The Centerpiece of the Gospel
The Centerpiece of the Gospel
Anyone in marketing or sales knows how these games are played. Products and presentations are sculpted and crafted to tell listeners what they want to hear. Down through the centuries, "to sell" has meant to persuade people to give their loyalty, their attention, or their money. But first you must know what the prospects want to hear. No matter what the truth is, the message must fit their situations. This problem is not unique to the twentieth century. Paul dealt with that same problem.
The large, urban church in Corinth became increasingly sensitive to its position in the philosophical, theological, and economic marketplaces. This congregation wanted to look good, to titillate the ears of listeners, to look attractive to the outside world. In Paul's opinion, the church was drifting away from the essentials, which had brought the church together in the first place. I suspect that if you and I were to visit the Corinthian church about the time Paul wrote this letter, we would not sense these problems right off. We would look at the sizable congregation and think it was an incredible place.
Yet underneath the surface are the murmurings, factions, and divisions that were slowly rising to a boiling point. Not only is this a church fraught with divisions, it is also pockmarked with immorality. No one seems to be seriously concerned. There's a breakdown of discipline. Men and women are permitted to identify with the name of Jesus even though they're not living as Jesus called them to live. Theological heresy marks some people; they espouse alien beliefs, which run counter to the gospel of Christ. To someone who says, "I'd love to go back to the early church," I say, "Be sure you know which church you're talking about." You couldn't pay me to be a pastor or staff member at the Corinthian church. The main issue in verses 11-25 in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians is the centerpiece of the gospel. Let me summarize this passage in three central points.
Sometimes we change the packaging of the gospel
In the Corinthian congregation, there is a tendency to package their particular views of the gospel. What does the gospel look like to the Corinthians? The congregation is dividing over personalities. The disagreement is about the way these personalities appear to communicate the gospel. Paul mentions four groups: the Pauline group, the Apollonian group, the Petrine group, and the Christ group. People were saying they believed what Paul said or what Apollos said. But it's more than that: people were slowly shaping their Christianity around how they thought these teachers would teach the gospel.
Those who said they followed Paul were trying to take Paul's gospel of grace, mercy, and forgiveness to its extreme. They were frolicking in the liberty to which they could stretch Paul's gospel. They were saying:We can live any way we want. All we have to do is confess our sins and God will forgive. Grace is there, and life is fun.
That's an extreme view of Paul's gospel. It's dead wrong, and Paul deals with it in the Book of Romans.
The second group said they followed Apollos of Alexandria. The tradition in Alexandria was to allegorize the gospel, making it mystical and ethereal; they found all sorts of dubious, sub-surface meanings to every jot and tittle in the Old Testament. Their teaching grew weird as it was stretched to its furthest extent.
The Petrine group was probably made up of legalistic Christian Jews. They loved any emphasis that brought back a more legalistic view of Christianity.
Finally, there was the Christ group. No one knows what Paul means when he says, "Some say, 'I follow Christ.' " Did this group follow an ascetic form of life, a highly disciplined, separatist way? Perhaps they looked at all these other groups and pridefully said: We're pure. We follow Christ.
In this context, Paul mentions baptism. By using such a strong word as baptize, he infers that these groups were creating solid movements behind these personalities.
That really bothers Paul, so he says: Good grief! I'm really glad I didn't physically baptize many of you. I didn't come to form a following that would adulate my name and the things I have to say. I came for one reason—to preach the gospel of the Cross. If I had done anything else, the Cross would have been diminished in its power.
Paul is saying that allowing the gospel to become attached to a human personality, allowing it to become divided into sub-groups of theological followings, allowing the gospel to center in some person—Paul, Cephas, Apollos, or some weird view of Christ—is to remove the Cross from the center of the gospel. Forgetting the Cross, Paul says, means the church and the individual slowly drift into trouble. Paul doesn't want to see the Cross become emptied of its power.
This marketing mentality in Corinth clearly wants to slowly diminish the Cross. It was much better to diminish the Cross in the preaching and teaching and instead to elevate these personalities, their styles of teaching, and their unique messages. That way Christianity would sell. Paul wasn't buying that because he knows God won't buy it. The Cross is God's way of showing his love for the world. He's saying, "I've made a way for you to enter my family." The Corinthians weren't comfortable with the Cross because when they talked about the Cross in the marketplace, they were laughed off the pavement.
Nien Cheng, an older Chinese Christian woman, has written a book entitled Life and Death in Shanghai. The author spent six years in a Red Guard prison and was horribly, brutally tortured. She survived the whole thing, living year after year in a bare, damp, dank, dirty cell, hearing the screams of people being beaten to a pulp. She tells of watching a small spider one day as it crawled slowly up one of the rust-eroded bars at the window. When it reached the top, suddenly it swung out and descended on a thin silken thread spun from the end of its body. With a leap and a swing, it secured the end of the thread to another bar, and then the spider crawled back along the silken thread to where it started.
Nien Cheng watched the tiny creature at work with increasing fascination. She wondered how it knew exactly where to take the next thread. There was no hesitation, no mistake, no haste. The tiny spider knew its job and carried it out with confidence. Who had taught the spider to make such a web? she thought. Could it really have acquired the skill through evolution? Or did God create the spider and endow it with the ability to make a web so that it could catch food and perpetuate its species? She says she knew she had witnessed something extraordinarily beautiful and uplifting.
She thanked God for the miracle she had just seen. Mao Zedong and all his revolutionaries seemed much less menacing, and she felt the renewal of hope and confidence, for she had seen with this little spider that God was in control. This story shows how a most despicable little creature, which most of us would just as soon step on, is a means of grace.
It's the same thing Paul is saying about the Cross. Don't step upon the Cross. Don't diminish it. Don't substitute flaring, wonderful personalities for the central power of the gospel, which is this dirty, rotten, filthy cross that everybody hates. God chose the Cross to show a world that he is in control. The great temptation of the modern generation is to diminish and replace the Cross with all sorts of glitzy things.
Sometimes we change the content of the gospel
The second growing crisis in this Corinthian church has to do with the content of the gospel. Again, Paul comes back to the Cross. He says: The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it's the power of God.
When Paul says "message," he's referring to the essential. Can I use the Greek word kerygma? The kerygma is the slice of the gospel that cuts into the human heart and brings salvation. This message of the Cross cannot be diminished. Paul says: Let's put the Cross into the real world, where the Corinthians live, and see how people react to it.
There will be two extreme reactions. The word perishing expresses in the Greek an ongoing process that describes those who are perishing day by day by day. It's not just ultimate perishing somewhere out there in eternity. It's perishing every day. If you're without Christ, if the Cross has not touched your life, Paul is inferring that you are in a state of perishing—dying a little bit every day. The mark of a perishing people is the way they react to the Cross. Paul says they call the Cross foolish.
The word "foolishness" was a favorite putdown. People engaged for sport in debating and oratory and philosophy. Corinthians would go anywhere to hear a great speaker. What the speaker said made no difference; it was how he said it that mattered. If the debater's arguments did not fully come together philosophically, Corinthians called the speech "foolishness" or "silly." We might use the word "stupid." Paul says when you put the Cross out where people can look at it and respond to it, the sign that a person is perishing spiritually is that he or she will look at this Cross and say it's dumb.
For those of us who are being saved—in the process of the Christian experience, one is constantly in the state of being saved—for people who are being saved, their response to the Cross will be: "This is the power of God. I can't live the way I'm living without the Cross. It is the sum and substance of my spirituality and of everything I am in God."
Paul quotes the Book of Isaiah, chapter 29: God is going to take the wisdom of the wise and utterly shatter it. He's going to take intelligence and frustrate it. Christianity is not anti-intellectual; that's not what Paul is saying. He's calling into question the men and women who think they have such brain power they don't need God. Paul knows the Corinthians are being overwhelmed by people who think they know better.
I used to struggle with this while living in Boston. I would leave the town of Lexington, where my family and I lived, and I would drive past the towers of Harvard University. Another mile down the road, on the left, sits the campus of MIT, and to the right, the campus of Boston University. Straight ahead were the towering headquarters of many great multinational corporations. There were moments when I was tempted to be intimidated by these unmitigated, unadulterated symbols of power. Here were great world leaders being trained in the business school at Harvard. Over at MIT, signals bounced off Mars every 30 seconds. In those towers, decisions were being made that created and destroyed the economies all over the world. And who was I? What was our congregation with this Christian gospel trying to preach?
That's what was happening in the Corinthian church. They were intimidated by all the talk of so-called intelligent people who said the Cross was silliness. Paul tells us not to buy it. It has never been true, and it's not true today. God is going to show the wisdom of men and women to be rank foolishness. For the wise, the Cross must be in its central place.
Sometimes we change the product of the gospel
Paul's third point has to do with the product, or the result, of the gospel. In Corinth, the real champion was the person who could persuade other people through the force of argument. In those days, people went to an amphitheater to hear a persuasive speech, much as we might go today to listen to a great violinist or watch a great athlete perform. The Corinthians were saying to Paul, "The problem with our gospel is that it doesn't persuade well in the marketplace. We can't get people to give in to our arguments. They think the Cross is dumb. We want to shove the Cross about six millimeters to the side and use more persuasive arguments."
The apostle responds by saying, The essence of the gospel is not persuasion. No one is ever persuaded to the Cross. That's why you're having problems. The only people who will ever find the Cross to make sense in their lives are those people who are called.
The essence of calling is in the word "convicting." Who are the called? The men and women who suddenly wake up to the fact that they are nothing more than sinners in need of grace and forgiveness and hope. As long as people believe they are not accountable for their sinfulness, as long as they have no sense of being separated from God, the Cross will seem silly and foolish.
Most Jews could not buy that. They would not buy into a religion that started with a crucified Savior, for their Old Testament law had a phrase that said, "Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree." The worst argument you could offer a Jewish intellectual was to start with the Cross; it just turned them off.
For the Greeks, the worst thing you could do would be to talk about a Savior who was God and had entered the world to suffer. Greek gods never suffered, never had emotions, or never entered into the human condition. This was alien to the Greek way of thinking. No wonder this Cross didn't make it in the Corinthian marketplace.
The only people who would listen to the message of the Cross, the scandal of this execution instrument and of a Christ who died upon it, are people who have come to the end of their rope and are desperate; they know they are lost.
I suppose I have taught or preached from this passage 25 times. I had always preached it as doctrine until one day I came to a brutal new awareness of myself as a sinner. As I've probably intimated to you before, I realized that there's a Hitler in me ten times over. I'm that much of a sinner. I have the evidence to prove it. What can I do with this evil in me? There is no way I can escape from it myself. It holds me in bondage. Where can I find grace? Where can I find forgiveness? Where can I ever hope to make things right with God? Suddenly this passage became not a portion of doctrine and theology but a life saver. It became the answer to my becoming a whole person. It became the one road by which I could find my way into the presence of God—the road that runs right over the Cross.
Paul tells the Corinthians: The only people who are going to buy your message will not buy it because they have been persuaded by the strength of your arguments. It will be because they are broken and shattered and hurt and wounded; they have discovered that, having come to the end of themselves, nothing else works.
Then they will come to Jesus and discover that God has taken what the world considers to be stupid and foolish—like the tiny spider in a Red Guard prison camp—and has spoken a word of hope through it. He speaks to the world about his love and forgiveness and grace. He says: I will draw those to me who are broken—those who believe and come to the Cross.
We will always end up coming to the Cross
In the late 1800s, Charles Berry, an English preacher, became the pastor of the great Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. One day Berry described how earlier he had come to Jesus Christ. There had been a time in Berry's early ministry when he preached a very thin gospel—really no gospel at all. As did the Corinthians, he looked upon Jesus as merely a noble teacher but not as a divine redeemer.
Late one night during his first pastorate, as he sat in his cozy study, there came a knock. He opened the door and found a typical Lancashire girl with a shawl over her head and clogs on her feet. "Are you a minister?" she asked. Getting an affirmative answer, she went on breathlessly. "You must come with me quickly. I want you to get my mother in."
Thinking it was a case of some drunken mother out in the streets, Berry said, "You must go and get a policeman." "No," said the girl, "My mother is dying, and you must come and get her into heaven."
Berry got dressed and followed her for a mile and a half through lonely streets in the night. He knelt at the woman's side, and he began telling her how good and kind Jesus was and how he'd come to show us how to live. Then the desperate woman cut him off. "Mister," she cried, "that's no use for the likes of me. I'm a sinner. I've lived my life. Can't you tell me of someone who can have mercy upon me and save my poor soul?"
"I stood there in the presence of a dying woman," said Berry, "and I realized I had nothing to tell her. In the midst of sin and death, I had no message. In order to bring something to that dying woman, I leaped back to my mother's knee, to my cradle faith, and I told her the story of the Cross and of a Christ who is able to save to the uttermost."
The tears began to run down the woman's cheeks. "Now you're getting it," she said. "Now you're helping me." Berry concluded the story by saying, "I got her in, and blessed be God, I got in myself."
One of these days, some of us will come to the conclusion that we have to get in. We will have exhausted all of the other routes of living a full life. We will have exhausted the relative success in our vocations. We will have gone the family-and-marriage route, or will have lived the high-flying single lifestyle, having gone around the world to visit all the Club Meds. We will have played the whole game, and it won't be enough. In that moment, whenever it comes—whether it comes under pressure and stress or simply in a moment of dramatic insight—we're going to discover that the marketplace, which has answers to all types of questions, cannot answer the one question at the center of the gospel: How do you help a person become intimate and permanent with God?
At that moment, we'll have to come to the Cross. No personality like Paul or Cephas or Apollos will be able to help us. There will be no glitzy message. It will be the story of Jesus, who came out of heaven and suffered in an ugly way and died with the scum of the world. The response at the end will not be a great intellectual conclusion. It will be a simple cry to God, either aloud or in the silence of the heart, "O Lord God, save me!" Then, because of the Cross, new life will begin.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.