” course, and keep “the” faith? Will we “cling to that old rugged cross,” and be faithful to its message, until He calls us “some day,” and gives us that crown of righteousness, when He returns to reward the righteous?