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The Offense of the Cross

Nisan 25, 5770

The Offense of the Cross

Reflections on Skandolon

by John J. Parsons

I mentioned recently that Yeshua repeatedly took the role of a "stumbling block" to test people's response to his ministry and message. Most people were offended at Him, of course, and in the end Yeshua was crucified for the sake of their offenses. After His death, the cross itself became the scandal of faith. The Apostle Paul referred to "the offense of the cross" (τὸ σκάνδαλον τοῦ σταυροῦ) which he did not want removed (Gal. 5:11). But what is the "offense" of the cross? Or as Paul put it in another place, why is the proclamation of the crucified Messiah a scandal (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρία) to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23)?

First of all, the cross of the Messiah (צְלַב הַמָּשִׁיחַ) represents barbarity and cruelty.  In the 1999 movie The Green Mile, there is a horrific scene of a prisoner who was slowly fried to death in the electric chair at the hands of a cruel guard. We watch in horror as the prisoner is terribly burned and thrashes back and forth until his body is disfigured into charred remains. As offensive as this scene is, it is really no comparison to the shame, agony and torturous death suffered during a Roman crucifixion. Part of the offense of the cross, then, was that God had anything to do with such torture and cruelty. To the Gentiles, the image of a crucified man was a symbol of shame, weakness, and disgrace. The Greek mind esteemed learning, virtue, aesthetics and strength as the path of attaining wisdom, and therefore regarded the idea of "a god dying on a cross" as the utmost in "foolishness" (1 Cor.1:23). Furthermore, the Greek mind gloried in the autonomous use of reason to discern a world of order and perfection. God was understood as "Divine Mind," an "Unmoved Mover," and a philosophical construct that gave order and purpose to the universe. The very thought that the Creator would require the torture of an innocent man to atone for the sins of others was regarded as immoral, indecent, and ultimately as preposterous.

The Jewish mind, on the other hand, regarded anyone "hung on a tree" as irrevocably cursed by God (Deut. 21:23). The Law of Moses permitted that someone who was to be executed could be hung (or impaled) and exposed, presumably as a warning to others.  According to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 6:4), a pole with a horizontal beam was erected and the dead man's hands were bound and slung over the beam, leaving the body suspended. The ancient Greek translation of the Torah (i.e., the LXX or Septuagint) inverted the word order and translated this as "hang him on wood so that he dies," which later was used to justify the Roman practice of crucifixion (see Y. Yadim, Megillat Hamikdash). It was required by law that the exposed body be buried before sundown on the day of execution.  Besides the shame and degradation of this manner of death, the executed person would be unable to fall to their knees as a final act of repentance before God, thereby implying that they were under the irrevocable curse of God.

To the Jew, the idea that Yeshua had to die a death cursed by the law of Moses is regarded as entirely repugnant to the fundamental meritocracy of the Jewish faith. How could the Messiah - the anointed one of God - ever be truly cursed?  On the contrary, the Messiah would be blessed by God to reign as King of Israel who would usher in worldwide peace (Dan. 7:27)! Despite various prophecies in the Tanakh (e.g., Isa. 53, Psalm 22, Zech. 12:10, etc.) of a "suffering servant" for Israel's sins, Yeshua was rejected as the Messianic expectation of Israel. Indeed, the entire concept that the Messiah was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and made a curse (Gal. 3:13) to redeem us from the "curse of the law" is regarded as offensive to Jewish religion to this day.... To Jewish religious sensibilities, Yeshua simply had "no form or comlineness": לא־תאַר לוֹ וְלא הָדָר / lo-to'ar lo, v'lo hadar (Isa. 53:2).

Second, the message of the cross offends because it reveals the unvarnished truth about our spiritual condition. The "real Jesus" offends us and deflates our pride. God's way of salvation is an affront, a scandal, an insult, and ultimately a verdict about the insufficiency of human effort to attain righteousness before a Holy God. Human "works" or merits are useless before God. The truth about the human condition is offensive. It is not flattering to say we are twisted and broken and helpless.  No, the world wants the image of beauty, strength, capability, power, etc.  The world wants us to worship idealized man (or woman), whereas God wants us confess our inner bankruptcy and need for Him.

The message of the cross -- the gospel -- is offensive to fallen human nature that seeks to justify its life here on earth.  The gospel message implies that our sinful condition is so profound that it literally took the death of Yeshua to satisfy God's wrath for us. The cross implies that we are both helpless to save ourselves and hopelessly lost in sin. La'Adonai Yeshuah (לַיהוָה הַיְשׁוּעָה): "Salvation is of the LORD." We can do nothing to save ourselves.  This is an affront to human pride that wants to add something of its own doing to "perfect" God's work of deliverance.

The message of the cross implies that humanity is sinful and under the sentence of divine wrath, and therefore the cross is an offense because it represents condemnation of the world. Contrary to the romantic notions of optimists, New Age thinkers, and progressive liberals, "the whole world lies in the wickedness" (1 John 5:19). Human nature is not inherently good. The cross declares that all of the religiosity and moral attempts of mankind are entirely incapable of pleasing God, and that humanity itself is unable to attain genuine revelation about ultimate reality. The cross reveals that we are lost... Apart from God's intervention and saving grace, all people are doomed.

Third, the message of the cross is offensive because it requires the death of the ego. A Hebrew (עִבְרִי) is one who has "passed over" to the other side.  Crucifixion with Yeshua is the ultimate "going over." The history of the fallen human race was finished with the cross of Yeshua at Moriah (2 Cor. 5:14-15). We are now a new creation (briah chadashah). The "flesh" (i.e., the principle of ego and self-sufficiency) is crucified with Messiah, and that means all our ideals and our former identity (Jew, Gentile, male, female) are inapplicable under the new covenant (2 Cor. 5:16). The "old nature" has been crucified with Messiah, which means that the ego is "dead to rights" regarding our new identity. In Jewish terms, the cross is an offense because it eliminates the hallowed "mark of circumcision" - the token that something man can add is needed to be right with God (Gal 5:16).

The devil advises using the world's methods for the promotion of the "gospel" and is ready to promote to prominence those who rely on the "flesh" to "do God's work." The world's standard for "success" is always contrary to the Spirit of Messiah, and therefore another aspect of the offense of the cross is paradox. "I have been crucified with the Messiah, therefore I no longer live but the Messiah lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). We die with Him in order to live with Him.  We "reckon ourselves" dead to the flesh (Rom. 6:11) and thereby "put away" its deeds (Col. 3:5). Through teshuvah (repentance) we turn our back forever on the principle of the flesh (i.e., the "rule" of the ego and its demands). We take up our cross daily and follow the Master (Luke 9:23).

The message of the cross is offensive because it deflates human pride and condemns the "works of religion." As Paul put it, we cannot be made "perfect by the flesh" (Gal.3:3). In traditional Judaism, ritual circumcision is symbolic of being a Jew. Circumcision is regarded as a "rite of passage" into covenant relationship with the LORD, a type of "giving birth" to a member of Israel. But the cross is an offense because it states that circumcision does not make you a true heir of salvation (1 Cor. 7:19). Indeed, ritual circumcision implies an agreement to abide by the terms of the old covenant and therefore makes you its debtor. The two covenants are mutually exclusive on this point. Works righteousness is antithetical to the grace of God given in the Messiah (Gal. 5:2-4). The divide of the Cross represents an absolute break with traditional Judaism. We are justified by trusting in the LORD and not by the deeds of the Torah (Rom. 3:20; Titus 3:5-6; Eph. 2:8-10, etc.). Followers of Yeshua put no confidence "in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3). A counterfeit gospel always adds something more to the finished work of Yeshua for our salvation (Gal. 1:6).

(The flip side of this idea is that while religiously observant people were offended by Yeshua and his message, those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. Jesus scandalized the religious, the self-assured, the smug, the self-righteous, the philosopher, and the "intellectual," but He was receptive to the outcast and the humble (Matt. 9:12-13; 21:31; Luke 15:31-32; 9:10). Yeshua makes the burden of salvation "easy" for those who are broken and in need of a physician (Matt. 11:28; Luke 9:12, Mark 2:17). He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.)

The Cross implies that the ceremonial expression of the Torah - the Mishkan/Temple - has forever become obsolete (Heb. 7:12; 8:13). When Yeshua, our great High Priest after the order of Malki-Tzedek (the very first priest/king to whom Abraham/Levi offered homage) cried out, "It is finished," the parochet in the Temple was rent asunder and "the way into the holiest of all" was opened for all (Heb. 9:8). All of the ritual law of the Torah - the sacrifices and elaborate Yom Kippur ritual - was done away, and we now have an Intercessor of indestructible life as our Advocate. To the Jew, this means the end of traditional Judaism, and this is another source of offense. Yeshua is truly a "Stone of Stumbling and a Rock of offense" (Isa. 8:14; Matt. 21:44; Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23; 1 Pet. 2:7-8).

Fourth, the message of the cross is offensive because it is exclusivist. The cross is an offense because it declares that faith in the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua is the ONLY way to be forgiven by God.  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). Many church growth experts 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 is 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 there is offense by stating that His sacrifice upon the cross (alone) is the ONLY thing that makes us right with God.  That kind of talk will be regarded as offensive -- intolerant and even hateful -- to those 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.

Fifth, the message of the cross is offensive because of Yeshua, the "Skandalon of God." The Man who was regarded as a criminal was really the King; the powerless one became LORD over all; the one who could not save Himself became the Savior; the one who was killed became Victor over death itself. Indeed, as Kierkegaard pointed out, Yeshua is the Absolute Paradox (God in Messiah; God on the Cross). The eternal, essential truth has entered into time; the infinite 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 offense as well. "Christianity claims to be the eternal, essential truth that has come into existence in time. It proclaims itself as the paradox and thus requires the inwardness of faith - that which is an offense to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and an absurdity to the understanding."

The offense of the cross is inextricably part of the proclamation of the message of salvation itself. This is an offense that never was intended to cease (Gal. 5:11). "Take up your cross and follow me!" We are called to forsake everything we know -- family, friends, culture, traditions, a sense of identity as a Jew -- to experience the miracle of newness of life. "Paul never glamorized the gospel. It is not success, but sacrifice! It's not a glamorous gospel, but a bloody gospel, a gory gospel, and a sacrificial gospel!  Five minutes inside eternity and we will wish that we had sacrificed more, wept more, bled more, grieved more, loved more, prayed more, given more" (Leonard Ravenhill). The cross is a death sentence to this world but a "crossing over" to the world to come. And while it is scandalous to worldly wisdom and human reason, it is of inestimable worth, a "pearl of great price," the true treasure of the heart, a joy unspeakable and full of God's glory. 

May the LORD God of Israel help us take up the offense of the cross and gladly, courageously, and to joyfully follow after Him!  Don't lose heart as you walk, chaverim. Chazak ve'ematz (חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ), be strong and resolute! Amen.

 


Postscript:

It's a bit ironic that some Messianic believers have a "problem" with the cross of Yeshua, especially since it is clear that the cross was always intended to be an object of offense (as well as a symbol of God's triumph)... That's not to deny, of course, the horrors of false Christians who waged "crusades" and did other evils under the emblem of the cross... Indeed, Hitler (Y"SH) co-opted the organized "church" in Germany to help further the Nazi agenda! It's tragic that the cross - originally an offense regarding man's sinfulness and yet the means for obtaining forgiveness - has become associated itself with the perpetration of horrible sins committed in its name! Still, the New Testament is clear that there is an offense associated with the Cross, and it is good to remind ourselves what that offense really means....


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