Christ Crucified: Stumbling Block, Folly or Wisdom of God?

Many first-century Jews and gentiles didn’t believe salvation could come through a crucified Christ. Why? What can we learn from their flawed reasoning?

“Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33).

Peter stood there, stunned at the reaction of Jesus.

Why this rebuke?

Shortly before, on the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had asked His disciples two questions about His identity. First, He had asked, “Who do men say that I am?” (verse 27). The follow-up question was even more important: “But who do you say that I am?” (verse 29).

Peter had boldly and correctly answered, “You are the Christ” (verse 29). Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah, which means “anointed” or “anointed one.” The term referred specifically to the coming Davidic King who would restore the nation of Israel.

Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah. But then Jesus started saying He would suffer and die in the very near future (verse 31). Like so many other Jews, Peter could not conceive of the Messiah being put to death. So Peter took Jesus “aside and began to rebuke Him” (verse 32).

And this led to Jesus’ powerful response. Peter hadn’t realized it, but his audacious attempt to tell the Messiah He didn’t have to die was a reflection of Satan’s approach, not God’s.

“Christ crucified” as a stumbling block

In the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote about the difficulty in understanding the concept of a crucified Christ, both for Jews and for gentiles. He wrote that he and his companions in ministry preached “Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Many first-century Jews and Greeks rejected the doctrine of Christ crucified, but some—those God had called—rejoiced in this knowledge. To those individuals, and to us today, this doctrine points to the power, love and wisdom of God.Jews and gentiles—called “Greeks” in the New King James Version—had very different reasons for rejecting the idea of a crucified Christ. In both cases, however, their rejection was based on false preconceptions.

For the Jews, Paul used the metaphor of a stumbling block to describe their inability to accept the idea of a crucified Messiah. This metaphor refers to “the name of the part of a trap to which the bait is attached, hence, the trap or snare itself” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, “offense”).

One reason a crucified Christ seemed wrong to Jews is that an overwhelming majority of Old Testament passages about the coming King depict Him as a conqueror. For instance, a passage that identifies Him as a Branch from the stump of Jesse says that “He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

In the same book, though, we read of a Servant who suffers terribly, “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). Christians today recognize this passage (Isaiah 52:13–53:12) as a prophecy of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus, but nowhere in it is the Servant called “Messiah,” and it was not generally taken as a messianic passage by the Jews of the first century.

Remarkably, however, the role of the Messiah—whether conquering or suffering—was not the only reason for the Jews’ rejecting the idea of a crucified Christ. Another major reason was the manner of His death.

Crucifixion as a curse

Roman crucifixion was an extremely painful way to die. In addition, the Jews considered the victim accursed by God. This reasoning was based on an Old Testament law that says: “He who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

The law specifically prohibited Israelites from allowing an executed criminal to remain hanging on a tree overnight because doing so would “defile the land.” This law was in effect long before Roman crucifixion came into being, but the Jews of the first century believed it applied to that punishment as well.

In their thinking, the hanging itself, regardless of a person’s guilt or innocence, was a sign of God’s curse: “Whether his death by crucifixion was deserved or resulted from a miscarriage of justice was beside the point: the point was that he was crucified, and therefore came within the meaning of the pronouncement in Deuteronomy 21:23” (F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 2000, p. 71).

First-century Jews understood that the Messiah was blessed by God. As noted earlier, the Hebrew term refers to anointing, and anointing with oil was a physical demonstration of God’s setting a person apart for a special role, and at the same time, blessing him with the ability to carry out that role.

A crucified Messiah, and therefore a cursed one, was inconceivable to them. In fact, the concept “was worse than a contradiction in terms; the very idea was an outrageous blasphemy” (ibid.).

Folly to the Greeks

The other nations of the world had no preconceptions regarding a Messiah, which is a biblical concept. They did, however, have preconceptions that prevented many of them from embracing the crucified Christ as their Savior.

Prior to the first century, Greek culture had permeated much of the Mediterranean world as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Greek religion also evolved through exposure to the gods and mystery cults of the ancient Near East. The result was a hodgepodge of religious beliefs and practices.

It’s also important to understand that Greek philosophy was not entirely separate from Greek religion. Hellenistic philosophers believed that “their task was to articulate a reasoned explanation of the cosmos and humankind and to prescribe the kinds of actions best suited for life in this world” (William Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World, p. 292).

More primitive adherents to Greek religions believed in many gods. Some (if not most) philosophers had moved away from this worldview, though they did not necessarily dismiss the idea of the existence of gods.

Many conceived of our world as intrinsically inferior to the world of spirit. For this reason, “the Greeks would have had difficulty in conceiving of how a god, being spirit, could become incarnate and thus provide a god-man atonement for sin” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 10, p. 195).

In other words, to the Greeks, the very idea of a god becoming a man and sacrificing himself for people was inconceivable. People existed to serve and sacrifice for the gods—never the other way around.

Two schools of thought

In the first century there were two major schools of philosophy, Epicureanism and Stoicism. Paul encountered philosophers from both schools when he visited the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:18).

When Paul spoke to these Stoics and Epicureans, they listened for awhile, “but as soon as he spoke of a personal judgment by Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead, everything fell apart” (Peoples of the New Testament World, p. 303). That’s because Stoics rejected both the idea of judgment and the idea of resurrection.

The Epicureans objected on different grounds. Not only did they reject the concept that any god was sovereign, but they also rejected the idea that any god was eternal. They believed the gods “were created by the convergence of the very finest atoms” (ibid., p. 294). They also believed that the gods had no real concern regarding human affairs.

Thus, the first-century Greeks who saw “Christ crucified” as folly had a variety of preconceived ideas that prevented them from accepting Christian doctrine. Some did not believe any god was sovereign. Some believed our world is inferior to the realm of the gods, and therefore a place no god would enter. Some rejected the notion of divine judgment. Some rejected the idea of a resurrection. And some did not believe the gods cared about humans.

The power of God and the wisdom of God

Many first-century Jews and Greeks rejected the doctrine of Christ crucified, but some—those God had called—rejoiced in this knowledge. To those individuals, and to us today, this doctrine points to the power, love and wisdom of God.

It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that God demonstrates His power over sin and death. It was through dying that Christ paid for our sins, and through His resurrection that He was “declared to be the Son of God” (Romans 1:4). The death of Jesus demonstrates His power, just as “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

God also demonstrates His wisdom by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christ came first as a suffering Servant, humbling Himself to the point of death to set an example. We, too, must humble ourselves, symbolically dying that we might live in Christ. This “foolishness of God is wiser than men” (verse 25).

What we can learn

The false beliefs of the Jews and Greeks of the first century prevented them from understanding the power and wisdom of “Christ crucified.” And all of us today carry around preconceived ideas, some of which can interfere with our Christian walk.

Peter and the other disciples certainly struggled with the idea that their Lord and Master would be crucified. After Jesus had rebuked Peter (Mark 8:33) for resisting the plan of God for Christ to be crucified, He told His disciples two more times that He would be killed (Mark 9:31; 10:32-34). Even so, “they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32).

If we want to have an unfettered relationship with God, we must be prepared to let go of any false beliefs that get between us and Him. Our false beliefs may have nothing to do with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but might be some other doctrinal issue. We must humble ourselves, as Christ did, that we may be “mindful of the things of God” rather than “the things of men” (Mark 8:33).

For a deeper study of the things of God throughout the Bible, enroll in our free 11-lesson Bible Study Course. It explores key themes and teachings that can open new vistas of understanding and help you develop a solid foundation.

About the Author

Bill Palmer

Bill Palmer attends the Birmingham, Alabama, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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