Jesus is the Offence of the Gospel
The idea that good news is foolish, offensive, or in Paul's words, "a stumbling block" can be challenging to wrap our minds around. Isn't good news something we all want to hear? But when the Bible speaks of the gospel as offensive, the finger-pointing is often directed at the one who proclaims the gospel in an offensive way. At least, the attitude of many is that we can win the world with the gospel if only we didn't proclaim it using words or ideas that offend them.
Paul disagrees with this attitude in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. We see his desire for the church to grow in Christ, and to grow, they had to quit bickering over which preacher they liked best. The preacher was not the one causing the growth. According to Paul, all the power is in the gospel.
As Paul lays out his desire for the church, he naturally begins telling them about the call of the gospel they received. What they had received and how they had received it was inconsistent with their pastor-worship infighting. He writes,
"For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:17-23).
If we take a step back to observe Paul's world, Jews and Greeks indicated everyone. Greek culture remained throughout the known world as the lasting remnant of Alexander the Great's conquest, and it was the world in which the Jews lived.
The Greeks sought wisdom. They wanted to hear great orators describe the depths of philosophy. The Jews, on the other hand, looked for signs and wonders, perhaps as a natural reflex inherited from their ancestors in the wilderness. And both found the gospel offensive.
To the Greeks, simple men speaking a simple message about a simple man did not land softly in their ears. To the Jews, preaching about a suffering savior was a poor substitute for a conquering king. So Jesus was the offence of the gospel to them.
Is Jesus offensive today?
If we think about our western world, where the leaders have historically asked God to bless their lands, celebrities and athletes mention Jesus before a watching world, and about half of the population self-identifies as 'Christian,' one would think Jesus couldn't offend anyone. But we would be wrong. Jesus is still offensive in our society because the popular Jesus is not the real Jesus.
Jesus offends us today for the same reasons He offended the Jews and Greeks of Paul's day. We don't live in a world far removed from ancient near eastern civilization. Sure, you are most likely reading these words on a device you fit in your pocket and not on parchment in a library, yet the world around you only listens to the 'experts' and only believes something if they can tangibly prove it. Jesus offends both. He does not use 'experts' to spread His message, but ordinary and simple people. And we still believe in Him by faith. There is nothing tangible to convince us of His death and resurrection.
In the church, we share the Corinthian problems. We are bombarded with celebrity pastors and praise individual spiritual experiences as confirmation of Jesus' existence. However, Paul's message remains the same: there is no power in that message, and that kind of Jesus is not the biblical Jesus.
Yet, many Christians attempt to proclaim a Jesus without offence: a Jesus who is all about love and letting people do what they want. They want a Jesus who wants them, who will be their best friend and help them through life's difficulties. Paul understood Jesus better than us (by a long shot!) and what Jesus should be to us is "wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). This is the Jesus who offends because He leaves no room for us to boast in our abilities, social status, or experiences. There is no room for us with this Jesus.
Paul's Jesus is the same Jesus who calls us to deny ourselves in order to follow Him. We are called to only boast in the Lord, which is offensive to our individualistic mindset. Rather than give it all to God, we would take pride in who we are and what we can do. Jesus is the offence of the gospel because He stands opposed to the pride we hold near and dear to our sense of self.
There is comfort in this offence to those who embrace Jesus. Paul tells the Corinthians they must believe in this Jesus "so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:5). What hope or assurance can man's wisdom bring us? Nothing eternal—that is for sure. But if our faith rests in the power of the One who created all things and sustains all things, we have every reason to have hope and assurance.