How is Jesus a rock of offense (Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8)?
Romans 9:33 says, "As it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.'" This same phrase appears in 1 Peter 2:8. Both Paul and Peter are referring to Isaiah 8:14–15. There we read, "And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken" (Isaiah 8:14–15).
As with the interpretation of anything in Scripture, we must first view the context. In Isaiah 8, the prophet begins with a warning from God that the Assyrians are going to invade. God instructs Isaiah to trust in Him and not in the voices of the people of Israel. "But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread" (Isaiah 8:13). In other words, honor and fear God, not people. Then God follows with our verses from above. Notice what He says: the "LORD of hosts" will "become a sanctuary" and "a stone of offense" and "a rock of stumbling." The prophecy is about Jesus Christ.
At the end of Romans 9, Paul asks and answers an important question: "What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame'" (Romans 9:30–33).
Paul is pointing out fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah 8. The "stumbling stone" is Jesus Christ, who is called the Cornerstone (e.g., Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Zechariah 10:4; Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20). Some scholars will refer to the "stone" as the Law of Moses. Indeed, the term can be used to represent both in this instance. Israel stumbled over the Law because they pursued it by works rather than faith. But they also stumbled over Jesus, their religious leaders not accepting Him as the Messiah. We can also see the connection between Jesus and the Law. Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17). In other words, the Law was not complete until Jesus' birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. In another instance, Jesus said, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me" (John 5:39). The Old Testament, including the Mosaic law, points to Jesus.
In Peter's first letter we see the fulfillment of both aspects of the Isaiah 8 prophecy—Jesus is a sanctuary and a stone (rock) of offense. Notice what Peter writes, "For it stands in Scripture: 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame'" (1 Peter 2:6). This is a reference to Isaiah 28:16. We can also see how it relates to Jesus Christ as our sanctuary from Isaiah 8:14.
In the next verse Peter references Psalm 118:22: "So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone'" (1 Peter 2:7). In calling Jesus the Cornerstone he is saying that Jesus is the foundation of the church, of salvation, and of eternal life. Jesus Christ is the Cornerstone, or foundation, of creation and redemption.
Those who have rejected Him are offended by Him. They have stumbled over Him in that they have rejected Him. He is a "rock of offense" in that they are offended by Him and His plan of salvation. Paul said, "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). Why is it folly to them? "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing" (2 Corinthians 4:3). The glory of the gospel has been hidden from them due to their unbelief. Peter writes, "They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do" (1 Peter 2:8; see also Romans 1).
Jesus is a rock of offense because He represents submission to the authority of God rather than the authority of man. To the religious leaders and unbelieving Israelites of the first century, He was a rock of offense because they believed they would be reconciled to God through good works and adherence to the Law rather than through a faithful relationship with God as taught by Jesus. To the non-believer today, Jesus represents a moral absolute that clashes with the ideas and philosophies from the age of reason. He is a rock of offense because He presents an absolute truth that cannot be changed, but instead requires that we admit our own failings, rely on His grace, and live differently as a result. When we see Jesus, we see our own sinfulness, failures, and need. We see our inability to make ourselves right with God. This clashes with our sinful natures and our desire to be our own gods. It clashes with our self-righteousness and belief that we can be good enough or earn God's favor. It clashes with our views of ourselves as good people. It clashes with our views of ourselves as self-determinant beings.
Some will remain offended at the simple truth of the gospel. Others will see and believe. For those who do believe, "we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life" (2 Corinthians 2:15–16).
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