Emperor Constantine I And His Vision of the Cross
“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but
unto us which are saved, it is the power of God.” —I Corinthians 1:18
During the last week of October, AD 312, the historic city of Rome, Italy, was in great turmoil and crisis. A major war and battle was about to begin. Two powerful generals were preparing for battle less than four miles from the Vatican, close by the famous Milvian Bridge overlooking the Tiber River. It was General Flavius Julius Constantius of the West against Emperor Marcus Valerius Maxentius, emperor to the East. This great battle would change the world.
These two men of war knew each other well. General Constantine was married to Fausta, daughter of the general he was about to fight. Later he had her executed for adultery. General Constantine, born in Serbia, had been serving as the Roman general to the West, including Britain, Gaul, (France), Germany and other western countries. Emperor and General Maxentius was ruling over the East, including Rome, Italy, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, and other eastern countries.
One historical source tells us that General Constantine had forty thousand men ready for battle and Emperor Maxentius had one hundred and sixty thousand men ready. On the afternoon of October 27, the young dynamic, thirty-two-year-old Constantine experienced an epiphany. He claimed that while in prayer to the sun god (being a polytheist), as he was asking for help with the upcoming battle, he saw a symbol of a cross in the sky, and heard a voice say to him, “Conquer with this sign.”
The following night, Constantine testified that he had a supernatural dream and again saw the emblem or sign of a cross and heard a voice telling him to “use the sign of the cross” when warring against all enemies. Immediately General Constantine required all soldiers to put the emblem of a cross on their shields and banners in preparation for war. Very soon the battle got under way.
The two great armies met at the famous Milvian Bridge. Both armies made ready, and then rushed into battle fighting courageously. At some point Constantine’s calvary charged toward the bridge, and Emperor Maxentius’ men retreated to boats on the river. Historical sources tell us that many of the troops belonging to Emperor Maxentius drowned in the Tiber River. Emperor Maxentius himself was drowned as well. General Constantine severed the emperor’s head, put it on the end of a spear, and marched triumphant into Rome declaring himself to be emperor of all of the Roman world.
From AD 312 and on, Emperor Constantine used the sign of a cross in every battle. Historical sources reveal that Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a devout Christian and probably had great influence on him.
History reveals that Constantine I did much for Christianity. With the cooperation of General Licinius, he established the Edict of Milan in AD 315, which did three significant things for the Christian church:
1. Required all persecution of Christians to cease
2. Required that all properties be returned to Christians and to congregations
3. Established freedom of religion for all people and all religions
Can you imagine the impact that edict had on congregations throughout the Roman world in the fourth century? He became friends with scores of bishops in the church and referred to himself as the thirteenth disciple of Christ. With the encouragement of his mother, Helena, he caused many churches to be built in the Roman world and a special cathedral to be built in Jerusalem.
Later on, with a strong desire to bring about greater theological unity in the church, he called for a gathering known as the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He made sure that the travel and lodging expenses of all the bishops, more than three hundred persons, was paid for by the government and he personally chaired the conference with Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea of Palestine by his side. It lasted for several months. The big theological issue was the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Out of this conference came the Nicene Creed. Emperor Constantine died in April of 337, near Nicomedia, now called Izmit, Turkey, from natural causes at the age of sixty-three and was buried at the Church of the Holy Apostles. Bishop Eusebius, known as the “father of church history,” wrote much about the life of Emperor Constantine. They had become close personal friends.
The message of the cross, which is the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the gospel story. Greek scholars call the gospel story, the kerygma. I believe that the Christ of history experienced thirty-nine stripes and laid down His life on an old rugged cross, giving His life’s blood as a propitiation for all my sins. He arose from the grave on the third day. Conservative Christianity and all evangelicals know that the kerygma is the greatest story ever told. It is the message of the cross.
The apostle Paul proclaimed loudly the message of the cross. He wrote to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He reminds the church at Colossae, “and having made peace through the blood of the cross.” In Philippians 3:18, St. Paul refers to “the enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Decades ago, Lewis E. Jones wrote:
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.
In the seventeenth century, Isaac Watts wrote:
Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die!
Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?
Was it for crimes that I have done, he groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!
Oh my, true biblical faith in the blood of Calvary will set you free from sin and keep you free from sin. Paul loved the message of the cross.
I believe that the message of the cross lays the foundation for five very important spiritual and doctrinal truths:
1. The message of the cross establishes the opportunity of full salvation for all
2. The possibility of true sanctification for every believer
3. Sets forth the truth and possibility of supernatural healing and deliverance for anyone
4. Real faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ opens the door to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit in the lives of every believer
5. Calvary secures the necessary “passport” to travel from this world to another planet called heaven
But never forget, the terrible death of Christ on Golgotha happened because God loved “all of us” so very much. St. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” And in John 16:13, we read, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” God’s incredible and unconditional love made possible the message of the cross.
In conclusion, did Emperor Constantine I (AD 272—AD 337) understand the message of the cross as a result of experiencing a vision of the cross in October AD 312? I doubt it. I believe he eventually understood it for salvation. He truly believed that God had visited him. He clearly understood the symbol or image that he should exalt in battle. It was a cross. Soon after his theophany, he began to read and study Scripture, doctrine, and philosophy and developed relationships with several bishops of the church. As stated, his mother, Helena, had important influence on him for Christ. I do believe he died in faith. Bishop Eusebius says he requested water baptism before he died. His epiphany—the vision of the cross—changed his life, and probably changed the history of the Roman Empire. He did win the great battle at the Milvian Bridge in Rome in October, AD 312 and soon after became emperor of the Roman Empire, and a follower of Jesus Christ until his death in AD 337.