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Offence (2)

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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OFFENCE.—This article deals with the ideas connected with the words σκάνδαλον and σκανδαλίζειν, and, in so far as they are applied in the same moral sphere, with those suggested by προσκόπτειν, πρόσκομμα, and ἀπρόσκοπος. The literal meaning of σκάνδαλον, which is probably the Alexandrian form of σκανδάληθρον, may be the part of a trap to which the bait is fastened, and which, when it is touched, springs up and catches the victim; but in Scripture the sense is not so definite. It may be questioned, indeed, whether it is ever used literally; and the figurative or ethical use of it, which is peculiar to Scripture, is what we are now to investigate. The one idea which is constant in every use of the word, literal or figurative, is that of hurt sustained; it may even be of ruin incurred, by the person who encounters the σκάνδαλον. It will be convenient to exhibit the Scriptural view of the subject by referring (1) to the experience of Jesus; (2) to the teaching of Jesus; and (3) to the application of this in the Apostolic Church.

1. Experience of Jesus.—When Jesus visited Nazareth, and taught in the synagogue so that all were astonished, astonishment soon passed into a kind of carping criticism. ‘Whence hath this man these things, and what is the wisdom that has been given to him? And these mighty works that are being done by him? Is not this the carpenter?’ And so on (Mark 6:2 f. ||). The people had been used to Jesus in one aspect or character, and they could not adjust themselves to Him in another. There was something in His present appearance and claims which they could not get over: as the Evangelists put it, ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. Jesus Himself was the σκάνδαλον with which, for the time at least, they collided: it was to their hurt even at the moment (He could do no mighty work there because of their unbelief, Mark 6:5), and it would be their ruin if it were their final attitude. Probably before Jesus can become a σκάνδαλον, men must have felt the attraction in Him: it is only when closer acquaintance reveals something in Him, or in the consequences of attachment to Him, which is repellent to the natural man, that He becomes a σκάνδαλον, and those who were once attracted fall away. They stumble at something which attachment to Him involves; they cannot get over it, and so they desert Him. This is the connexion in which σκανδαλίζεσθαι occurs in Mark 14:27; Mark 14:29 and ||. Jesus on the last night of His life recalls to the Twelve the prophecy of Zechariah (Zechariah 13:7): ‘I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered,’ and applies it by adding, ‘All ye σκανδαλισθήσεσθε ἐν ἐμοὶ ἐν τῇ νυκτὶ ταύτῃ.’ They had felt the charm of Jesus, and continued with Him in His temptations so far; but a Messiah who should be seized, tortured, and crucified by sinners would be too much for them. In spite of all they had seen and felt in Him, they would stumble at this, and leave Him in the lurch. It is the same idea, mutatis mutandis, which is found in Mark 4:17 and || Mt.; the rocky ground hearers, who have shown a warm appreciation of the word, are taken aback when they find that they have to endure, persecution because of it, and ‘immediately they are offended.’ Luke 8:13 gives the correct interpretation: ‘in time of temptation they fall away.’ The parable of the Sower, standing where it does, is not so much a prophecy, though it is prophetic, as a summary of the disenchanting experiences of Jesus. He had seen many enthusiasms chill, the moment fidelity to Him exacted any sacrifice. In one sense this is ‘the offence of the cross,’ though it is not what St. Paul means by this expression. We are in the same circle of ideas in Matthew 24:1 f., John 16:9 f. Jesus warns His disciples of coming persecutions; they as well as He have the cross to bear; and while many will stumble at it,—that is, find it too much for them, a thing which they cannot get over, and must simply decline,—He tells the Twelve beforehand, that being forewarned they may be forearmed against the peril of apostasy.

One of the most striking instances of σκάνδαλον in the experience of Jesus is that which is connected with John the Baptist. John was evidently disappointed somehow in Jesus. He had had reason to regard Him as the Messiah, but He was not the Messiah John had expected. Where were the axe and the fan and the consuming fire? Why, if the Messiah had really come, were not all wrongs irresistibly righted? Why was a true servant of God like himself left to suffer for fidelity to his Master? It is to this temper in John that Jesus says, ‘Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me’ (Matthew 11:6, Luke 7:23). We must not impose our preconceptions on God, and dictate to Him the terms on which He may have recognition from us. This always implies the risk that we may stumble at what He actually does—refuse to recognize Him in Jesus because the manifestation does not square with our demands. The Baptist here is a perfect illustration of St. Paul’s words, written in immediate connexion with his idea of Christ as σκάνδαλον: ‘Jews claim signs.’ They say, Let God signalize His presence; let Him make bare His holy arm, and break in pieces the oppressor, and we will see and believe Him; and when they see nothing of this in Jesus, they stumble at Him. He becomes a σκάνδαλον to them. And just as Jesus in His acts may become an offence to those who anticipated something quite different, so may He be by anything disconcerting or too challenging in His teaching. Thus the Pharisees in Matthew 15:12 were offended by the word in which He seemed to abolish the distinction between clean and unclean meats: they could not get over the idea that a distinction on which so much of their sanctity depended should be so summarily swept away. It finally repelled them from Jesus. And in John 6:61 we find disciples put out, as it were, by the hard sayings about eating the flesh of the Son of Man, and drinking His blood: it is almost more than they can stand, and Jesus asks τοῦτο ὑμᾶς σκανδαλίζει; ‘Doth this cause you to stumble?’ Almost anything in Jesus may become a ground of stumbling—the demands He makes, the sacrifices which fidelity to Him entails, His disappointment of our expectations, the paradoxical and apparently impossible elements of His teaching. And all these become grounds of stumbling to those who have made some acquaintance with Him, been to some degree attracted and held by Him. To be offended in Him is the sin of those who have had the opportunity of being disciples.

Even though the words σκάνδαλον, σκανδαλίζειν, are not used at every point, the whole of the central division of the Gospel according to Matthew (chs. 11–18) may he read as a series of illustrations of them. In ch. 11 we have the Baptist, the whole generation (Matthew 11:16 ff.), the favoured cities (20 ff.), and especially the wise and prudent (Matthew 11:25), offended in Jesus. In ch. 12 we have first the Pharisees, and then His mother and brothers. In ch. 13 the parable of the Sower gives the keynote: it is the experience of one who knows what it is to be an offence: cf. Matthew 13:21; Matthew 13:41. In ch. 14 there is the miraculous feeding with which, the great ‘offence’ proved in John 6:14 f., John 6:66 is connected. Then cf. Matthew 15:12; Matthew 16:23; Matthew 17:17; Matthew 17:27; Matthew 18:6 ff.

There is another side to the experience of Jesus, that in which the σκάνδαλον is not found in Him, but presented to Him. In Matthew 16:23 He says to Peter σκάνδαλον εἶ ἐμοῦ. He had been telling His disciples for the first time of the necessity of His death, and Peter had made a vivacious remonstrance. He had tried, in short, to put Jesus at fault about the path appointed for Him by the Father. He had the human temper which avoids suffering at all costs, not the Divine love which at any cost is faithful to its calling; and in yielding to his human temper he had made himself a stumbling-block in Jesus’ way. It is a signal illustration of ‘a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.’ But Jesus does not stumble: in ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου, σατανᾶ, He sweeps the σκάνδαλον from His path.

2. Teaching of Jesus.—It is remarkable that almost the only thing approaching to a discourse of Jesus in our earliest Gospel (if we omit the chapter of parables (ch. 4) and the eschatological discourse (ch. 13)) deals with the subject of offences, and this in both the aspects in which we have seen ‘offence’ appear in the experience of Jesus: Mark 9:42 ff.

(a) There is first the giving of offence to others. The others are conceived as disciples—‘little ones who believe’ (Matthew 18:6 says ‘who believe in me’). To ‘offend’ such means to be responsible for leading them into sin; and when we think what and whose they are, it means to be responsible for their separation by sin from Christ. Thus to mislead ‘the little ones who believe’ is for Jesus the sin of sins: all the Evangelists record the terrific words in which He denounced it (Mark 9:42, Matthew 18:6, Luke 17:2). It is singular that side by side with this both Mt. and Lk. preserve a saying in which the inevitableness of offences coming is admitted, while unabated woe is pronounced on him through whom they come. Nothing is said by Jesus about how they come, that is, about the ways in which the little ones who believe are led into sins which put them at fault about Him; but what has been said above about Jesus as a σκάνδαλον has its application here. What is meant is in principle to seduce them to ways of thinking or acting such as led men to stumble at Jesus while He lived. It is only in the Christian society that this sin can be committed, and there is something peculiarly solemn in the picture of the Last Judgment in Matthew 13:41 the Son of Man shall send His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom πάντα τὰ σκάνδαλα. There is in the life of Jesus one very interesting illustration of His own care in avoiding what might cause others to stumble (Matthew 17:24-27). Here we see—what will repeatedly come up later—that an inconsiderate use of our spiritual liberty as children of God may prove a stumbling-block to those who do not understand it; and we are taught by the example and word of Jesus that conduct is never to be decided merely by the abstract principle that this or that is in itself legitimate; part of the motive on which a Christian must always act is consideration for others, and the moral significance of his conduct for them. Of course, there is the complementary consideration of what the principle requires, and though it is not to be pressed to the hurt of ‘little ones who believe,’ it is not to be sacrificed to obscurantists or hypocrites (see for an illustration of this Matthew 15:12-14). All this will reappear in what is sometimes regarded as the characteristically Pauline part of NT teaching.

(b) Equally important with His sayings on causing others to stumble are those in which Jesus warns His disciples against allowing anything to cause themselves to stumble. There are three of these in Mark 9:43; Mark 9:45; Mark 9:47 (Mark 9:44; Mark 9:46 are spurious), and they are found twice in Mt. (Matthew 5:29 f., Matthew 18:8 f.). It is a fair inference from this that, though Lk. does not give them, they were found in the collection of discourses used by him and Mt. as well as in Mk. (Mt. inserting them in his Gospel from both sources), and therefore that they belong to the most surely authenticated words of Jesus. What Jesus contemplates is that one’s hand or foot or eye may cause one to stumble—in other words, that something in his nature, something which is in itself legitimate, may mislead one in the spiritual region and alienate him from Christ; and He declares that to prevent such a catastrophe no severity to nature can be too great. The right eye is to be plucked out, the right hand or foot cut off and cast away: it is better to enter into life halt or maimed or with one eye, than to go with two eyes and feet and hands into the everlasting fire. It is easy to argue against this from the point of view of self-realization and the development of all sides of our nature, but the peremptory and vehement tone of Jesus does not suggest arguing. For men whose nature is what ours is, living in the world in which we live, and called to discipleship to Jesus, situations will emerge in which salvation depends simply on whether we have it in us to subject nature to summary and surgical treatment. If a man will do no violence to his nature, but claims liberty for it on every side,—if he will go wherever his feet can carry him, do whatever his hands itch to do, look at whatever his eyes long to see,—the end will not be a complete and rounded character, it will be the forfeiture of all character; it will not be an abundant entrance into life, it will be hell fire. This is the philosophy of Puritanism. It is relative no doubt to human nature as Jesus knew it and as we know it; but as that is the only human nature we have to do with, it is absolute enough. It is as much a matter of life and death in the teaching of Jesus that we should not allow natural impulses to put us at fault about Him, as that we should not become responsible for putting others at fault. The most passionate words that ever fell from His lips deal with σκανδαλίζειν and σκανδαλίζεσθαι in both these vital aspects.

3. The Apostolic Church.—When we pass from Jesus to the Apostolic writings, we find new illustrations and applications of His teaching, but no new ethical ideas. Thus the conception recurs (a) of Christ Himself as σκάνδαλον. In the gospel which presented a crucified man as the power and the wisdom of God, there was something which people could not get over; they stumbled at it and turned away. This was especially true of the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23). They could not accommodate themselves to a Messiah who had been hanged, especially when they thought of Deuteronomy 21:23. As the act of striking against an obstacle is often painful and irritating, it was this offence of the cross which explained the persecution of St. Paul by the Jews, and even by Christians who did not know what Christianity meant (Galatians 5:11): it was the reaction of their soreness against what caused it. The early Christians, who had naturally difficulty in understanding how Christ could be a stumbling-block, found relief for their minds in this as in similar perplexities by discovering that the disconcerting fact had been predicted in the OT. It lay not outside of, but within the Divine counsel and plan. In Romans 9:33, 1 Peter 2:8, Christ is spoken of as λίθος προσκόμματος (a loose stone on the road against which the traveller strikes his foot = אָבָן נָנֶף) and πέτρα σκανδάλου (a rock projecting through the soil, over which he falls = צוּר מִכְשׁוֹל). [On the relation of these two passages to each other and to Isaiah 8:14; Isaiah 28:16, see Sanday and Headlam on Romans, and Hort on 1 Pet.]. What it was in Christ over which men stumbled, Peter does not say: but in Paul it is clear that what the Jews could not get over was the demand involved in Christ’s atoning death, that they should renounce the pursuit of a righteousness of their own, and humble themselves to receive in faith the gift of a Divine righteousness. It was the cross that was a stumbling-block, and it was a stumbling-block to pride.

(b) In the main, however, σκάνδαλον is discussed in the Apostolic writings in connexion with the possibility that Christians may cause others, especially weaker Christians, to stumble, and so to forfeit their connexion with Christ. The danger of doing this is the more serious that it is possible to do it (so to speak) with a good conscience. It comes up mainly in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14. In both these passages the central idea is that of Christian liberty, and the problem is what are the Christian conditions of its exercise. There are minds which are intoxicated by it, and will not hear anything of conditions. They know what the Christian principle is, and to determine their conduct they do not need to think of anything else. They know, for example, that an idol is nothing in the world, and that is enough to answer all questions about their relation to idolatry—about buying and eating meat which had been sacrificed in a pagan temple, about attending a pagan friend’s feast in the temple, and so forth. They know that the earth is the Lord’s, and all that it contains; and that is enough to answer all questions about eating and drinking. In this region all things are lawful for them. It is at this point that St. Paul interposes in the spirit of Matthew 17:24-27 (see above, 2 a). The knowledge of the Christian principle, he insists, is not enough. He accepts the principle, with a half-ironical depreciation of it: ‘We know that we all have knowledge’—as if he would say, but that does not carry us far (1 Corinthians 8:1). In dealing with conduct we must always consider its moral consequences, both to others and to ourselves; we must consider not only an abstract principle, which may in itself be sound enough, but the practical effect of acting upon it in given conditions. We must consider, in particular, whether it may not cause others or ourselves to stumble. These are distinct questions, yet involved in each other. If we cause another to stumble by what we do, our own ruin is inseparable from his. St. Paul accepts the principle of liberty, but qualifies it in both directions to avoid σκανδαλίζειν and σκανδαλίζεσθαι. Thus he writes, ‘All things are lawful for me, but all things do not edify,’ sc. the Church (1 Corinthians 10:23); and the edifying or building up of the Church is the rule of all Christian action (1 Corinthians 14:26, Romans 14:19; Romans 15:2). To be Christian, in other words, conduct has to be guided not merely by knowledge, but by love. It has to include a reference to Christ’s interest in others, especially in the weak; a Christian sins grievously when he asserts his liberty in disregard of that. The extraordinary vehemence of St. Paul’s language in discussing this subject reminds us vividly of our Lord’s words in the same connexion. ‘For meat destroy not the work of God’ (Romans 14:20). ‘Through thy knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died’ (1 Corinthians 8:11). ‘If meat maketh my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore’ (1 Corinthians 8:13). ‘Who is made to stumble, and I am not on fire with pain?’ (2 Corinthians 11:29). These are flashes of the same fire which glows in Matthew 18:6-9. The use of Christian liberty in an environment of paganism no doubt presented many moral problems, all with possibilities of σκάνδαλον in them. A false solution, legitimating a free relation to pagan worship and its ordinary festive and sensual accompaniments, which no doubt caused many to stumble, is denounced in Revelation 2:14; possibly in the ‘Apostolic decree’ of Acts 15:28 f. we have a more considerate and Christian solution for a special set of circumstances. (For the interpretation of the decree, practically in this sense, see Lightfoot, Galatians, 306 ff.; Chase, Credibility of the Acts, 96 f.). In the whole region in which liberty can be asserted, it is to be exercised only in subordination to love; to violate this rule and so injure others in their conscience and in their relation to Christ is the most un-Christian sin of which a Christian can be guilty. But Paul is aware of the other side of σκανδαλίζειν also—that in which a man so acts as to lead to his own stumbling, and the perdition of his own soul. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not only do all things not build up the Church, but ‘I will not be tyrannized over by any’ (1 Corinthians 6:12). A man may be befooled by his wisdom: if he is puffed up in the consciousness that he comprehends the principles of Christianity, he is quite capable of yielding to his natural appetites under the delusion that he is exercising a Christian liberty. St. Paul dreaded this for himself. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27—especially after v. 1 ‘Am I not free?’—is written in the very spirit of Mark 9:43-47, and in 1 Corinthians 10 the Apostle warns his converts of the peril which awaits them, if secure in their Christianity they slip into easy relations with paganism. In the end of this chapter the idea of offence is generalized. ‘Show yourselves. ἀπρόσκοποι—persons in whom there is no occasion of stumbling—both to Jews and Gentiles and to the Church of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:32). This is a final if not the supreme maxim of Christian ethics; there must be nothing in the Christian’s conduct which could mislead, disconcert, or repel any person seeking or enjoying relations with Christ. Put positively, it is the rule of the Apostle’s own action: ‘I have become all things to all men if by all means I might save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:22); which again is but one form of the Golden Rule. Hence the teaching of the NT on ‘offences’ can be summed up in Matthew 7:12. The only passage in which σκάνδαλον occurs in Jn. (1 John 2:10) perhaps combines the two references which it has elsewhere. When a Christian loves his brother, there is no σκάνδαλον in him; he does not cause others to stumble, and he does not create difficulties in his own path. ‘The triumph of love is that it creates no prejudice against the Truth’ (‘Wescott, ad loc.).

Literature.—Cremer, Bibl.-Theol. Lex. s.vv.; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. 586; Sanday-Headlam, Romans, p. 390; Hort, First Peter, p. 121; Garr, Hor. Bibl. 58: F. W. Robertson, Sermons, 3rd ser. xvi.; Bushnell, Serm. on Liv. Subjects, xix.; Dale, Weekday Serm, p. 216; Martensen, Chr. Ethics, i. 418 ff.; ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] v. [1894] 147; Life of John Cairns, 438; J. B. Lightfoot, Cambridge Sermons (1890), 248; W. G. Rutherford, The Keg of Knowledge (1901), 134.

James Denney.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Offence (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​o/offence-2.html. 1906-1918.
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