The Offense of the Cross
December 31st, 1972 @ 10:50 AM
THE OFFENSE OF THE CROSS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-31-72 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Offense of the Cross. At these morning hours we are preaching through the Book of Galatians. We are in the fifth chapter, and the message is from a text and a word in the eleventh verse, “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision,” the keeping of the law in order to be saved, “why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offense of the cross ceased.” [Galatians 5:11]
As I read that verse in its Greek text, there is a word here that I have read before, “Then is the skandalon,” and our English word “scandal” comes from it, “then is the skandalon of the cross ceased.” I have met that word before. In the first Corinthian letter, chapter 1, verse 22 and following, Paul wrote this:
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, unto the Greeks foolishness;
But unto us who are saved, whether Jew or Greek, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
[1 Corinthians 1:22-24]
In that text is that same word, “The Jews require a sign, the Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews, a skandalon,” here translated stumbling block [1 Corinthians 1:22-23]; in the text in Galatians translated “offense,” a skandalon [Galatians 5:11]. Unto the Greeks mōrian, “idiocy,” foolishness, moronic sterility, “but unto us who are saved, it is Christ the dunamis, the power of God” [1 Corinthians 1:23-24].
That word, the skandalon of the cross, “the offense of the cross,” the Judaizers against whom Paul is addressing this letter to the churches in Galatia [Galatians 1:1-2], the Judaizers were very content to name and to accept Christ as a great man, a good man. His works of mercy, His deeds of forgiveness, His kindness, His compassion, all were beautifully acceptable. But as a way of salvation, His cross was a skandalon. It was an offense [Galatians 5:11]. It violated the proprieties of life. For a man to be saved by rituals, and by ceremonies, and by obediences to commandments, and by the keeping of laws was perfectly reasonable and natural and one that they promulgated; but that a man could be saved by trusting the Christ of the cross was a skandalon—the offensiveness of the cross of Christ! [Galatians 5:11].
Now that was a day of a thousand nine hundred years ago. Is it a skandalon? Is it an offense today? How things have changed! The cross today is looked upon as a part of the culture of Western civilization. We, in many instances, build our churches on the plan of the cross. There’s the knave, the transepts, the central altar. The cross is placed high on the top of our tallest steeples as a sign and an aegis under which we are proud to march. The cross is embossed on our Bibles. It is a piece of jewelry. It is worn as an ornament around our necks. It is used in the ecclesiastical decoration of all the churches of Christendom.
It is an object of art. Even the poets who may not at all have any conversance with the faith yet will use the cross as an acceptable image in their poetic lines. The whole world has come to accept the cross as a sentimental sign of dedication and self-sacrifice. Well, is it offensive today? Is there any offense in the cross today? This day is no different than the day of the apostle Paul [Galatians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24]. The same offensiveness, the same skandalon that was found in it in the days of the apostle is no less true in our day and in our generation.
It was with keen insight that Isaiah said in the first verses of the fifty-third chapter, “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him” [Isaiah 53:2]. And in that same vein, Paul wrote these words, “For the preaching of Christ crucified is to the Jew an offense, and to the Greek it is moronic idiocy!” [1 Corinthians 1:23]. Today, as in that day, to follow the Lord around the shores of Galilee, to look upon the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-7:29], or the Christ of the Golden Rule [Matthew 7:12], or the Christ of the compassionate, forgiving Savior [Matthew 9:1-8], or the Christ of superlative, pedagogical wisdom is acceptable [Matthew 22:15-46]. But actually the Christ of the cross is as scandalous, as offensive today as it was then [Galatians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24].
I was interested in reading a story that happened in the days of Thomas Carlyle. He was in London, and he was the guest in the home of a glittering social group. He was the guest of a socialite. She was light of mind and theology and one of those butterflies that lives on the surface, sipping here, sipping there. And in the course of the conversation, she began to speak of the guilt of the Jewish people in slaying the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and she said if Christ were to come today, we would open our homes to Him and welcome Him. Then she said, “And Mr. Carlyle, isn’t that true?” And Thomas Carlyle replied and I copied down his answer; “No, I don’t, madam. I think that had He come very fashionably dressed with plenty of money, and preaching doctrines very palatable to the higher orders, I might have had the honor of receiving a card from you, on the back of which would be written ‘To meet our Savior.’ But if He came uttering His sublime precepts, and denouncing the Pharisees, and associating with publicans as He did, you would have treated Him much as the Jews did and cried out, ‘Take Him to Newgate and hang Him!’” It is very much problematical, whether if the Lord came today, that He would be any more generously received or more devoutly believed in, accepted, than He was in the days of the apostle Paul—for the offense of the cross, the skandalon of the cross is not ceased! [Galatians 5:11].
Well, how can you say a thing like that in the cultured society in which we live and in the great degree of civilization into which we have advanced? All right, I have three answers for that. Why the skandalon, why the offense of the cross today, yesterday, in the generation that is yet to come—throughout the centuries of human story? Number one: the offense of the cross can be found in its exposing the real nature and heart of the world. It is cheap sentimentality that deifies humanity and that glosses over the iniquity and the wickedness in the human heart.
It was interesting to me in preparation for the sermon to read about a church in Edinburgh, a very famous one. And a minister preached at the morning hour and another minister preached at the evening hour; both of them fellow pastors of the church. And the man who stood up at the morning hour said that there is an inherent veneration for goodness in the heart of man. And that if virtue and goodness were to appear, it would immediately be enthroned and received in adoration on the part of all mankind. Now, he said that at the morning hour. At the evening hour, his fellow minister, apparently unaware of what the other one had said at the noonday hour, this one preaching at the evening hour said—he said, “Moral goodness and beauty of life and character came incarnate into this world, and instead of being enthroned, humanity took Him, mocked Him, ridiculed Him, finally nailed Him to a cross, and He died in shame on a tree” [Matthew 27:26-50]. Which one of those two is correct? History says it was the second minister who really portrays the depths of the depravity of the human heart, and all we need to do is to read the pages of history and especially the pages of the Bible to confirm that judgment upon the human race! In the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis, for example, it says God looked down from heaven and “saw that the wickedness of the earth was great, and that the very imagination of the thoughts of men’s hearts was evil continually!” [Genesis 6:5] And all the rest of the story verifies that judgment from heaven. The story of Israel and the story of Judah is one of constant relapse and sin. The story of Nineveh and the story of Babylon is one of ruthless, merciless cruelty. The story of the whole human race is summarized in the first chapter of the Book of Romans [Romans 1:17-32].
I don’t read it in public. I never heard of anybody reading the first chapter of the Book of Romans in public. You just don’t read it in public. And yet it is a characterization of the Roman Empire and the Roman civilization, and it sounds like a description of the morality in the life of the modern American nation! But there is no exhibition, there is no exposing of the human heart as we find in the crucifixion and in the cross of the Son of God. The [nineteenth] chapter of the Book of John says that He was hanged; He was nailed to the tree outside the city wall, outside the city gate on the main highway that leads into Jerusalem [John 19:20]. The multitudes passed by and they saw the pain and the crying and heard the sobs, and looked upon the tears in silent indifference.
That cross is a rebuke of the whole human race: Herod Antipas, with his coarse vices and his cheap revelry; Caiaphas, the scheming high priest; Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor with his eye on his career and his place; Judas Iscariot, with his covetous traitorous deed [Matthew 26:14-16, 47-50]. The Roman soldiers gambling at the foot of the cross for His fifth garment [John 19:23-24]; the Pharisees, and the scribes, and the leaders of the religion of the nation as they mocked Him [Matthew 27:41] or sat down in indifference or passed by in silent unconcern; even the disciples themselves as they forsook Him and fled [Matthew 26:56], and Simon Peter as he denied three times that he even knew Him [Matthew 26:69-75]. Like the shadow of the wings of the death angel that passed over Egypt in the night of the Passover [Exodus 12:23], the shadow of the human heart’s depravity passes over the whole human race. The crucifixion of Christ was a judgment upon the city, upon the state, upon the empire and upon all humanity! And we are no different. The sin and the violence of which mankind is capable is without depths.
Yesterday afternoon, I buried a beautiful young wife, twenty years of age. Her young husband was sick in one of the hospitals of Dallas. She had driven to park her car in order to go to see her husband. When finally they found her, she had been shot to death. She had been murdered seated there in the car with her seatbelt fastened. This morning, at the eight-fifteen hour that sweet family came down here with the young husband, who was just out of the hospital, in order to weep before God. The headlines of the papers, the stories on the pages of history, what goes on day and night is a condemnation of the world, and is a reflection of the truth that the cross of Christ is a rebuke to human nature, and the depravity of the human soul, the skandalon, the offense of the cross.
Number two: the offense of the cross, the skandalon of the cross, it is a call to self-denial and a repudiation of the rewards of the world. You can see that poignantly in the life of the rich young ruler [Mark 10:17-22]. He was noble in every respect. He had kept the commandments, he extolled the Lord from the days of his youth, from his youth up [Mark 10:18-20]. And the Lord looking upon him loved him [Mark 10:21]. He was the epitome of worldly success. The rewards and the emoluments of the social order had been heaped upon him. He was rich. He was young. He was a ruler. And when he asked the Lord of the eternal life preached by the Prophet of Galilee, the Lord said to him there’s not room enough, the way isn’t wide enough for a man to go into heaven with all of his heart bound up in all that you possess. Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Give it away, anything, get rid of it. It’s trash. It’s nothing. Get rid of it. And then the sentence, “And come, take up your cross, and follow Me” [Mark 10:21]. And the Scriptures say the lad, “was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” [Mark 10:22]. Oh, how Christ looks at things and how Christ looks at the world and how the world looks at itself! In the last chapter of Paul’s last letter, he said, “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” [2 Timothy 4:10].
Oh, I grant you, it is romantically interesting to follow in the footsteps of the Teacher along the blue shores of Galilee. It would certainly be interesting to join the great parade—as we’re going to have tomorrow here in Dallas—join the great parade on Palm Sunday and enter into the city of peace into Jerusalem, in the triumphal entry of our Lord [Matthew 21:1-11]. But to take His cross and to go outside of the city [John 19:20] bearing His reproach is a skandalon and an offense! [1 Corinthians 1:22-24]. It’s something different. For example, who wants to be a prude? And who wants to be a square? And who wants to be looked upon as puritanical and Victorian? For we have the desire to be good sports, and to be accepted, and if you’re young enough, to be popular.
I sat at a civic meeting here in Dallas. Funny thing to me, it was supposed to be a religious meeting. One of these things, you know, that Dallas presents as pulling all the community together back of a great common philanthropy. Well, I was seated, big ballroom between two laymen, and I was the pivot man in between. And on one side and on the other side, they talked back and forth. They talked about their drinking; they talked about their gambling; they talked about their promiscuous whoremongering back and forth. And as though I, being a minister—I, a good sport—why should I think anything of their gambling? Why should I think anything of their drinking? Why should I think of anything of their whoremongering? After all, we’re to be good sports. Who wants to be prudish, and square, and puritanical, and Victorian? At the end of the meal, I said to the men, I said, “Before I leave, I would just like for you to know that my heart is not in sympathy with anything that you men have discussed and joked about at this dinner meeting today, just not; just not.”
You know, the politician, he wants to be known as a good sport. He doesn’t want to be a square, and he doesn’t want to be puritanical, and he doesn’t want to be prudish. What would the brewery, and what would distillery, and what would the pimp, and what the gambler, and the bookie, what would they say about him? I tell you, the lobby of the liquor industry is really something. It’s in every legislative hall in the land. So the politician, in order to be a good sport, he says, “damn,” and he says, “hell,” and he drinks and he gambles a little. That’s what it is to be accepted by the world. The skandalon, the offense of the cross is too great [Galatians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24]. Or take anything that the world prizes—name it. We look upon the man who is acceptable in our culture and in our society. He is a man of success. Why, certainly, success! He’s affluent. He has all of the accouterments of wealth, and he is a man of parts, and as such, he is to be respected and accepted. Those are the standards of the world.
You know, the Lord is so different, so different. What the whole world had was nothing to Him—all of it. And these who most are in the spirit of our Lord are those who have that judgment in their hearts. The blandishments and the rewards and the stipends and the accumulations and the embellishments of the world are nothing, nothing at all. They don’t even weigh in the balance, they are nothing.
You know, there was a man who was shabbily dressed, on his small salary, lived in a little house, and he was known as being stingy, and penurious, and above-reason frugal. And he lived that way. The pastor ate dinner with him, a very sparse meal, with that shabbily dressed house, in that most humble little cottage. You know what the pastor found out? For the years, and the years, and the years, that humble man had taken his little salary and had tried to live on as small a part of it as he could, and for the rest of his salary, for the years and the years and the years, he had supported a missionary on the foreign field. Look at him. Who would want to emulate that? Look at his dress, look at his success, look at his achievement, look at his advancement, look at the house that he lives in, look at him; who would follow that? It’s just a difference between how God sees a thing and how the world sees a thing.
Why, I can point out to you old-timers here in the church—we had a deacon here who was a deacon in this church for a generation, and he came to church on a bicycle. Do you remember him? He came to church on a bicycle. In his age, a car struck him, and he was killed riding his bicycle, and I buried him. He also was that way. He dressed very cheaply and he lived very frugally, but he gave everything that he had to this dear church, everything, everything. I’m not saying that you ought to do that, nor am I inviting anyone of us to do that. The Lord never told Zaccheus to sell everything that he had. The Lord never said that to Nicodemus or to Joseph of Arimathea, who were wealthy men. It’s just that in our sight and in our judgment, sometimes, what we think is great success and achievement, in God’s sight is a peccadillo. It’s an inconsequential. It is an insignificant. And some things that we think are so despised and rejected may be in God’s sight great and noble and worthy. The skandalon of the cross; it is a call to self-denial and a repudiation of the cheap rewards of the world [1 Corinthians 1:22-24; Galatians 5:11].
Third: why the offense of the cross, the skandalon of the cross? Third, because it is presented in the Bible, in the Word of God, in the kerussō, in the kerugma, in the preaching, in the proclamation of the gospel of Christ, the cross is presented as the only way of salvation. And it is presented thus, openly, statedly, vehemently, vigorously. There’s no doubt of the clarity of the message of the Word of God regarding the way to be saved. It is the truth; it is the way; it is the life! [John 14:6]. And there is none other! As Simon Peter stood up and proclaimed, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven, whereby we must be saved!” [Acts 4:12].
Oh, when the gospel message is presented as the Bible, as the Holy Scriptures, presents it, it is always that! It is not Christ possibly. It’s not Christ alternatively. It is not Christ among many others, but it is the Lord Christ alone! [John 14:6; Acts 4:12]. And that is an offense and a scandal to most of the world. Why? It is a minority in the world, I mean a small minority in the world, but who believes that there are many ways to heaven there are many ways to heaven, we’re all striving to get to the same place. And the Buddhist goes his way, and the Mohammedan goes his way, and the Shintoist goes his way, and the Confucianist goes his way, and the Taoist goes his way, and all of these animists, they go their way. And the Christian goes his way, and we’re all striving for the same place. And if a man is sincere in his Buddhism, or sincere in his Islamic faith, or if he’s sincere in his Shinto worship, if he’s sincere in the veneration of his ancestors, if he’s a Confucianist—whatever it is—he is just as certain of heaven and as certain to be saved as the Christian who looks in the faith to the blood of Christ.
That is absolutely the whole attitude of practically the whole world. And when the Christian stands up and says, “There’s no other way, and there’s no other name except in the cross of Jesus Christ” [John 14:6; Acts 4:12], it becomes a skandalon and an offense! [Galatians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24]. Oh, how true that is! Even the liberal minister denies the effect, the cleansing, the atoning power of the blood of Christ [Romans 5:9-11]. They refer to it as a butcher shop religion, and they call it a religion of the shambles. And I have been in churches where all of the hymnbooks were purged of songs on the blood. Christ is a great, good man. He is a heroic man. He is an ideal man. But He is not in any wise looked upon, in this liberal world, as being the Savior through His blood! That is an offense to modern, cultured society.
You know, it has always been interesting to me how the Christian faith in the Bible, here in the Scriptures, and wherever a man has truly presented it, it has always been interesting to me how uncompromising is the proclaimer, the preacher, in that faith that it is this and nothing else! There is no alternative. It is Christ alone. It is to be saved or not to be saved [John 14:6; Acts 4:12].
One time, I brought to our congregation here an answer why the Romans persecuted the Christians when the Roman Empire was the most tolerant, and the most liberal, and the most wise, and the most astute in its handling the many provinces and nations and religions of its empire of any kingdom that ever lived. There never was any empire or kingdom that was as astutely wise or as tolerantly liberal in its attitude toward religion as was the Roman Empire. They could worship; they could have shrines, they could have temples, they could do anything that they pleased—it was their choice. And yet the Roman Empire, the Caesars, persecuted the Christians. Why? For one simple reason; the Christian refused to compromise his faith with any other religion whatsoever. And when they invited them to place Jesus in their pantheon by Jupiter, by Juno, by Neptune, by Isis, by Osiris, the Christian said, “No! He is Christ alone. Kurios Kaisar, no! Kurios Iēsous, yes!”
And when they were invited just to bow down before the Roman image, and for their lives, they would be given life if they’d take just a pinch of incense and put it on the fire that burned in the presence of the image of the Roman Caesar, the Christian died, fed to the lions, rather than compromise with a pinch of incense. I am telling you what is the faith, the faith of the New Testament and the faith of the martyrs and the faith of the true men of God through the centuries. And that kind of a faith, uncompromising—there is no salvation in any other; it lies in Christ [John 14:6; Acts 4:12]—is a skandalon and an offense [Galatians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24].
Dear people, I have just tried this morning to show, my own heart needs it, how the same offensive reception of the cross of Christ in these generations gone by is the same characterization of the fallen, depraved heart of humanity today. We may have learned in some instances to be a little more astute in how we express our violence. A long time ago, it may have been with an axe or a stone or a club. It may have been a long time ago with an arrow and a spear. It may have been a long time ago with a musket and a rifle. And we’re more sophisticated today, we do it with a jet bomber, and napalm, and explosive dynamite, and hell bombs. But the depravity of the human heart is just the same. And the offense of the cross and the skandalon of the message of Christ [Galatians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24] is ultimately no more acceptable today than it was in the generations that have passed, or in the generations that are yet to come; until the Lord returns from heaven, bringing peace and righteousness to this war-weary, sin-cursed earth [Romans 8:19-24]. Dear God, may He help me in the new year. May He help our church and its congregation in the new year, and may God help us all in the new year.
Master, somehow, in spite of myself, let there be less and less and less of me and more and more and more of Thee, till there could be none of me and all of Thee. Lord, help me in my judgments, to see things as they really are; not to be blinded by the tinsel and tinfoil and the cheap glitter of the world, but to see things eternal, enduring, as one who looks upon the invisible. Grant it God in heaven, please, please do.
We must sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, in this balcony round, down one of these stairways, on this lower floor, into the aisle and to the front, “Here I come, pastor. I make it now. I have decided in my heart for Christ now, and here I come.” Make the decision, and on the first note of that first stanza, down this aisle, come, come, while we stand and while we sing.