Christ Crucified

Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

When people hear about the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries of this era, it is easy to think that either there was not much competition or people were just more ready to accept belief in Jesus as the Christ. This is the way that many who wish to look down upon the faith want to present the situation too, promoting a move away from “primitive faith” in our more “enlightened age.”

In reality, however, the first century was a time of great philosophical engagement. The Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotelian), Stoic, Cynic, Epicurean, and other schools of philosophy flourished, promoted their views, and challenged one another. “Mystery religions” involving exclusive groups and secret rites were popular. There was also interest in the Jewish religion, among others, and the Jews of the first century were very fervent about their religion and their identity.

Christianity, therefore, did not grow without any meaningful opposition. In fact, for many, the only thing that would unify them would be their shared opposition to Christianity!

As Paul indicates, much of the opposition to Christianity came as a result of its central tenets– Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). This idea was not wholeheartedly embraced uncritically by the majority establishment of its day– far from it! Such ideas were as “preposterous” then as they are often reckoned now!

To the Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block. The image comes from Isaiah 8:14 and applied by Paul to Jesus in Romans 9:32-33, and it is very appropriate. The Jews were looking forward to the future Messiah as the King of physical Israel who would deliver them from oppression, restore the kingdom of David, and thus defeat the Romans and establish a Jewish world power. But the idea of the Christ– the Messiah– as crucified is entirely contrary to those intentions, especially the Christ crucified on a Roman cross! Thus, while looking forward to the coming Messiah and waiting to see His signs, Jesus came and fulfilled all that was written of the Christ, and the Jews did not receive Him (John 1:11, Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 24:44). The Jews tripped over the Christ they were not expecting, and their impending doom as a nation was sealed (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 11:7-10).

To the Gentiles, particularly those well-versed in Greek philosophy and Greek thinking, Christ crucified and raised from the dead is foolishness. Many Athenians mocked when they heard of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 17:32). It was folly because the idea of God coming in the flesh, let alone to die, let alone to be raised again (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), was utterly contrary to everything they believed. If God or gods existed, they certainly would not demean themselves to the point of becoming human. Even if such a possibility were imaginable, no divine being of any standing would suffer to live as a peasant and die as a common criminal on a Roman cross, for humility was no virtue to the Greek. Beyond all of this, the idea of the resurrection of the dead was preposterous. Not only did the dead remain dead, and not only were there no instances of the dead being raised, but why would anyone want to be raised again in the flesh? The Greeks imagined that the state of bliss would be found in a disembodied spirit form; the body was a hindrance, not a help. According to the Gentile worldview, Christ crucified and raised simply did not make any sense.

Notice that Paul does not deny this. Paul understands that to the Jew who thinks like Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block; to a Greek well-versed in their philosophies, Christ crucified is sheer folly. Paul knows and confesses that the Jews look for signs but not according to the nature of Christ; the Gentiles seek after wisdom, but it is not the wisdom rooted in God. The Jew seeks the worldly Messiah; the Greek seeks the wisdom of the world. To both, nothing can be more ridiculous than Christ crucified.

And that is precisely the point: to the ways of the world Christianity always has been, is today, and will always remain ridiculous. God as a Jewish peasant executed by the Romans as a common criminal only to be raised from the dead? It is not as if this story has only recently become difficult for many to accept!

In fact, Paul embraces the “foolishness” of the message of Christ crucified. He speaks of how it was God’s pleasure to save people through this “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

Unfortunately, this passage is often used to attack Christianity as anti-intellectual: after all, Paul says that Christianity is “foolishness” that militates against those with knowledge and wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-20), and that only those who are poor and of low station believed (1 Corinthians 1:26). But that is not what Paul is saying! It is true that Christianity was more appealing to those of lower class and lower station, and Paul admits as much in 1 Corinthians 1:26, but there were some of the upper classes and the intelligent who believed. It is not that Christianity is anti-intellectual or truly foolish– instead, it is only anti-intellectual according to the worldly version of intellectualism, and only folly according to the world’s definition of wisdom.

This is why Paul says that God’s foolishness is wiser than men, as God’s weakness is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25)– not that God is really foolish or weak, but that He is so completely superior to mankind that whatever folly and weakness could be perceived in Him is still greater than the wisdom and strength of men!

Intellectualism and worldly wisdom are seductive. Not a few have thought of themselves far more highly than they should have on account of their great learning. Yet, as Paul shows, one can master worldly knowledge and wisdom and yet will still not be able to approach the understanding and strength of God.

We hear the same messages today that Paul no doubt heard in the first century: impressive sounding arguments about the impossibility of Christianity that are, in fact, quite hollow and baseless. Mockery and derision of the faith has been a challenging weapon both then and now. Yet behind all the bluster and the argument remains the fact that the reason Christianity has been vexing to its opponents for all of these years is that it suggests an entirely different way of looking at the world than worldly knowledge or wisdom. Christianity suggests that there is a Creator God to whom we are all subject, and He has established His purposes for mankind in Jesus and the Scriptures (John 1:1-18, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). In Jesus God manifested His qualities– love, humility, compassion, mercy, peace– and they were so disturbing to the establishment of the day that they had Him executed and those who followed Him persecuted. There’s an intractable conflict between the values of God in Christ and the values of the world (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17), and one cannot abide in the wisdom of the world and be pleasing to God.

Christ crucified and raised. According to the ways of the world, this is sheer folly. It does not make sense unless one is willing to reject the ways of the world and trust in the ways of God. Those who are willing to have such faith in God understand His power in Christ and will endure the criticisms and the charges of foolishness. Let us not despair because the critics of the faith assail it as folly; they have been doing so for millennia. Let us instead remain humble, recognizing that God is always stronger and wiser than men, and depend on Him and His Son for our deliverance!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A New Thing

Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing (Acts 17:21).

New! Improved! Updated! Revised!

It is no secret that our society praises that which is new. It is exciting and different. Companies devote a good part of their resources to research and development to come up with new or improved products. Marketers are always trying to find ways to make things seem new or fresh.

But why are so many resources devoted to making things seem new? If we twenty-first century Americans prized the old and reliable and put emphasis on those qualities, then there is little doubt that the companies and marketers would follow suit. Yet society at large does not value “old and reliable.” The belief exists that there is constant progress, and to look to the past or to keep something the same for a long period of time, it is believed, leads to stagnation and obsolescence. And no one– young or old– wants to be considered obsolete!

Have we ever stopped to think why that is? In reality, it is a major change in comparison to what was believed in the past, as Luke obliquely indicates in Acts 17:21.

It is very easy to pass over Luke’s commentary in Acts 17:21. He is telling the story of how Paul goes to Athens and begins promoting the Gospel in the marketplace there and how many of the philosophers and townspeople were interested in hearing more about this Jesus. Luke is explaining for us why the Athenians seem to be so eager to learn. It is not because of some noble impulse, as if they knew they were ignorant of the One True God and wanted to learn of Him to serve Him. No– they wanted to learn more because it was something new and different. Paul’s message was the “flavor of the week.” Therefore, it should not surprise us that many mocked, some wanted more information, and only a very few believed (cf. Acts 17:32-34). They only wanted to hear something new.

While it may not be immediately apparent to the modern reader, Luke is in fact censuring the Athenians. Today many would find this life of ease and luxury, discussing the newest theories in science or philosophy, appealing. Yet, in the Greek language, the word for “new,” when used in a context like this, often refers to something dangerous or suspicious. In earlier Greek literature, when people begged their gods to not bring disaster or calamity upon them, they asked that the gods would not bring down to them “anything new.”

The Greeks– along with many other ancient cultures, and most people until rather recently– looked at the world in an entirely different way from ourselves. In their estimation, the best time for humanity– the “golden age”– was in the distant past, and as time wore on, people became less strong and less noble. Their own day was dim in comparison. That which was old was proven, tested, and reliable. That which was new was looked upon suspiciously, for it was unproven, untested, and perhaps unreliable. Thus the early Christians felt that they needed to show the age of their belief system by appealing to the long history of Israel– the Greeks and Romans were naturally suspicious of a religion that was claimed to have begun in the days of Tiberius Caesar!

The Athenians, therefore, are considered strange. They just sit around and talk about the “new things,” that which is suspicious, untested, and unproven.

How attitudes have changed! Today the Athenian attitude is in the majority, and those who go back to what is old, tested, proven, and reliable are considered antiquated and quaint!

In reality, age, on its own, is not necessarily a good standard. There are plenty of newly developed technologies and ideas that are good. There are plenty of old attitudes and functions that are best relegated to the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, we must remember in our youth- and new-loving society that many ideas and functions of the past can still have value today, and just because something can be believed or done does not mean that it should be believed or done. That which is new may have unforeseen consequences and may prove quite unreliable!

The “new” message that Paul had for the Athenians is now considered “old.” In the eyes of many, it is antiquated and obsolete. Nevertheless, the Gospel has held firm for two thousand years and has been tested, proven, and remains reliable (Hebrews 11:6, 13:8). Let us promote the “old” Gospel of Christ in a “new” world, and put it into practice in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry