The scandal of the cross

In 1 Corinthians 1:23 Paul uses the Greek word skandelon to indicate that the cross is scandalous. But, where is the “scandal” in it? Why would people stumble over the forgiveness of sins, the defeat Satan, a new life, and a home in heaven? What’s so scandalous about that? The scandal lies in the basic concept of the cross itself as it touches three things.

First, the cross highlights human pride. When we confront the cross we are given two choices. Either we are right about how righteous we are and God is wrong. Or, God is right about us being sinful and we are wrong.

The people of Jesus day wanted a conquering Saviour, a champion who would destroy their enemies. When great miracles brought the crowds, they wanted to make him king. But when he talked about dying they wanted no part of him. When he was crucified like a common criminal, they fled. They didn’t want a Saviour like that. He didn’t die like a hero.

People of today like Jesus the good teacher, the wise sage, but not Jesus the saving-sacrifice for sin. They like Jesus the nice guy, but not the bleeding lamb. They want a Christ without a bloody cross. It’s too ego-shattering to admit the need for the cross. Even in the church, the stress is often placed more on the development of self-esteem than on deliverance from selfishness and sin.

But here is the heart of the Christian experience. To become Christian is to turn to Jesus. It is to permit Christ to rule. That is the reverse of what human pride wants. To become Christian is to begin at the cross and admit that God, through Christ, provided the only remedy for sin.

To admit that is humbling because it says that I am wrong. I can’t solve the sin problem by human effort. The problem of sin is so big that it took the death of Jesus to solve it. So, the cross is an offence, a scandalous stumbling block to human pride.

Second, the cross highlights the nature of grace. The cross tells me I can do nothing to make matters right. However, many people cannot make the confession that salvation is by grace alone. We want to be saved. We want victory over destructive habits. We want eternal life. But we want a part to play in it.

Almost every heresy in the church stems from this “scandal.” Inborn in our human nature is this urge to save ourselves and to win God’s favour. Some in Paul’s day thought they could do it with circumcision and food laws. Some in later times tried it by living in caves and monasteries. Others have believed they could do it by the way they dressed or a host of other things. But, the Bible says, “If salvation comes by the law...then Christ has died for nothing.”

The cross rules out human effort as a way of salvation. “It is not of works of righteousness...lest anyone should boast.” The cross is God’s action on our behalf. It is ego-deflating because it takes the focus of what we think we can do and places it on what Christ has done. As Augustus Toplady wrote, “These for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone. In my hands no price I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”

Third, the cross is necessary for daily discipleship. The cross is not only at the beginning but the centre of the Christian life. Jesus said, “Except you deny yourself and take up your cross, you cannot be my disciple.” Pretty strong words, aren’t they? It is possible that if I am not bearing the cross I am not a true disciple? Think about it for a moment.

What is this cross that we are to take up? Unbiblical sentiment has suggested that “bearing our cross” means suffering. So, almost every burden has been called a cross. However, in the Bible, burdens are called burdens and not crosses. The real meaning of our cross is his cross. He suffered for us, in our place as a substitute.

It is the clearest demonstration of the extent of God’s love for us. To be caught up in my own personal burdens and never to carry the burdens of others is to miss the central truth of the cross. Taking up the cross means to accept that Christ died for me and, then, to get involved lovingly and redemptively in the needs of others.

Paul urged the Galatians in 6:12, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Such a cross involves humiliation and ego-deflation because it consists of self-denial. Selfish interests are put aside in the interest of Christ and others.

How would we feel if we were sitting on the throne of England and the Queen suddenly entered the room in all her royal regalia. We would feel embarrassed if we had any sensitivity at all. But we spend a lot of time on the thrones of our own lives? Only Jesus should sit there. If we have usurped his rightful place as Lord of our lives, let us once more this Easter season take up the cross. Let there be an end to the self-centred life in all its forms. Remember, Christ bore the shame of the scandal and, in doing so, secured our salvation.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Dr. Garry E. Milley is an ordained PAOC minister, author, and speaker.