We’ll begin our series in 1 Corinthians. Paul begins this letter to the Christians in Corinth by mentioning the name of Jesus ten times in the first ten verses. His introduction goes back and forth between referring to “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus.” It’s all about King Jesus, Jesus the Messiah. And that’s important because everything he is about to write to these believers is grounded in the story of Jesus. And central to that story is the cross.
If you know anything about the church in Corinth, it’s a divided church. One of the main ways they divide themselves out is according to their favorite Christian celebrities. Paul gets into this at 1:11ff.
- Some in Corinth brag about being followers of Paul.
- Others cast their allegiance in favor of Apollos, a gifted Bible teacher and preacher.
- Still others claim that Simon Peter is their favorite.
- And yet a fourth group says, “We’re just wanting to follow Jesus.”
And Paul is writing to address this problem — and a TON of other problems that are going on in this church.
But his strategy for correcting all that’s wrong in the Corinthian church is to first draw their attention back to Jesus. So over and over, as he’s authoring this introduction, he’s talking about Jesus: we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, we call upon the name of Jesus Christ, and so on.
And then, this is what he says in verses 17-18.
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 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 1:17-18
The Corinthians were like many people in the ancient world; they loved philosophy and wisdom. They loved to engage in high-minded conversations about different topics. But Paul says that when he came to Corinth, he came preaching the gospel — the Good News of Jesus — and he specifically says that he didn’t use words of “eloquent wisdom” — because that would empty the cross of its power. He’s saying that the story of the cross has power of its own. It doesn’t need to be dressed up to be made more relevant or more trendy. God has made the gospel plenty powerful enough on its own, thank you very much. True Christian preaching doesn’t depend on rhetorical flourishes or eloquent words or funny stories or dazzling PowerPoint presentations or anything else to “doctor” it up. The power, Paul says, is in the cross, not in any of that other stuff.
As for divisions, Paul says there are only these two categories: those who are perishing because they see the cross as foolishness; or those who are being saved by its power.
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 the Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.1 Corinthians 1:22-24
If you asked Paul to summarize the gospel message, he wouldn’t say, “God loves you.” He wouldn’t say, “Obey the commandments.” The most concise way of summarizing the gospel is this: “Christ crucified.” The cross is shorthand for every message we find in the Scriptures. It is a word about God’s love; but it is also a word about God’s wrath. It is a word about grace and mercy; and at the same time, it is a word about justice and righteousness. The cross teaches us about the importance of obedience; but it also teaches us about the possibility of forgiveness. Every theme in the Scriptures comes together in the picture of Jesus on the cross.
Thus, Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified.”
And Paul notes some of the typical responses to the story:
Some stumble over the story of the cross, as did the Jews Paul mentions in the first part of 1:23. In the previous post, I mentioned Justin Martyr. In one of his writings, he tells of how he attempted to convince a Jewish rabbi that Jesus was the Messiah with reference to Daniel 7. The rabbi responded, “Sir … your so-called Christ is without honor and glory, so that he has even fallen into the uttermost curse that is in the Law of God, for he was crucified.” For some, the idea of the hero dying is a stumbling block; they can’t quite get their minds wrapped around it.
Some laugh at the story of the cross, as did the Greeks Paul refers to in the second half of 1:23. As we mentioned earlier, Greeks were caught up in speculative philosophy. They revered the great thinkers and looked down on those who failed to appreciate their wisdom. So the idea that salvation would come about through the state-sanctioned execution of a condemned criminal would be laughable to many Greeks.
This picture is known as the “Alexamenos graffito.”
It is a piece of ancient graffiti dating back to around 200AD. The caption below the drawing reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.” It is a mocking portrayal of a Christian who is worshipping a crucified Messiah, depicted here as a donkey or an ass on the cross. Needless to say, this is not a very complimentary view of Christians dating back to the ancient world.
But some come to know the cross as the wisdom and the power of God.
People in the first century thought that the cross was a symbol of Roman power. But in actuality, the cross was the outworking of God’s power. Again, Jesus wasn’t simply “showing us something” at the cross. No, God was actively doing something when Jesus died.
Specifically, there are two big categories for understanding what happened at the cross. We will return to these themes repeatedly throughout this series:
- There was atonement for sin. Human guilt was in need of remission and God’s power effectively accomplished this at the cross.
- Simultaneously, the cross is the location of God’s cosmic defeat of the Powers who have enslaved us. This is understanding the cross at the level of spiritual warfare. The Bible is clear that we are in captivity requiring deliverance and God’s power accomplished this at the cross, too.