“Hide not the offense of the cross, lest you make it of none effect. The angles and corners of the gospel are its strength: to pare them off is to deprive it of power. Toning down is not the increase of strength, but the death of it.” -Charles H. Spurgeon
Writing to a group of early Christians in Corinth, the Apostle Paul famously said, “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” (1 Cor. 1:18). Christ crucified was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (v. 23), a foolish thing and a sign of weakness.
In the ancient world a cross was not something decorative to put atop buildings or wear, diamond-studded, around one’s neck. It was a barbaric method of slow death. Typically reserved for the very worst of criminals among despised people groups, crucifixion was used by Greeks and Romans to inflict maximum pain and humiliation on deserving criminals. That the supposed “King of the Jews” would be subject to such a death was beyond scandalous. Who would believe in a “messiah” who did not overtake the Roman oppressors but rather let them convict, ridicule and execute him in such an embarrassing way? It was foolishness.
The cross of Christ was foolishness even to those in Jesus’ inner circle. Immediately after Jesus confirmed his disciples’ suspicions/hopes that he was the long-awaited messiah (Mk. 8:27-30), Jesus pulled the rug out from under their feet. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31), he told his disciples. Suffering? Rejection? Death? It was so preposterous that Peter began to “rebuke” Jesus (v. 32) for even suggesting it.
But Jesus wasn’t delusional. As if his own impending suffering and death wasn’t shocking enough, Jesus then throws down the discipleship gauntlet: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (vs. 34-35).
Want to follow Jesus? Join him at the cross. Just as Jesus “suffered outside the gate” on his road to Calvary, so should we “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Heb. 13:13). To be a follower of Christ is to join his journey of abandoning comfort and enduring suffering, a journey that is foolishness in the eyes of the world.
The gospel of Christ crucified was, and remains, “folly” because it undermines human logic and wisdom. We have ideas about what redemption and revolution should look like. We have notions of what strength is. Yet the wisdom and power of God often confounds us. As John Stott notes, “The gospel of the cross will never be a popular message because it humbles the pride of our intellect and character.”
Just as it scandalizes by embracing humility in a world where pride reigns, the cross is also unpopular because it symbolizes weakness in a world obsessed with power. In a Darwinian environment of survival-of-the-fittest, weakness is not an asset. This is why Friedrich Nietzsche rejected Christianity, “the religion of pity” which “makes suffering contagious.” Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 27 are the very essence of Christianity’s stupidity: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” These represent, for Nietzsche, the “horrible secret thoughts” behind the symbolism of “God on the cross.”
The apparent weakness of God on a cross is also offensive to Islam, a religion that both denies the need for and the historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion, finding it “inappropriate that a major prophet of God should come to such an ignominious end” (Stott). The cross of Christ is a major dividing point between Islam and Christianity, and Muslims who convert to Christianity often face ridicule, alienation from family and other persecution. The indelible, gruesome images of 21 Egyptian Christians being beheaded by members of the Islamic State in a 2015 video capture it well. Described in a caption as “people of the cross,” these orange jumpsuit-clad martyrs are in positions of weakness: vulnerable on their knees as the knives of their captors saw at their necks. And yet as they succumb to death they do so in faith, trusting in the victory of another victim of brutal execution.
Reflecting the truism of Paul that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), these martyrs lost their lives but also gained. And so it is for people of the cross: visible loss for invisible gain, present suffering and future glory. This is the offense of the cross. Not only that a God would subject himself to such weakness and death, but that such perceived folly would become the pride of His followers.