I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians chalk up their failed evangelistic efforts to the excuse, “Of course people are rejecting our message, the Gospel is offensive to the world!” It’s almost a source of pride for some Christians – the very rejection of their message by the world is seen as proof that they are doing it right. (Prime Example: Battlecry protest in San Francisco)
Christians use this myth to make excuses for being obnoxious and pushing people away from God. They cast blame on “the world” for being offended at the message of Jesus by quoting Scriptures out of context. (I Cor 1:18,23-25, Galatians 5:11)
But is that really what these Scriptures mean? Is the Gospel really offensive to the sinners and the lost? As I’ve looked deeper at this question, I’ve noticed something interesting. The only people that were offended by the Gospel message that Jesus taught and lived were…wait for it…the Pharisees, Saducees and other religious adherents to the Old Testament. These people were serious about following God and they wouldn’t tolerate anyone coming in with bad theology. So, basically your modern day Honor Academy leaders and participants.
You’d never know it from the way Christians act today, but sinners actually really liked Jesus! He went to their house and partied. He went to their weddings and made wine. He healed them. He hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans and women – all the lowest of the low in that society. If they were offended by Jesus, they sure had a funny way of showing it! Jesus actually partied so much with them that the religious elite called him a drunkard, a glutton and a “friend of sinners.”
While there is scant evidence that Jesus offended the lost sinners of his day, there is mountains of Scripture showing that Jesus seriously and habitually offended the religious elite of his day in multiple ways:
1) His Lifestyle
He was a friend of sinners. The Pharisees didn’t like who we was including. He fellowshipped with the unclean, something strictly prohibited by Old Testament Law. He broke the Sabbath multiple times by performing miracles and feeding his disciples, another violation of their Old Testament law.
2) His Teachings
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Luke 4
Jesus is subverting their racial and moral order by suggesting that God looked after and approved of outsiders instead of devoted Jews.
What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” Matt. 15
Jesus was subverting their entire system of clean vs. unclean – a major cornerstone of their Old Testament religion.
3) His Parables
Jesus often used the Pharisees and other righteous folk as the villains of his stories. The parables said, “Don’t be like the Pharisees!” and instead praised unclean outsiders like Samaritans (seen as sub-human) and sinners. (Pharisee and the tax collector, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son)
Imagine how offensive this would be by putting these parables in modern terms:
Two men went up to the church to pray, one was leader of a Christian ministry and the other was a domestic terrorist. Ron Luce stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am on fire for you and not like other people — mtv, madison avenue, and men who are addicted to porn — or even like this criminal who harms his own countrymen. I fast once a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the terrorist stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now, THAT is offensive!
4) His Confrontations
The most offensive statements are Jesus’ face to face confrontations with the Pharisees and Saducees. His remarks can’t be taken as anything other than absolutely damning and scathing. He calls them all kinds of names like snakes, murderers, white-washed tombs (a symbol of uncleanness), sons of their father the devil, blind guides, hypocrites, etc. Funny enough, he didn’t ever level these kinds of accusations against the every day sinners he encountered.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into Paul’s persecution but here is a link to read it for yourself. The vast majority of the time, his persecution came directly from the Jewish religious establishment because of his inclusion of the Gentiles.
If we look closely at the lives of Jesus and Paul, we can see that the Gospel is NOT primarily offensive to sinners – it is offensive to the religious!
Jesus spent his entire life turning the entire concept of religious devotion to God and spiritual insiders on its head and it pissed the insiders off so much that they killed him. All the stuff they thought mattered – it didn’t actually matter! That radical message is still ticking the insiders off today. (I know, I used to be one.) He was persecuted precisely because he didn’t demand that people follow the rules in order to participate in the kingdom of God.
How many Christians do you know that fit that description of Jesus – friend of sinners?
THAT is what’s offensive about the Gospel – that Jesus would befriend just anybody. The radical inclusion and love of God extends to everybody no matter their station in life, race, gender or sins. He ascribes worth, dignity and value to everybody. He invites everyone into his family without discrimination – and that ticks religious people off! Don’t believe me – try suggesting that “good” Christians can cuss or doubt or drink alcohol or watch porn. If you really want to preach an offensive Gospel, mention that gay people can be saved and see what happens.
And THAT is the offense of the cross. The grace of God offends people – the fact that those people don’t deserve it.
The message Jesus preached and lived attracted the sinner and repelled the religious. Yet often, our lives and preaching do the opposite.
We are doing it wrong.