Last week we kicked off this series entitled, “The Wonderful Cross: Understanding the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” We’re hoping to spend the next several weeks looking at what the Bible has to say about the cross.
Two questions are at the heart of this study:
- What is the meaning of the cross? What really happened when Jesus died? The biblical writers actually have quite a bit to say about this.
- What does the cross mean to you? That is really the critical question for each one of us.
I hope this series will be helpful to you as you think about how you would answer those two questions.
The Franciscan University of Steubenville is a Catholic university in Steubenville, Ohio. Not too long ago, the university posted a series of ads on Facebook to promote some of its online theology programs. But Facebook rejected one of the ads because it included a representation of the crucifixion. The monitors at Facebook rejected the ad because they said the depiction of the cross was “shocking, sensational, and excessively violent.”
The university responded in a way that probably surprised the people over at Facebook: they agreed with this assessment! The university made a post saying: “Indeed, the crucifixion of Christ was all of those things. It was the most sensational action in history [as] man executed his God. It was shocking, yes: God [took] on flesh and was ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). And it was certainly excessively violent: a man scourged to within an inch of his life, nailed naked to a cross and left to die.”
Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider for us to see things clearly. Our familiarity with the cross might cause us to lose sight of some things. But Facebook was correct: Roman crucifixion was engineered to be shocking and violent — the most shameful and degrading way for a person to die. And it is considered offensive in some circles even to this day. In addition to the Facebook story, I read an article this week about a Nigerian health care worker in the United Kingdom who was let go from her job — in the middle of a pandemic! — because her superiors deemed her gold cross necklace to be offensive.
Believe it or not, the Bible uses the same language to talk about the cross. As we continue this series, we turn our attention to what the Scriptures refer to as “the offense of the cross” or “the scandal of the cross.”
In the book of Galatians, Paul talks about the offense of the cross:
Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.Galatians 5:11
The cross is offensive? According to the Bible, yes. What does that mean?
The cross was considered something scandalous in the first century world. In fact, that’s the Greek word translated as “offense” here in Galatians 5. The word is skandalon, from which we get our English word “scandal.” There’s a certain “scandal” to the cross, at least in the minds of some.
Specifically, Paul is addressing those who believed a person needed to undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision in order to be saved. Now, there’s nothing necessarily scandalous to say, in religious terms, “If you do this, you will receive a blessing.” All the so-called “gods” of the religions in the ancient world operated according to this kind of system. It was very transactional: you make this sacrifice or pay this amount or sleep with this temple prostitute and the so-called “god” would be on the hook to bless you. That was conventional, transactional religion in the ancient world.
But Paul says the cross is “scandalous” in that it flies in the face of conventional, transactional religion. At the cross, we find God doing the most “irreligious” thing of all: taking our disobedience upon Himself. Yes, there is a transaction that occurs at the cross, but it is unlike the transactions in other religions. In the cross of Jesus, God is the one taking the initiative, making the blessing available apart from human initiative as He acts to make righteous the unrighteous through the atoning death of Jesus. This has become such a central feature of our faith that it might even sound strange to call it “irreligious” or “scandalous.” But this is what Paul means when he talks about the “offense” of the cross.
New Testament scholar Fleming Rutledge says it well: “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God. The crucifixion is so familiar to us, and so moving, that it is hard to realize how unusual it is as an image of God.”