The Cross: A Stumbling Block

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 1:23

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.

1 Corinthians 1:23 RSV

We’ve been thinking for these past few weeks about the message of the Cross, the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified. I wonder if any of us recognizes fully what an extraordinary message that is and what a miracle it was that it ever got a hearing in the first-century Roman empire.

I say that because to almost everyone who heard it from the first Christian preachers, the message seemed foolish, as we saw last week. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The preaching of the Cross to multitudes of people was downright offensive. It was a “stumbling block” to them. They found it repugnant, even scandalous. They hated the very thought of a crucified Savior.

UNMENTIONABLE TO ROMANS

To understand why, we need to know something about crucifixion as it was carried out in the ancient world. Its use as a means of execution was remarkably widespread. It appears in various forms among many different groups of people, including the Greeks. For most of these, it was chiefly a political and military punishment. When the Romans took it over, they used it only for offending slaves, violent criminals and dangerous rebels against the empire. It was unthinkable in their eyes that crucifixion should ever be imposed on a Roman citizen.

Death on a cross was surely one of the most horrible means of torture ever devised. It was usually preceded by other forms of torment, chiefly flogging. After being suspended on a cross, the victim sometimes lived on for long hours, even days, in the worst extremes of physical agony.

All who practiced crucifixion made use of it as a deterrent, not only because of the suffering involved, but also because of its essentially public nature. It was usually carried out in a prominent place, on a hill top or by a crossroads so that everyone nearby could see. This raising up of a naked victim as a public spectacle represented the utmost in shame and humiliation.

Further, the horror of it was aggravated by the fact that quite often the crucified ones were never buried. It was a stereotype among those who described crucifixion that its victims would serve as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In this way, the humiliation was made complete. We can scarcely imagine the dishonor involved for a person in antiquity to be refused burial.

Because of these gruesome accompaniments, crucifixion became almost unmentionable in polite Roman society. Only the lower classes, who were most likely to be so treated, had much to say about it. From the third century B.C. onwards, there is evidence that the Greek word for cross – “crux” – was used as a taunt. It could often be heard, we are told, on the lips of slaves and prostitutes.

Now with these thoughts in mind, try to imagine how Roman citizens would have reacted when the early Christians preached as Savior of the world and Lord of the universe a crucified Jew! The idea was more than foolish. It was outrageous. Who could bear to hear it?

ABOMINABLE TO JEWS

For Jewish hearers, who knew all these things about crucifixion, there was an added dimension of outrage. The apostle Paul makes special mention of how the preaching of Christ crucified was a “stumbling block” or an “offense” to them.

Jesus, it seems, was not at all the Messiah, the Christ, they had been looking for. They wanted a mighty prince who would deliver them and make them supreme among the nations. They craved rescue from the yoke of imperial Rome. They longed to see the “glory days” of Solomon’s reign restored. As time went on, it became very clear to them that Jesus was not their man.

Many of them, as Paul observes, kept asking for a sign. “Give us some supernatural evidence,” they demanded, “that you really are God’s anointed One. Let us see a miracle so spectacular that we’ll be convinced. If you really are the Christ, we want to see Your credentials. Show us something marvelous.”

Jesus took note of this clamoring for a sign but declined to satisfy it. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” He said, “but no sign shall be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Apparently, there would be no miracles on demand, but only this hint of death and resurrection. That led some to scoff; it made others intensely angry.

But the cross itself turned out to be the supreme scandal. For Jewish people schooled in the teaching of the Old Testament, death by any form of hanging was especially abhorrent. Did not the law of God identify as rejected by heaven anyone who so died? “It is written,” they would protest, “cursed is everyone who is hanged upon a tree.” This was for pious Israelites the ultimate shame, the final evidence of God’s wrath against any human being. For them death on a cross was, therefore, the most dreadful end imaginable for a human being. Such a wretched person, in their eyes, must be utterly beyond hope. How could the apostles then dare to preach as their Messiah a man who had been crucified? That doctrine to them was sacrilegious and damnable. The message of the cross was for Israel an enormous stumbling block.

HUMBLING TO ALL

But the offense goes deeper still. It deals with more than human sensibilities and religious traditions. This message strikes at the heart of prideful self-sufficiency in all of us. Remember, friends, the apostles were talking about the cross, not as a lovely religious symbol, but as a cruel instrument of execution. They were constantly reminding people that Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates with his cup of hemlock. Much less did He pass on as “old and full of days” like the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Rather, He died like a slave or a common criminal in torment on a cross of shame. The Jesus of the New Testament did not die just any death. He was given up for us all in a cruel and contemptible way. And all of us are told that only through this event, only through Jesus so dying, can we be forgiven and accepted with God.

Do you see what that does to all our religious pretensions? Do you see how it demolishes every possibility of our gaining salvation by works or merits of our own? Do you see what a withering indictment it is upon our self-righteousness? Apparently our sin is so great, our doom so dire, that only Jesus dying, and dying in this way, can meet our need.

That is the most profound offense of the Cross. It tells us that our only hope lies in God’s mercy and in the One whom He has sent to suffer and die in our place. Something in all of us reacts against that. “You mean my moral efforts and my religious disciplines don’t gain me any standing with God? You mean I must receive everything from God as a gift, and that I am indebted for all my salvation to this crucified Jesus?” That is exactly what the gospel says. Many have reacted to this almost savagely, because they cannot bear its humbling, searching light. They say in the bitter words of one poet, “I want no Jesus Christ to think He ever died for me.” “We don’t need your Christ crucified,” they cry, “we’ll look out for ourselves.”

I believe that wherever the gospel is rejected, something of that attitude is coming to the fore. I have known people in my lifetime, perhaps you have too, by whom the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified is viewed as distasteful. They want no “slaughterhouse religion,” we hear them say. “Tell us of the teachings of Jesus, yes. Inspire us by His noble example. We’ll tolerate a refined, up-to-date version of Christianity, but don’t give us this primitive talk about blood and sacrifice.”

Part of that objection may be aesthetic, a matter of taste, part of it may be philosophical. There are those who, like the renowned professor at Oxford today, find the doctrine of Christ crucified for our sins “intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” But part of the reason for their disgust and rejection is the way in which the gospel itself shows us to be morally bankrupt and utterly helpless to save ourselves.

The apostle Paul writes to the Galatians that if he still “preached circumcision,” then the “offense of the cross would be done away.” What he means is that if he told people that they could be accepted by God on the basis of certain religious practices or pious observances, then the scandal would go out of the gospel. Christ crucified would no longer be a sinner’s sole refuge, the one way of salvation. But when we herald Christ crucified as the world’s only hope, many find it offensive.

GLORIOUS TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE

How then did this gospel ever win its way in the Roman empire? Because what is foolish to some and contemptible to others yet has within it the power of Almighty God. People who believe the gospel are neither morally degraded by it or intellectually compromised. Rather, they find a new life. They experience the forgiveness of God and His power to deliver them from inner bondage. They find hope for the future and joy in the midst of life’s worst trials.

For them, all ordinary human ways of looking at the Cross have been suddenly overturned. Instead of being repelled by it, as some are, they are strangely drawn. They see in it more than human malice and brutality. They see also the marvel of a gracious God in the gift of His Son. They see the miracle of love in which Jesus bears our sins and carries our sorrows, in which He drinks the cup of our judgment to the bitter dregs so that we may become the children of God.

It’s because of that, friends, that we have crosses on our church steeples and wear them around our necks. It’s not because we imagine that crucifixion itself was anything but repulsive and terrible. It’s because we see in that cross something glorious beyond words: the solidarity of God’s love with the unspeakable suffering of those who have been tortured and put to death by human cruelty. And more, it’s because we see there also God taking upon His own heart the tragic consequences of our sin. It’s because we celebrate in the horror of Golgotha the wonder of His pardoning love.

Listen to the apostle Paul: “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by whom the world is crucified to me and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14, KJV). Listen as the hymn writer takes up the theme:

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

Save in the death of Christ, my God;

All the vain things that charm me most –

I sacrifice them to His blood.

I pray that such adoring wonder may be awakened in your heart today, that the Cross of Jesus will seem to you not shameful or offensive but supremely wondrous. May you find the preaching of Christ crucified to be God’s saving power in your life. May you cast yourself, with all of God’s people, in humble trust at the feet of this crucified One and find in Him full salvation. God bless you as you put your trust in the crucified Savior!

PRAYER: Father, we stand awed at the mystery of Christ crucified for us. May we all be able to see there both our own sin and the wonder of Your pardoning love, that we may come to glory in that Cross. In Jesus’ name. Amen.