The Cross: A Stumbling Block 1 Corinthians 15:1-11


1 Corinthians 15:1-11

On this Palm Sunday I want us to think again, and carefully, of the event that lies at the center of our faith: the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it will help us to do so to consider what others, even in the church, are thinking and saying about the cross these days.

Text Comment

v.2       The long chapter that follows concerns the fact and the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. So Paul says straightaway that the resurrection of Jesus that followed his crucifixion lies at the bedrock of the Christian faith and the Christian message to the world. The Christian faith cannot exist and would not exist apart from that historical event.

v.3a     With these words Paul emphasizes that what he taught the Corinthians he did not dream up himself; it is what he had received from the Lord; it is what all Christians believed and all the apostles taught.

v.4       The twice repeated “according to the Scriptures” means that the events of Christ’s passion and resurrection were the fulfillment of the divine plan as it was long before revealed in the Scriptures. These events did not “overtake” the Lord Jesus, so to speak. They were the purpose of his coming into the world and had been predicted long before.

The appearance to Peter on Easter Sunday is mentioned briefly only in Luke’s account (24:34.) It is wonderful to think of the Lord seeking Peter out singly to reassure him of his love after Peter’s cowardly betrayal of the Lord a few nights before.

v.6       The obvious point of mentioning the fact that many of the eyewitnesses of the Lord’s resurrection were still alive is that there were still numbers of people at that time who could confirm the truth of what Paul was saying and what the Christians were preaching. The New Testament makes a great deal of the fact that its report of the stupendous events that make up the message of the gospel was confirmed by many a great many people who had been there and who had themselves seen these things happen.

v.8       Paul will admit that he is, in certain ways, the least of the apostles, but, then goes on to say that this has meant that God’s grace has worked still more powerfully on his behalf. Note that Paul clearly regards his experience on the Damascus road as an appearance of the Lord, just as he appeared to the others.  It was not a vision, it was an encounter.

v.10     We do not expect Paul to say that he worked harder than the other apostles. But remember the polemical context and, in all likelihood, this is something that everyone knew and would have admitted. Paul strikes us as an indefatigable worker. In any case, though he may have got started later than the others, by the grace of God he made up for lost time.

There is a video that is making the rounds these days as certain videos will. It is the recording of a nineteen minute sermon delivered some weeks ago by a Church of Scotland minister, Scott McKenna, to his Edinburgh congregation. His subject was the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. He began with a question posed to him by a university student when he was a panelist at a Darwin Day event: “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Was not Christ’s death a part of God’s plan of salvation?”

The Rev. McKenna replied, “With grace I said to her, “No, No, No! That’s ghastly theology. Don’t go there; you don’t want to go there.”

He went on to admit that, of course, there were reasons why the student would have thought such a thing. It is an idea found everywhere in the church: in theology, in liturgy, in sermons, and in hymns. He then illustrated the standard Christian conception from the hymns “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “And Can it Be,” both of which beautifully and powerfully express the thought that ours were the transgressions but Christ’s was the deadly pain and that it is the most amazing thing that we should have an interest in the Savior’s blood, that is, in his sacrificial death. Mr. McKenna admitted that there has long been in the church a widespread understanding that Jesus died in our place and that in so dying he bore the punishment our sins deserved.

But, he said, “In my view this theology is an obstacle to evangelism in the 21st century.” “It is an obstacle,” he went on to say, “because it portrays God as a Potentate who demands blood for offenses he has suffered. Our sins have offended him; he demands a blood sacrifice.” This, he told his congregation, is the theology of substitutionary atonement, Christ dying in our place, suffering the penalty of our sins. Pastor McKenna admitted that he was almost embarrassed explaining this theology because, as he put it, “it is well past sell-by date and in some respects quite immoral.” He never did, by the way, explain that in this theology of substitutionary atonement, while God demands satisfaction for sin – Mr. McKenna was certainly right about that! — it is God himself who in love provides that satisfaction. God does not punish some third party for our sins; he bears our punishment himself.

He then argued that the theology of substitutionary atonement does not go back to the Bible. Some of the words are there, he admitted, but not the theology. He is, however, very inconsistent in making this claim. Sometimes he seems to suggest that his view is the Bible’s view. At other places in the sermon he makes it clear that we need to move beyond the teaching of the Bible in our understanding of God and of religion.

In the Gospels, in fact, the death of Christ was clearly the work of the Romans. By it they warned anyone and everyone to consider what happens to those who oppose the empire or who caused trouble for the empire. Jesus died a terrorist, though a non-violent man. Jesus did not die to pay for sins. He did not die as our substitute. His death was an unfortunate political event, the sort of thing that can sometimes happen in our violent world. He goes on to say that to say that even if Jesus is said to have died as a sacrifice, that doesn’t mean that he died for sin. Indeed, according to Pastor McKenna, the OT sacrifices themselves had nothing to do with sin. “It is time to depart from, to ditch this substitutionary atonement,” he told his congregation.

The fundamental problem with that doctrine, he went on to say, is that a forgiveness that is given to us in that way leaves us unchanged, but the central concern of Christianity and of all the world’s religions is that of inner change. “Substitutionary atonement makes sin, forgiveness, and entrance into the afterlife the center of faith, but what matters is our transformation,” he said.

There were other remarkable assertions in the sermon, as you might imagine. For example, “Jesus never called on his followers to believe in him as God.” Or, “Christianity needs to let go of its crazy search for the original meaning [of the Bible] and let the Spirit speak now.” He defined religions – all religions, including Christianity – as simply man’s response to the sacred and the closer each religion gets to the top the more the religions converge. “In Paul,” he said, “dying and rising with Christ are metaphors for personal transformation,” which is the theme and the concern of all the great religions. Which, may I say, shows that the Rev. Mr. McKenna knows as little about the other religions of the world as he does about Christianity!

At the end of the sermon he repeated his main point: “We must discard outdated theology, though some of the hymns are fun to sing.”

What would you have thought if you had wandered into that Edinburgh church on that recent Sunday morning and heard that Presbyterian pastor preach what he did? Well you might have thought that this cannot possibly represent the thinking of the Church of Scotland. They must be unaware of what is being taught in one of their churches. Well, no; that is not the case. It was the Church of Scotland itself that put the sermon on the internet! Well, then, you might have thought, “Will his congregation actually swallow this tripe?” Do they really think that Christ did not die for sin and rise for justification? Do they really know so little of the Bible and of the Christian faith?”

I chose the text we read this morning because it says so simply and powerfully that among the most fundamental articles of the Christian faith – the very articles that Paul received and then preached to the Corinthians and by which they were saved was this: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Our problem was our sin and God’s solution to our problem was to deliver us from our sin, both its guilt and its power, through the death of Jesus Christ his Son. Isn’t this what every Christian says because it is what he has learned to say from the Bible: “Jesus Christ died for my sins.” Is this not the reason why the texts of O Sacred Head Now Wounded and And Can it Be That I Should Gain? read as they do?

That is, not only did Jesus go to the cross precisely to bear in our place the punishment we deserved as sinners so that we would not have to bear that punishment ourselves, but that the Scripture long before taught that he would do so.

Doesn’t Leviticus make explicit that many of the sacrifices were designed to secure atonement, a word that appears repeatedly throughout Leviticus and refers to cleansing from and the forgiveness of sins? Didn’t the prophets teach that our sins have made a separation between ourselves and God? Didn’t Isaiah prophesy the coming of the Suffering Servant upon whom God would lay our iniquities and who would be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities? Isn’t the problem the gospel is designed to address that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Didn’t the apostles teach that we must repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins? Isn’t Christ again and again presented as the one who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness? Didn’t the angel say to Joseph that the son that Mary was to bear would save his people from their sins? Didn’t John the Baptist greet Jesus by saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? Didn’t Jesus himself say that he had come to give his life a ransom for many and that no one took his life from him; he laid it down of his own accord? Didn’t John teach that 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? (That is, the sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice that turns away God’s holy anger on account of our sins; that very divine wrath that the Rev. Mr. McKenna is at such pains to deny.) Didn’t Paul teach that Jesus was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him? Didn’t Peter teach that Jesus died, the just for the unjust, to reconcile us to God?

Substitutionary atonement isn’t simply the teaching of the Bible from beginning to end. It is woven in the very fabric of the Bible’s understanding of reality. It derives from the nature of God himself, a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity but who delights to show mercy. It derives from the nature of God’s law that everywhere threatens punishment for those who disobey. It derives from the human predicament: that there is no one righteous; not even one, and that we are powerless to transform ourselves without God, which made it necessary that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” It derives from the incarnation of God the Son, the most stupendous thing that ever happened in the world, who, as Paul says in Philippians chapter 2, came into the world as a man precisely to die on the cross.

No wonder Paul should have summed up his entire message in the single phrase: “the message of the cross.” According to Pastor McKenna, Paul’s message should have been the worldwide proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth had died unfortunately as a terrorist even though he wasn’t actually a terrorist. But Paul knew that the cross was not something that happened to Jesus, it was the fulfillment of prophecy and of his mission in the world. It was and is the salvation of the world, the only salvation there is or can be because we are what we are and God is who he is.

It is for these reasons that had you been in that Edinburgh church that Sunday morning you might well have thought, “These people aren’t Christians in any meaningful sense if they don’t get up and walk out of a sermon like this! They obviously have no loyalty to the teaching of the Bible as the Word of God. They clearly don’t believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. They neither believe that he is the way, the truth, and the life nor that there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby which we must be saved. In what sense, then, could they imagine themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ?

It is not every day that a heretic tees up his heresy for all to see and hear and that a so-called Christian church should then publish it to the world. But if this is not heresy, it is hard to know what would qualify. We have been rightly concerned about the Church’s capitulation to the modern sexual ethos. The Church of Scotland has capitulated in all the predictable ways. But what this so-called Christian minister is teaching is far worse and far more deadly to the souls of men and women than the approval of gay marriage.

Pastor McKenna feels that the preaching of the cross as a sacrifice for sin, that the preaching of Christ’ substitutionary atonement is an obstacle to evangelism in our time. He says in his sermon, “It is a theological argument that no longer works. It is damaging the church.” One shakes one’s head at the sheer effrontery of that remark. The Church of Scotland hasn’t preached sin and salvation for a long time; it hasn’t championed the cross of Jesus Christ as the only hope of sinners for several generations. If the cross is an obstacle to evangelism, the Church of Scotland (and a great many other Protestant churches with it) haven’t placed that obstacle in anyone’s way for a long time. And what is the result of that. The Church of Scotland is dying. To be candid, it is already dead, they’ve just so far refused to lie down. Its numbers are diminishing to the vanishing point; it will have disappeared altogether in several more decades; it has long since lost the influence it once had in Scottish life. We might say the same thing about the great Protestant Churches of our own land. The churches that are thriving and growing throughout the world, and there are many of them, the churches that are actually evangelizing and winning converts are those for whom the cross, as a God-provided sacrifice of atonement, is part and parcel of their message.

The cross of the Lord Jesus Christ has always been and is today a tremendous power precisely because it is the only convincing solution to man’s real problem: his sin, his guilt before God, and the alienation from God and others that results from his selfishness and pride.

The situation of the western world – of Scotland and the United States – both morally and spiritually is now quite like what it was in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, when he wrote this letter to the Corinthians. Many religions were competing for the loyalty of the citizens of that world. There were many approaches to the divine and one was free to pick and choose between them. Paul knew very well that the message that was given him to proclaim was going to be very difficult for Greeks and Romans to accept. In many ways it cut across the received wisdom of their culture; it blasted their comfortable illusions; and it required them to believe things that they had never imagined believing before: not the least of which things was that their hope of everlasting life rested upon the death of an amateur Jewish rabbi who was executed as a political liability by the Roman state, and executed in a manner reserved only for the most notorious criminals.

Paul knew very well that the Gentiles to whom he had been sent with the good news, like those in Corinth, were not going to find it easy to put their trust and confidence for salvation in a crucified savior. In the first chapter of this same first letter to the Corinthians he said that “Christ crucified” was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly or foolishness to the Gentiles. Pretty much what Pastor McKenna thinks the message of Christ crucified is today. It is amazing: a Presbyterian pastor siding with the unbelieving Jews and unbelieving Gentiles against the gospel of Jesus Christ!

“Stumbling block” is the word “scandal” which in Paul’s usage there in 1 Corinthians 1 means not something that makes a person stumble and fall on his face on the ground, but something that is deeply offensive, something that is repellant or off-putting.  The Jews sought miraculous signs because that is what they expected of the Messiah who would come to deliver them. He would, they believed, repeat the political and military triumph of the exodus on a still greater scale. Remember in the Gospels how often they asked Jesus to show them a sign. They wanted him to prove his power. The Greeks wanted reason and sophia, that is philosophical sophistication, wisdom, insight into the world and its inner workings. Theirs was a great civilization that had astounded the world with its progress. It was those very advances that had caused many to abandon belief in the traditional gods and pursue philosophy and reason instead.  How like our own day. Pastor McKenna wants us to go beyond the old ideas and fashion a new faith for the twenty-first century. To the cross as a sacrifice for sin he would have us say, “No, No, No!” Well, that is hardly a novel idea. Many others have hoped in human sophia before him. And many have said their “No, No, No” to the cross as the salvation of God before him.

The Romans spoke of Christian belief in Jesus Christ, who had been crucified as a state criminal, as a “sick delusion” (figmenta male sanae opinionis) and a “senseless and crazy superstition” (vana et demens superstitio). And chief among the monstrosities of this new faith was that the Christians worshipped one who had been crucified. [Hengel, Crucifixion, 3] No criminal deserves to be worshipped, they thought, and certainly no criminal deserves to be thought a god!

But, no matter, instead of signs and wonders, instead of political and military victories, instead of  sophia God gave the world a crucified Savior; instead of grandeur and political and military power he gave them weakness and humiliation. For the Jew a crucified Messiah was an oxymoron, a logical contradiction, like a married bachelor. In their expecation the Messiah was to be a man of power, not of weakness. To the Greek it wasn’t as irreverent to preach a crucified savior as it was ridiculous. But God had proved by the resurrection of Jesus Christ that the humiliation and death of the cross of Jesus Christ was, in fact, the salvation of the world.

Let’s be frank about the wisdom of the world and the search for inner transformation that is the real interest of all religions according to the Edinburgh pastor.

  1. It hasn’t got us very far. Our problems are what they have always been; they are as intractable as they’ve ever been. I venture to say that more people’s lives – a great many more – have been transformed, both within and without, by their embracing Jesus Christ as their sacrifice for sin than by any method of inner transformation that Mr. McKenna might recommend. Who else in the world is loving their enemies except Christians, who know very well that love for them, when they were God’s enemies, sent the Lord Jesus to the cross?
  2. Pastor McKenna’s theology also tells us nothing about life after death. Mr. McKenna seems little interested in what happens to people when they die, an extraordinarily risky position for a Christian pastor to take! The Greeks of Paul’s day largely avoided the question as well. They were interested in the present life by and large and didn’t think there was much they could do about the next. It is very interesting, for example, to read through the numerous personal questions asked of the oracle at Delphi:

How may I become a parent?

Shall I succeed?

Where shall I go or settle?

All the questions are about affairs in this life and about how things will turn out in the here and now. The questions were prompted by sickness, death, plague, famine, war, career opportunities, desire for marriage, infertility, and the like. It was an entirely this-world perspective. For such people, salvation had to do with health and prosperity now, not peace with God or fellowship with God in the world to come.

But this is precisely what Christianity came into the world offering: true, authentic, happy, holy, fulfilling human life forever; the conquest of death in all senses of the term! The Savior was the creator of life, so he could grant such a gift. He had removed the obstacle that stood in the way of eternal life, our sin and guilt, by enduring its rightful punishment in our place. We want to know how to live forever. Everyone does. Everyone longs for what Paul calls “the hope of glory.” A great deal of what human beings do in this world is a sublimated effort to find eternal life. And when anyone seriously seeks to learn the answer to that question — “how may I live forever?” –at that point it becomes obvious to him or to her that the message of Christ dying for our sins, the Creator of the world bearing our sins in our place on the cross is the only convincing answer to that question.

So we will never agree with Pastor McKenna. His message is what any human being will think who neither reckons with the holiness of God nor the sinfulness of man. His message is the reverse of that of Holy Scripture. And his message is precisely the message of those who knew Jesus Christ and witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection had abandoned root and branch because they had encountered something that transcended the comfortable illusions of human thought, something completely surprising, utterly unexpected, but absolutely real.

There is a graffito that has been discovered by archaeologists who excavated the quarters of the imperial pages on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It dates from the 3rd century, the 200s. It is drawn in a youthful hand and depicts a boy, almost a stick figure really, standing in the attitude of worship, with one hand upraised. The object of his devotion is a figure on a cross. The figure has the body of a man and the head of a donkey. Underneath the picture are scrawled the words: “Alexamenos worships his God.” One of the pages was a Christian and his fellows were mocking his belief in Jesus. And chief among those beliefs that made the boy’s faith so silly to them was this notion that he should worship someone who died by crucifix. [Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 174-175]. Mr. McKenna, a Presbyterian minister, has taken sides with the mockers. We will stand with Alexamenos

By the way, nearby is another inscription, in another hand, which reads, “Alexamenos is faithful.” Perhaps it was the Christian boy’s own response to the cruel mockery, or perhaps it was that of one of his classmates who was beginning to see what a difference the cross of Christ really made.

The cross is a lot to get one’s mind around. No one can without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But whatever others may think of it, for us it will always be the power of God, the wisdom of God, and, supremely, the love of God. “Greater love hath no man than that he give his life for his friends,” and Jesus Christ gave his life for his enemies. Let us be like young Alexamenos and in our hearts even now repeat Paul’s words once again on this Palm Sunday morning:

“Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”