This graffito was scratched onto the plaster wall of a room on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Though it cannot be dated with certainty, most likely it was made around 200 A.D. The inscription says, “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” Alexamenos is pictured looking up in reverence and worship toward Jesus Christ, who is depicted on the cross with the head of donkey. Alexamenos was obviously a Christian, and the creator of graffiti was mocking his faith. The graffito says that to worship the crucified Jesus is to worship a jackass.
This graffito captures in graphic terms the offense that the cross of Christ presented to the Greco-Roman world. Paul told the Corinthians, “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). The apostle went on to add, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). We find this same truth expressed when Paul told the Philippians about Christ: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
The graffito is a reminder that Christianity in the first five centuries faced great resistance in the Greco-Roman world. It was a “world of full of gods “and pagan worship flourished everywhere Christianity went. This paganism was established, widespread and often possessed impressive temples. Into this world, the Christians went forth proclaiming that a crucified Jew was the Son of God, and Savior of the world. This message was met with public scorn and rejection by many, such as the creator of this graffito.
Most of us are old enough to recognize that a tremendous shift has occurred. We have entered into a post-Christian world. Where before Christianity held a privileged status in western culture, now it no longer does. Beyond this, increasingly aggressive opposition is being raised against Christian beliefs. Powerful forces such as academia, the entertainment industry, big business, and the technology industry seek to promote a worldview that opposes God’s will, and in doing so Christians find themselves as targets.
The question then, is whether we are ready for the world in which Alexamenos lived? Increasingly, in order to live as Christian we will be forced to confess Christ by what we do and say. This will involve cost, but we should not be surprised by this. We read in Matthew’s Gospel:
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:24-27).
Just before this text, we learn, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Jesus Christ died on the cross in the fulfillment of the saving mission given to him by the Father. But as he told his disciples on several occasions, his death on the cross was not the end. Instead, on the third day God raised him from the dead. He has conquered death, and as the ascended and exalted Lord he is the One who will return in glory to vindicate his people and give us a share in his resurrection.
The apostles went into the world proclaiming Christ crucified. They proclaimed this because they knew that Jesus had risen from the dead. They had seen him. They had talked with him. They had touched him. They had eaten with him. They were witnesses. Peter told Cornelius:
And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (Acts 10:39-43)
Peter was a witness. He was a martyr who took up his own cross as he was crucified in Rome because of faith in Jesus Christ (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III.1.2) Yet he did so because he knew that these words he wrote were true: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). May the living hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ strengthen each one of us to confess Jesus Christ in the days to come.