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The Madness Of The Cross

In 1 Cor 1:18, the Apostle Paul says that according to ‘those who are perishing,’ the ‘word of the cross’ is ‘folly.’ Paul builds upon this theme in verse 23, by saying that the crucified Christ is a ‘scandal’ for the Jews and ‘foolishness’ for the Gentiles. This ancient Greek word that Paul uses, which most English Bibles translate as: foolishness or folly, does not just mean lack of wisdom or even stupidity. The word goes beyond this in meaning. It more accurately denotes madness or senselessness.

Justin Martyr describes what many of his contemporaries think about the Crucified Christ: ‘They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified person in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world’ (Apology I, 13.4., aprox. 153 A.D.).

The Crucifixion of Jesus is one of the principle elements of his life that marks off Christianity as totally different to all other religions and systems of meaning. In the early days as Christianity developed, it was described by outsiders as ‘ …a perverse and extravagant superstition.’ Minucius Felix, a Roman Christian apologist writing his imaginary dialogue between a Christian and a pagan, dated at the end of the second century A.D., described the feelings of many towards Christians: they put forward ‘sick delusions’, a ‘senseless and crazy superstition,’ an ‘old womanly superstition,’ and they ‘destroy all true religion.’ One of the characters in Felix’s dialogue says:

“To say that their ceremonies centre on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross, is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve.” (Octavius 19.4)

From many different sources we also know that it was not only Jews and Greeks who had difficulties about a crucified God or Messiah (Christ). Many Christians also had problems with the idea, especially because of the taunts, criticisms and persecutions from their neighbours. Crucifixion was reserved for political prisoners – capital punishment for crimes against the State. Thus, the general feeling was that no human being, let alone a political criminal, deserved to be regarded as a god. This prevailing atmosphere made it very difficult for the early Christians, despite their belief in the Resurrection and the experienced it’s power. Some Christian writers hedged around the crucifixion and focussed on the Resurrection or other emerging doctrines. So this tendency is not just a modern or postmodern Western Christian phenomenon.

For many members of the early churches, from either Jewish or Gentile background, the Cross remained a scandal. It is still a scandal in the world today. We are not too far removed from some of the basic assumptions about God that people held in the early centuries after Easter. The gods of Greece and Rome could be distinguished from mortals by the perception that they were immortal. The gods were immortal, superhuman, totally ‘other,’ absolutely in control and not affected by the feelings and experiences of humans. The later Roman Church, developed on some of these ideas: an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God. The God that the early Christians encountered in Jesus of Nazareth receded into the background. The Christian God of the Graeco-Roman philosophers bore little resemblance to a poor man, born of a poor disgraced Jewish peasant woman, who spent most of his time with the poor, powerless and religiously unclean people of his day and who was executed as a political criminal.

The idea that this person could be the redeemer of the world, God incarnate, could only be regarded by most as a sign of madness. To pious Jews such a notion was obscene and ultimately blasphemous. According to the Torah anyone hanged upon a tree is cursed by God (Deut. 21:23). A crucified God was a contradiction in terms to Jew, Greek, Roman and ‘barbarian’ al ike.

The Cross is still a contradiction and a scandal for the world today. However, it is also remains a scandal for the Church. Today, the scandal of the Cross stands in contradistinction to many popular Christologies in the West that are influenced more by the songs of orgiastic triumphalism on powerpoint presentations than by the stories of the Bible.

Let us confess that we need to be continually radicalised by the Cross of Christ. May the Cross of Christ continue to confront us about the nature of God. Lord, grant us that through the confrontation we will find conversion of heart and mind. May our whole lives be infected by the sheer madness of the Cross. May the Peace of God disturb you. Amen.


Hewett Community Church of Christ, South Australia



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