For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
There could be no other message that is more foolish and more of a stumbling block to the Gospel than the message of the Cross (1Corinthians 1:23). This was true in the first century and it still is today.
The Cross was foolishness to the intellectual Greeks of the day. How can the story about a simple preacher from the despised Jews who was crucified as an insurrectionist and rebel against the religious establishment contain any kind of wisdom or knowledge? If He was so wise, surely he would have known how to evade capture or would have been able to reason his way to freedom. But to be taken without resistance and crucified at the age of 33 speaks of extreme foolishness and weakness. After-all, neither the religious, nor the governmental authorities, would have killed Him, if He had even a glimmer of greatness. This man must be a loser and good for nothing. To make it worse, His followers then claimed that this weakling and His Cross alone are the means of salvation and enlightenment. There could be no greater foolishness than this!
The intelligentsia and politically correct of today see it exactly the same. Of all the objectionable things about the Gospel, the Cross has to be the most stupid of them all. What kind of God requires the bloody death of His Son as a criminal as the only means of salvation?
Linked to the Cross is the resurrection. To any thinking person there is no claim that stretches credulity more than the idea that the same weakling that allowed himself to be captured and crucified now claims to have risen from the dead. There are at least a hundred other religious ideas that are more plausible to the rational person than the notion of a Galilean, of all people, rising from the dead.
To add to the foolishness of it all, this man claimed to be God! Which god could be captured and killed by humans – surely not a real one? This man can only be delusional and to believe in such a nut case is only for the gullible, superstitious and weak of mind. As it was then, so it is today – foolishness.
...the notion of the Messiah being hung on a tree was totally shameful and unacceptable.
Had Jesus come as the mighty deliverer and political saviour that Israel wanted, He would have been crowned as their King and Messiah. But He refused to play to the crowds and instead was crucified to pay for their, and our, sins. No other way of death could have been more ignominious and shameful to the Jews:
Galatians 3:13 says: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree...”. This does not mean that because someone hangs on a tree, he is cursed. The curse is not because of the hanging but rather the hanging is a sign of the curse. Hanging was not the Jewish tradition and the Law’s prescribed method of execution was stoning (Leviticus 24). But Galatians quotes Deuteronomy 21:22-23 which regulates hanging: “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, “his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” Notice that he is put to death and then hung on the tree as a display of the fact that his sin was so heinous that he is cursed of God.
There are a few examples of hanging in the Old Testament (Numbers 25:4; Joshua 8:9; Joshua 10:26; 2Samuel 21:6). In some cases the condemned were killed and then hung and in others it seems that they were hung to die. But in each case the display of the corpse on a tree was a sign and statement that the deceased was cursed by God. The rarity of the practice, and in each case, the vileness of the subject, emphasizes that those who were hung were the worst of the worst and certainly those whom God had cursed.
Thus even if a Jew could accept that there was need for an atoning sacrifice, the notion of the Messiah being hung on a tree was totally shameful and unacceptable. The very fact that he died on the Cross “proves” that He is not the Messiah and is indeed the worst kind of sinner – the kind that God has cursed. In this light, Paul quotes Isaiah: “Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence...” (Romans 9:33). To the Corinthians he says that the message of Christ crucified is “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
As much as the Cross is unacceptable and offensive today, it was probably even more so in the time of the New Testament. If there was one aspect of the Gospel that the Apostles would have done well to remove, it was the message of the Cross. Without the Cross the Gospel would have been much more attractive and palatable to both Jew and Greek. Should Paul have displayed his superior intelligence and wisdom or performed dramatic miracles, and had he played down the Cross, there would have been many more followers of this new religion .
Yet Paul is adamant that he would not remove the Cross from the message, on the contrary, he was “...determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2). In spite of the Cross being weakness and foolishness, Paul is adamant that it is the only message that can save. (1 Corinthians 1:21).
The Cross is not only fundamental to Paul’s preaching, but it is central to his definition of the Gospel: “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved... For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures...” (1 Corinthians 15:1,2,4).
So it is today
The offence of the Cross has remained with us throughout the centuries. To those who are perishing today, the message is still foolishness and a stumbling block. It is for this reason that the Cross is remarkably absent in most modern preaching. In some cases it is conveniently forgotten and neglected but in most cases it is purposely removed from the message in order not to offend the “seeker” or those from other religions.
The removal of the Cross from the message is signified by the removal of the symbol of the Cross from church buildings. Personally, I do not believe in icons or that a building is somehow sanctified by a symbolic Cross. But when even the symbol becomes offensive, we clearly have a problem. Here are some examples:
Joel Osteen’s Lakewood “church”: “Like many new evangelical churches, the building has no cross... Instead, it has a cafe with wireless Internet access, 32 video game kiosks and a vault to store the offering.” . Onstage Osteen does not speak in the shadow of a Cross but of a giant globe. Thus the world has become his reference and influence instead of the Cross. This symbolism is clearly confirmed by the absence of the Cross in his preaching and the worldliness of his messages. This is further illustrated by the fact that he does not open his message with Scripture but with a joke.
During the American Clergy Leadership Conference tour that president [Bush] hailed last week, pastor John Kingara of Massachusetts puts a cross out with the garbage, April 18, 2003. “The fact that the cross is a symbol of division, shame, suffering and bloodshed prove that it is not of God but Satan.” The [Lesbian] Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers.
Bishop Eva Brunne removed crosses in her church to appease Muslims
“Lawton gave a sermon... likening using the cross as a symbol of Christ’s life to using a bullet to remember Martin Luther King Jr.... The cross has become a negative symbol for a lot of people.”(He replaced the cross outside of his “church” with a heart and globe).
These are only four examples of many churches who are following the lead of governments (especially in the US and China), who are doing everything they can to physically remove any and all displays of a cross from the public eye.
However, the removal of the symbol is simply an accurate reflection of the change in theology. In every one of the above examples, and in the thousands of other instances these represent, the removal of the symbol simply reflects that the Cross had been removed from their theology a long time ago.
Sometimes the Cross is removed flagrantly, but sometimes it is very subtly removed from the consciousness. For example in the USA, we do not commemorate His crucifixion at Easter, but every church, even those that are not only nominally Christian, celebrate the resurrection on “resurrection Sunday”. This year, I decided to preach on the Cross on “resurrection Sunday”. A number of the congregation was extremely surprised and even shocked to hear a message on the Cross on “Resurrection Sunday”!Yes, we may accept the glory of the resurrection but not the shame of the Cross.
His Cross, My Cross
But even those that have continued to preach the gospel that Christ died for our sins on the Cross have compromised the message of the Cross. They may still preach that Christ died on the Cross and may even give it its proper emphasis, yet the notion of the believer taking up his cross has long ago been banished from the message. Where the message of our personal cross is retained, it has however been changed to refer to some personal difficulty as in “my children are the cross I bear”.
In the past 50 or 60 years, the gospel has become increasingly man- centered and focused on the benefits that the gospel contains for the “seeker”. Preachers feel the need to make the gospel as attractive as possible by convincing the shopper that becoming a Christian contains benefits and advantages. In this paradigm, blessings, riches, health, happiness, heaven, peace and so on are emphasized. The words repentance, sin, sacrifice, suffering etc. are never mentioned.
The temptation to make bread was an enticement to build the Kingdom on bread, and the felt needs of people, rather than on the Word of God.
Yet a central aspect of the Cross is the need for the individual to be willing to die to self, the flesh and the world. ... Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). It is obvious from what Jesus said that the cross we bear is not wayward children or a difficult marriage. It is to die to self and the selfish ambitions and desires of the flesh. But because we have removed this from the message, most believe that they can have the whole world (including its sin) and still be saved. Even worse is the dominionist and the prosperity chaser who do not believe that we can have the world, but that we must have the whole world. Think again of Osteen who, in line with his symbol of the world behind him, promises people the earth, while the true preachers only promise the Cross. (He represents many thousands who do likewise).
Christianity has become the broad road (Matthew 7:13) which is easy to access and comfortable to follow. While they may not all deny the Cross of Christ, in choosing the easy way, they have succumbed to the same temptations with which Jesus was tempted. Each of the three temptations in the wilderness was an offer for Jesus to by-pass the Cross and still achieve his objective: The temptation to make bread was an enticement to build the Kingdom on bread, and the felt needs of people, rather than on the Word of God. The temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple was a temptation to build the Kingdom on the spectacular and sensational. The crowds would have crowned Him as King had he jumped and landed unharmed. The final temptation to worship Satan in exchange for the kingdoms was a clear offer to achieve His purpose based on compromise, by-passing the Cross. Thank God, Jesus understood that there was only one way to save us and that was to take our sin, guilt, shame and judgement upon Himself and to die in our place on that cruel, shameful and hated Cross. He understood that from the beginning God had determined that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22). Even so, right up to the last minute He pleaded with the Father for the possibility of avoiding the Cross (Matthew 26:39). But there was no other way and thus He endured the Cross and despised the shame of it (Hebrews 12: 2). He was determined to face the Cross and “He steadfastly set His face (as a flint) to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51; Isaiah 50:7).
How dare we then be ashamed of His Cross?
Some of the Galatians had begun to emphasize circumcision in order to avoid the “the offence of the cross” (Galatians 5:11). Paul strongly rebuked them for this and he even doubted that they were saved! (Galatians 4:20). Indeed there can be no salvation except for the Cross and to deny, remove or minimize the Cross is clearly to preach another Gospel (Galatians 1:6). Denying the Cross and preaching another Gospel incurs the anathema – the curse of God (Galatians 1:8,9). Thus in an attempt to avoid the shame of the curse of the Cross, they actually incur the very curse they seek to avoid! My prayer for myself, and for you, is that we may fully identify with Paul’s understanding of our message as well as our method:
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-25)
“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
I take, O cross, thy shadowFor my abiding place;I ask no other sunshine thanThe sunshine of His face;Content to let the world go by,To know no gain nor loss,My sinful self my only shame,My glory all the cross.
 I use the term “message of the cross” strictly in a Biblical sense. In essence I mean that Christ died for our sins and in our place on the cross. And that in order to be born again, the sinner needs to have been crucified with (in) Christ in order to be raised with (in) Him to walk in newness of life. This is the basis of what is known as “pragmatism” in modern theological thought. John Leland. New York Times. http://nyti.ms/2qC7sab July 18, 2005. Osteen did not remove the cross from his building – it was never there and the globe was also prominent in his father’s church.http://gadflyer.com/2014/tear-down-the-cross/ Oliver JJ Lanes. http://bit.ly/2r3gaOS October 2015. Megan Hart. http://bit.ly/2r2NoOo Before you “crucify” me for celebrating Easter, I am aware of its pagan roots and the pagan symbols that surround the season but it is a wonderful opportunity, in a largely Roman Catholic community, to preach the Gospel to the many who only attend church on Easter and Christmas. For more on this topic, please see the three-part series on the Gospel of Self: http://bit.ly/2pHQqDI