The Message of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

In writing to the Corinthian church Paul seems, at least in part, to be dealing with people who are putting too much stock in wisdom, and in doing so seem to be leaving behind some of the foundational truths of the faith.  In countering this, Paul focus’ on the cross and a crucified Lord.  For those of us in a more recent era, the cross is little more than a religious symbol and I suspect many of us give it little thought.  But in Paul’s day it was something entirely different.

Then, the cross was an instrument of execution reserved for the worst criminals.  It was shameful, horrible and cruel; not an object of veneration and worship.  To the first century Roman world, the cross was similar to the hangman’s noose of our recent past.  Not generally something you are going to have hanging around your neck or out in front of your religious ceremonies.  It is no wonder that the church at Corinth seems to be trying to make the message of Christ more palatable by minimizing the place of the cross.  I can see it being a challenge to entice people to worship a convicted and executed criminal.

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 Corinthians 1:18 NIV

What is the message of the cross?  Paul does not explicitly say here but I would include the following:

  • Jesus was God who took on human form and lived among us.
  • He died a criminal’s death on the cross, sacrificing himself on our behalf.
  • He returned to life, conquering death.
  • He is now at the right hand of the Father in heaven, making intercession for us.
  • All who have faith in Him and his sacrifice will share life with him through the remainder of eternity.

Paul acknowledges that the whole idea of a crucified messiah, a divine messiah at that, is foolish to the world in general  To those who are lost and perishing; it is an offensive idea.  But he also affirms its centrality at the heart of Christianity.  We are saved by the cross, or at least our faith in the one who died on it.

But why does God use the cross as an instrument of our salvation?  Could he not have found a way to offer salvation that did not include the scandal of a convicted and executed criminal?  It is not uncommon to hear believers today express the necessity of Jesus sacrificial death; that it was the only way we could experience forgiveness of our sins.  Without that perfect sacrifice, God would be unable to forgive us and welcome us into fellowship with himself.

But I think that presents a too small view of God, to limit him like that.  God is sovereign and can pretty much do whatever he pleases.  Rather than God being required to have a perfect sacrifice to forgive us, I believe that he choose to do that.  But why this way rather than one that was easier for people to accept?

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,  but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:21-24 NIV

From this passage, it appears that God intentionally choose a way to offer salvation to mankind that would be offensive to us; either a stumbling block to the religious, or foolishness to the intelligent.  But why?  Why not reveal himself in power and might and attract the masses in a dramatic demonstration?  I believe the answer lies at the end of the first sentence in the passage above.  He is looking for those who will believe, who will have faith.  He is not interested in those attracted to miracles or rational discourse.  He wants those who will demonstrate faith, trusting in the unseen.  And what better way to do that, than the cross with its crucified Messiah.

While the world may view the message of the cross as foolish and nonsensical, it is a demonstration of the wisdom and power of God.  Don’t be ashamed of the cross, rather rejoice in it and proclaim it to the world around you.

Isn’t There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas Is All About?

Charlie Brown is struggling with all of the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season when in despair he utters “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”  And Linus leaps to the rescue with a recitation of the account of Jesus birth from the gospel of Luke, a part of which is below.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11 KJV

Popular cartoons are not always a good source of theology, but in this case I believe Linus has nailed it.  Christmas is all about the coming of a savior, good tidings of great joy to all people.  The angels announcement, the visit of the shepherds and magi, the manger and stable are all secondary to the savior who was born.  Even the birth of a baby who was the center of all the hoopla is not as important as who that baby was and why he had come.  He was a savior, a deliverer.  He was Christ, God’s anointed one.  And he was the Lord, one with power and authority, God. My favorite passage about the coming of the savior is not in one of the gospel accounts.  Instead it is in Philippians 2:5-11

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and become obedient to death —
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

At Christmas we generally remember Jesus being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man.  But before Jesus was made in human likeness he was in very nature God, having equality with God.  Jesus was fully God before he made himself nothing in becoming a human.  In becoming a human, Jesus did not give up his divinity, but he did become completely human with all the limitations inherent in that.

This baby that we picture in the manger was God.  But he was also a helpless infant totally dependent on his parents to supply his every need.  We think of the cross as a sacrifice.  But is not his incarnation a sacrifice as well?

Jesus as God is the first stop in the story of salvation, while his incarnation is the second.  The third stop in the story told here by Paul is one of death, Jesus becoming obedient to death on a cross.

Jesus, as a man, was obedient to the Father’s plan for his life, a plan that took him to the cross.  The cross is why Jesus was born and everything is his life led up to this.  It is in his death that he became our savior, delivering us from destruction and into a relationship with our creator.

The final stop in this story is Jesus exultation.  Because of his willingness to go to the cross God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.

At the manger the shepherds and magi knelt before him.  At the cross all believers bow before him.  But ultimately every knee will bow and every tongue will acknowledge he is Lord.  Jesus, that helpless infant in the manger, now sits enthroned in the highest place, the firstborn over all creation.

This Christmas, as you celebrate Jesus birth, let me encourage you also to kneel before your Savior and acknowledge him as Lord.  And in your celebration at the manger, don’t forget the cross and the throne.

The Foolishness of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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. 19 For it is written:

       “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
         the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 NIV

The message of the cross: that mankind is sinful and estranged from God, that God took on human form in the person of Jesus, that he died on the cross for my sin and then rose from the dead on the third day, and putting my faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the only way to a right standing with God.  That humanity is generally disinterested in God, apart from some ritualistic lip service seems clear.  But a crucified messiah seems to be a pretty far fetched method for bringing people into a meaningful relationship with God.

If I was God, I am sure I could have put together a plan that would have been more appealing to a lost humanity, one that would have reached a larger audience.  Why the cross?  Why not a permanent physical presence someplace on earth where people could see you and come to you?  Why not provide us with a checklist of the things we need to do to be acceptable to you (oh wait, he did do that)?  Why not reward those who accept you now with physical prosperity and health (like some claim)?

Many people today, as well as in Paul’s day, rejected the message of the cross because it appeared to be foolish; it was weak and embarrassing; it did not make good sense.  And yet it was the way that God chose to introduce his salvation to us.  But why; why a criminal’s death?  Some seem to believe that it is the only way God could deal with our sin, by having a perfect substitute take our punishment.  And indeed the scriptures do express his death in terms of him being a substitute.  But I have a hard time accepting that God was forced to do it this way to accomplish his purpose from the creation.

I believe that God intentionally chose the way of the cross because it would appear foolish to us.  God desires faith on our part, not intellectual reasoning and an emotional response to miracles.  God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Humanly speaking, the message of the cross is foolish.  But the “foolishness” of God is wiser than anything humanity could have accomplished.  It has the power to transform mortal and sinful humanity into children of God.

Embrace the foolishness of God.  Enter into relationship with your creator.  Let him transform you into a new creation.  Reasoning will never get you there.  Only faith in a crucified and resurrected Lord.

The Cross: Love in any Language – Romans 5:8

Why did Jesus die on the cross?  There are some who say that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy God’s wrath against sin.  That without a sinless sacrifice God’s anger could never be appeased.  But I believe that paints a too small picture of God.  It makes it sound like his creation has backed him into a corner, and the only way out is via Jesus death on the cross.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 gives us a better reason for the cross, and Jesus death on it.  Some people are hung up on wisdom.  If something does not seem rational to them, like the cross, then they reject it.  Other people look for the miraculous, looking for God to prove himself to them.  But God cares about faith on our part, something that is not compatible with proof via miracles or rational thought.  So God gives us a crucified messiah, something that is offensive to the religiously minded, and foolish to the intellectually minded, and rejected by both.  But those who come in faith to that crucified, and risen, messiah, will find eternal life with God.

So our response to the cross is a test of faith; do we have it or not!  But it is more than that.  Who would you die for?  I suspect most would willingly give their lives for a spouse or child, with some having a wider but still restricted circle.  Why am I so willing to die for my immediate family?  Because I love them.  And what more vivid of a demonstration of my love for them could there be than to die in their place.

And that is a second reason for the cross.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8 NIV

God demonstrated his love for us in a pretty dramatic fashion; by dying as a sacrifice, taking my place.  How much does God love me?  Enough to die for me, even when I was in rebellion against him.  When I see the cross, rather than seeing a gruesome death or an instrument of torture, I should see a symbol of God’s love for me.  Like my wife’s wedding ring is a symbol of my love and commitment to her, so the cross is a symbol of God’s love and commitment to me.  And that is a symbol that should be good in pretty much any language.

The Cross: A Look From the Other Side – Colossians 2:13-15

I have been reading through Colossians and, as frequently happens, a passage jumped out at me and captured my interest.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.  And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. – Colossians 2:13-15 NIV

We see Jesus crucifixion clearly pictured in each of the gospels, and referred to throughout the epistles.  As Christians we look to it for our salvation and celebrate it, along with his resurrection, at Easter.  The cross has become one of the primary symbols that represents Christianity.  But while we look primarily on the physical side of the cross, because that is what we can best see and understand, this passage paints a view from the other side, the spiritual world.

The powers and authorities in this passage refer to spiritual rulers, and usually refer to those in opposition to God.  And they had a legal charge of indebtedness drawn up against us.  We had sinned, rebelling against God, and his enemies had claimed ownership of us.

But God took that legal document that condemned us, and nailed it to the cross alongside Jesus.  And doing so accomplished two things.  Our sins were forgiven, making us alive in Christ.  And the powers and authorities bringing charges against us were disarmed.  They had lost the weapon they had to use against us, and were left with nothing.

This was apparently a quite an unexpected turn of events for these powers and authorities and they were left in a state of humiliation.  You can picture them celebrating Jesus death and their victory over him, when defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory; their victory cheers turning into wails of anguish.  God has taken their crowning moment, the cross, and turned it into triumph over them.

 
One of my favorite songs of the cross.

 

Tearing Down Walls – Ephesians 2:11-22

For 28 years a wall separated the city of West Berlin from East Germany.  This wall divided the people of Berlin into two camps, separated by walls, soldiers, weapons and hostility.  But in 1989 the wall was removed, along with the restrictions on travel from one side of the city to the other.  The two Berlins became one city with the removal of this dividing wall of hostility.

Ephesians 2:11-22 describes a similar kind of situation.  But instead of two physical cities separated by a physical wall, we have two groups of people separated by the Old Testament Law.  One group of people were the Jews, the chosen people who had God’s Law, the revelation of the prophets and ancestry from Abraham and the promise given to him.  Because God had chosen them, the Jews looked down on everyone else, calling them Gentiles; people outside of the promise, without the Law and uncircumcised. On the other side of the wall were the Gentiles. The Gentiles might be Roman, Greek, Egyptian, or any of a myriad of other nationalities.  They had a wide variety of social, economic or educational levels.  They included probably 99% of the world’s population. But what they had in common was being outside of the covenant relationship with God, not living under the Law, and without knowledge of God. And separating the two groups is the Law, the commands given through Moses to the Hebrew people at Mt Sinai, at the beginning of their life together as a nation.  This law effectively separated them from all other peoples, making them unique and establishing a covenant relationship with the God of creation.  And built into the law is the expectation that they would separate themselves from all of the peoples around them, holding themselves apart and holy to God.

Now while it was marginally possible for a Gentile to cross over that wall and enter into the covenant relationship with God, it was not easy.  And as a consequence not many did it.  Many more would climb to the top of the wall and get close, but would not be willing to go all the way.  And the Jews, for their part, seemed not very interested in helping Gentiles to cross their barrier.

But then, about 2000 years ago, Jesus was born, lived for about 33 years and then was crucified on a Roman cross, an apparent victim to his own people’s dislike for his attempting to change the status quo.  But Paul tells us here that this event was really much more than it appeared.  According to Paul, the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, brought reconciliation between the two camps, and destroyed the wall of hostility that separated the two, producing a single humanity where once there had been two.

What was this wall of hostility that is destroyed at Jesus death?  Paul indicates here that it is the law, along with its commandments and regulations.  But how does this jive with Matthew 5:17 where Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it?  I think this question is best answered by Paul in Galatians 3:23-25 where he claims that the purpose of the law is to bring us to Christ, and once that has been accomplished, or fulfilled, then we are through with the law.  Once I have come to Christ I am no longer under the law, but am under grace (Romans 6:14).

In Christ it makes no difference whether we are Jew or Gentile.  We are all one body in him because of grace.  It is by faith in what Jesus did that we come into relationship with God now; not by adherence to the commands and regulations of the law.  Because observance of the law as a means to righteousness has been replaced by God’s grace, we are all equally able to stand before God, not because of what I have done, but because of what he did.

And now we all can be built up into one house, or body, that God is able to inhabit and be glorified in.  Let there be nothing in our lives or attitudes that would divide us as believers or cause us to think more highly of ourselves than of any other believer; or any other person.  And rather than erecting more walls to make it difficult for people to come to God, let’s reach out to the world around us and introduce them to the Savior.

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