The Message of the Cross

I remember when I was a kid, all the old people would talk about “the good old days”.  Now, I find myself in that category of old people because I’m one of those folks who looks back and think about the good old days.  Apparently, I’m not alone.  A survey was taken among people 50 years or older, and over half of them think that life in the past was better than today.  They mentioned such things as less traffic on the road, things were built to last, families usually ate dinner around the dinner table, it was a slower pace of life, you had more face-to-face chats, and it was safe to go outside and play at an early age.

            Usually, when older Christians talk about the good old days, they’re talking about the fact that morals have gotten worse, fewer people today believe in God and go to church, more people believe it’s OK to live a sexually immoral lifestyle and there’s far less tolerance for people with Christian values. 

            And I think there’s certainly some truth to that.  It really does seem like the morals of our society are sinking lower and lower every year.  Let me read you this quote and see if you would agree:

            “Is there any doubt that the handwriting is on the wall for where we are heading?….Manners have been corrupted, morality has sunk into depravity, indulgence is out of control and, above all, faith has been discredited and unbelief has become fashionable. When a culture reaches this point, it becomes so out of touch with truth that masses of people deny the outright existence of God. God’s will for the nation has been abandoned and man has become his own God.”

            He goes on to talk about the greatest enemy of a democracy is selfishness and in light of that, he says, “It is these attitudes that create a culture in which people don’t care and can’t love….Institutions are blamed for life circumstances and personal responsibility does not enter in to the equation. Problems are always someone else’s fault. Sin and stupidity are never acknowledged, perhaps not even recognized.  Where this is the case, there can be no healthy society.”

            I would have to say that this writer is “spot on.”  But what I find most interesting about it is this — those words were written in England over 200 years ago.  William Wilberforce identified what the problem was 200 years ago, and it is the exact same problem that we have today.  At its very core, the problem is selfishness, and selfishness is driven by our desire to be our own god.

            Go all the way back to Genesis 3 and we see that there is a great divide. The divide is between those people who are driven by selfishness, to do whatever they want to get whatever they want, and in in the process, make themselves their own god.  And the other pathway, the other fork in the road, are those people who are willing to surrender to God, to listen to God, to obey God.

            Throughout the Bible, those two pathways are described in many different ways. In our passage this morning, those two pathways are described as those who are headed for destruction and those who are being saved.

            This morning, we continue in our study of I Corinthians, and we pick up in chapter 1, verse 18.  I want to begin by reading this whole section from the New Living Translation, and then we’ll go back and take a look at it piece by piece.

            “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
    and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.’

            “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.  It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven.  And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom.  So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

            “But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

            “Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.  As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.

            “God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, ‘If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.’

            “When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified.  I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling.  And my message and my preaching were very plain.  Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.  I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1:18-2:5)

            Last week, we saw that Paul began this letter by discussing the problem of divisions within the church at Corinth.  These divisions were built on a spiritual arrogance, with people saying, “I follow Paul,” or, “I follow Peter,” or, “I follow Apollos,” or, “I follow Christ,” all of them implying that somehow their group was superior to all the other groups.

            And so, in our passage this morning, Paul tells us why that that sort of attitude is contrary to the message of the gospel.  The very concept of an “arrogant Christian” is an oxymoron.  Pride and arrogance are completely opposed to the message of the gospel.  The message of salvation is a message of brokenness and humility.  It is a message of service and submission.  And so, the thought of having a bunch of Christians arguing about which one of their little cliques is better than all the rest is not only wrong, it’s disgusting.

            So, Paul calls us back to what’s really important.  He tries to get us to focus on what should be at the very center of our lives, and that is the message of the cross, which leaves absolutely no room for pride.

            In verse 18, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction!  But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.” (I Corinthians 1:18)

            To those who are perishing, to those who reject the message about Christ, to them, the gospel is utter foolishness; it’s just simply silly; it’s absolutely ridiculous!  And my guess is, you’ve probably had some conversations with people like this.  They say something like, “Do you mean to tell me that you actually believe that some Jewish rabbi that lived 2000 years ago and was ultimately executed by the Romans, somehow, in some way, was actually God in the flesh, and his death somehow affects our lives today? That is the most ridiculous, ignorant thing I’ve ever heard!”

            That’s what Paul is saying.  To those people who are not Christians, our message is utter foolishness. The only way you can believe what we believe is to check your brains at the door, because that’s pure nonsense.

            But Paul goes on to say, to those of us who believe, the message of the cross is the power of God unto salvation. We could spend the rest of the morning having one person after another step up and share how the message of the gospel — the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ — has radically changed their lives.  To those who are perishing, it’s foolishness; but to those of us who believe, it is the power of God unto salvation.

            But, even though people around us may reject the message of the gospel, it’s difficult for us to understand just how offensive the idea of a crucified Savior was to the Romans, to the Greeks, and to the Jews of the first century.

            The idea that anyone would follow an unemployed carpenter who grew up in Nazareth and then died a shameful death.  Who in the world would do that?  They didn’t get it.  It was nonsense to the Romans. It was nonsense to the Greeks. And it was a stumbling block to the Jews.

            Now, today, everybody in the world knows that the cross represents Christianity. But if you go back 2,000 years, nobody was wearing a cross around their neck in those days.  Nobody would do that. It would be like somebody today wearing a necklace with an electric chair on it to remember their cousin who got the death penalty.

            The thing that made crucifixion so terrible was that it didn’t kill you right away; it was designed to make a person suffer as much as possible, for as long as possible. And for that reason, crucifixion was reserved for only the very worst kinds of criminals.

            Because of how terrible crucifixion was, the Romans did not allow their citizens to be crucified, no matter how terrible their crimes were.  Only slaves and those who were not Roman citizens were allowed to be crucified, because it was extremely inhumane. 

            Cicero, a Roman statesman of that day, said that crucifixion was so horrible, that the word “cross” should never be mentioned in polite society.

            And so, just imagine if you told someone back then that you were a follower of Jesus — a man who had been crucified… That person would have thought: “Whoa, hold on a minute… Even if Jesus was innocent, the crucifixion is probably something you should keep to yourself! That’s not something you want to go around advertising, because that’s humiliating!”

            But for the early Christians, the fact that Jesus had been killed upon a cross was not something they tried to hide. Instead, the cross became the main symbol they used to identify themselves.  Furthermore, the message that the early Christians embraced and wanted to share with the world was what they called, “the message of the cross, the good news of Christ, and him crucified.”

            But Paul knew that the message of the cross was difficult for many people to accept.  “It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.” (I Corinthians 1:22-23)

            For the Jews, the idea of a crucified Messiah was foolishness, and they demanded a sign. When Jesus was doing his ministry– when he was up in Galilee– up in Capernaum where he headquartered his ministry. The Jewish leaders came to him one day and they said, “Rabbi, we want you to show us a sign so that we may believe.” They just came right out and said it. We’re looking for a sign.  We’re looking for a miracle.  We want you to prove to us that you’re the Messiah.”

            And here’s why. The Jews believed that the Messiah was coming. But the Messiah they believed in was a conquering Messiah, a military hero.  The Jews wanted the Messiah to be their King, filled with power, to overthrow the Roman government, to lead them to become a powerful nation again and, to be able to say to all of their enemies, “We’re stronger than you and we’re better than you!” That’s what they wanted; they wanted the Messiah to demonstrate his power.

            But when Jesus was nailed to a cross, it didn’t look like he had any power at all.  In fact, he looked extremely weak.  And no Jew was going to follow a weak Messiah.  Not only that, but for the Jewish people, to be crucified on a cross was considered to be a fate worse than death, because according to Deuteronomy 21, anyone who was killed by being hanged upon a tree was considered “cursed”. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).  And so Paul said, “when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended.”

            The Greeks saw things differently.  The Greeks weren’t looking for a Messiah, they were looking for wisdom.  They loved wisdom.  They were proud of the fact that they had so much wisdom. The Greeks were known for their philosophy, and philosophy literally means someone who loves wisdom. 

            And so, the Greeks were constantly looking for a wisdom that would be so impressive that everyone else would say, “That is far superior to anything else we’ve ever heard. You are obviously much more intelligent than all the rest of us.”  And so, for the Greeks, the idea that you could be saved through the death of an executed Jew seemed ridiculous.

            The whole idea that God would come to this earth and allow himself to be beaten, mocked, rejected and crucified, seemed completely unreasonable. They couldn’t wrap their heads around it. The Greek gods made humans serve them; they didn’t serve people – and they would certainly never sacrifice themselves to save guilty people.  

            Incidentally, if you were in our Bible class Wednesday night, you’ll recognize that this is why Muslims have so much trouble believing in Jesus.  It just doesn’t make sense to them that God would come to this earth, take on human flesh and allow himself to be crucified.

            So, both the Jews and the Greeks rejected the crucifixion.  Because they both wanted something that would help them to feel superior.  The Jews wanted something that would make them feel more powerful than anyone else, and the Greeks wanted something that would make them feel smarter than anyone else. 

            But, what did they get from the message of the cross?  They got Christ crucified, a Messiah who was executed by the Roman government. The Jews would say, “That wasn’t very strong,” and the Greeks would say, “That wasn’t very smart.”  In a performance-based culture, there was absolutely nothing impressive about the cross.

            But Paul says, from God’s perspective, it all makes sense.  “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.”

            The truth is, God’s plan is filled with incredible power! And it’s filled with wisdom beyond what we could ever imagine.  At the end of the day, all of mankind’s wisdom and strength is nothing compared to the power and the wisdom of God.

            And then Paul says in verse 26, “Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.  As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.”

            Keep in mind that Paul is writing to these Corinthians who were breaking up into all these little groups and very proudly saying, “I follow so and so, and we’re better than all those other groups”.   And Paul has to remind them, saying, “Folks, God didn’t call you because of how great you are.  He didn’t pick you because you were wise or powerful or wealthy.”

            And it’s true, the majority of the people who were saved in Corinth, the Christians of Corinth, were probably either slaves or what they called freedmen– former slaves who had been made free. These were not high-society folks. They were not of the Roman nobility.

            And if you look throughout church history, I think you’ll find that most Christians have come from a place of low status.  And there are very few exceptions to that rule. It’s true, there are some Christians who are wealthy and powerful and some really brilliant people. I’ve known a few Christians like that.  The apostle Paul was certainly one of those people. But for the most part, people that get saved are just plain common folk. People like us.

            Look at the apostles. Mostly fishermen. Blue collar workers.  Galilean hicks, for the most part. The kind that the people in Jerusalem stuck their noses up at and regarded them as lowbrow. Looked down on them.  So, Paul says, “That’s what you all used to be before you came to Christ.”

            His point is, there’s no justification for spiritual pride in the church.  There’s no justification for spiritual arrogance. Those of us who are in the church are sinners, misfits and losers.  And if you find those labels offensive, then you don’t understand the gospel.  Because every single one of us had to come to the end of ourselves and recognize, “There is absolutely nothing in my performance that makes me acceptable to God. I was nothing but a sinner, a misfit and a loser, and the only thing that makes me other than that today, is the grace of God and the message of the cross”.

            And that’s what Paul is saying, “There is therefore no basis for boasting in ourselves.”  You see, if God only picked powerful and wealthy and brilliant and awesome people all the time, then when those people get used by God, the rest of us would look at them and go, well, no wonder God used them. They’re so brilliant. They’re so articulate. They’re knowledgeable. They’re amazing.”

            But God doesn’t do that. God does his work so that when you see what he’s able to accomplish using average people, then you have to say, “It’s obvious that the Lord is the one doing this.”  And, as a result, he gets the glory.

            And you see this over and over in scripture.  In the story of Gideon, Gideon had 32,000 soldiers to go into battle against the Midianites who had over 120,000 men.  But God said, “Gideon, you’ve got too many soldiers”, so he trimmed them down to 22,000.  But God said again, “You’ve still got too many soldiers” and he trimmed them down to 300.

            And God told Gideon why he did that.  He said, “When all of this is over, when you defeat the enemy, I don’t want anyone in Israel saying, ‘Look at what we did.’  I want you to say, ‘Look at what God did.’”

            But we are so slow to learn this lesson.  We want to be able to say, “Look at how strong I am.  Look at how smart I am.”  And so, we get into arguments with other Christians who don’t agree with us, and we choose up sides and gather people around who see things the way we do, and we divide the church.  Just like the Christians at Corinth. 

            And the solution for us is the same solution Paul gave Corinth – focus on the message of the cross.  Follow the example of Jesus.  Who didn’t feel the need to prove that he was stronger than anyone else.  And he didn’t have to prove that he was smarter than anyone.  As he went to the cross, he demonstrated his commitment to sacrifice, service and submission.  And he taught us that if we follow him, we have to be willing to do the same thing.     

            In chapter 2, Paul used himself as an example:  “When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified.  I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling.  And my message and my preaching were very plain.  Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.  I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God.”

            Paul says, when he came to Corinth, he didn’t come to be impressive; he didn’t come with great oratory; he didn’t come with impressive words; he didn’t come in any way that the Greeks or the Jews found impressive at all.  As a result, the Jews were offended; the Greeks thought he was ridiculous.  But Paul was determined to center his and his teaching around one thing and one thing only – Jesus Christ and him crucified.

            It’s easy, I think, for preachers to fall into this trap of feeling that they need to impress. And so, they slip back into a performance mentality because, “I’ve got to find a message that will impress people, and preach it in a way that people will be impressed with because I want people to think I’m impressive.”

            Paul said, “I’m interested in impressing you, I just want to share the message about Jesus.  “I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God.” Thereit is again, this idea that there’s nothing amazing about us or what we do.  It’s what we allow God to do through us.

            May God help us to get rid of our arrogance and pride and the need to prove that we’re better or smarter or righter than anyone else in the church.  And may we all be reminded of what needs to be at the center of our lives – the message of the cross.  A message that calls us to follow the example of our Savior, living lives of sacrifice, service and submission.

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