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Faith and Offense

Nisan 24, 5770

Faith and Offense

The Scandal of Yeshua's Identity

by John J. Parsons

Some people attempt to share the gospel message by making a "sales pitch" for Jesus... The temptation in evangelism is to make the message seem as attractive as possible and to minimize the difficulties involved in making a genuine decision to walk with the Messiah. Often the appeal is made along the lines of the ego's self-interest. Jesus is put forth as a solution to life's problems, a panacea for the worries of life, a blessing for your love life, etc. "Believe in Jesus -- because it works for you! You'll be amazed by the results! God will bless you and you'll find happiness and contentment at last!" 

Unless we are are careful, using an approach like this can make a subtle appeal to the flesh, to the all-too-human desire for personal satisfaction, happiness, and even pride. But Yeshua never made a "cheap sale" of His message and mission. He never appealed to the flesh as a reason for following him. On the contrary, he repeatedly stated the cost of discipleship and warned of being hated for his sake. "For the gate is narrow and the way is hard (i.e., τεθλιμμένη, "oppressive") that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:14). Indeed, Yeshua often intentionally offended people when they encountered him. Far from making it easy to believe, Yeshua regularly put up stumbling blocks when people approached him. He never was a "people pleaser" and he never apologized for speaking the truth, just as he never sought the crowd's approval nor sought a "market" for his mission. Even less did Yeshua seek the approval of the status quo, that is, the religious establishment of the Jews or the political establishment of Rome.

In short, Yeshua's life was scandalous to human beings and their various conceits. Encounters with him were always "tests" that evoked one of two responses: offense or faith. For example, Yeshua scandalized his family (Matt. 12:48), his community (Matt. 13:54-57, John 6:42), the gawking crowd (John 6:26-30), various religious seekers (Mark 10:17-22), the religious establishment (Matt. 15:12), the political establishment (Luke 13:32), and even his own followers (John 6:61). His question is always, "Who do you say that I am?" People either were offended at him or accepted him, but Yeshua made it impossible for them to be indifferent about who he was.

For instance, when a delegation of scribes and Pharisees came up from Jerusalem to meet with him, they immediately asked Yeshua why his followers did not adhere to the "tradition of the elders" by not washing their hands before they ate bread (Matt. 15:2). Yeshua turned the tables on his critics by asking them why the elders transgress the commandment of God by adhering to tradition. God commanded kibbud av ve'em, "Honor father and mother," but the sages decreed that a gift given to the Temple would preempt this obligation, even if the parents were in great need. Yeshua rejected their reasoning as sacrilege and went on to lambast them as hypocrites who put on a show of religion (Matt. 15:8-9). Yeshua then called the crowd over to contradict a prevailing religious dogma of the day: "It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but rather what comes out." After this, the disciples approached Yeshua and said, "Did you know that the Pharisees were offended (i.e., scandalized) when they heard you say this?" Yeshua answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted shall be uprooted. Let them alone: they are blind leaders of the blind, and if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch" (Matt. 15:13-14). When the religious gatekeepers encountered Yeshua, they were offended because they did not believe. They tripped over the "Stone of Stumbling" (אֶבֶן נֶגֶף) when they encountered the "Rock of Hindrance" (Isa. 8:14, Matt. 21:44, 1 Pet. 2:8). As Yeshua later stated, "whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomsoever it falls will be ground to powder" (Matt. 21:44).

The encounter with the Pharisees contrasts with the following one, in which a Canaanite woman begged Yeshua to heal her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28). Unlike the Pharisees, this woman came recognizing the identity and authority of Yeshua as the "Lord, Son of David," and believed in His power as healer and deliverer. Despite her repeated appeals, however, Yeshua "did not answer her a word," and finally his exasperated disciples begged him to send her away (Matt. 15:23). The woman finally drew close to Yeshua and prostrated herself before him, saying, "Lord, help me." Yeshua finally answered her directly by saying, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Here is another case of possible offense. When she agreed with his words and chose not to be personally offended, however, Yeshua praised her faith and healed her daughter as she requested.

The underlying issue in these two narratives is not about personal hygiene or defilement, nor even of Yeshua's mission to the house of Israel as opposed to the Gentiles, but rather offense verses faith. As David McCraken wrote, "The opposite of offense is faith, but the only way to faith is through offense" (The Scandal of the Gospels, 19). The "clean" and pious Pharisees lacked faith, whereas the "unclean" Gentile dog showed great faith.  As Yeshua reassured John the Baptist: אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לא־יִכָּשֵׁל בִּי / "Blessed are those who take no offense at me" (Matt. 11:6).

Contrary to modern church growth theorists, Yeshua often deliberately delivered his message in the most offensive way possible.  For instance, when Yeshua came to his home town of Nazareth and attended a synagogue service, he was called to recite the Haftarah from Isaiah (Isa. 61:1-2). After the reading, he sat down and said, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:16-21). The people were shocked, scandalized, and offended at such audacity, and asked, "Is this not Joseph's son?" (cp. Matt. 13:55-57). Yeshua then warned them to look beyond their natural expectations (i.e., offense) in order to see the truth: "No prophet is accepted in his own hometown."

Instead of appealing to the people to consider his claims, Yeshua further scandalized their sense of ethnic pride by offering his commentary on the Haftarah reading.  First he reminded the congregants that in the time of Elijah the prophet, many widows of Israel suffered during the famine, but God only sent the prophet to a Gentile woman of Sidon (1 Kings 17:9-24). He then continued this theme by reminding them that though there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet, none of them were cleansed except the Na'aman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-16). When the synagogue members heard these words, they were enraged. Their ethnic pride was offended and their sense of identity as God's favored people was threatened. Who is this man to say such things to us?  So intense was their outrage that the congregation rose up to murder Yeshua by throwing him over a cliff (a prophetic picture of the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur ritual). Yeshua, however, miraculously "passed through the midst of them" and made his way back to Capernaum (Luke 4:28-31).

Other scandals surrounding the identity and authority of Yeshua are given in the New Testament, such as his claim to be "Lord of the Sabbath," to be able to forgive other people's sins, to be the Voice of YHVH concerning the intent of the Ten Commandments, to be the Judge of the world, to be honored as God, the Savior of the world, the Redeemer of Israel, the Holy One of God, the Good Shepherd, the Way and the Truth and the Life, the First and the Last, the true Light, the Great I AM, the LORD of Glory, and on and on.... In every case of disclosure, the possibility of offense or faith is given.

Undoubtedly the greatest offense of all, however, concerned Yeshua's claim to be none other than YHVH in the flesh.  In John's Gospel, following the story of how Yeshua forgave the woman taken in adultery, he announced, "I am the Light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12). The Pharisees objected that his testimony was invalid since it was based solely on his own authority. When Yeshua appealed to the testimony of his Father, the Pharisees hinted to the crowd that Yeshua might be a bastard (John 8:19). Yeshua was unfazed by their slander and simply stated that they "did not know his Father." He then went on to say, "I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.. Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins" (John 8:21-24). Finally, the all-important question is addressed to him: "Who are you?" (this question is in direct response to Yeshua's earlier question, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29)).  In reply Yeshua said, "Just what I have been telling you from the beginning..." While he was speaking, many believed in Him, and Yeshua then said to them, "If you remain in my word, you are my disciples indeed, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32). When these new "believers" objected that they were never in bondage to anyone, Yeshua told them they were slaves to the power of sin and therefore children of the devil, separated from God (John 8:33-47). Yeshua's words again caused offense, and the people began to say he was crazy, a "Samaritan," and possessed by a demon. Yeshua said on the contrary, he honored God, but they were dishonoring him, and that was certainly characteristic of the devil.  He continued to preach, "Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death" (John 8:51). This apparently was the last straw, the final offense regarding Yeshua's identity. "Who do you think you are? Abraham died as did the prophets. Who do you make yourself out to be?" Yeshua continued, "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad." Then the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" Yeshua said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58). When they heard this, the outraged crowd began gathering rocks to stone Yeshua for blasphemy. They understood that Yeshua was claiming to be none other than YHVH in the flesh - a scandal and an outrage to both religious sentiment and to human reason. As Kierkegaard said, this is the "Absolute Paradox," the point at which offense and faith entirely collide. Behold the man! Here was none other than God Himself standing among them clothed in flesh and blood....

The eternal, essential Truth has entered into time; the Infinite Source of life has been joined to the finite, the necessary has been joined with the contingent. "The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up, has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being." To the natural mind, the mind that seeks "objective truth" and rational comprehension, this is an impossible offense as well.

Yeshua regularly offended those whom He encountered, including his own followers.  When he said that he was the bread of life, and that this "bread" was his flesh given for the life of the world, his followers asked, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Yeshua then amped up his rhetoric by saying, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:51-59). When his disciples later complained that this teaching was "difficult" (e.g., kosher law forbade the drinking of blood), Yeshua directly asked them, "Does this offend (scandalize) you? It is the Spirit that gives life to His words; human reasoning will not help (John 6:63). Here again the "test" evoked one of two responses: offense or faith. The measure of the offense corresponded with the measure of their faith.  The greater the offense, the less faith, and conversely. His question is always, "Who do you say that I am?" Some of his followers could not answer this question and therefore "turned back and no longer walked with him" (John 6:66). (offense at the teaching of Yeshua always provides an opportunity for us to discover where we need to exercise faith.  If we find ourselves resisting or rationalizing some of the words of our Lord, we are presented with a decision point in our walk with Him.... So where is it with you? Personal suffering?  Selling everything you have to follow Him? Taking up the cross and being willing to die for Him?  Loving your enemies?  Plucking out your eye if it causes you to sin? Nothing less than complete trust is the goal, of course, though often we must wrestle through to the place of surrender in our hearts. Where are you inwardly resisting the message of Yeshua in your life?)

Many "evangelical" churches focus on entertainment, on getting "results," and being "seeker sensitive" in the attempt to "spread the gospel" message. This so-called "gospel" focuses on meeting people's practical needs rather than heeding the message of the Kingdom of Heaven and salvation. The way of Yeshua, however, is anything but pragmatic. His focus entirely turns us around.  To be great you must be a slave; to live you must first die to yourself; theology is far more important than mere humanism; you must love your enemies and pray for those who abuse you; you must count the cost before becoming a disciple; you must give up everything in order to follow Him; you must be willing to suffer and even die for the sake of His truth. Indeed, Yeshua taught us that our duty to love God is simply nonnegotiable. After all, though He was offered all the kingdoms of the world with all their "glory" in exchange for merely a "compromise" in His theology, Yeshua adamantly refused (Matt. 4:8-10; Deut. 6:13; 10:20). Yeshua's rebuke of the devil is a rebuke to all idolatrous pragmatists who likewise reason that the end justifies the means.

Indeed, the devil is the ultimate pragmatist, appealing to people to abandon the idea of unchanging truth for the sake of expediency (i.e., "consensus," "tolerance," "ecumenicism," "church growth," "results," "tithes," and so on). Satan is the ultimate liar, the ultimate propagandist, and the ultimate con artist.  He is a master at seducing and enslaving people.  Yeshua, on the other hand, brings OFFENSE. There is NO GOSPEL MESSAGE apart from offense - first, the offense of the ego's deflation (i.e., being convicted as a law breaker deserving of Hell), and second, the offense of the Cross (i.e., that no human merit can effect the salvation given through Yeshua ALONE).  The offense of the gospel is the proclamation that there is no other way to heaven than through the Cross of Yeshua, and there is no other Name than the Name of Yeshua for the salvation of human beings (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Cor. 1:23; 1 John 2:23). Pragmatists offer up an "inoffensive" gospel that appeals to the "felt needs" of seekers (i.e., pagans). Although good works are commendable, there is no offense in promoting social justice in the world today, just as there no offense in seeking to alleviate the suffering of the world's poor and downtrodden. However there is considerable offense by proclaiming that Yeshua is the ONLY way of salvation, and by stating that His sacrifice upon the cross (alone) is what makes us right with God. That kind of talk will be regarded as closed minded, intolerant, and even as hateful to people who attempt to justify themselves apart from God.  The pragmatist is willing to overlook the offense of the gospel for the sake of "unity" that brings the people of the world together. Ecumenicism is therefore the holy grail of the organized church. However, there is NO model for this approach given in Scripture, and especially not in the teaching and ministry of Yeshua our Messiah...

Pragmatists within the organized "church" regard big numbers, big events, big money, "big deals" to be the measure of the success of the Gospel.  Nonsense. There is more power in the lowly faithfulness of one surrendered soul working in the vineyard than in a throng of 10,000 Christian dabblers. Drawing a crowd never resulted in large-scale conversions in Yeshua's ministry. On the contrary, Yeshua called individuals to take up the Cross and follow Him.  He knew the nature of the crowd, the mob, the power of "groupthink" (John 2:23-25). The fickle crowd that once hailed Him as King of Israel later chanted "crucify him! crucify him!"

Pragmatism and the theology of Yeshua are POLES APART on the continuum of truth. Church leaders who seek to grow the church by pragmatic means are in serious error, since they want to justify sinful means (i.e., manipulation, deception) to promote what they believe to be a greater good (i.e., the perpetuation of "Christian" culture, the growth of the institutionalized church, etc.).  However, we know that the LORD God of Israel does not promote or endorse sin, regardless of any supposed benefit given to the world at large. The end never justifies the means. God is not a pragmatist, and there are no "noble lies" for sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The failure to communicate the truth about the cost of discipleship can lead to disillusionment and despair among those who are seeking the truth. If we do not ground people in true Gospel message, they will become scandalized when they face inevitable difficulties or encounter suffering in their lives (Mark 4:16-17).


Postscript: It ought to be mentioned that though Yeshua was indeed a "Stone of stumbling" and "Rock of Offense," we are commanded to avoid needlessly offending others (Rom. 12:18; 1 Cor. 10:32; 2 Cor. 6:3). "Follow peace with all men and holiness" (Heb. 12:14). However, in some cases standing up for our Lord will cause others to be offended. Those who live godly lives will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). When we share the message of salvation, for example, the conscience of others may incite them to anger. We do not need to apologize on behalf of the truth, though of course we must also be careful to speak the truth in humility and genuine love (Eph. 4:15).


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