We love a good scandal, don’t we? It’s not just limited to “scandal sheets” like the National Enquirer or shows like TMZ; even the mainstream media outlets enjoy it when a good, juicy scandal appears, because it will drive sales and boost viewership. When a scandal erupts – a Hollywood star or popular politician gets caught cheating on his or her spouse, for example – folks shake their heads and buy a copy of the latest magazine that spells out the sordid details.
We know a scandal when we see it. Scandals involve disgraceful or offensive activities. They makes us look with distaste at the subject of the scandal. The word itself comes from a Greek term skandalon, which means a stumbling block or offense. It literally referred to the stone which stuck out of the ground, ready to trip up a traveler who wasn’t paying attention. And, amazingly enough, it is precisely the word that the apostle Paul used to describe the message of Jesus Christ.
Why would the first great missionary of Christianity refer to the gospel as a scandal? In his letter to the early Christians in the Greek city of Corinth – a church which would have included both Jews and Gentiles – Paul points out that the central message of Christ is scandalous to the human mind: that a righteous, just God would take on humanity and suffer a humiliating death in order to save people from their own sin and rebellion. The cross is the heart of the scandal – why would a majestic, all-powerful God humble Himself by taking on human flesh and willingly submit to a vicious, humiliating execution on our behalf?
As Paul asserts (in 1 Cor. 1:18-25), that didn’t make sense to the Jewish mind or to the Greek mind. The Jews of that day weren’t looking for a suffering Savior, but a triumphant one who would free them from Roman oppression. The cross itself was so distasteful, so repugnant, that they could not comprehend God accepting such a fate. The Greeks, on the other hand, thought the whole idea – that God would allow His Son to die for others – was absurd, utter folly. What honor could come from such an action?
Yet the scandal of the cross is at the heart of the gospel – it is the absolute foundation of the Christian faith. Jesus allowed Himself to be nailed to a cross – sacrificing his own sinless life in an act of infinite love, so that in His action he paid the price of humanity’s sin and made it possible to restore the relationship between Creator and creatures. At the cross Jesus took a symbol of terror and humiliation and turns it into a symbol of God’s love.
Even today, the gospel is a scandal to many.
The cross is a scandal to the person who wants to do things his or her own way, living for self and pleasure, because it calls us to give ourselves to something higher and greater than our own self-satisfaction.
The gospel is a scandal to the person whose life is consumed by hatred and bigotry toward others, because it represents a God who loves and seeks out all persons, no matter who they are or what they have done.
The gospel is a scandal to the person who thinks life has no ultimate meaning or purpose, because if God truly sent His Son to die on our behalf – and if He truly invites us into a relationship with Himself – then it changes everything.
The scandal of the cross is a stumbling block to many. But to those who respond to God’s love and grace as expressed on that cross, it becomes the power and wisdom of God in their lives. And that’s no scandal; it is good news.
Michael Duduit is founding Dean of the College of Christian Studies and the Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University. He also serves as Professor of Christian Ministry. He is the founder and still serves as Executive Editor of Preaching magazine, one of the nation’s premier publications for pastors. His email newsletter, Preaching Now, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences. He is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Joy in Ministry: Messages from Second Corinthians, Preaching with Power: Dynamic Insights from Twenty Top Communicators and Communicate With Power.