Skandalon / Skandalizō

[1] Derivation and meaning
(a) Classical Greek: 'a (verbal) trap'

The descendants of these two words into English are obvious - ‘scandal’ and ‘scandalize’; but their ancestry is obscure.
Neither word seems to have been used in Classical Greek, but the noun is a simplified version of ‘skandalethron’, which
means ‘bait-stick’, the stick, or tongue, in a snare on which the bait was placed to attract the prey. The modern equivalent
might be the tray in a mouse-trap on which the cheese is placed, or, to change from trapping to angling, the hook on a fishing line. This word, in itself esoterically technical, nevertheless has metaphorical possibilities, and was so used by the Classical Greek writer of comedies, Aristophanes. In his play “The Acharnians”, the eponymous chorus (citizens of Athens from a district of the city called Acharnai) are a group of grumpy old men, veterans of the battle of Salamis, who whinge at length at the ungrateful treatment they receive from the younger generation. They complain particularly about smart young lawyers who take them to court, and during cross-examination “set verbal traps” for them, with the result that they are convicted, and have to use the money they were saving for their funeral expenses to pay the fine: tragic!

(b) the Septuagint: 'a stumbling-block'
Lev 19.14

This metaphorical meaning seems to have given the word a new lease of life, and, shedding a syllable to make it fitter for the fight to survive in the linguistic jungle, it established a habitat for itself in the sense of a ‘trap’ or a ‘snare’ (the part, as so often, coming to stand for the whole), and it is in this sense that the translators of the Septuagint used it a number of times to mean an ‘inducement’ or ‘enticement’ to sin. But in some contexts in the LXX it is used in a rather different sense, of which Leviticus 19.14 gives the clearest example: “You shall not put a ‘skandalon’ in the way of a blind man”. Obviously, a blind man cannot be enticed by what he cannot see; ‘skandalon’ here has assumed its more familiar meaning - a ‘stumbling-block’. In this verse, of course, the stumbling-block is literal, but elsewhere, like the original meaning of ‘skandalon’, it is used metaphorically to refer to anything which makes us stumble and fall into sin as we walk along the strait and narrow road of righteousness.

(c) the NT: 'trap' or 'trip'

In the New Testament these two meanings of ‘skandalon’ continue to co-exist. Furthermore, the noun has now spawned a verb, ‘skandalizō’, whose uses outnumber those of the noun by 30 to 15. It is interesting (I hope) to notice that the American tendency, much decried by purists this side of the Atlantic, to turn all kinds of nouns into verbs simply by adding the suffix ‘-ise’ (‘hospitalise’, burglarise’, ‘winterise’) actually has good classical precedent. (According to a letter to the Times [5.3.08], one American neatly claimed that “any noun can be verbed”.) But it does seem to me to be helpful to spell Greek-derived words of this kind with a ‘z’ (‘scandalize’, ‘baptize’, ‘evangelize’) to distinguish them from more modern coinages. The verb ‘skandalizō’, then, reflecting the two senses of the noun from which it is derived, can mean either to ‘entice into sin’ or to ‘cause someone to stumble’. Now that we have the verb available, we can most conveniently label these two usages as to ‘trap’ and to ‘trip’.

[2] Related words
'peirazō': to test' or to 'tempt'
James 1.2,14

Both these images describe the stratagems Satan uses to divert and deflect us from our walk of faith with the Lord. The ‘trap’ tempts us to turn aside, lured by something attractive, some guilty pleasure which will lead us into the snare of sin. The ‘trip’ tests us by confronting us with something unpleasant or off-putting that will deter us into turning back. Both to ‘tempt’ and to ‘test’ are the same word in Greek - ‘peirazō’ - just as its associated noun - ‘peirasmos’ - means both ‘temptation’ aimed at our inner urges, and ‘trial’ imposed by external pressures, such as persecution or suffering. Both senses are well exemplified in the first chapter of James’s Epistle. Verse 2 tells us, surprisingly, to “consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds”; and then, in verse 14, he says: “each one is tempted when by his own evil desire he is dragged away and enticed”. Since James also tells us in the same passage (v. 13) that “God tempts no one”, the familiar petition in the Lord’s prayer “lead us not into ‘peirasmon’” (the accusative case-ending) more probably refers to testing by external circumstances, a “time of trial”, as some versions translate it. But possibly, since Jesus himself was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by Satan, it is his own experience that he has in mind when he tells us to pray this prayer.

ii. 'pagis', pagideuō: a/to snare; 'proskomma': a stumbling-block
Josh 23.13, 1 Sam 18.21, Prov 6.2, Matt 22.15

Before looking at the usages of ‘skandalon’ and ‘skandalizō’ in detail, it may be helpful to look at two other words that are often found together with them, one suggesting a trap, the other a trip - and once again alliteration comes to our aid: the Greek word for a ‘snare’ is ‘pagis’, and for a stumbling-block ‘proskomma’. Joshua (23.13) provides a good example of ‘pagis’ and ‘proskomma’ combined - in the Septugint version, of course. He warns the Israelites not to cohabit or intermarry with the pagan Canaanite tribes still not subdued in the land of Israel so that they may not become “a snare or a trap” for them, presumably by enticing them into the sin of worshipping false gods. Two other examples of ‘pagis’ on its own will become relevant when we look as ‘skandalon’ itself. King Saul is delighted when he learns (1 Sam. 18.21) that David, his hated rival, is in love with his daughter, Michal, because he thinks he can use her as a ‘pagis’, which, here, we might translate as a ‘honey-trap’. David is saved from this trap firstly by his loyalty to Saul, and then by his prowess in battle. The other example is in Proverbs (6.2): “a man’s lips can become a strong ‘snare’ for him, and he is trapped by the lips of his own mouth” - enticed, perhaps, by the temptation to gossip or to deceive. The post-classical ‘verbing’ process also affects ‘pagis’, producing ‘pagideuo’, to ‘snare’. This is found once, in its literal sense, in the LXX (Eccl 9.12), of snaring birds; but, more significantly, in its metaphorical sense, in Matt 22.15, where the Pharisees discuss how they might ‘snare’ Jesus in argument, and so ask him whether it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar. This is an interesting echo of Aristophanes’s use of ‘skandalethron’ as a ‘verbal trap’. Jesus asks them why they are ‘testing’ him (‘peirazō’), and, as we know, neatly evades the trap. The most significant combination of ‘skandalon’ and ‘proskomma’ comes in Isaiah 8.14-15, as quoted both by Paul (Romans 9.12-13) and Peter (1 Peter 2. 6-9), and we shall look at these verses in more detail later.

[3] a 'trap'
i. the trap of sexual sin
Num 25.1-2, Matt 5.27-30

Only a few of the 45 examples in the N.T. of ‘skandalon’ and its associated verb can be clearly placed in the ‘trap’ category. One of the clearest is the last: Revelation 2.14. The church at Pergamon is accused of harbouring those “who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (NIV - more literally, “who taught Balaam to throw a snare in front of the sons of Israel”). This refers to an incident in Numbers 25.1-2, when the Israelites succumbed to the sexual temptations of the Moabite women, and were led into spiritual apostasy, worshipping false gods: the honey-trap again! A more familiar example of ‘skandalizō’ in this sexual context occurs in Jesus’ teaching on adultery in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5.27-30). He radically reinterprets the seventh commandment, saying that “any man” (not “any one” as in the NIV: the gender here is specifically masculine) “who looks at a woman so as to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He then goes on: “If your right eye ‘scandalizes’ you, cut it out.” This clearly means “entices you into sexual sin”, or ‘traps’ you. The apostle John must have taken this teaching to heart, for in his First Epistle (2.16) he includes among the evils of the world which we must avoid “the lust of the eyes”. Better, as Jesus says, to cut out the offending eye than be seduced by it into sin, and so into the “fire of hell” (gehenna). Just as a man’s lips can be a snare, so can his eyes be a trap. And, just in case women feel that they are ‘off the hook’ here, they might remember that Eve ate the forbidden fruit when she saw that it was “pleasing to the eye”.

ii the trap of our bodily appetites
Matt 18.1-11

This teaching is repeated and developed later on in Matthew’s gospel, and in parallel passages (though in slightly different contexts) in Mark (9.42-8) and Luke (17. 1-2). We will concentrate on Matthew’s version (18.1-11), which is the fullest. In all these passages, Jesus is teaching us that our own bodies - eyes, hands, feet - can lead us into sin and ‘trap’ us. But it is clear that, as with the adultery of the heart, the real problem is the evil desires that lie deep within us, and are so easily inflamed by the things we look at with our eyes, the activities we put our hands to, and the places to which our feet take us. So, Jesus tells us, we need to recognise our weakness and, if we are really serious in our desire to live lives that are pleasing to him, we should take radical action to cut out of our lives those things that regularly lead us into sin, even if, of themselves, they are not necessarily sinful. Alcoholism provides both an example and an illustration of this principle. Just as an alcoholic who has been brought to recognise his condition needs to cut all forms of alcohol out of his life, even though alcohol is not in itself an evil, so a sinner who is addicted to any form of sin needs to take similar radical action.

iii. the 'bait' to the trap
'delear', 'deleazō'
2 Peter 2.14,18, Rom 16.17-18

It is clear, then, that in these verses Jesus is talking about the danger of being ‘trapped’ by our own sinful desires, and this reminds us of James’s words, quoted earlier, that “each one is tempted when by his own evil desire he is dragged away and enticed” (1.14). The word here translated as “enticed” (‘deleazō’) is particularly relevant to our study of ‘skandalon’ since it is the ‘verbed’ form of ‘delear’, the Greek word for ‘bait’. The noun does not appear in the NT, but the verb appears twice more, both in 2 Peter 2, where the apostle is uttering a long diatribe against false teachers. In v.14, he describes them as having “eyes full of adultery” (like John, Peter was clearly listening carefully to Jesus’ teaching on adultery in Matthew 5.27-30), and “enticing those whose faith is not yet fully established”; and in v.18 he elaborates further, saying that they “appeal to the lustful desires of sinful human nature and entice people who are just beginning to escape” from a sinful lifestyle. It is young and insecure Christians who are particularly likely to ‘take the bait’ offered to them by antinomian teachers who tell them that they do not need to live holy lives because God will forgive them anyway. Paul, in rather more measured language, gives a very similar warning to the Romans (16.17-18) - and obligingly gets us back to ‘skandalon’: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for and keep away from those who cause divisions and ‘scandals’ contrary to the teachings you learned; such people do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own sinful appetites, and with fine-sounding language they deceive the hearts of impressionable young Christians.” Both the language of this last clause and the parallel with Peter’s letter strongly suggest that the ‘scandals’ here are traps baited with “fine-sounding language” which lead young disciples into sin.

iv. the trap of false teaching
Matt 18.6

This apparent detour has finally led us back to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. If his prescription for those whose bodily desires regularly lead them into sin seems drastic, his anathema on those who “scandalize one of these little ones who have faith in me” is truly terrifying: “it would be better for him that he should have a mill-stone hung round his neck and be drowned in the deepest sea” (v.6). Jesus has just used a child as a visual aid to understanding the humility and simple faith needed to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such a childlike attitude enables one more easily to swallow one’s pride and accept the truth of the gospel, but it is also particularly vulnerable, until one has matured in understanding, to the false teaching of some plausible authority-figure. In view of the other passages cited, and of the context here, this seems to be what Jesus means by ‘scandalize’ in this verse: enticing young Christians into sin by teaching self-indulgent licence rather than Christ-centred liberty. The strength of Jesus’ condemnation of such false teachers is indeed, from their point of view, truly terrifying; but it is also an indication of the depth of his love for, and commitment to, each individual member of his flock, especially “these little ones”, each of whom has an angel (a guardian angel?) who “constantly beholds the face of my Father in heaven”. And he reinforces this point by going on to tell the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 12-14), led astray, presumably, by false teaching, who means so much to the Good Shepherd (who laid down his life for each one) that he leaves all the others to go in search of it.

v. the 'trappers'
Matt 18.7, 26.24, John 20.3

This leads us on to v.7, where ‘skandalon’ is used three times by Jesus (though not by the NIV!). If we translate ‘skandalon’ simply as ‘temptation’ here (rather than the NIV’s “things that cause people to sin”), we can get the full impact of the saying: “Woe to the world because of temptations! For it is necessary for temptations to come, but woe to the person through whom the temptation comes !”. As we have seen, “God tempts no one” - that is Satan’s job; but temptation is part of God’s plan, for an untested faith is not really faith at all. But all too often Satan uses other people as his agents of temptation, and Jesus makes it clear here that such agents are fully responsible for their actions, and that to do the Devil’s job for him by destroying or corrupting the faith of a young Christian is particularly culpable. It is interesting to note here the parallelism of Jesus’ comments on Judas in Matthew 26.24: “The Son of Man goes to his death as is written of him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed: it were well for him had he never been born.” We read in John 20.3 that “Satan entered into Judas”, but it was Judas himself who ‘opened the door’. Both these passages clearly teach those two great truths, divine sovereignty (“it is necessary”, “it is written”) and human responsibility (“woe” - ‘ouai’ in Greek).

vi. Peter a 'skandalon'
Matt 16.13-23, Luke 4.13

Just asayed: it were well for him had he never been born."resting to note her Judas acted as the agent of Satan in betraying Jesus, so, rather more surprisingly, did Peter, on one occasion, in tempting him. The conversation at Caesarea Philippi recorded in Matthew 16.13-23 typifies Peter’s yo-yo spiritual experience before the Holy Spirit at Pentecost transformed him in nature as well as in name into a spiritual rock. He is the first of the disciples openly to declare that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, and then receives his personal beatitude from Jesus, since God himself had revealed this great truth to him (v. 17). Yet only 6 verses later Jesus addresses him as “Satan”. Once again, the strength of his language reflects the depth of his feelings. He has clearly told his disciples about his impending death in Jerusalem at the hands of the Jewish authorities. Peter is appalled: “May God have mercy on you! This will never happen to you!” (The double negative he uses here emphasises the impossibility of such an outcome in his mind.) Jesus at once recognises the tempting voice of Satan behind Peter’s words. Already, in the wilderness, at the very start of his ministry, Satan has tempted him to avoid the way of the cross by diverting onto the way of populism, winning the support of the Jews by dramatic miracles, and winning an earthly kingdom by serving Satan. In this way, he could become the sort of Messiah the Jewish people were craving, a mighty, wonder-working warrior who would drive out the Roman occupiers and restore Israel as top nation. The prospect of the hell he knew he was to endure on the cross must have made these temptations powerfully attractive, but Jesus remained obedient to his Father’s will, three times quoting the scriptures, which he knew marked out for him the Messiah’s true mission, the way of the cross. At the end of these 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, Luke tells us (4.13) “the devil left him - for a time”. Now he re-appears in the person of his foremost disciple, whose uncomprehending loyalty is in fact a sort of betrayal. Jesus not only addresses him as “Satan”, but tells him he is a ‘skandalon’ to him, his well-meaning devotion to Jesus the ‘bait’ in the trap into which Satan hopes he will fall.

vii. false teachers as 'skandala'
Matt 13.37-43

We have seen in Matthew 18.7 (the verse of the three scandals) that Jesus is careful to distinguish between the temptation itself and the agent of that temptation - between the ‘trap’ and the ‘trapper’. Here Jesus blurs that distinction, perhaps in the intensity of his feelings, and addresses Peter as the personification of temptation, or enticement to sin: “You are a ‘skandalon’ to me”. There is, I think, one other example where ‘skandalon’ is personified, though neither AV nor NIV so translate it. It occurs in Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, the parable itself in vv. 24-30, the interpretation delayed until vv. 37-43. The parable is about “the kingdom of heaven” (24), but clearly in its earthly appearance - the “church visible” - and explains why it will contain both true “children of the kingdom” and also “children of the devil” - the weeds that the “enemy” sowed. In v.41 Jesus tells us that the harvest in the parable is the time when he will send out his angels, and they will collect out of the kingdom “all the ‘scandals’ and all who commit lawlessness”. Note that “out of the kingdom” implies that they appeared to be in it If ‘skandala’ (the plural form) is an abstract noun here (“everything that causes sin” - NIV), it is hard to see how the angels could accomplish their task, and what exactly would be incinerated in the “fiery furnace”. It seems much more plausible to interpret the ‘scandals’, like the “doers of lawlessness” paired with them, as people, which is consistent with the parable and with Jesus’ interpretation of it: “the weeds are the sons of the evil one” (v.38); “as the weeds are pulled up and burned, so it will be at the end of the age”. Furthermore, not “everything that causes sin” is itself sinful: the fruit eaten by Eve was the cause of the first sin of all, yet it was a part of God’s perfect creation, and certainly did not deserve to be “thrown into the fiery furnace”; that is the fate reserved for the Serpent who tempted her, together with all his children. This view is also consistent with the example we have been looking at: false teachers, apparently part of the visible church, but actually agents of Satan in leading astray Christians, especially young Christians, by teaching “lawlessness” and practising it themselves.

[4] to 'trip': a stumbling-block

Peter, of course, was a true “son of the kingdom”, and only an agent of Satan briefly and unwittingly. His error was due partly to his failure, as a Jew, to understand the scriptures that prophesied a Messiah who would be a ‘suffering servant’, and partly by his refusal, as a disciple, to accept his Master’s teaching. This is, in fact, the first of four recorded occasions when, in effect, he used those two self-contradictory words “no, Lord”, the others being his initial refusal to let Jesus wash his feet (John 13.8), his insistence that he would not be ‘scandalized’ by Jesus’ arrest, and so deny him (Matt 26.33-35) - we will return to this later - and, in his vision at Joppa (Acts 10.14), his refusal to eat anything unclean, when he uses these actual words. It is interesting to note that in all three of the gospel incidents the writers attribute to him the aforementioned double negative, a Greek idiom in which the two reinforce each other, rather than cancelling each other out, as in English; this usage is clearly characteristic of Peter’s vehement temperament. We have seen that Satan was using Peter as a means of tempting Jesus, but what caused Peter to blurt out such a passionate denial of what Jesus had just said? Surely it was because, having just acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, he was appalled, or ‘scandalized’ almost in its modern sense, by the thought that he might be rejected and killed by the people he had come to save. This brings us to the other meaning of ‘skandalon’ and ‘skandalizō’: a stumbling-block’ to ‘trip’ someone up. The purpose of a ‘trap’, as we have seen, is to turn people aside from the way of righteousness and the walk of faith by offering them as ‘bait’ something seemingly more attractive. A ‘trip’, by contrast, confronts people with an obstacle in their path of discipleship, so as to make them turn back. For Peter (though the word ‘scandalized’ is not used of him here), and for many other Jews after him, as we shall see, it was the unthinkable prospect of a crucified Messiah that caused him to stumble; but there are several other contexts in which both the noun and the verb are used, and we shall look at these first.

i. the stumbling-block of suffering: the sower
Matt 13.21, Mark 4.17, Luke 8.13

Our first example, the stumbling-block of suffering, occurs in Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower. The seeds which fall on stony ground represent those who respond to the gospel message with initial joy and enthusiasm, but “when tribulation or persecution arise because of the gospel, immediately they are ‘scandalized’”, because they have no deep root of careful teaching and pastoring to sustain them; if they had, the hot sun which shrivels their faith would, instead, ripen it and make it mature and fruitful. Matthew (13.21) and Mark (4.17) both use ‘skandalizō’ here: suffering and persecution ‘trip them up’, so that they give in and turn back. Luke, in the equivalent passage (8.13), describes them as ‘temporary’ believers, who fall away in a time of ‘peirasmos’, which here obviously means ‘testing’ by outward circumstances. Suffering is, perhaps, the litmus test which distinguishes between true Christians and fair-weather followers.

ii. the stumbling-block of persecution: Jesus' warnings
Matt 24.9-10, 7.24-7, 26.31 John 16.1

On three occasions, Jesus teaches his disciples directly, and not just in parables, that suffering and persecution could be, or will be, stumbling-blocks for them. These three warnings refer to three different time-frames: the immediately impending events of his arrest, trial and crucifixion; the persecution they will face after Pentecost as they preach the gospel to a hostile world; and the tribulation that will come upon the church as the end-time approaches. The order in which these warnings occur, however, is the reverse of the order in which the events themselves will happen. The first warning, referring to the great tribulation, is found in Matthew 24.9-10. Jesus is addressing his 12 disciples, but the warning must be for those disciples who will experience the suffering of the end-times: “they will hand you over for torture” (this word is translated ‘tribulation’ in the parable of the sower), “and kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations for my name’s sake; and then many will be ‘scandalized’” - the stumbling-block will become a road-block to turn them back from the path of discipleship. The next reference is in John 16.1, and is an inversion of the previous one. Jesus says that he has warned his disciples about the hatred of the world and the persecution they will face as they preach the gospel and become the church “so that you may not be ‘scandalized’”. This again reminds us of the parable of the sower: the seed sown in stony ground shrivelled in the sun rather than being ripened by it because it had no root-growth. Here Jesus is implying that his disciples need to know what to expect in the course of their discipleship, and that to be rooted and grounded in his teaching is the best preparation for the stumbling-block of suffering. A shallow ‘prosperity gospel’ which leads Christians to expect that their voyage to heaven will be all plain sailing leaves them particularly vulnerable when things ‘go wrong’ or get tough: they think that God has deserted them or deceived them, and can quickly stumble and fall in their faith, tripped up by suffering. The parable of the two builders (Matthew 7.24-7) makes the same point with a different illustration: the house that is built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching survives the storms of life, but the house built on sand collapses when the winds blow and the floodwaters rise. The third reference is the most immediate. On the night of his betrayal Jesus warns his disciples (Matt 26.31): “Tonight you will all be ‘scandalized’ in me”, to which Peter (as we have already seen) replies: “Even if all the others are scandalized, I will never be scandalized.” (Mark’s version does not repeat the verb, but is otherwise the same.) The parallel with the two previous examples suggests that here, too, it will be the fear of persecution and of sharing Jesus’ fate that would cause them to trip and stumble in their discipleship; they certainly fled in terror when Jesus was arrested, and Peter’s fear of being identified as one of Jesus’ disciples led to his predicted denial. But there may have been another meaning as well in Jesus’ warning. “You will be scandalized in me” ( a phrase we will find elsewhere) may imply that the disciples’ panic-stricken desertion of Jesus in Gethsemane would be caused, partly at least, by dismay and disappointment: how could their beloved Master and Messiah so meekly allow himself to be arrested ? Why did he not summon twelve legions of angels to rout the arresting soldiers and usher in his messianic reign? Was Jesus himself the stumbling-block? We shall return to this startling possibility later.

iii. the stumbling-block of an unloving and disunited church
1 John 2.10

Meanwhile, we will consider another experience that may cause Christians to trip up in their faith: the unloving or insensitive behaviour of other Christians. The principle is set out by John in his first epistle, that great essay on love: “the person who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no ‘skandalon’ in him” (2.10) .The AV translates ‘skandalon’ here as ‘occasion of stumbling’, something that makes others stumble, and this seems preferable to the NIV’s “there is nothing in him to make him stumble”. As we have seen, stumbling-blocks are tests from without rather than temptations from within, and the preposition ‘in’, which Jesus used of himself in our previous passage suggests that the person concerned is the cause of someone else’s stumbling, not himself the stumbler. Jesus, of course, was acting in perfect love when he allowed himself to be arrested and ultimately crucified, and it was entirely the fault of the disciples that, despite Jesus’ warnings, they stumbled and fled. But here John is saying that an unloving attitude towards our Christian brothers and sisters can cause them to stumble in their faith. And whereas the love of Christians for one another can be a powerful attraction to outsiders, divisions and disunity within the church which result in a lack of such love put people off and turn them away - a formidable stumbling-block to faith.

iv. a stumbling-block to 'weaker brethren'
'proskomma' Rom 4.13, 1 Cor 8.13

Paul also states this principle of mutual love in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, but goes on to apply it to two specific situations within these two churches. The two problems Paul addresses are parallel and treated in very similar ways, yet are distinct. Both churches contain mature Christians with stronger consciences and deeper understanding, and more recent converts with weaker consciences and less developed understanding, who are still bound by the taboos of their previous lifestyles which constrict their behaviour. In Rome, these converts seem to be from a Jewish background; they still regard the ceremonial law of Moses as binding, and so will not eat meat which is ‘unclean’ (which means that, to be on the safe side, they eat no meat at all), and continue to observe Jewish Sabbaths and holy days. At Corinth, the converts are from paganism, and, to mark their break with their past, they refuse to eat meat which has been offered to idols. Paul makes it quite clear that, in each church, these scruples are unnecessary. As a former Jew himself, he tells the Romans (14.4) that he is convinced that “no thing is unclean of itself” - the lesson Peter only learned after three ‘refusals’ in his vision at Joppa, referred to earlier. And he makes it clear to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8.4) that there is only one God, so that meat offered to non-gods is just meat. So how should more mature Christians with stronger consciences treat their ‘weaker brethren’? In each letter the principle of love is clearly spelt out: “Love is the fulfilment of the law” (Romans 13.10); “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8.1). And to each church Paul says that it is the mature Christians who need to show this love in their attitudes and in their behaviour: their weaker brethren may be untaught, but they are brethren for whom Christ died. So he tells the Romans (14.13): “we should no longer judge one another, but rather make this judgement, not to place any stumbling-block or trip-wire in the way of our brethren”. Here Paul uses not only ‘skandalon’ but also its synonym (in this usage) ‘proskomma’, which was briefly mentioned earlier, and will return again later. Literally, this means something you ‘bump into’ or ‘stub you toe against’ (John Stott, in his commentary on this passage, suggests ‘bark your shins on’). If a mature Christian by his example leads a ‘weaker brother’ to do something or eat something which his conscience tells him is wrong, he is causing that brother to stumble into sin. So, Paul concludes, it is better “not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything which may cause your brother to ‘trip up’ or ‘stub his toe’” - using (according to some MSS) the two verbs derived from ‘skandalon’ and ‘proskomma’. The aim of love should be to build up our brethren, not trip them up. To the Corinthians, Paul says much the same. He tells those who know full well that the pagan gods do not exist, and so are powerless, not to use the freedom their knowledge gives them to put a ‘stumbling-block’ (proskomma) in the way of those with weaker consciences. If they encourage their ‘weaker brethren’ to go against their consciences, they are sinning not only against them but against Christ (8.12). So, he concludes, using the same double negative we saw was so characteristic of Peter, “if the food I eat ‘scandalizes’ my brother, I will certainly not eat meat till the end of time” (another of Peter’s phrases - see John 13.8) “so that I may not ‘scandalize’ my brother” (8.13).

v. Paul's pastoral heart
2 Cor 11.29

In all churches everywhere Christians from time to time fall into sin, whether enticed into a trap by temptations from within, or led astray by false teaching, or tripped up by the tests of suffering or the unloving behaviour of fellow Christians. For the leaders and pastors of these churches this is a painful experience, and the more lovingly committed they are to their flock the more painful these failures will be. In 2 Corinthians 11, as the climax to the list of all the sufferings he has endured as an apostle, he talks of the daily burden of his concern for the churches he has planted: “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak with them ? Who is enticed or stumbles into sin (‘is scandalized’), and I do not burn with indignation and eat my heart out with grief?” (11.29). This loving concern for his flock distinguishes the true shepherd from the hireling.

[5] Jesus the stumbling-block

So for Christians in their daily walk with Jesus, a ‘skandalon’ may be either a temptation or a test; the one is an enticement to turn aside from the path and fall into the trap of sin, while the other is a stumbling-block in our way which trips us up and turns us back. But for the non-Christian, it can be Jesus himself who is the stumbling-block to faith, a possibility we touched on earlier, when the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane were ‘scandalized in’ Jesus at his arrest and fled in panic and despair. In the NT, as we will explore further, Jesus was a stumbling-block for the Jews: today he is often a stumbling-block for the person whose Christianity is a religion of ritual and self-righteousness, as it was for the Pharisees. We will look first at some verses in the OT which predict that the Messiah will be rejected by the Jews, then at passages where these verses are quoted by Peter and Paul in their letters, and finally at some incidents in the gospels where Jesus was a stumbling-block to the Jews.

i. prophecies of the Messiah as a stumbling-block ---
Psalm 118.2, Isaiah 8.14, 28.16

It is interesting, and instructive, to see how three passages from the OT, one from the Psalms and two from Isaiah, are intertwined and interpreted by Jesus and two of his apostles in the NT. All three are about stones. The first occurs in Psalm 118.2: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” This is a Passover psalm, possibly the very psalm that Jesus and the eleven disciples sang before they left the upper room for Gethsemane (Matt. 26.30). The immediate reference, then, is probably to the nation of Israel, once enslaved in Egypt (building the pyramids, perhaps), but now, by the saving mercies of God, an independent nation with a great city and a resplendent temple. The psalm speaks to us particularly of Palm Sunday, for it also contains the verse shouted by the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is a poignant irony that the crowd who by their shouts endorsed the psalm as Messianic within a week had fulfilled half of the prophecy of our verse by rejecting Jesus, their Messiah. Jesus himself, of course, during this week quoted our verse as the coda to the parable of the tenants of the vineyard who rejected the landowner’s servants and drove out and killed his son (Matt 21 42, Luke 20.17). The two verses from Isaiah both seem to imply a contrast between a faithful remnant in Israel, the prophet’s followers, and the unbelieving majority of the people and their rulers, who are seeking security, not in their God, but in alliances with heathen nations on either side of them, Egypt (chapter 28) and Assyria (chapter 8). In 28.16 God says through his faithful prophet: “Behold, I am laying a foundation-stone in Sion, precious and specially chosen, a costly corner-stone for the foundations; and he who puts his faith in it will never be put to shame” (LXX). The earlier verse (8.14) makes the distinction between the faithful few and the unbelieving majority even clearer: for the faithful, the Lord Almighty “will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes them to stumble (‘proskomma’), and a rock that makes them fall.” The coming Messiah, then, for those who reject him will be a stumbling-block, but for those who accept him, and make him the basis of their belief and the crowning glory of their lives, he will be both foundation-stone and capstone, both individually as Christians and collectively as the Church.

ii. ---quoted by Peter and Paul
1 Peter 2.4-8, Rom 9.33

This imagery of stones and rocks obviously had special appeal for Peter, and he works these three references together with the skill of a craftsman building a dry-stone wall (1 Peter 2.4-8). It is clear to him that all three stones are pictures of Jesus, “the living stone, rejected by men but specially chosen and precious to God” - and precious, too, to “you who believe”. But then comes the contrast so strongly stated in Isaiah: “but for unbelievers, ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner, a stone to stumble on (‘proskomma’) and a rock (‘petra’!) to trip them up (‘skandalon’)”. Paul (Romans 9.33) is more like a builder who chops two bricks in half and then cements two different halves together. He conflates the two verses of Isaiah thus: “Behold, I am laying in Sion / a stone to stumble on and a rock to trip them up; / and he who puts his faith in it will not be put to shame” - he does not use the double negative of the LXX. To both apostles it must have seemed puzzling that so many Jews remained implacably opposed to the idea that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah. For these Jews, and for many today, their religion was a security-blanket and identity-badge, giving them a reassuring sense of privilege and piety, rather than a personal relationship with the living God. These scriptures provided Peter and Paul, if not with an answer to this puzzle, at least with the reassurance that it had been prophesied long before.

iii. Jesus a stumbling-block to his own family and people ---
Mark 6.1-6

Almost from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was a stumbling-block, ‘scandalizing’ different groups of people in different ways. First there was the contempt, bred of familiarity, shown to him by his own people in Nazareth (Mark 6.1-6). They had known him for virtually all of his life; he had grown up among them and gone to the local school; they knew his mother, Mary, and his brothers and sisters. He had never been away to university or received any special training. He was their carpenter - and a carpenter should stick to his hammer and nails, not stand up in the synagogue to lecture them, or set up as a rabbi with his twelve disciples. In short, “they were ‘scandalized in’ him - the scandal of inadequate qualifications for a Messiah. As John said (1.11): “he came to his own home” (he uses the same phrase in 19.27 to describe his taking of Mary away from the crucifixion “to his own home”), “and his own people did not receive him.” What a tragedy!

iv. --- and to John the Baptist
Matt 11.6, Luke 7.23

If “Jesus was amazed at the lack of faith” of his own fellow townsmen, the next on our list of those ‘scandalized’ by Jesus is even more surprising: John the Baptist. Imprisoned by Herod, he learns of Jesus’ ministry and sends some disciples to ask him: “Are you ‘the one who is coming’- the Messiah - or are we to expect another ?” (Matt 11.3, Luke 7.19). Jesus tells these disciples to report back to John what they themselves have seen: his miracles of healing and his preaching good news to the poor, which fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah (35.5-6, 61.1). Then he proclaims another beatitude: “blessed is he who is not ‘scandalized in’ me”. The implication here is, surely, that John has briefly tripped and stumbled in his faith in Jesus as Messiah. Perhaps, like the disciples in Gethsemane, this is the ‘scandal’ of disappointed expectations. Whereas the disciples, maybe, were expecting Jesus to be a mighty ruler who would use his divine power to triumph over his enemies, and so were demoralised by his meek submission to the arresting soldiers, John, it seems, was expecting a Messiah who would come in judgement to separate the righteous from the unrighteous. This is certainly the implication of his words in Matthew 3.12: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn, and burning up the chaff in unquenchable fire.” The imagery here is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, which we looked at earlier, but there he makes it clear that such judgement is reserved until the end-time: then indeed the Messiah will come as Judge, but now he has come “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). Maybe John was hoping that Jesus would establish a reign of righteousness in which he himself would be freed from prison, and Herod would be justly punished for his wickedness. We must assume that Jesus knew that the answer he had sent him would restore John’s stumbling faith, but his momentary doubt typifies the difficulty the Jews had in accepting Jesus as their Messiah. They knew well all the Messianic prophecies of scripture, but could not understand that they spoke not of two different Messiahs (Matthew’s version of John’s question, otherwise identical to Luke’s, could be translated “are we to expect a second ?”), but of the two comings of the one Messiah, first as the ‘suffering Servant’, and only at the end of time as the mighty King and Judge.

v. --- and to the Pharisees
Matt 15.12

Next on the list of those ‘scandalized’ by Jesus are, rather less surprisingly, the Pharisees. In their case, the word has more or less its modern meaning: their sense of propriety and self-righteousness was constantly outraged by Jesus’ teaching and life-style, and the behaviour of his disciples. But although such confrontations occur frequently in the gospels, only once are we told that they were scandalized, even though that must have been their default mode when Jesus’ name was so much as mentioned. This occurs in Matthew 15.12: “Then the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Do you realise that the Pharisees when they heard the teaching were scandalized ?’” It is not entirely clear from the context what teaching (literally ‘word’) the disciples are referring to; there are two possibilities, though they are closely linked. The chapter begins with the Pharisees complaining to Jesus that his disciples eat their meals without first ceremonially washing their hands, as prescribed by “the tradition of the elders”. Jesus’ reply is in two parts. The first is a counter-attack: he accuses them of using this tradition to set aside the clear imperative of the word of God - the fifth commandment, “thou shalt honour thy father and mother”. A man could evade this obligation to care for his parents in their old age by claiming that the money needed to do so had been pledged to God; this sounded pious, but in fact was breaking God’s law. The ceremonial washing which the Pharisees thought so important was not, in fact, required by scripture, and for Jesus it was scripture that was God’s word, not tradition. The second part of his answer made another important distinction, between external, ceremonial cleanliness, which was merely a matter of ritual washing, and real inner cleanliness of the heart, which was what mattered to God. What made you unclean in his eyes was not what you ate but what you said, since your words all too often revealed the true state of your heart. No meat, therefore, was ‘unclean’, nor did unwashed hands make you unclean in God’s sight - it was the state of your heart that did that. As we have seen, this was a lesson that Peter himself needed to have repeated three times in his vision at Joppa before he accepted it, and which many Jewish converts in Rome had still not grasped. In quick succession, then, Jesus has attacked and exposed first “the tradition of the elders” where it runs counter to scripture, and then the rituals of purification which leave the heart untouched. So it is not surprising that the Pharisees were scandalized - and equally scandalized, most probably, by both parts of Jesus’ riposte. Their religion was essentially one of scrupulous externals and numerous traditional rituals, and the self-righteous hypocrisy which the observing of these bred in them hardened their hearts to the word of God. Today, too, the living Christ can be a scandal to those whose religion is essentially Pharisaic, based on human tradition and external ritual.

vi. the wheat and the weeds: another visit
Matt 13.28-30, 15.13-14
'ekrizō', 'aphete'

We have seen how Jesus answered the Pharisees’ accusation; let us now look briefly at his answer to his disciples’ question in 15.12, quoted above: “Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be rooted out. Leave them be - they are blind guides of the blind”. This clearly echoes the parable of the wheat and the weeds, which we have already visited twice. ‘Seed’ and ‘sower’ are replaced by ‘plant’ and ‘planting’, and it is the Father who is the sower/planter, not the Son, but even so the parallel is unmistakeable: the Pharisees are weeds sown by the Devil, false teachers and blind guides. The parallel is reinforced by two verbal echoes. In the parable (13.29), the landowner is concerned that if his workers gather up the weeds early on, they may also “root out” (‘ekrizo’) the wheat, the word Jesus uses here to refer to the eventual fate of the Pharisees; these are its only two uses in Matthew, and it is only used twice elsewhere in the NT. “So”, the landowner says to his workers (v. 30), “leave them be” (‘aphete’), the very same word Jesus uses about the Pharisees here. The implication is that God’s judgement will come upon them in God’s time, and that the Pharisees who now find Jesus a stumbling-block will be among those ‘scandals’ whom God’s angels gather out of his kingdom and cast into the furnace. Those who teach legalism, it seems, are as much stumbling-blocks to true faith as those who teach licence.

vii. avoiding scandal: the Temple tax
Matt 17.24-7, Ex 30.11-16

Our next example comes two chapters later, at the end of Matthew 17 (24-7), and is in some ways a mirror image of the previous one. There, the Pharisees complained to Jesus about the behaviour of his disciples; here, as Jesus and his disciples are entering Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax question Peter about his Rabbi: “Does your teacher pay the temple tax?” There is no suggestion here that the question is hostile, or that the collectors are critical of Jesus. Peter’s reply is a monosyllabic “yes”. When he gets home, Jesus anticipates him: “What do you think, Simon? Do earthly kings collect taxes from their sons or from their subjects?” The answer is obvious, and Peter gets it right. “So”, Jesus continues, “the sons are tax-exempt.” The basis of this half-shekel, or, in Greek currency, two-drachma, tax is set out in Exodus 30. 11-16, verses which provide for the taking of a census of God’s people. But, since God alone knows the number of his elect, for men to take a census infringes God’s sovereignty and incurs his wrath. So each Israelite who willingly identified himself with God’s people by ‘crossing over’ to join them had to pay this fixed tax (the same for rich and poor) to redeem himself from God’s wrath. God’s people, therefore, was a redeemed people, constituted not (just) by the accident of birth, but by personal choice. The implication of Jesus’ analogy seems to be that the children of the Kingdom have already had their redemption from God’s wrath paid for by the great Redeemer, Christ himself, and so are ‘tax-exempt’. Nevertheless, he wants to avoid ‘scandalizing’ the temple authorities by refusing to pay the tax, and so refusing to identify himself with God’s people. Whereas in his confrontation with the Pharisees the ceremonial washing was not prescribed by scripture but only by human tradition, here the payment of the temple tax was part of God’s law, and so Jesus made arrangements for Peter to pay it: he should catch a fish and he would find a coin in its mouth, a 4-drachma coin, enough to pay both of their taxes. Just as at the beginning of his ministry (Matt 3.15) Jesus, though sinless, had received baptism from John to identify with sinful man, and to “fulfil all righteousness” (i.e. the requirements of the law), so now he pays the temple tax, though the Son of the King of kings, to identify with God’s people, and, in fulfilling all righteousness, to avoid giving unnecessary offence. This means that, on the cross, Jesus did not have to pay for his own redemption, but could give his life “as a ransom for many”. The miraculous provision of the money for the temple tax shows that the same God who demands payment for redemption from his wrath also graciously provides that payment in the person of his Son.

viii. the scandal of Jesus' teaching
John 6.61
'gonguzō':John 6.41,43,61, Matt 20.11, Luke 5.30

Our final example of ‘skandalizō’ the verb comes in John 6; once again it is Jesus’ teaching which ‘scandalizes’, but those ‘scandalized’ are his own disciples, though not the twelve. In v.66 we read: “from this time, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” This reminds us of the second of the two basic meanings of ‘skandalon’ that we are considering, as a ‘stumbling-block’, something that trips you up and turns you back from the walk of faith. Earlier in the chapter, these same disciples had eagerly followed Jesus from one side of the lake to the other, attracted and excited by the miraculous feeding of the five thousand with bread and fish. Indeed, such was their enthusiasm that Jesus withdrew from them, “knowing that they intended to come and seize him and make him king” (v.15). Now here they are, scarcely 50 verses later, withdrawing from him, ‘scandalized’. What has Jesus said to them that has put them off and turned them round (the wrong kind of conversion!) ? As with the narrative of his confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew 15, the text does not make it clear exactly what it is that ‘scandalized’ them: here Jesus just asks: “Does this offend you ?”. We cannot be sure whether “this” refers just to the immediately preceding verses, or to the whole discourse from v.25 on. A possible clue occurs in v.61, where John writes that “Jesus knew in himself that the Jews were murmuring about this”. The word for ‘murmur’ here is the splendidly onomatopoeic ‘gonguzō’, derived, apparently, from the murmuring, muttering, clucking noises made by a gaggle of pigeons. More significantly, it is the word used in the LXX to translate the regular ‘murmurings’ of the Israelites against Moses and the hardships of life in the wilderness, so that John’s use of it here may be wryly ironic, subtly making the point that the Jews here, though not true disciples of Jesus, are certainly true descendants of their forefathers, ‘murmuring’ as they did despite being fed by a miracle from heaven. The word expresses everything from grumbling discontent to indignant outrage - the typical reactions of those who are, in one way or another, scandalized. This latter meaning is well illustrated by the reaction of the Pharisees, inevitably, at Levi’s party, when they see Jesus eating and drinking “with tax-collectors and sinners” (Luke 5.30). ‘Grumbling discontent’ is perhaps the better translation to describe the reaction of the all-day labourers in the vineyard, in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20.11, when they discovered that they were being paid no more that those who had only worked an hour or two: scandalous! In John 6 we are told twice that these Jewish disciples ‘murmured’ at Jesus’ teaching, not just in v.61, already referred to, but also in v.41. This suggests that his words placed at least two stumbling-blocks in their path.

(a) the problem of who Jesus is
John 6.42, Mark 6.3

The first problem seems to be simply this: who is Jesus? He first checks their enthusiasm in v.26, where he tells them that their eagerness to find him and follow him was not because the feeding of the five thousand was a miraculous sign which had convinced them of his divine power, but simply because they had eaten a lot of bread. The miracle had filled their stomachs, but not opened their eyes to the truth about Jesus. He goes on to tell them that the bread that they really need, the bread that “gives life to the world”, is the bread that “comes down from heaven” - that is, Jesus himself. It is this that gives them indigestion. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph?” they murmur among themselves, in words very similar to those of the Nazarenes in Mark 6.3 that we looked at earlier. But they were ‘scandalized in’ him, it seems, more because familiarity bred contempt for an apparently unqualified teacher than because his paternity was in question - there is no mention of Joseph there. Today, too, the virgin birth, and hence the full deity of Jesus, is a stumbling-block for many in the way of meaningful discipleship, though they may respect and admire him as an historical figure. But if Jesus was just “the son of Joseph”, his claims that he could give people eternal life, and that he would “raise them up on the last day” seem rather hard to swallow.

(b) the problem of personal commitment
'pisteuō eis'
John 6.29-30

If the first problem is “who is Jesus?”, the second (the main subject of vv.44-59) is “what does he require of his disciples?”; and it was the implications of this teaching that seem to have been the final stumbling-block that turned back many of them. Belief that Jesus is the Son of God is a necessary qualification for true discipleship, but not of itself sufficient: as James says (2.19), “even the demons believe - and tremble”. It is faith that makes a disciple. This distinction between belief and faith has already been subtly made by John in the first part of this long discourse, in vv.29-30, but the subtlety is more effective in Greek. Both ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are expressed in Greek by the one word, ‘pistis’, and the verb-form of this noun is ‘pisteuō,’ which can mean either ‘believe’ or ‘trust’; when followed by a simple dative it means ‘believe’, when followed by ‘en’ and the dative it means ‘believe in’, and when followed by ‘eis’ and the accusative it means ‘believe into’ or ‘put one’s faith in’ or ‘commit oneself to’. This third usage is particularly characteristic of John, who uses it 36 times in his gospel; it is only found twice in the synoptics, in parallel passages that we have already looked at, namely the warnings not to “scandalize one of these little ones who put their trust in me”. So in v.29, Jesus tells these disciples that to do the work of God is to ‘put your faith into’ the one he has sent. They reply (though having witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand) “what sign do you give us so that we may see and ‘believe you’?” (pisteuō + dative, v.30). They have, neither for the first or the last time, missed the point. This Jesus develops particularly in vv. 53-6 using the image of the ‘bread of life’, which has already been mentioned in v.35, and is the central theme of the whole chapter. To have eternal life, his disciples must eat the bread which is Jesus’ flesh, and also drink the drink which is his blood (not referred to here as wine).True faith is not just believing in Jesus, but believing into him, an act, and a continuing attitude, of self-giving commitment. This means allowing Jesus into our lives, initially and then daily, just as we absorb food and drink into our bodies. This teaching led to a renewed bout of ‘murmuring’ in v.66: “this word is too difficult for us”: they were ‘scandalized’, as Jesus says. And he goes on: “what if you see the Son of Man going up to where he was before?” - that is, if they witnessed his ascension into heaven. This clearly refers to the cause of their first ‘murmuring’, his claim to have “come down from heaven” (v.41), and so supports the interpretation that this teaching, too, had been a stumbling-block for them. In fact, as we know, Jesus’ ascension was witnessed only by his true disciples; as in all his other resurrection appearances, his purpose was not to compel unbelievers to believe, but to confirm the faith of those who already believed.

(c) the problem of a dying Messiah
Matt 16.13-23, John 6.66-69

What was it, then, that precipitated this second bout of murmuring? There are three possible reasons for their reaction. Firstly, they may simply not have understood the ‘parable’ of the bread and the drink, the flesh and the blood - a parable being not necessarily a story, but any kind of figurative comparison. After Jesus has told the parable of the sower in Mark 4, “those around him and the twelve” ask him to explain it. Before he does so, he explains the purpose of parables in general, making much the same distinction that we have seen here in John 6, between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, true disciples and ‘the crowd’: “to you - the inner circle - the mystery of the kingdom of heaven has been given; but to those outside everything comes in parables, so that (quoting Isaiah) ‘seeing they may see and not see’ (i.e. ‘get the point’) ‘and hearing they may hear and not understand’ (vv.11-12). It seems that parables are used by Jesus as ‘stumbling-blocks’ or hurdles to discriminate between those who are genuine seekers after truth, and ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’, and those who have merely jumped on the bandwagon, swept along by the enthusiasm of the moment - ‘Palm Sunday disciples’, one might call them. If that is what has happened here, it is not surprising that these Jews ‘murmur’ in protest at the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh, and even more so at ‘drinking his blood’: drinking blood was strictly forbidden by the Mosaic law. Bu,t supposing that, for once, they did ‘get the point’, the second possible cause of their murmuring may have been simply that they balked at this demand for personal commitment to Jesus. It was one thing to follow him round the lake in the hope of more free bread, but to follow him faithfully through life was a commitment too far - as, alas, it still is today for many who do not want their religion to ‘get too personal’. Thirdly, some of Jesus’ audience may have realised that he was prophesying his own death when he talked of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and to them, as to Peter in the passage we looked at earlier, the idea of a Messiah who came to suffer and die was unthinkably ‘scandalous’. In fact, the links between that passage (Matt 16.13-23), Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi, and the last section of John 6 in Capernaum are quite striking. When the false disciples melt away, scandalized, Jesus asks the twelve: “Surely you do not want to turn back?” Inevitably, it is Peter who replies with a confession of faith: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life - you are the holy one of God.” Jesus replies: “Did I not choose the twelve of you, and one of you is a devil?” - not Peter, this time, but Judas, his betrayer, the ‘son of the evil one’ sown by Satan in the middle of God’s harvest-field.

viii. the scandal of the cross
(a) the scandal of a Messiah under God's curse
Deut 21.23, 1 Cor 1.22-24

The third possible reason for the Jews’ murmuring mentioned above, the stumbling-block of a crucified Messiah, brings us, at last, to our final two references, the ‘scandal’ of the cross. The noun is found twice in this context in Paul’s epistles, in the first letter to Corinth, and in Galatians. In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul sets out what might now be termed his ‘mission statement’: “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified” (or “a crucified Messiah”), to Jews a stumbling-block, and folly to gentiles; but to those who are God’s chosen, both Jews and gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vv.22-4). We have seen that the idea of a Messiah who died was hard for Jews to accept; perhaps a Messiah killed fighting heroically in battle might just have been acceptable, but a Messiah hung on a cross to die was unthinkable, an oxymoron (‘mōron’ is the Greek for ‘folly’ in this passage), a contradiction in terms - in short, a scandal. The reason for this is that the Jews regarded a cross as the Roman version of a tree, and in their law it is written: “utterly cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Deut. 21.23). This meant that someone who was crucified was not just being punished by the Romans as a criminal, but was a sinner cursed by God. How could the Messiah, God’s servant and king, die under God’s curse? It is easy to see why the cross of Christ was such a major stumbling-block for Jews. Paul quotes this verse from Deuteronomy in Galatians 3.13, but a little earlier he has quoted another verse from Deuteronomy (27.26): “utterly cursed is everyone who does not abide by all the commandments written in the book of the law to observe them.” No one, argues Paul, can meet such an impossibly high standard, therefore everyone is under God’s curse. But “Christ bought us back from the curse of the law by becoming himself a curse on our behalf”. This is why Paul describes the message of the cross as the “power of God and the wisdom of God”, and this is why, when he arrived in the great city of Corinth “in weakness and fear and trembling”, he decided “to know nothing among you except Christ, and him crucified.” This is also why Peter, twice in his sermons and once in his first letter, refers to the cross as the ‘tree’.

(b) the stumbling-block of the torn veil: free access for all
Gal 5.11

In the mercy of God, and through the outpouring of his Spirit at Pentecost and after, many Jews came to accept this wonderful, if difficult, truth: the early church was entirely Jewish. But in Galatians Paul is writing to Christians who are mostly gentiles. His main concern in the letter is that these Christians are being influenced and troubled by the ‘circumcision party’, Jewish Christians who taught that gentiles, in order to become a part of God’s people, needed first to become Jews by submitting to circumcision. Paul sees this as a denial of the gospel of free grace: all that was needed to become a Christian and to receive new life in God’s family was to repent and believe, and, as a public sign of this, to be baptized. He argues that God’s forgiveness is based entirely on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and is not dependent on our keeping the law or being circumcised. The rumour seems to have been circulating that Paul himself actually preached the need for circumcision when in Jewish circles. He refutes this rumour thus: “If I am preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted (by the Jews)? For if this were the case, the stumbling-block of the cross would have been removed” (5.11). On the ‘tree’, Jesus was not only suffering under God’s curse on our behalf, so that we would never have to, he was also offering himself as a sinless sacrifice for us: the cross was the consummation of the sacrificial system, the altar on which the last ever sacrifice was offered by the last ever priest, Jesus himself, our great High Priest. The scandal of the cross, for Jewish Christians, was that at the crucifixion the veil in the temple separating man from God had been torn down, so that everyone could now come to God through Jesus, both Jews and gentiles, without the need for animal sacrifice or the sons of Levi to act as priests and intermediaries. Everyone who came to God in this way was a part of God’s chosen people: the Jews no longer had the monopoly on access to God..

(c) the stumbling-block of human pride
1 Cor 1.18

Nor is the ‘scandal’ of the cross a stumbling-block only to Jews. There are many today who find it an affront to their pride to hear that on the cross Jesus paid the full price needed to “buy us back from the curse of the law”, and that their own ‘upright’ lives and ‘good’ works can make no contribution to the price that has been paid. The only thing we can contribute to our own salvation, as Archbishop William Temple so memorably said, is the sin from which we need to be saved. For those who are being saved, to paraphrase Paul (1 Cor 1.18), the cross is a suspension bridge spanning the gulf of sin separating us from a holy God; but for those who are perishing it is a stumbling-block which trips them up and turns them back into the darkness.