There are times when I am convinced that, for many people who are followers of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus has lost its scandalous edge.
So, how was the gospel of Jesus scandalous to those living in the early years of Christianity?
It was scandalous in two ways: one way with the Roman world and another way with the Jews. Let’s deal with the Roman world way first.
The gospel of Jesus was scandalous for one reason. And that reason was found in the foundational statement of Christianity – “Jesus is Lord.” It wasn’t scandalous because it preached a monotheistic faith. Jews lived throughout the Roman world and had been given a special exemption to continue to adhere to the monotheism of Judaism. So for the Roman world, a monotheistic belief system was not something new. But requiring a person to declare with one’s mouth, meaning publicly, “Jesus is Lord” was tantamount to treason for a Roman. One did not make this confession glibly or without commitment, for the possibly consequences and results could be quite bad for the person.
How was it scandalous to the Jews? It centered around what to do with the Mosaic Law. The backbone, the foundation, of Judaism was the Mosaic Law with all of its requirements; this was what made a Jew a Jew. Adhering to the Law gave to Jews their identity; it set them apart. So when Paul begins preaching the gospel, as it was revealed and taught to him by Christ Himself, that the purpose of the Law had been fulfilled and since through one being crucified, buried, and resurrected with Christ gave that one a new and only nature which is Christ’s nature, following the Law was no longer necessary. So Paul taught that not only was it not necessary for Gentile believers to begin following the Law after belief, it was no longer necessary for Jewish believers to follow it either. (Romans 7:1-4) Paul even told the Galatian believers that he had become like them in regard as to the Law. This was scandalous to many Jews, both inside the Faith and outside. It’s why they also sought to have him arrested! Teaching that it was no longer necessary to follow the Law? How dare he!?
Unfortunately, the gospel has lost its scandalous edge because of two realities being commonly present even today.
First is this: the Faith, which has as its foundational statement/oath “Jesus is Lord,” has been combined with a “nationalism.” There are many, I believe, that, through what they say and how they respond to different situations, have done this, sometimes to the extent that it is difficult to determine where the gospel ends and “nationalism” starts. In the minds of many, the two have become synonymous. And it’s all because the gospel has been allowed to lose its scandalous edge.
Second is this: there are many teachers and leaders in the Faith who teach that it is required, to some degree, to follow the Law as found in the Old Testament. They may not use the term “Law” itself, but anytime a code or system of rules and regulations for “proper” Christian behavior is created and expected to be followed, that’s exactly what has happened. Using Paul’s wording, these teachers and leaders are teaching, “Don’t handle; don’t taste; don’t touch.” (Colossians 2:21) Paul then says that these types of requirements and prohibitions have a “reputation of wisdom in self-imposed worship and lowliness and severe treatment of the body” but then says, they “are not of any value against the indulgences of the flesh.”
These things speak to a nature that is no longer living in believers – the old nature, and are religious in nature. That is not the gospel. The gospel actually throws out religious mandates because they speak to the old nature which God has killed and buried with Christ. We are to speak to the new nature in a persn, for as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, “So then we, from now on, know no one according to the flesh, even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him so no longer. So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, they have become new.”
I believe that a foundational problem for the assembly of Jesus here in the United States is that the gospel has lost its scandalous edge in both of these ways. It has been transformed into some type of “nationalistic civil religion” with a code of morality that must be followed.
And until that scandalous edge is recaptured, I will not be surprised that the Faith in this country continues to decline in both quantity and quality.