Pastor, Burwood Chinese Presbyterian Church, Sydney, Australia
Paul’s statement in Romans 1:16 where he says that he’s not ashamed of the gospel is a radical statement. It’s radical because the cross was a symbol of shame and humiliation in the world of the New Testament (NT). When Paul writes, I am not ashamed of the gospel … he’s in effect saying, “I’m not ashamed to look bad, I’m not afraid to look foolish, I’m not afraid to be considered a fool, I’m not afraid to be shamed and humiliated for the gospel”.
Why was the Christian gospel considered both an embarrassment and shameful? In 1 Cor.1:22-23, Paul reminds us that, Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. The gospel was considered a foolish message and a shameful message, because at the heart of the gospel was the symbol of a cross – a message focused on the crucified Christ.
These days – crosses are glamorous. In fact the wearing of a cross is a fashion symbol worn by the likes of Madonna, Britney Spears, David Beckam and Liz Hurley. But in the world of the NT, the cross wasn’t so trendy, but a symbol of shame. Only the scum of society were crucified. Death by crucifixion was reserved only for runaway slaves, criminals, murderers, rebels convicted of treason, and captured enemies of the state. Crucifixion wasn’t just a way to cause someone a slow and painful death. Crucifying someone was also a way of shaming them, of publicly humiliating them.
You are left out in the open air in all your nakedness for everyone to see; each hour, each day, as the life drains out of you; as you lose control of your bodily functions and then left to the vultures to be consumed. In the ancient Roman world, a crucifixion was a public shaming of the person, leaving them exposed and powerless. It took away their rights, their control, their worth, their dignity; a public statement really to say to everyone around that this is what this person is worth.
For the early Christians, Christ crucified wasn’t just absurd or embarrassing, it was shameful and appalling. What sort of people worshipped a crucified man? What sort of people speak of a crucified man saving them? They should be ashamed of the cross. Only fools worship a crucified man whom they call God, King and Savior.
Graffiti has been around since Roman times and before. In 1857, an archaeologist discovered graffiti scratched into the plaster walls of the barracks of some Roman soldiers built by the Emperor Nero. One of these pieces of graffiti is called the “Alexamenos Graffiti” (photo), drawn in the first century. Apparently it is made to make fun of a Christian soldier by the name of Alexamenos. The picture shows a small man, Alexamenos, praying with one arm extended toward Jesus suffering on the cross. Jesus appears on a visible cross with arms outstretched, hands nailed. But in this crude sketch, scratched on the barracks wall by a pagan soldier, Jesus has the body of a crucified man and the head of an ass. And beneath this drawing are the words, “Alexamenos worships his god”.
In the eyes of non-Christians, not only was this crucified King and Savior an ass, but so were his followers. For what sort of people glory and boast in, proclaim and worship a crucified man? It was both appalling and shameful. How can the cross be good news? What’s so good about the crucifixion of a man on a Roman cross? It’s something you should be ashamed of!
The temptation for Paul and certainly for all early Christians was to be ashamed of the gospel, to be ashamed of the cross of Jesus. Yet, we read in Rom.1:16, that Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. He is unashamed to be shamed and humiliated for the gospel in his world. He is unashamed to be considered an ass for Jesus! And the reason comes in the second half of v.16. Paul is unashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
For ultimately, the death of Jesus on the cross was not the last word. For the last word at the cross is not death, but resurrection. For the last word at the cross is not shame, but vindication. For the last word at the cross is not humiliation, but exaltation. For the same Jesus who went to the cross, is the same Jesus God resurrected from the dead. He lifted up to the highest place to be worshipped, and given the name above every name. For the same Jesus who went to the cross, is also the Jesus God declares to have . . . “Bestowed upon him the name that is above every other name. That at the name of Jesus, every knee must bend in the heavens and on the earth and proclaim to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil.2:6-10).
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