The cross and its meaning - 1 Corinthians 1:8 - 2:5

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 9th September 2001.

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One of the largest churches in South Africa is the Rhema church in Johannesburg which has a membership of 20, 000. Several years ago its pastor, Ray Macauley ran an advertisement in a national magazine which read: ‘Why be trapped in Datsun when you’ve got a Daimler faith? God wants everyone of his children to prosper. You are a child of the King who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, so why should you live like a pauper? He has promised to give you whatever you ask for in faith, so just ‘name it and claim it.' The late John Wimber who formed the Vineyard Fellowship in his best selling book ‘Power Evangelism’ put forward the view that the gospel message itself is not sufficient either to convert people or provide assurance for the believer, something more is required - power as manifest in signs and wonders - miracles, so he writes: ‘ In power evangelism, resistance to the gospel is overcome by a demonstration of God’s power in supernatural events, and receptivity to Christ’s claims is usually very high’ and ‘ power encounters authenticate conversion experience in a way that mere intellectual assent does not. This gives new Christians confidence about their conversion, a solid foundation for the rest of their lives.' Now what has been taking place during the last 20 to 30 years or so is a significant shift from a traditional belief in the power of the Gospel to a new belief in a Gospel of power. And this, as we shall see, is the very thing the apostle Paul resists with all of his being in the passage we are looking at tonight - 1 Corinthians 1 and 2.

Now this is not to say that God cannot or does not perform miracles today, although I have to say that what is sometimes claimed to be miraculous often appear spurious and exaggerated. The concern is that a Gospel of power has taken the place of the Gospel of the NT. It is something which panders to our natural pride and inevitably leads to divisions, for pride always has that effect - the division between the have’s and the have-nots within the church, the creation of a spiritual superleague. That is what was happening in Corinth as the values of the world with its concern for power and prestige, the dazzling and impressive, had infected the congregation. And sadly it is happening today. And what Paul does in the first three chapters is to demonstrate that such thinking is decisively at odds with the basic Christian message.

First we, says Paul, have a message which saves vv18 - 19 (read). According to the apostle Paul where is the power of God to be found? In a few well placed miracles? Not according to verse 18. It is found in a message. And what is the content of this message? Is it that with enough faith God will prosper your business, heal all your diseases? No, it is a message about a cross. And this links back to verse 17 with the word ‘for.' And there we are told that this message of the cross is the message of the gospel which Paul proclaimed. What is more, it is revealed that Paul was not called to a ‘doing ministry’ - like baptising people - he was in the teaching ministry, preaching a message. The power lies in the message not the sacrament or the sign, for to focus on either of those would, as he says, ‘rob the cross of Christ of its power.' And how does this power which resides in the message of a crucified Christ show itself? Is it by people becoming wealthier than they were before they came to church? Or maybe in some physical manifestation like falling down? No, the message has much greater power than that, it has power to ‘save.' Now in saying this Paul presupposes what the rest of the Bible teaches. Hence that quote for Isaiah 29 - this is not anything new, God has always operated on this principle that he will destroy all human pretensions to wisdom and power.

Now what is the original sin? What drew Eve to reach out for the forbidden fruit? It was the promised lie of the serpent that ‘You will be like God’ In a word - pride. Placing ourselves at the centre of the universe. The Christian writer CS Lewis puts it like this: ‘It is pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together; you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people, but pride always means enmity - it is enmity not only between man and man, but enmity to God. In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless, you know God as that - and, therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison - you do not know God at all.' Isn't that right? . What was the sin of the tower of Babel? Pride - ‘we shall build a tower which shall reach to the gates of heaven and we shall be united as a race.' It is all I, I, I, we shall do this, we shall do that - pride. But God says that in the most important thing of all, in the matter of your eternal salvation. you will do nothing, because you can do nothing except beg and ask for forgiveness. ‘You come to me’, says God, ‘ on my terms or you do not come at all. And the terms on which you approach me are precisely the terms on which I came to you in the person of my Son Jesus - weak and powerless - on a cross. Nothing grand, no impressive demonstration of divine strength as we would understand it - nothing but an ugly, repulsive spectacle. And yet that is where I have provided the means whereby all your filthy consciences can be made clean and you can have a fresh start, by my Son taking your punishment in your place.' Now, who but God could have thought up such a thing? It is a message which saves, you see. And if you are here tonight and do not know God, it is because you have not accepted the message of the cross. It is a simple as that.

And it is also a message which divides. The only division which God allows and which cannot be avoided is that caused by the Gospel - between those who have not believed and are perishing and those who have believed and are being saved. Ultimately all the other demarcations whereby we elevate ourselves and denigrate others are seen to be pathetic in the extreme. The first century had its divisions - Jew - Greek, Roman - Barbarian, slave - free, male - female. And you aligned yourself along the appropriate axis. And we too have our divisions don't we? The professional vs. the manual, the rich vs. the poor, the educated vs. the uneducated, north vs. south, the youth vs. everyone else. Well, in the light of eternity what do they matter? You can be slave and a saved, or you can be rich and be perishing and all your wealth and all your PhDs will perish with you. And what is it that splits humanity right down the middle? It is a cross. Those who look to the cross and see hope and eternal life, those who if they look at all, see nothing but contempt. It is a message which divides alright.

And this is a message which frustrates too - vv 20 - 25. Paul begins with these rhetorical questions in v20. Where is the wise man? That is where is the man whose world view leads you to God and the cross? Does communism lead you to God? Does hedonism with its insatiable thirst for the next pleasure seeking thrill? Does that lead to the cross? Where is the scholar, literally, the scribe, the expert in morality. Does morality lead you to the cross? If you feel you are moral at all that simply makes you feel morally superior and will never lead you to God for you will never feel you have any need of him. Often it is the morally respectable who are the most difficult to convert. Where is the philosopher? That is the debater with great powers of oratory, the David Starkey’s of this world, or as we might now think, the spin doctors who with their cleverly worded sound bites can entice people to buy anything - and vote for anybody? Do these lead us to God? No, no. Since in the wisdom of this world - that is a wisdom which effectively cuts God out of the picture, they did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of what is preached to save those who believe.' And we are back to the message again of a kind God, a humble God, stooping down to save the intellectuals, the street kids, the glue sniffers, the well heeled and the highly respectable. But he will only save them as they - believe - and so everyone is brought down to the same level. So no one can boast - v29. The six year old child who has put her trust in Jesus is exactly on the same level as the sixty year old university professor who has put his trust in Jesus. Nothing equalises in the same way as the Christian message does.

But what is it that people are looking for in order to believe? Two things which God refuses to give. First, the Jews demand miraculous signs. ‘Yes Jesus we will believe, just give us a miracle or two? And what did he do? He refused - Matthew 12: 38. Why? For at other times he did miracles. Yes he did, but never to order. Never in the NT do you see a miracle performed with the express purpose of eliciting faith. Wimber was wrong. You see, God is God and he will not be domesticated, treated like some performing genie. ‘Here God jump through this hoop and we will believe.' But just supposing he did? Supposing you said, ‘ God make fire come down from the sky and he did.' What would happen the next day when you are feeling down and need a bit of a boost for your faith? Well, he would have to do it again, and again the next day and the next. And in so doing, it is we and not him who occupies the centre of the world. We are controlling God. The sin of pride again. And may that not account for the fact that with some of us there is never a contentment in the Christian faith, there has always got to be a moving on to the next spiritual encounter, leg lengthening one year, Signs and Wonders the next, Toronto the next, gold fillings the next and on and on it goes. And each time we move a little further away from the cross.

But the Greeks what were they looking for? Wisdom. Now this is not the same as knowledge, as if God is opposed to us using our minds. No, Greek wisdom was concerned with show, so that it was not so much what was said but how you said it that mattered. They looked for polished performances from their teachers - clever wit, the pithy remark, the well honed phrase. In a word it was style. And what age do we live in today - but the age of the celebrity which is all to do with style - looking good, being seen to be in the right places, being clever witty, charming or in some cases down right obnoxious because that is ‘in.' But what is it that some of us are looking for in our gospel preachers today? Isn't it the slick performance, the coiffured hair, the flashy suits, the lights and music which would be the envy of an Andrew Lloyd Webber production - pulling the people in - giving them a good time. But - where is the cross? The medium of the rich, the glossy, the impressive is decidedly at odds with the message of the cross - because the cross isn't very pleasant. So what happens? Well, the message has to be changed - so that the focus is not humbly repenting of our sins and giving over our lives in the service of Jesus Christ, it on becoming rich, powerful, healthy, successful. Sure, Jesus may get a mention but he is not the Jesus of the cross. For he is far too embarrassing - it is a Jesus of power - you watch the God channel and you will see. But what does Paul say in v23? ‘but we preach Christ crucified - a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles’. In other words our message is a total switch off to those who are locked into this image conscious, self - driven age, but ‘to those whom God has called - v24 - both Jews and Greeks - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.' There is power and wisdom here, but it is not what we would normally call power or wisdom - v25, it is in fact far superior. Here I think Paul is alluding to Proverbs 8 - where God’s wisdom which made the universe is spoken of as a person, well now we know who that person is - Jesus, the second person of the Trinity so that one who made the heavens and the earth - is also the one who dies on a cross, impaled on a gibbet like a piece of raw meat hanging on a butchers hook. Why? Well, to reconcile us to God - so that as Paul says in v 30 he is our wisdom, our righteousness and our redemption. Jesus is all we need.

So how does God authenticate this message of Paul, giving it his divine stamp of approval? Is it by impressive supernatural events ? In one sense yes, but not in the way many of today’s power merchants would have it. What is ‘supernatural’ - almost beyond belief - is the type of people who are saved and the type of messenger God uses - both of which underscore the fact that it is in apparent ‘weakness’ and ‘foolishness’ that God’s wisdom and strength are shown.

First the type of people who are saved - vv 26 - 31. What sort of people are saved by the message of the cross? Paul couches his point in the negative - not many were wise by the world’s standards, not many influential - having political clout, not many were of noble birth - that is rich. Not, we might think, the best advert for Christianity is it? How do we do it? ‘We have a TV celebrity who has just become a Christian - lets bring him out. We have a politician over here, lets hear his testimony’ In other words we want to reverse what Paul says and claim many were wise, influential and noble who are Christians - that is bound to cause the world to sit up and take notice. I was interested to read a review of the TV presentation of the Alpha Course which on the whole was positive. But interestingly the reviewer had this to say: ‘My reservation is the young people themselves. All ten are attractive, personable people approaching Alpha with a variety of agendas.. The trouble is that they are so attractive, like the cast from a London sitcom; all Londoners, all employed and working in management, executive, legal or arts sectors. They dress smartly, live in nice flats and have enough money to have fun after work.' But you see when Paul wants to impress the wisdom of God he parades the nobodies and says ‘Look at what God can do.' Of course there were folk of noble birth and clever people in the Corinthian church - that is why he said not many - there were some - - but that is not the thing that is important - though they, like us, thought it was. No, clever people by virtue of being clever cannot find God. Rich people by being rich cannot find God. But God can find them.' He chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.' Let me share something personal with you. I have to remind myself that for all my degrees, for all my books and writings, for whatever position I might hold in the church - when God saved me it was as an obnoxious little seventeen year old oik from the local comprehensive school who would normally have gone down the pit to work. I wasn’t the head boy, I wasn’t the star pupil - but God performed a miracle which still amazes those who knew may back then - he saved me, made me his child - a Christian - i.e. he chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things to nullify the things that are. I have no room to boast. I have no right to look down on a fellow Christian because their accent is different to mine or their tastes differ from mine. And neither do you for they are a miracle. The only miracles our world needs to see in order to believe, according to 1 John 4: 12 is the miracle of believers whose lives have been changed. People we might expect God to pass over because we would, but whom he takes and makes them into his beloved children. That is the power of this message. As church we must stop playing the world at its game because the world will always beat us - every time.

So what about the messenger? When Paul came to Corinth did he arrive with a Gospel of power, bringing some impressive gospel road show to town, walking onto a stage, confident, waving his arms causing people to fall to the floor, promising health and wealth? Hardly - 2: 1 - 5. The style of ministry of the messenger was at one with the content of the message. Here was an unimpressive message and a very unimpressive messenger. Paul refused to pander to the world. Paul was certainly bright he could have dazzled them with impressive displays of intellectual pyrotechnics. As an apostle he had the ability to perform miracles. But what did he do? He tells us in 2: 2, ’I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.' Sure, he felt weak. Sure he was afraid - v 3. But as he explained the simple Christian message, that there is a God, we have rebelled against him, we are accountable to him and stand under his judgement and yet he has provided a way of escape and a way of knowing him by sending his Son to bear the curse of our sin on the cross, that he is alive and will return as our judge - it was that message stumblingly and falteringly presented without any frills, that the Spirit’s power was demonstrated. Not alongside the message, but through the message - and what was it that demonstrates this power of the Holy Spirit ? But that group of believers was formed in this pagan, moral cesspit called Corinth. And so these believers can have real assurance that their faith rests not on man’s wisdom but on God’s power, which is the power of the gospel. Think of it this way - supposing that Paul had been the flashy communicator - white suit, white smile, smart quips. As a result someone says, ‘Yes I believe that.' Two things will happen. First there will be susceptibility to doubt. ‘Am I a real Christian. Perhaps it was just psychological, swayed by a good car salesman.' Doubt. Second, there will be susceptibility to deception. Along comes another communicator, flashier, more persuasive than the first, but what he is teaching isn’t what Paul teaches - and so off we go. Its called the cult of personality - and it was happening in Corinth and it is happening today. But to be persuaded by the truth rather than the persuader, well then you are on firm ground aren't you? I am a Christian not because I have heard great speakers, or seen supernatural things. I am a Christian because the Holy Spirit has taken the gospel and convinced me it is true. And when I have my doubts and hear impressive leaders say things which don't quite add up, then I can go back to the bible and its message of the cross and say - this does makes sense. Do I honestly need anything more than what God has already given for me when he gave himself on the cross? Do I need another miracle to believe other than the miracle of the resurrection ? Of course not. You see, ‘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.'

 


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