When archeologists excavated the site of the Palace of Septimius Severus, the Roman Emperor from 193 to 211 A.D., they found an ancient cartoon scratched into the stonework of the foundation.
The cartoon pictures a foolish looking man kneeling before a god whom he is worshiping. The god is on a cross. He has the body of a man and the head of a donkey. The caption reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”
That ancient graffiti nicely sums up the ancient world’s problem with the gospel of Jesus Christ. They thought that if you were going to worship a god who died on the cross, you might as well be worshipping a donkey. The idea of God being crucified, to the ancient mind, was not only foolish, it was scandalous. Cicero regarded crucifixion was so unspeakably ugly as to be off limits in polite conversation.
Travel with me to first century Corinth, one of the most cosmopolitan and intellectually sophisticated cities in the Roman Empire. It was said that Corinth had a philosopher on every street corner, each with his own group of followers. Some of the Christians in Corinth feared that the simple gospel message of Christ’s death on the cross for sinners would sound unrefined to the citizens of Corinth. For this reason, they dressed up the gospel in the clothes of Greek philosophical wisdom and toned down the offensive parts.
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in Corinth exhorting them to be unashamed of the basic Christian message of Christ’s atoning death for our sin.
He wrote, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:22-24).
Paul’s bold commitment to proclaim the unadorned message of Christ’s death for sinners is instructive to two groups.
First, it is instructive to churches that ape the ever-changing styles, trends, and morals of popular culture. When we exchange the biblical gospel (Christ came to “save his people from their sins,” Matthew 1:21) for a therapeutic gospel (Christ came, primarily, to help us overcome our struggles) or a social justice gospel (Christ came, primarily, to restructure society) we are acting like the church in Corinth.
Second, Paul’s commitment to the basic Christian message is instructive to unbelievers who want to investigate Christianity. If that’s you, you should recognize that Christianity is offensive. It tells us that we’re not okay. We need more than just a little work around the edges. Our moral efforts and religious exercises cannot commend us to a holy God. We need not a program for self-improvement but to have our sin forgiven and to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We take hold of this forgiveness and righteousness by trusting in Christ’s substitutionary death for our sin.
Sound silly? Outdated? Paul wrote, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).
Peter Kemeny is the pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church of Frederick (301-473-7070), a member congregation of the Bible-based Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (goodnewspres.org).