The Offense of the Cross

Galatians 5:7-12 (ESV)

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? [8] This persuasion is not from him who calls you. [9] A little leaven leavens the whole lump. [10] I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. [11] But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. [12] I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why someone would reject a free gift of grace for a demanding law of works. Would you rather win the lottery or work sixty hours a week for forty years? Most of us would probably choose the lottery. 

Yet somehow the Galatians, who “were running well” (v.7), are now greatly tempted to abandon Paul’s teaching and embrace circumcision. This error is attractive enough that it could “leaven the whole lump,” or corrupt the entire Galatian Church. It does not come from God (v. 8) and deserves punishment (v. 10), yet the Apostle Paul is persecuted for opposing it.  In fact, this issue behind circumcision is at the very center of what makes the cross offensive (v. 11).

So why is the cross so offensive?  

The message of the cross is that the Son of God had to die in order to save helpless sinners from themselves. The cross is offensive because it destroys our pride and self-reliance. We’re forced to acknowledge both our wickedness and our complete inability to do anything about it. We’re forced to admit that we are utterly at the mercy of God.

So when the message of circumcision comes to the Galatian Church, this way of earning acceptance before God appeals to their pride. Though painful, circumcision provides the Galatians with a means by which they can boast before God and one another. If one became so bold, he might even demand his rights before God, saying, “I’m circumcised, therefore You HAVE to bless me!” 

If salvation is by grace alone, then we cannot boast and we certainly cannot demand anything from God.  We can only be thankful and worship. 

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Limited Need, Limited Relationship

Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless
C. John Miller

There are many professing Christians who have never fully grasped how lost in sin they really were, and how low God had to stoop to save them.  The propriety and morality of their outward lives has made it hard for them to believe that their need to be redeemed was as desperate as anyone else’s.  Up to a point, they are convinced of their need for salvation, but the fact that their outward lives have been unmarked by scandal or blasphemy has caused them to feel as if they don’t need it quite as much as some other people they see.

This complacent attitude toward the gospel, unarticulated though it may be, has…effects on the believer.  The first is a distance between himself and God that, somehow, he is never able to overcome.  He doesn’t understand why; he believes the right things, he prays, he is active in church and is willing to serve.  But the problem came about when he first placed himself partially out of the reach of the gospel and of grace.  A person who has limited his need for God’s grace has inevitably limited his relationship with God.  God’s unconditional, unlimited love for him is something he has missed.  It is beyond the realm of his self-centered experience.  He doesn’t, at bottom, really understand what happened – for him – at the cross.  He feels a need for many things, but does not hunger for the grace of atonement.  And it is very likely that the gap he senses in his relationship with God is causing him either to try to earn God’s favor with good works, or to rationalize away the richness of other Christian lives as maudlin, pietistic, or imbalanced.

Evil is a Human Problem

[3] Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
[4] Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Isaiah 58:3-4

The prophet Isaiah confronts God’s people with their sin.  They oppress and do violence, even on a day of fasting.  In the 11th and 12th century, the Christian Church was responsible for terrible things like the Inquisition and the Crusades.  God does not ignore evil among His own people.  He is not shy in calling them to account for their sin.  Since He is good, loving, and just, He must confront and oppose all sin.

But to see only Christian sin is rather superficial.  Christians have done terrible things.  People of other religions have done terrible things too.  In the recent past, militant Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan led to aggressive wars and atrocities.  Muslim terrorists are currently causing indescribable suffering.

We may be tempted to say, well then this is a problem of religion.  Religion leads to injustice and hatred because it causes people to think in terms of black and white, good and evil.  But this would ignore a great deal of recent history.

Atheist nations have fared no better.  Under Stalin, communist Russia executed or killed between six and ten million people in prison camps.  While the Khemer Rouge was in power in Cambodia for only about 10 years in the 1970s, they managed to execute nearly a million people out of a total population of seven million.  Today the greatest abuser of human rights is North Korea.

Evil is not a Christian problem.  It is not a religion problem.  It is a human problem.  Something is deeply wrong with humanity.  The Bible calls this problem sin.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way…

Isaiah 53:6a

Mankind has decided to reject God and live how it sees fit.  This turning away from the one who is perfectly good and just has resulted in the fact that this world can be a terrible place.  Thankfully though, this is not the end of the story.

The complete verse of Isaiah 53:6 says:

[6] All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

To address the awful, universal, human problem of sin, God sends His only Son, Jesus, to bear the punishment for sin on our behalf and set us free.

The Divine Warrior

Show Them No Mercy
Tremper Longman III

The first voice we hear in the New Testament is that of John the Baptist, sounding remarkably like the Old Testament prophets of phase 3:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt. 3:7-10; see also vv. 11-12)

John expects that the one coming after him will fill the role of the violent warrior who will rid the land of its oppressors. Imagine his shock later when the one he does recognize through baptism preaches the good news, heals the sick, and exorcises demons. As a matter of fact, we have a record of his reaction in Matthew 11:1-19. John is now in prison and hears reports about Jesus’ ministry. His doubts lead him to send two of his disciples to Jesus to ask the skeptical question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (11:2).

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matt. 11:4-6)

Through his actions, Jesus informs John that he has in fact chosen the right person. However, Jesus is also subtly changing – indeed, enriching – John’s understanding of his mission. In a nutshell, Jesus is the divine warrior, but he has intensified and heightened the battle. No longer is the battle a physical battle against flesh-and-blood enemies, but rather it is directed toward the spiritual powers and authorities. Furthermore, this battle is fought with nonphysical weapons.

The exorcisms of the New Testament are a case in point. Here we see the violent nature of the conflict. Matthew 8:28-34 (see also Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39) narrates the story of Jesus’ ordering the demons in two demon-possessed men to enter into pigs, which then throw themselves into a lake and are destroyed. The climax of phase 4 is violent but in an ironic way. Paul looks back on the crucifixion and pronounces it a military victory over the demonic realm:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col. 2:13-15)

Jesus’ ascension into heaven is also described in military language, indeed by the citation of a holy-war hymn from the Old Testament, Psalm 68:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (Eph. 4:8)

Jesus defeated the powers and authorities, not by killing but by dying!

He Chose

[28] After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” [29] A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. [30] When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 

– John 19:28-30

Some things are not our choice.  They just happen to us.  I was born in southern California.  I am a boy.  I am short.  I did not choose these things.

The cross is not a tragedy that happened to Jesus.  It did not surprise Him.  It was not something unfortunate, outside of His control.

On Good Friday, the crowd was not in control.  The Pharisees and scribes were not in control. Pilate was not in control.  Not even Satan himself was in control.  Jesus and Jesus alone was in control.

What does this mean?  It means you are loved.

Things that just happen to us don’t say much about what we value or what’s in our hearts.  My core value is not manhood or shortness.  It’s the things we choose that reveal what we really love.  What we choose to do with our time, money, vacation days, etc. reveal what we love.

Jesus chose all that happened to Him.  He did not have to die on a cross.  Some may say He had to because He’s God and God is supposed to do that, but it’s not true.  He had the power and right to do otherwise.  He would have been equally just, righteous, and good if He left us in our sin.

But He chose.  He chose to be flogged, mocked, rejected, and crucified.  He chose to become sin and bear the wrath of God in our place because He loves us.

The cross tells us that sin deserves death.  It tells us our Lord suffered terrible.  And it tells us that we are loved by the God of all creation.  Jesus proved it by choosing the cross.

A Powerful Love

[9] In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. [10] In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

– 1 John 4:9-10

God sent His only Son to die on our behalf. He has shown us a costly love. In verse 10, we find the word ‘propitiation.’ It is an odd word and it means that Jesus has paid for our sins and made us right with God. So God has shown us not only a costly love, but a powerful love.

If you fell into the Ohio river and I jumped in to save you, it would be a costly love. But it makes a difference whether I actually do save you or whether you still drown. Jesus died on the cross and He did not die trying to save us. No on the cross He conquers sin and death and He actually saves sinners from hell.