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The Scandalon

September 4, 2005

I. Introduction: An unlikely symbol

1.     The cross is an unlikely choice for the symbol of a religion. The Jews have the Star of David as their symbol; the Buddhists a Lotus flower; Muslims display a Crescent and star. These symbols were beautiful or good from the beginning. The cross was a horrible form of execution.

2.     “Would you wear a tiny electric chair around your neck? Suspend a gold-plated hangman’s noose on the wall? Would you print a picture of a firing squad on a business card? Yet we do so with the Cross.” (He Chose The Nails, Max Lucado, p. 113).

3.     Perhaps you can relate to my experience. I often forget the offensiveness of the Cross. I see crosses everywhere and they are beautiful to me:

1.     Many years ago in Europe I saw beautiful, ornate crosses decorating ancient cathedrals.

2.     A few years ago in Hawaii I took pictures of two crosses which are perched up high and framed by the beautiful Hawaiian landscape.

3.     I think of the tiny crosses on bracelets that I’ve seen on the delicate wrists of my precious daughters.

4.     I have loved the Cross for so long now that I sometimes forget that the Bible calls it an offense, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

1.     1 Corinthians 1:23 (NASB): “…We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (skandalon) to Jews and foolishness (moria) to Gentiles…”

2.     Galatians 5:11 (NIV): “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense (stumbling block NASB) of the cross has been abolished.”

3.     This Greek word for “offense” or “stumbling block” is skandalon. Greek scholar Walter Bauer defines skandalon as: “…that which gives offense or causes revulsion, that which arouses opposition, an object of anger or disapproval.” (BAGD, p.753).

4.     Moria—the word translated “foolishness”—is the Greek word from which we get our word “moron” or “moronic.”

5.     Of course, when we speak of the Cross, we’re not talking here about the original cross—the actual wooden planks upon which Jesus was hung.

1.     Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 4th century and somehow decided she had found the original cross. Soon this cross was said to have miraculous powers and pieces of wood claiming to come from it were found all over the Empire. (The Story of Christianity, Justo L. Gonzalez, p.126).

2.     No, the Cross is a symbol. The Cross is a symbol of what some have called the entire “Christ-event”—the death and resurrection of Christ.

II.    What exactly does the Cross symbolize?

1.     The Cross symbolizes the heart of our message.

1.     The Latin word for cross is crux. And, of course, the English-speaking world uses crux as the heart of the matter—The Cross is the crux of the matter—the heart of the Christian message.

2.     1 Corinthians 2:1,2: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

3.     Did Paul know, say and teach nothing else but the crucifixion of Jesus? No, he knew, said and taught many other things. He was exaggerating to make a point: This is the very heart of my message.

4.     Look how he put it later in that same book: 1 Corinthians 15:3-6: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”

5.     That’s the Cross! When Paul said he knew “nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” he meant the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “He died for our sins according to the Scriptures and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” This is the gospel! This is the good news! This is the Cross—the very heart of our message!

6.     Was this message well-received in the first century? No! It was an offense—a skandalon.

7.     An early Latin apologist, Minucius Felix, tells us that Christians were accused of worshipping “a criminal and his cross.” Jesus was referred to as the “dead God” by Roman historians (ISBE, Vol. 1, p.827).

8.     “…A stumbling block, an offense, a skandalon to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”

9.     Is it any better received in our time?

a)     Stories:

(i)    After nearly four decades, a 30-foot cross that towered above Oklahoma’s State Fair Park (in Oklahoma City) was taken down as the result of two people who were offended by it.

(ii) A 75-foot-tall cross in a public cemetery in Tehachapi, California, was recently removed after a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Jewish family who had a member buried in the public cemetery. The family said they were offended by the cross.

(iii)     Last year a McAlester Oklahoma firefighter told the city council he represented a group that was offended by the cross on the city’s seal. They threatened legal action if it was not removed.

(iv)     There are hundreds of disputes like this taking place all over the country—all over the world. They make me mad; fearful about the future. I think they’re wrong about violating this so-called separation of church and state.

10.       But it occurs to me that these “offended” parties get it! They’re right—the Cross is offensive! The Cross should offend! It is necessarily offensive. It is not just a pretty monument; it is a symbol that carries with it a powerful message.

11.       But the message of the Cross does not offend only Jews and atheists. There are many who call themselves Christians who do not want to hear this message either. What was Paul addressing in Galatians 5:11 when he wrote: “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense (skandalon) of the cross has been abolished.”

12.      What was he talking about? What error was he addressing? Judaizers—false teachers—were telling the Galatians that yes, Jesus is the Christ and He did His part by dying on the cross, but what Paul teaches is that you must do your part! You must keep the law to be a Christian—you must be circumcised in order to be saved. Paul said, No, that’s not the gospel I brought you! If I told you to keep the law in order to be saved, then why am I still being persecuted by these Judaizers? The offense of the cross has been abolished if the message is Christ plus law—Christ plus works—Christ plus human effort! Paul was being persecuted because his message, the true message of the cross was that the law had been abolished! Christ—and Christ alone—saves.

13.      Look in the greater context of Galatians:

a)     Galatians 3:1-5: You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

b)    Galatians 3:11-14: “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ 12The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’ 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ (Deut. 21:23) 14He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”

14.      The message then, is that Christ died for our sins—in our place—so that we either let Him be our substitute or we refuse Him as our substitute—we either believe it or we don’t. We either put our faith in Him—and Him alone—or we do not. The offense is that man wants to earn his salvation. He stumbles over the idea that salvation is a free gift from God. He insists on earning his own way and is offended by the charity of God. They say, Jesus did His part, now we must do our part—this is the tainted gospel of a startling number of so-called Christians.

15.       If this is your view. If you are offended by the message of the Cross, or you don’t think that is the message of the Cross, listen again. The Holy Spirit, speaking through the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of Galatians asks: Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

16.      The Cross symbolizes the heart of our message and it is a message which will be polarizing. Those who truly understand this message will either find it offensive and foolish—or the good news of the power and wisdom of God.


2.     The Cross symbolizes the cost of our salvation.

1.     God gave Israel the sacrificial system—the laws about sacrificing animals and pouring the blood onto the altars—as symbolism. At least part of the picture is that sin is a horrible thing which causes death. God wanted them to have a visual reminder of this.

2.     Hebrews 10:1-4: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

3.     But, Jesus was the fulfillment of this—the “reality” behind the shadow. He was the inspiration for the picture.

4.     Hebrews 10:5-10: “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.’ 7Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.’” 8First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ (although the law required them to be made). 9Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

5.     So, the animal sacrifices did not “please” God—in other words, they did not satisfy Him. They did not take away the sin because God’s justice was not satisfied. But, Jesus said, “I have come to do your will, O God.” In other words, “I have come to satisfy Your requirement for justice.” Since Jesus was God Himself, He was able to provide both justice and mercy.

6.     Romans 3:23-26: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  

7.     The key here is that God is “just and the justifier” of those who trust Jesus for salvation. He had to be just because He is just. Yet, He was the only one who could justify us (make us righteous). The Cross took care of satisfying God’s justice and justifying hopeless sinners.

8.     His death on the cross was a great injustice because Jesus was sinless. But, it was the greatest act of justice because God accepted it as payment for our sins and declared us “just” or “not guilty”.

9.      Remember tetelestai from John 19:30? While Jesus was on the cross, He cried out, “Tetelestai” which means “Paid in full; it is finished!” What was paid in full? The cost of our salvation. God’s righteous demand for justice was met when Jesus went to the cross.

10.      Remember Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...” He “redeemed us”—He paid the price to free us from our enslavement to sin.

11.      The picture of the temple sacrifices and the cost Jesus paid on the cross—the cost of our salvation—is offensive. Sin is uglier than we think it is. Sin is a bigger deal than most of us ever realize.

12.      The Cross symbolizes the cost of our salvation. Those who truly understand that cost—that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus—will either find it offensive and foolish—or the power and wisdom of God.


3.     The Cross symbolizes the love of our God.

1.     Some people believe Jesus was nothing more than an unwilling victim of an unjust legal system or Roman cruelty. But listen to what Scripture says about that:

a)    Philippians 2:5-8: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!

b)    John 12:27-33: Jesus said: “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name!” 29Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”

c)     Acts 2:23: On the day of Pentecost, Peter declared to the nation of Israel that Jesus “…was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

d)    Revelation 13:8: “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.”

e)      No. The Cross wasn’t a mistake or Plan B. Jesus chose to go to the cross—it was God’s plan all along. As Adam’s teeth cut into the forbidden fruit, Jesus was already making plans to go to the Cross.

f)What was His motive? What compelled Him to take such a dramatic step? Love! The Cross symbolizes the love of our God!

g)     1 John 4:9,10: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

h)    But wait, isn’t the Cross supposed to be offensive? Surely the love of God isn’t offensive? But it is! You and I have just forgotten!

(i)    The best way to illustrate this is to go to Genesis 22 when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac! Get the picture in your mind—Isaac strapped down on the altar. Abraham with a knife raised over Isaac fully prepared to plunge it into the chest of the son he loved! Is this love?  

(ii)     “Psychoanalyst Alice Miller claims that Genesis 22 may have contributed to an atmosphere that makes it possible to justify the abuse of children. She grounds her reflections on some thirty artistic representations of this story. In two of Rembrandt’s paintings, for example, Abraham faces the heavens rather than Isaac, as if in blind obedience to God and oblivious to what he is about to do to his son.” (God, Abraham, and the Abuse of Isaac, TERENCE E. FRETHEIM, Word & World, Volume XV, Number 1, Winter 1995).

(iii)     But God spared the life of Isaac! He did not require Abraham to go through with the sacrifice of his son, yet God Himself would make such a sacrifice in the name of love. Why did God plunge the knife into His Son’s chest—so to speak? Love!

(iv)     Many have found that kind of love to be offensive and scandalous—no real love at all.

(v) But they are wrong! Jesus chose to go to the Cross! This Isaac crawled up on the altar of His own free will.

(vi)     Jesus Himself said in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

i)  Jane Stillson was advised by a doctor to have an abortion in 1997 when virulent breast cancer was discovered three months into her pregnancy. An abortion would have allowed her to begin chemotherapy treatment followed by a bone-marrow transplant. But, she and her husband, Tod, rejected that option based on their belief that abortion is wrong. Stillson had a mastectomy and began limited chemotherapy intended to pose as small a risk as possible to the developing baby. She underwent a bone-marrow transplant immediately after the birth of her healthy daughter May 22, 1997. Initial results of the treatment were encouraging, but the cancer returned. Jane Stillson died February 12, 1998.
Her husband, Tod, later wrote, “She was a living example of biblical faith, choosing to daily trust the Lord to meet all of her needs. She was a great woman who was willing to give up her own life for our child.”

j)  The doctor’s advice, though was: “Save yourself! Kill the baby so you can save yourself.” No doubt, they considered her decision foolish. But her love was true love—it was sacrificial. It reflected God’s sacrificial love for us.

k)    The Cross symbolizes the love of our God. I believe the world finds this kind of self-sacrificing love to be offensive at worst and foolish at best. But, to those who believe what the Bible teaches—that God’s love led Jesus to the violence of the Cross—understand that this kind of love is the power and wisdom of God.


4.     The Cross symbolizes the call of our Lord.

1.     Luke 14:25-27: “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

2.     We’re not told the response of His hearers, but no doubt some of them found this to be hard to swallow—even offensive.

3.     The call of our Lord is nothing less than radical. He calls us to an unrivaled love for Him—which will seem like hate for others.

4.     C.S. Lewis (commenting on Luke 14): “How are we to understand the word hate? That Love Himself should be commanding what we ordinarily mean by hatred—commanding us to cherish resentment, to gloat over another’s misery, to delight in injuring him—is almost a contradiction in terms. I think Our Lord, in the sense here intended, ‘hated’ St. Peter when he said, ‘Get thee behind me.’ To hate is to reject, to set one’s face against, to make no concession to, the Beloved when the Beloved utters, however sweetly…the suggestions of the Devil…So, in the last resort, we must turn down or disqualify our nearest and dearest when they come between us and our obedience to God. Heaven knows, it will seem to them sufficiently like hatred.” (The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis, pp.171-2)

5.     Jesus repeated this call five times in the Gospels. It is significant that after He extended this call, He himself went to the Cross—how vivid the imagery must have been to those who witnessed His crucifixion when they remembered His words: “Follow Me—take up your cross.”

6.     To take up your cross is to willingly (like Jesus) die—not physically (necessarily) because Jesus said, “daily” (Luke 9:23). It is to choose God and what God wants—over and above yourself and your own wants.

7.     Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

8.     The Cross symbolizes the call of our Lord. If we answer that call we might offend some and be labeled as extreme or radical. Family members will often feel personally rejected—even hated—if we answer the call of Christ.


VII.   The Cross is a symbol with a very strong message. The Cross demands a response from each one of us. Under each of these four points, let me give you some closing thoughts—thoughts about how we should respond to the amazing Cross. I’ll give you a short phrase to write under each point to help you develop your response to the Cross.

A.   The Cross symbolizes the heart of our message, so…

1.     If you have rejected this message as offensive or foolish; if you have tried to ignore the message, the desired response from you today is to accept it. When Jesus told the parable of the Sower and the Soils in Mark 4, there were four kinds of soil: the soil along the path, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and the good soil. These soils represent different people and their differing responses to the word of God—the message. Jesus said the good soil was people who, “…hear the word and accept it…” Accept—as true—the message of the cross.

2.     If you have already accepted this message, the expected response from you is: Deliver it. Deliver this message to someone—anyone who will listen. Don’t shrink back because you might offend someone—get over that. You don’t want to be unnecessarily offensive, but you will offend some when you present the message of the cross. Others, though, will see it for what it is—good news; the power and wisdom of God.

3.     So under #1, write this: Accept it then deliver it.

B.   The Cross symbolizes the cost of our salvation, so…

1.     If you have never trusted that Christ paid your sin debt “in full” at the Cross, the desired response from you is: Receive the gift. Receive what the Bible calls the “free gift” of salvation. It wasn’t cheap, but it is free. It was a high cost to pay and God Himself paid it. Honor Him; acknowledge His tremendous sacrifice by receiving this gift. If I gave you a gift and you left it lying on the table, it would not be yours. In order for a gift to be yours, you must receive it.

2.     If you have already received that gift give Him your gratitude. Be thankful—live your life in such a way that everything you do is a way of demonstrating your gratitude. Don’t try to pay Him back. To receive a gift from someone then insist upon paying them back is insulting. When you receive a gift, the proper response is gratitude.

3.     Chuck Colson: “(Saving Private Ryan) opens with a harrowingly realistic reenactment of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. We see the action through the eyes of Capt. John Miller, played by Tom Hanks. Following D-Day, Hanks learns that he is to lead a search party to find a certain Private Ryan, whose three brothers have just been killed in action. The last living son is to be sent home to his grieving mother. But no sooner do Miller and his party begin their search for Ryan behind German lines than a startling Pandora’s box of moral questions is opened: Why are all these men risking their lives to save one man? Don’t they have mothers, too? Are they just pawns in some cynical PR maneuver by the Pentagon? As first one, and then another of the soldiers in the rescue party is killed, the questioning intensifies. After all, just how much is one man’s life worth? The answer comes in a stunning scene at the end of the film. It’s now 50 years later and Private Ryan is visiting the graves of the men who saved him, who literally gave their lives for his. ‘I lived my life the best I could,’ he says to their gravestones. ‘I hope in your eyes I’ve earned what you’ve done for me.’ But we can see that he has gnawing doubts. Obviously distraught, Ryan turns to his wife: ‘Tell me I’ve led a good life,’ he implores. ‘Tell me I’m a good man.’ ‘You are,’ she answers him. But the answers are not convincing. And how could they be? Behind Ryan’s question is the inescapable reality that however good you are and however much you’ve accomplished in your life, you can never, ever repay such a debt. It’s a stunning moment, because we, too, think of our debt to the 18-year-old kids who jumped off those landing boats into a hail of bullets. How do we repay a debt like that? We have to admit with humility that we cannot: We can only express our gratitude.”

4.     So, under #2, write this: Receive His gift then give Him your gratitude.

C.   The Cross symbolizes the love of our God, so…

1.     If you have never responded to the love of God for you, the proper response is to believe!

2.     John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” His love prompted Him to give His Son and the response He requests from you is to believe. The biblical word for believe means trust. Not just mental agreement—as “believe” can mean in English. It means to put your eternal destiny in His hands—complete trust. Think of an airplane. When you get on an airplane and strap yourself in and let someone take you 30,000 feet up—you believe that pilot is going to get you back down safely—you demonstrate true “belief” by your “trust”. Whoever believes or trusts—Jesus promised—will have eternal life! God’s desired response from you is to trust Jesus Christ!

3.     If you have already believed, God’s desired response from you is found in 1 John 4:10,11: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Love! What does God want you to do in response to the love He has lavished upon us at the cross? Love one another. Why should you love the unlovable people in your life? Because God loved you first and paid a high price to show it. The natural response to the love of God is to imitate that love.

4.     Under #3, write: Trust Jesus then love others.

D.   The Cross symbolizes the call of our Lord, so…

1.     Die. To answer the call of Jesus means we must die to ourselves then live for Him! In other words, we should daily crawl out of bed and tell God, “I’m yours. Whenever my way starts to conflict with Your way, I will yield to You and follow Your way.”

2.     Remember what Paul said in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  

3.     Under #4, write this: Die to yourself then live for Him.

VI.     Closing

A.   Perhaps my main concern when it comes to the Cross is that we would ignore it. That we would forget the meaning behind the symbol and become numb to the importance of its message. We must respond to it.

B.   I close with another quote from Max Lucado: “Absurdities and ironies. The hill of Calvary is nothing if not both. We would have scripted the moment differently. Ask us how a God should redeem his world, and we will show you! White horses, flashing swords. Evil flat on his back. God on his throne. But God on a cross? A split-lipped, puffy-eyed, blood-masked God on a cross? Sponge thrust in his face? Spear plunged in his side? Dice tossed at his feet? No, we wouldn’t have written the drama of redemption this way. But, then again, we weren’t asked to. These players and props were heaven picked and God ordained. We were not asked to design the hour. But we have been asked to respond to it.” (He Chose The Nails, Max Lucado, p. 139)

C.   Close in prayer

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