Last week we were looking at being one in Christ from this chapter. But what if there are difficulties between Christians in a church - how should they be handled? We'll come to an extreme case later in this series but often, as at Corinth, they're a result of inflated egos. Here's some examples I came across before coming to Newcastle: a gifted musician decides to boycott a church service because they haven't been asked to be involved; someone refuses to help with holiday Sunday School because they were turned down from the regular team; lots of folks saying to me – you're not a proper Christian if you can't speak in tongues; a member wanting to leave his wife for another woman because God 'told' him to…
Now is it just a matter of saying to them, 'It isn't godly; behave better'? That is, you command people to do the right thing? Well, when Paul faced such problems, he decided on an approach which would be far more profound and lasting. In effect, he's saying in 1 Corinthians, 'Let me take you not only to a command, but also to a cross. And as we stand there let's consider the One who created you, writhing in total agony, hands and feet hammered to a piece of wood and take time to think about what really matters.' And that's what we find Paul doing here in 1 Corinthians – it's all about the cross. So first:
1. The Message of the Cross
"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. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.""
(1 Corinthians 1.18)
The word 'for' links this to verse 17 where Paul tells us what he refuses to do and what he must do. He refuses to engage with 'wisdom of words' - a style of speaking designed to 'wow' people. Instead he's going to speak about something, which to his hearers is both meaningless and sick making; he's to give a word about a cross. To try to win people with a word about something so gross, was to the world 'foolishness'. But he does it anyway. Why?
Well because verse 17 says this message of the cross is the message of the gospel. What's more, it's clear that Paul didn't prioritise a 'doing ministry' – like baptising people - but rather a teaching ministry, preaching a message about a cross. He can hardly remember who he's baptised. But preaching? That's so very important. Why? Because the power lies in the substance of the message not in the symbolism of the sign. And how does this power which lives in the message of a crucified Christ show itself? Is it by people becoming healthier and wealthier as some would say? No, the message has far greater power than that - it has power to 'save'. It's what the whole Bible teaches. It's nothing new, God has always operated on this principle that he will destroy all human claims to wisdom and power. Why?
Well, just think, what's the original sin? What drew Eve to reach for the forbidden fruit? It was the promised lie of the serpent that 'You'll be like God.' In a word - pride. Placing ourselves at the centre of the universe. And we're so self-centred aren't we? Look, if I were to show you an old school photo of your class, who would you look for first? Pride makes us think of ourselves as better than we are and everyone else worse than they are. And we'll find ways of making sure that we're above others. Even 'I've got a better Bible translation than you'! Pride - even amongst Christians - lies at the root of the problems at Corinth and many churches today.
But God says that in the most important thing of all, the matter of your eternal salvation, you contribute nothing except your sin. 'You come to me', says God, 'on my terms or you don't come at all. And the terms on which you come to me are precisely the terms on which I came to you, in the person of my Son Jesus - in weakness and powerlessness - on a cross. Nothing grand, no impressive demonstration of divine strength as we'd understand it - nothing but an ugly spectacle. And yet that's where I've provided the means whereby all your filthy consciences can be cleansed and you can have a fresh start, by my Son taking your punishment in your place.' Who but God could've thought it up? No human being would've dreamt of this being the way we get right with God. But it's the only way. If you don't yet know God, it's because you haven't accepted the message of the cross.
But it's also a message which divides. The only division which God allows and which can't be avoided is that caused by the Gospel, between those who haven't believed and are perishing and those who have believed and are being saved. Ultimately all other divides whereby we elevate ourselves and put others down are seen to be pathetic. Corinth had its divisions: Jew-Greek, Roman-Barbarian, slave-free. And we have ours: Geordies vs Mackems, rich vs poor, north vs south, youth vs everyone else. But in the light of eternity what do they matter? In a billion years' time if you're in heaven or in hell what will it matter that you've got good qualifications or none? You can be poor and be saved, or you can be rich and going to hell. And what is it that splits humanity right down the middle? It's the cross. There are those who look to the cross and see hope and eternal life, and yet others see nothing but contempt.
It's also a message which frustrates (v20-25). Paul begins with some questions (v20). Where's the wise man? Where's the man whose view of the world leads you to the cross? Does communism or capitalism lead you to the cross? Where's the scholar, meaning the expert in morality? Does morality lead you to the cross? If you feel you're moral, you feel morally superior, which will never lead you to God as you won't feel any need of him. It's often the morally respectable person who resists trusting in Christ. What about the philosopher - the debater with great speaking skills? Do they lead you to the cross? No. The wisdom of this world is a wisdom which effectively cuts God out of the picture. But, verse 21…
"it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe."
It's a message of a kind God, a humble God, a God who stoops down to save the street kids, the intellectuals, the wealthy, the poor, the respectable and the ordinary. But he'll only save them as they believe in the cross, so everyone's on the same level. So no one can boast (v29). The 6-year-old who's put her trust in Jesus is on the same level as the 60-year-old professor who's put his trust in Jesus. Nothing equalises in the same way the Christian message does.
But what is it that some people are looking for in order to believe? What kind of message are they happy to accept and which if you adopt will supposedly get people to church? Well, they're the two things God refuses to give. In Matthew 12.38 the Jews demand miraculous signs. 'Yes, Jesus we'll believe, just give us a miracle or two.' And what did he do? He refused. Why? He did do miracles but God is God and he won't be treated like some performing genie. What would happen the next day when you're feeling low and need a boost for your faith? He'd have to do it again and again the next day. Then it's we and not God who occupy the centre of the world, which can lead to you never being content in your Christian faith as you're always looking for the next spiritual high. And each time that happens we move a little further away from the cross.
Then there are the Greeks/non-Jews - what are they looking for? Wisdom. Now this isn't the same as knowledge. God wants us to use our minds. No, Greek wisdom was concerned with show - it wasn't so much what was said but how you said it that mattered. They wanted performances from their teachers - clever wit. In a word, it was about style. And what age do we live in today? The age of celebrity, which is all about - style. And what is it that some look for in gospel preachers today? It can be pretty much the same thing. The slick performance, the one who can make us laugh and send us home feeling better about ourselves?
But where's the cross? The medium of the glossy and impressive is at odds with the message of the cross because the cross isn't very pleasant. So what can happen? Well, it can be thought that the message has to be changed - so that the focus isn't humbly repenting of our sins and surrendering our lives to Jesus, but on becoming rich, powerful and healthy. Sure, the word Jesus may be used but he's not the Jesus of the cross. The Bible might be referred to but it's not properly interpreted which has as its focus the cross. What does Paul say in verse 23?
"But we preach Christ crucified - a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles"
In other words, our message is a complete switch off to those who are locked into this image conscious, self-driven age, but (v24):
"to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God."
Not what we'd normally think of as power and wisdom (v25), but far superior. When Paul speaks of God's foolishness or his weakness being stronger than man's strength, he's not using those terms in an absolute sense - there's no real weakness in God. Rather he's saying, even if God did have weakness it would still be a billion times stronger than ours. Paul's referring to Proverbs 8 - where God's wisdom which made the universe is spoken of as a person. And that person is - Jesus, God the Son, and the one who dies on a cross. Why? To bring us to God so (v30) he's our wisdom, our righteousness (our in the rightness with God), our sanctification (our holiness) and our redemption – Jesus cancelled the record of our debts – of our disobedience and nailed it to the cross. Jesus is all we need, it's in him we can boast, not ourselves.
So how does God give Paul's message his divine stamp of approval? Is it by impressive supernatural events? Well not in the way some would have it. What is 'supernatural' is the sorts of people who are saved. So secondly:
2. The Converts of the Cross
What sorts of people are saved by the message of the cross? Well Paul says (v.26):
"…not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth."
We often want to reverse what Paul says and claim many Christians were wise, influential and noble – that's bound to cause the world to sit up and take notice. But you see when Paul wants to impress others with the wisdom of God he parades the ordinary like me and you and says, 'Look at what God can do - he saves these'. Now there were folk of noble birth and clever people in the Corinthian church - that's why he said not many - there were some - but that's not the thing that's important - though the Corinthians, like some of us, thought it was. No, clever people, by virtue of being clever, can't find God. Rich people, by virtue of being rich, can't find God. Even religious or 'spiritual' people can't find God by virtue of being spiritual. No one can find God. But God can find them. God can find you.
"God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…" (v.27)
God chooses that which is weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise. So finally…
3. The Messenger of the Cross
Did Paul arrive in Corinth promising power, health and wealth? Hardly. He could have dazzled them with intellectual brilliance. As an apostle he had the ability to perform miracles. But what did he do? Chapter 2, verse 2:
"I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
And it was through that message, presented with no 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? It was that a group of believers was formed in this pagan, moral cesspit called Corinth. And so believers then and now can have real assurance that their faith rests not on man's wisdom but on God's power, the power of the gospel. The power of the gospel has formed a group of genuine believers here at JPC too and can form other groups of genuine believers in church plants across this region today, in spite of the culture being similar to Corinth. You see I'm a Christian not because I've heard great speakers or seen supernatural things. I'm a Christian because the Holy Spirit has taken the gospel of the cross and convinced me it's true.
I must finish. Going back to where I began - in the light of the cross, does it matter whether we're seen as important in the church? Is that the model Jesus has set for us? But when you stand in front of the cross do you see it's important to love and serve your fellow Christians and be there for them? Do you see it's vital that you share this Gospel and not be led astray onto lesser but more 'impressive' things? Verse 18:
"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."