Rome, 312 AD: Constantine is about to lead his army against that of Maxentius. The result will determine who rules the western Roman empire.
The night before the battle, Constantine has a dream. In it he is shown a cross. He is then told that, under the sign of the cross, he will win the battle. Upon awakening, Constantine commits his cause to the one who spoke to him in his dream. He has his troops paint a cross on their shields.
The opposing armies collide on the Milvian Bridge in Rome. Maxentius dies and Constantine’s army emerges triumphant. Thereafter Constantine regards Christ as the patron god of the Roman empire and his personal sponsor.
This conventional history might well present problems to mischievous Christians. Jacques Ellul explores these in his book, The Subversion of Christianity (trans. Geoffrey Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1985). Ellul does not doubt that Constantine had the dream, commanded his soldiers to paint a cross on their shields, and defeated Maxentius. He dismisses as false, however, the assertions that Jesus sent the dream, did the talking, granted the victory, and endorsed the man.
Ellul dismisses the conventional story about the source and significance of Constantine’s dream because it contradicts the biblical witness to Jesus. Just prior to the public ministry of Jesus, the devil tempted him to prove himself to be God’s chosen representative by taking over all the kingdoms of the world and setting things right from the top down (Matthew 4:8-10). Jesus rejected this way of living because it involved greater loyalty to the devil than to God. Jesus could not have made the same offer to Constantine that the devil made it to him.
When speaking to Caesar through his representative Pontius Pilate, Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world. If it were, his servants would be fighting to save him (John 18:36). Jesus would not later tell Constantine that his kingdom was a worldly one to be established through battles against flesh and blood.
When Jesus was crucified, the cross had only one meaning. It was a sign of severe condemnation by serving, as it did, solely as a means of public humiliation, torture, and death. By choosing freely to die that way, Jesus witnessed to the unimaginable depths of God’s love for us. His death by crucifixion transformed that sign of severe condemnation into a sign of God’s unconditional love. The cross could not then become the sign of the failure of love which every battle expresses.
According to the apostle Paul, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28, English Standard Version). This has been God’s way of working with people all along. It seems unlikely that he would reverse himself with Constantine.
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