‘but woe to them by whom offences come!’
Example 1: Imagine if a wild outrageous pop star, on hearing the gospel, suddenly abandoned her saucy and promiscuous persona and turned to strict celibacy, giving up a successful secular music career to sing sacred hymns. In retaliation over lost earnings, music moguls would stir up a media witch-hunt portraying the church and its ministers involved in her conversion as an extremist brainwashing fringe cult. Mainstream faiths would probably chime in and add to the widespread condemnation.
Example 2: The traditional Christian view on homosexuality is clearly at odds with the Equality Act. As legislation is drawn up in White Hall that will grant homosexuals full marriage rights, the prospect looms large that the councils could suspend the right to register legitimate marriages from any vicar who opposes their plans to make the endorsement of gay marriage a standard requirement in this country. Christian registrars have already lost their jobs over this issue. It’s no wonder that, despite its admirable social goals and working class roots, the Labour government that framed the morally offensive statute is now out of power.
Example 3: Now consider Paul preaching to a small outdoor Sabbath-day prayer meeting (Acts 16:13). He tells his audience that the evil, rebellious world of his day is imploding upon itself and that civilised society is disintegrating intolerably. He could see that all men (however outwardly noble and including himself) were responsible for the moral decline. He might have declared, ‘it can’t go on forever: the increasing hardships we face under Roman rule are storm clouds brewing before disaster strikes. God has always intervened to dispossess selfish societies and erase them permanently after long periods of forbearance. This time the sword is drawn, the judgement of all mankind (including those long dead) is ready to be executed.’
Paul would have also described how the prophets had foretold of God’s final plan to save a small remnant of mankind from the brink of destruction. This remnant, drawn from all walks of life, would unite in their inward transformation and adherence to the message of the Divine King in heavenly exile, Jesus, the Nazarene. By healing every imaginable sickness and by rising from death to the exalted place of highest authority in heaven, the right-hand of God, never to die again, Jesus had clearly demonstrated His unique credentials as the Son of the only true and living God. As the Leader of the new universe ruled by God, Jesus the Messiah would bless the penitents who returned to Him with inward renewal, imparting His own power and immortality through the Spirit of God Himself.
I could imagine him exclaiming, ‘Admit to God your participation in this mess were in and seek His forgiveness now. Even your long-forgotten crimes, grievances and every sordid secret will be exposed and punished accordingly. However well-disguised, the shameless conscience will not escape the fire of God’s judgement. Don’t test God’s patience with contempt anymore!’
Paul’s message was well received by the riverside audience. That is, apart from constant interruptions by a spiritually disturbed, attention-seeking slave girl. Overtaken by an unclean spirit, she declared, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved’. It was a shrewd attempt by the spirit to discredit his testimony. Paul’s listeners would have been distressed by such an unworthy heathen endorsement.
Much as we are today, pagan society would listen to anyone who could promise a quick fix for future calamity. Religion was steeped in materialism: you paid mediums to consult the spirit world on your behalf and, in return, their guidance was supposed to steer you towards the commonly-held dream of lasting happiness, domestic bliss and worldly prosperity. Heathen culture tried to discern this guidance by the contrived interpretation of natural events and rituals involving chance. These rituals offered symbolic reverence towards the invisible, but powerfully destructive and deceptive spirit beings that were assumed, in the place of God, to control providence for the future.
As a medium, the slave-girl could become a spirit’s frenzied ventriloquist doll, making bold, impressive, but largely unsubstantiated pronouncements. Her trances and tricks would influence gullible folk to part with hard-earned cash, all of whom hoped for a glimpse of their uncertain future. It also gained for her masters a handsome dividend.
Eventually, Paul had heard enough of her, he commanded by the authority of Jesus (as the Son of God) for the fortune-telling spirit to leave the girl alone. It left immediately.
The sudden loss of their regular income from their slave aroused her owners’ anger. They arrested Paul and dragging him before magistrates with the charge that his actions contravened the laws of Imperial Rome. In short, Paul’s actions in releasing the oppressed girl won him a public flogging and he was held in prison custody, pending a criminal indictment.
The corollary is that offence can arise out of the most innocuous efforts to maintain a moral, godly stance in a godless age.
Example 4: John the Baptist lived a segregated, austere life. He devoted himself to prayer and challenged his society to return to follow God’s laws. As with Jesus, the crowd questioned his views on public and private morality. His answers were specific and unequivocal. Ordinary citizens were told: ‘The man with two tunics should share with him that has none, and the one who has food should do the same’. Those who collected taxes that expanded Roman rule heard: ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to’. Soldiers working for Herod were instructed: ‘don’t extort money and don’t commit perjury for money – instead be content with your pay!’ (Luke 3:10 – 14)
Regarding the issue of marriage, he fearlessly proclaimed that Herod Antipas had set aside his previous marriage on unwarranted grounds. He also insisted that his subsequent marriage to Herodias, who was previously married to Herod Philip, his half-brother, was unlawful. Yet this was in a time ruled by licentious Romans, who were only concerned with maintaining the expansion of the Empire, so who gave him authority to say that?
Well, John’s position on marriage was based on the Mosaic Law and the historic prophets of Judaism. Herodias was the wife of Antipas’ half-brother. John held, as Jesus did, that God could only sanction a lawful union between those who were free from other legitimate claims on their devotion. Their marriage was a lifetime commitment, so the concession of a divorce was only permissible when the union was subverted by the most extreme cases of betrayal and desertion. Also divorce, as a limited concession under Moses law, did not provide an entitlement to re-marry while the previous spouse was alive.
Although his hard-line position won a following among the crowds who saw the chastening hand of God in Rome’s oppression and its puppet rulers, it also aroused a bitter resentment in Herodias, an ambitious woman of noble birth.
Herod Philip and Herod Antipas were sons of Herod the Great by different marriages. Antipas, the younger son, inherited rule as a tetrarch over Galilee and Peraea. His elder brother was bequeathed a larger territory. In spite of his youth, Antipas was showing the makings of a great king through the ambitious civil projects that he undertook. Perhaps, it was this enterprising arrogance of the younger, more malleable brother that attracted Herodias. It is commonly accepted that they met on a trip to plead over the disputed bequests before courts in Rome. Josephus, the first-century historian, relates the grievance and scandal that their illicit affair and offspring caused. Beyond setting aside his first wife without due process, a marriage to Herodias would never be right. She was his half-brother’s wife and even if Herod Philip died, marriage to a former sister-in-law was only allowed where no children were involved.
This act was also a humiliating betrayal of his first wife’s father, Aretus, who sought revenge against this insult and took it by way of battle in AD 36.
Given the public furore and his new wife’s dismay, we can understand why Herod threw John into prison without trial. After a long period of languishing in jail, Herodias finally won her revenge. Her young daughter danced to the delight of Herod at a birthday function held by Antipas and attended by his court along with Roman and local officials. He promised by publicly to grant anything she requested, but he must have fallen from his couch when heard a mere child echo her mother’s demand: ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist’ (Matt 14:6 - 10).
For all the offence his illicit marriage had caused, Herod Antipas was unwilling to go back on his promise and lose face in front of his dinner companions. He called for the execution to take place. The gruesome trophy of her contempt must have made his guests’ stomachs churn with revulsion. However, for Herodias, it was sweet revenge served dead cold. She must have laughed with delight as John’s followers took his body away for burial. Little did she know that, many years later, her husband’s forces would experience a crushing defeat at the hands of his offended ex-father-in-law. No one escapes the judgement of God.
John’s death was the catalyst that precipitated Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, it was His time to stand up against unjust men and the society that they had corrupted by poor example. ‘Repent you, for the Kingdom of God is approaching’ he declared. Yes, the new followers would need to help, support and forbear each other in the interim, but in His mind, there was still no room for compromise. All the basic tenets of the Mosaic Law still held true. (Matt. 19:1 – 11)
We should also remember how He compassionately spared the woman caught out in illicit sex by vigilante moralists with the words: ‘Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more’ (John 8:11)