In connection with holy week, yesterday I decided to look at the cross-event in my message (which you can listen to or download here). But rather than viewing the cross through the eyes of one of the Gospel writers, I looked at Paul’s words found in 1 Cor 1:10 – 2:5.
There are some well-known verses embedded within this early section of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:
- 1:18 – For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
- 1:23 – but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles
- 2:2 – For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
And I would say this particular ‘section’ continues through the end of ch.2, particular looking at how God’s wisdom and revelation are given through the Spirit of God. But for the sake of this article I’ll stop with 2:5. And I particularly want to consider some things about this message of the cross, the thing that Paul resolved to know nothing of except Christ crucified.
When many think about the gospel, and subsequently proclaim-preach the gospel, they centre the message in the cross alone. And I believe very much that the cross-event is part of the gospel message, part of how Christ was enthroned as King over all, also providing payment for the sin of humanity. But I would not say it is the only part of the gospel. But you can read about this in other articles I’ve written.
Still, with these specific words of Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified, some can tend to solely connect them to our forgiveness of sin through the cross. The only problem is that, at least here in these early words to the Corinthians, Paul’s preaching of and knowing nothing except Christ crucified have not been given to remind us of forgiveness of sin via the cross.
Are you kidding me? That’s what the cross is about, isn’t it?
Again, yes, the cross is about provision for forgiveness of sin. But that is not the only point of the cross. And that is just what Paul is emphasising here with the Corinthians.
What’s Paul getting at here, then? Well, follow me for a moment. I’ll try my best to clarify what I believe Paul is putting forth.
Corinth was a church ripe with division. That’s why Paul makes such statements as found in 1:10-12. There is a huge call in vs10, a call to unity beyond what you might see in your average local church, to say the least. And it’s very similar to the vision he sets forth to the Philippians (in Phil 2:1-11) and Ephesians (in Eph 4:11-16). Paul had a pretty passionate vision of what God meant when he meant the ekklesia. More than an institution; more than a social appointment on the calendar; more than a building. A living and breathing body covenantally committed to one another in Christ.
And so, here, we read the Corinthians are divided over the person who has baptised them. They’ve had 3 apostles involved in this church – Peter, Apollos and Paul (yes, Apollos is an apostle – keep reading 1 Cor 3 & 4 and see the outworking of his ministry). Which was more important to be baptised by and follow? Paul says that none of the 3, for Christ is not divided.
And that isn’t even the beginning of all the problems and division – there is a case of incest, taking one another to court, abuse of the Lord’s table and spiritual gifts, and a very unsound resurrection theology. My encouragement every time I think about the Corinth situation is that Paul did not shut down this one church, but rather had hope for them, giving them correct teaching and practical instructions on how to move forward. Such comfort for some church situations today.
But back in the early part of the letter – Paul is addressing division. He moves from a connecting statement in 1:17 to give some thoughts about his message of the cross. This message was absolute foolishness to the world, but it was (or was to be) the power of God for God’s people.
Now, for Paul to state the cross was foolishness, this does not mean it was unreasonably stupid. It was simply foolishly counter-cultural, contra to how the world understood one’s power to be greatly displayed (and I might add that much of the church today might still not get how God loves to display his power).
This is absolute foolishness! Here was God. This was God’s Son and King. This isn’t the way one was to show they had all authority over heaven and earth. This isn’t the way one subjugates one’s subjects. Show your strength in war. Show via authoritarianism. Show by striking down your enemies.
That’s how it’s done, right?
No, not really. It simply is not the way God shows he is King over all. It simply isn’t the way he has chosen to bring his good rule on earth as it is in heaven.
Moving on down into 1:22, Paul distinguishes between what Jews and Greeks want to see. Jews enjoy a spectacle of miracles (check these passages in the Gospels – Mt 12:38-39; Mk 8:11; Lk 11:16; Jn 6:30). And Greeks lust after wisdom, with their great fathers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
I suppose in the church today you’ve got some of your Pentecostals and charismatics standing as extreme fanatics of miracles. And then you’ve got some of your more long-standing denominations who thirst after great knowledge masquerading as a desire for proper exegesis.
But whatever our selfish desires, the first century had theirs as well, which had manifested itself in Corinth. Jews wanted signs, Greeks wanted wisdom.
Paul counters very simply – but we preach Christ crucified.
This was his and his team’s message alone. They were going to remind them of the death of Christ on the cross. Yet, in this reminder, though we might not realise it, Paul is not giving them a soteriological (salvation-based) understanding of the cross. Nothing about blood, atonement, forgiveness, etc. We can try to make the passage about such, but read the passage. It simply is not there.
Rather Paul’s message about the cross is very clear to the Corinthians – Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God (1:24).
Here was a church divided over varying issues such as the importance of the person who baptised them, and much more. You’ve got two groups – Jews and Greeks – with one group boasting in miracles and another in great sophia-wisdom. Paul says it is all rubbish when it comes to the ways of our God and his Christ – For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (2:2).
It’s not the only thing Paul ever knew. And it wasn’t the only thing he ever connected to the evangel-good news. But it was absolutely necessary for him to make this quite clear to the Corinthians right here, right now. You want power – look at the cross. You want wisdom – look at the cross. In God, they are found nowhere else. Nowhere else!
I think we have easily lost the shock-factor of the cross. This past week, as I pondered this message, this renewed understanding of Paul’s message here, I came to realise just how offensive the cross truly is. But the problem is that, with nice jewelry, beautiful stained-glass depictions, and graceful pictures of the cross with fluffy clouds in the background, we can miss what the cross is all about.
Basically, if I can put it this way, it was the equivalency of the electric chair today.
Imagine wearing a piece of jewelry around your neck in the shape of an electric chair. Not so charming, is it?
I did a search in Google images to see if a picture would come up of Jesus sitting dead in an electric chair. A few of them did come up. It was quite disturbing to look at. But I believe that is exactly what’s supposed to happen when we look at the cross.
It’s not about a few specks of blood here and there. It’s not about pretty jewelry or light-hearted pictures. It was all about capital punishment. It was all about the brutal murder of the eternal Son, as a criminal. It was about Jesus Christ’s punishment, though he deserved none of it. The litres of blood, the crown crammed onto his brow, the numerous lashes across his body, the screams at the top of his lungs, the exhaustion, the breaking of flesh by hammer and nail, the true passion.
Pretty shocking, to say the least.
And Paul says this is how God, the God we say we belong to, decided to display his power and wisdom. That’s what he is getting at in these first few paragraphs of his letter to the Corinthians.
You want power? Such is not ultimately found in miraculous signs. You want wisdom? Such is not found in great sophia-wisdom of the fathers. It’s found in the bloody death of his Son.
It’s not like God is against miracles. He has done plenty of them, especially in his Son, and continues to enact such amazing feats. Nor is he against learning, knowledge and wisdom. Paul would probably put us to school today, even quoting from some of those well-known pagan Greek philosophers in making the evangel known in his day.
But that is not the foundation of God’s power and wisdom. The foundation is Christ, or more fully, Christ crucified.
And this is now how Paul expected the church of Corinth to live – in light of Christ crucified as God’s display of his power and wisdom. Division would remain if they did not live in accordance with the reality of the cross of Christ.
God’s power would come only via death.
God’s wisdom would come only via death.
God’s life would come only via death.
God’s vindication would come only via death.
This is simply how it works in the kingdom of God, which is 180 degrees counter-cultural to our world.
So, here, Paul’s reminder, his very stirring reminder, of the cross was not to recall their forgiveness of sins through the cross (though that will come out in places like 15:3-7). He was not trying to give them a lesson in proper soteriology. He was pulling the church back to the centrality of the cross as a, no THE, display of God’s power and wisdom. And if the Corinthians wanted to know his power and wisdom, it was going to come from knowing the crucified life. They were being called to emulate their Lord, the most powerful and wise King of all time. And, subsequently, living the crucified life would demolish the divisions amongst them.
So this holy week, before resurrection Sunday, let us be reminded to walk out the crucified life together. As we get such a compelling and correct glimpse of the cross, we will see God’s power and wisdom enacted even more in our lives and the lives of our local churches.