The Rock of Offense

“For it stands in Scripture: “See, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and precious cornerstone; and the one who believes in Him will never be put to shame.” To you who believe, then, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.”” (1 Peter 2:7)

“In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…” So begins Peter’s healing declaration in the book of Acts (Acts 3:6). It is very specific. Peter leaves no room for doubt as to who he is referring to. There is something about this name isn’t there? This name is regularly used as a swear word in popular culture, in movies and novels. In today’s culture, you can talk about God often and people might think you’re a little bit too religious, but if you use the name Jesus, then there’s some real discomfort. Something in the heart of unbelief  cringes at the name of Jesus spoken in faith. Something in the atmosphere changes. Some are drawn to it. Others recoil. We are told in Philippians 2:9 that God gave Jesus a “name above all names.” It seems that indifference is a rarer response to the name. It seems to provoke reaction almost as a rule.

It is true that people in our culture are more comfortable with the mention of God than they are with the mention of Jesus. Many people have many different conceptions of God. To simply say “God” is fairly neutral, because other people can identify with it even if they don’t share your particular conception of God. But as soon as you mention Jesus, you are immediately very controversial. The mention of Jesus suggests a very particular understanding of who God is and what he wants and it associates you with the person of Jesus himself. Jesus as always is the point of controversy. I was reminded of this while watching Ben Shapiro’s interview with William Lane Craig. Craig mostly went through his basic apologetic formula with Shapiro: a few arguments for a general monotheism and then an argument for the Resurrection of Jesus. What struck me this time is how his argument for Jesus was introduced. “The arguments that we’ve discussed already narrow down the field of the world religions to basically the great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or perhaps Deism. The question as to which of these is true I think stands or falls upon the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Who do you think Jesus of Nazareth was?” So the person of Jesus becomes the point where the commonalities of the world religions end. Why is this the case? Jesus immediately sets Christianity apart from the other world religions probably in part because some world religions have an opinion about who Jesus was. Jews, Muslims and Hindus all feel the need to explain Jesus in a religious way, but not in the Christian way.  More importantly, if what Jesus says is true, this decisively rules out the truth of the other religions. Jesus is divisive and polarizing, not because he is quarrelsome, but because his person is not compatible with relativization and compromise and his presence and teachings cause extreme reactions. Jesus said “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’” (Matthew 10:34)  Jesus is not violent himself and will not lift a sword, but his presence provokes violence and murderous intent. Everywhere he went he had fervent enemies. The presence and words of Jesus is divisive because it is truth and light, it exposes and judges. It separates the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, it shouts from rooftops what has been whispered in secret, a light shining in the darkness. It upsets every heart. It destroys a carefully crafted social image, it removes the deceptions we use to protect ourselves, it exposes what we really want and will to do. And of course, some people cannot abide this and to some degree we all dislike it, because we are all sinful. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:20) This is when our deceptions and our social image is all there is to us, because we “love the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:43)

At the end of the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers Jesus says, ““Have you never read in the Scriptures:

‘The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the Lord’s doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes’?

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”” (Matthew 21:42)

The presence of Jesus isn’t gone. And one of the primary ways he encounters us is with his words which remain with us. “As for anyone who hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12:47) The person and words of Jesus is a Catalyst, a Watershed, a Cornerstone. He is a “stone of stumbling” because an encounter with Jesus has one of two outcomes, depending on your response: judgment or blessing. Either way, you will not be the same afterward.

Many people today who are not Christians will tell you that they really are attracted to Jesus, but I find it hard to believe this, because those same people will have a big problem with Christian beliefs which came directly from Jesus. The most controversial claims of Christianity come from Jesus himself, not Paul, who is the favourite punching bag of liberal religiosity and feel-good Deism or non-committal “spiritual-but-not-religious” religion. But as we look at these controversial claims, it is also useful to remember some other words of Jesus: “Blessed is he who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:6)

Exclusivism

“I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) This same idea is found all over the gospels, not merely in the gospel of John. Everywhere in the gospels, blessing is promised for those who believe Jesus as Lord, who follow what he says, and judgment is promised for those who refuse to do so. This is in our day and age among the most controversial claims of Christianity. It implies that even the Jews, the people who inherited the “oracles of God” (Romans 3:2) and whose sacred scripture represent the source or origin point of Christian claims, will not get to God without going through Jesus. Many other religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism itself, have a different vision of salvation, which says that as long as you achieve some baseline of right action, you will be okay. Christianity does not agree. Your salvation depends upon your response to Jesus.

This message is extremely confrontational because it demands that the listener not merely tweak their behaviour here and there, not merely that they learn some nice moral lesson from another religious teacher while keeping most of their beliefs and practices as is. It demands a complete reorientation, a transformation, a different set of priorities. It demands that you give your life over completely. “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:38)

In our own culture, some sort of relativism or pluralism is the consensus on religious matters. But it is interesting that the people who claim that the specifics of every religion is a way to God never themselves believe in those specifics. To say that the specifics of every religion can lead to God implies that those specifics are unimportant and irrelevant. While it may seem generous, religious relativism essentially denies that there is truth to whatever is being relativized. Truth is by nature exclusive. if a particular thing is true, that rules out or excludes a million other possibilities. The pharmacy instructions of your strong prescription medicine says that you have to take it a certain way. What does it mean to say that that is true? It means that if you do anything else, you better expect bad things will happen. You don’t accuse the pharmacy assistant of being intolerant for instructing you to take it one way rather than another way. You won’t be outraged when your doctor warns you that if you do not have a particular surgery or take a particular medicine, you will die. You won’t assume that he told you this because he hates you. That is the way it is. That’s the reality of the situation. So why the double-standard? If we recognize that this is the nature of truth in any other domain, why would we expect it to be different in religious matters? The person who thinks that truth is of a completely different quality in religious matters only reveals that he doesn’t really believe that religious claims are true to begin with.

The Offense of the Cross

“Then He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27)

The Atonement is the central doctrine of Christianity. The Cross is the symbol of Christianity and it is the basis for salvation in Christian theology. It is the most important work of Jesus while he was on earth. The Atonement is also a very controversial doctrine. Because it makes use of the concept of sacrifice, it is denounced as barbaric and primitive. Because we are saved through the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and not through our own efforts, it is denounced as irresponsible and perhaps even nihilistic. The Atonement is always a point of controversy, a stone of stumbling, and different cultures have different problems with it. In Paul’s day, the problem with the Cross, what he was speaking of when he coined the phrase “the offense of the Cross” ( Galatians 5:11), was that Jesus’s Atonement freed us from the bondage of the law, from the need to render ourselves righteous by following the law, and by keeping the intricate system of ceremonial laws established in the Hebrew Bible. This was clearly a problem to Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. To many classical pagan thinkers, the Cross was offensive because of the idea of mercy. They believed that mercy and forgiveness would result in moral anarchy and permissiveness.

The Son of Blessed One

“Again the high priest asked Him, saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14: 61)

One of the most radical claims Jesus made and most offensive to the Jews at the time, was that Jesus was not merely the messiah, but the Son of God. Jesus clearly in this passage identifies himself with a prophecy in Daniel about the “Son of Man”: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13)

This is a claim that is frequently attacked. Some liberal and unbelieving scholars have disputed that Jesus said this. They contend that Jesus identifies himself as divine only in the gospel of John, which is later gospel and therefore, according to them, less reliable. However the quote above is from Mark, not John, and Jesus identifies himself with this prophecy in Daniel frequently throughout all the gospels, also by referring to himself as the “Son of Man”, not merely a “son of man.” In addition, while Jesus may identify himself as divine more times explicitly in John, he clearly identifies himself as divine implicitly in the other gospels. Jesus calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath ( Mark 2:28), and he says that he has “the authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). You may say that priests possibly have the authority to forgive sins. Firstly, Jesus is clearly here claiming a special authority to forgive sins, because if forgiving sins were something any priest or rabbi could do, then why would Jesus feel the need to prove this authority by performing the miracle? In the original passage he says, “ But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all…” (Notice here that he again uses the title from Daniel’s prophecy in declaring his authority to forgive sins ). Also, Mark himself shows us that this was no ordinary thing because he reports that the religious leaders were thinking ““Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”” (Mark 2:7). Jewish priests could offer atonement during a very formal ceremony of animal sacrifice within the Temple, but they could not forgive sins themselves. It is still up to God whether he will accept that offer of atonement or not. In fact, in the book of Isaiah, we are told of an instance where God does not seem to accept sacrifices and religious celebrations, because Israel was not following God’s moral commands (Isaiah 1:11-15). Moreover, Jesus was not in the Temple, he was not a priest or in the capacity of a priest, and he was not following the Jewish laws for atonement, and yet he was declaring that someone was forgiven. Jesus was clearly claiming a special authority to forgive sins that can only belong to God, not merely in declaring someone to be forgiven completely apart from the Jewish laws of sacrifice and atonement, but also in the way that he defends it when he perceived opposition to this claim, and thirdly in the nature of the opposition itself, reported by the author of Mark. All of this points to the fact that it was an implicit claim to divinity.

Jews tend to believe that Jesus was a prophet. Muslims believe that Jesus was the messiah, but not the Son of God. Hindus sometimes believe that Jesus was one of the avatars of one of their gods. And Jesus says to you as he said to his disciples “Who do you say I am?” ( Mark 16:15) Answer well. It will determine your destiny.

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