This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Power of the Cross". See series.
In his book Once upon a Tree, Calvin Miller writes about an experience years ago when he went to a movie. This was in a day (that some of you don't know existed) when you dressed up for movies, and at the intermission you'd go out just like you do at the theater or a concert. He was attending one of those epic biblical movies that came out in the sixties. He writes,
Just before the intermission the crucifixion was presented in breathtaking color and drama. As Jesus died on the screen there in that movie, a terrible dark storm formed behind him. The camera caught rivulets of blood flowing from the wounds in Jesus' hands. The rivulet of blood would flow down the cross and into a depression in the stone at the base of the cross. Then the rain began to fall. The rain accumulated in that small basin and mingled with the red. Soon the pool filled to overflowing and began trickling down the mountainside. The small red rile combined with other torrents of rushing water, and finally it became a great crimson tide for this world's salvation. But more than that, for my salvation.
Suddenly it was the intermission, and Miller jostled his way to the theater lobby.
In the lobby men laughed and chattered as though nothing had happened. Jewelry-bedecked women tossed their heads with lighthearted caprice. Children clamored for a drink at the water fountain. A noisy line formed at the concession booth. It was not that I had gone to that lobby expecting everyone to be collected in little prayer groups or hear them singing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."
Most people who see the cross are not impressed with it. They can see it and walk away and forget it. Yet the Christian who sees the cross and esteems it is a person who understands his or her debt. He or she alone owns the cross.
The cross binds us together as the church of Jesus Christ. A church, by the Bible's definition, is simply a gathering of people whose lives have been changed by God's powerful and wise message of the cross. It's not that we're religious or that we like the same songs or like the feeling of the church.
As much as anyone, I would like to be regarded as intelligent by folks I sit with at Einstein's Bagels or meet here and there. I'd like them to think I'm thoughtful and well-read and, if it's not too much to ask, wise. But that's a serious problem if we hold to the cross of Christ, if we believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead to give us life. If we start talking about that, they're going to think we're crazy. It's nonsense to them.
Turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 1. As I told you last week, Paul writes this letter to the Corinthian church around A.D. 50 because he's concerned that they are pulling apart at the seams. Particularly in these first verses, he is addressing how contentious they have become, choosing sides. "I follow Peter." "I follow Paul." "I follow Apollos." "I follow Jesus." In verse 10, which we looked at last week, he makes his appeal. "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you agree with one another." He doesn't mean this about everything, about politics or where to shop. He means about the cross. "… so that there may be no divisions among you and that you as the body of Jesus may be perfectly united in mind and thought."
The Corinthians lived in a Greek culture that thrived on argumentativeness and philosophy and ideas. I was with my friend Stamati this week, who just got back from Greece. He told me, "Greeks are still that way. Folks sit at tables in coffee shops and debate." I never see that at Einstein's. People mind their own business, read the paper, offer pleasantries. But the Greeks debate, argue, think things through, and work them out that way.
When the folks in Corinth were saved and became Christians and went to church, guess what they brought with them? I have a childhood memory of being in my home church. There was a Sunday school class before the service, and once in a while I would sit in with my dad. It was so argumentative. I remember one of the men, who I appreciate and love, saying, "Wow, wasn't that a great Sunday school class we had this morning? We were really going at it." No, actually that wasn't a good Sunday school class. This is what these folks brought into the church with them. They were breaking into sharp factions over the way the gospel was framed or the personalities they followed. They were forgetting the message of the cross. We don't have to come from that culture to run into that danger, and God wants us to learn from their mistakes.
In verse 17, Paul is simply saying, "When I came to you I had one thing on my mind." He says, "For Christ didn't send me to baptize …" As I said last week, that doesn't mean he didn't believe in baptism. But there were others who fulfilled that discipling and baptizing role in the church. "Christ didn't send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 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."
The message of the Cross
His point is simple. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, and all are perishing. We who do not believe that message are all perishing.
When Paul talks about the message of the cross he's using a shorthand phrase for the facts. Later in 1 Corinthians 15, he summarizes the facts. 1 Corinthians 15:3 says, "For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, that he appeared to …" various people. Those are the facts. And those facts historically come with profound meaning, don't they.
Jesus died on the cross because we all were alienated from God by our sin. Jesus is Christ, God's Messiah, God's deliverer, his promised champion for his people. But the way he becomes our champion is by dying for our sins, not to defeat our political enemies.
He rose from the dead because God accepted his sacrifice, and the penalty was paid, and death no longer held control.
Consequently, when we trust Christ to save us, our sins are forgiven and we are granted eternal life with God in heaven.
But the message of the cross is foolishness to most people. It makes no sense to people who never think about their guilt and need. It makes no sense to people who are fed on the idea that you have the power within you to change your life. It makes no sense to people like the Jews of that day who could only see salvation in political terms. It makes no sense to people who, like the Greeks, think gods are apathetic and unfeeling, far from us if they exist at all.
And in many other ways the message of the cross makes no sense. "It is foolishness to those who are perishing." These people could never guess, they could never imagine in their arrogance and presumptuousness that God is actually turning their objections and their arrogance against them to stymie them.
Verse 19 says, "For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.'" This is a quote from Isaiah 29:14. It's helpful to hear the verse before that to understand why God reacts this way. Isaiah 29:13 says, "The Lord says: 'These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught of men.'" That's the problem. Their hearts are far from God. That is the fundamental issue any wise person, any scholar of Scripture or religion, any philosopher must deal with. But among a crowd like that, who would give this a moment's thought?
If a wise man or a religious scholar or a philosopher doesn't reckon with that problem, then, according to the Scriptures, God will show them to be fools.
God doesn't just ignore these people, or let them go. It's personal to God, and it should be. It is a profound affront to all that is good and righteous that the holy and almighty God is ignored.
In verses 20-23, Paul calls these intellectuals of the world to account by the church. "Where is the wise man?" Is he here? "Where's that scholar?" Is he here among the people of God? "Where's the philosopher of this age?" Did he come to church this morning? "Has not God made foolish this wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom didn't know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe."
Looking at these two audiences that he was so familiar with, he says, "Jews [characteristically] demand miraculous signs" to prove that Jesus really is from God. "Greeks look for wisdom." They want to reason it out. "… but we preach Christ crucified," and that is a stumbling block to Jews who want a sign and it is foolishness to Gentiles who want to argue their way into wisdom. "… but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
Foolishness to those perishing
Once you know Christ and experience his forgiveness and life what do these so-called wise people have to offer you? As The message puts it, "Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense?" What in God's name is their appeal to the likes of us, the redeemed? God says, in effect, to these gurus and philosophers and scholars of religion, "Go ahead. Write your books. Deliver your lectures. Have your talk shows and symposia. Meanwhile I will see that the message of the cross is proclaimed. It will actually save people who are perishing, while you yammer about how foolish it is and how wise you are." God says to those Jews looking for a sign, "I will not give supernatural signs to people who refuse to look at Christ." God says to those Greeks, "I will not debate the wisdom of my plan with those who refuse to face their own hard hearts."
In thinking about this sermon I wrote to my friend Bob Fisher. Bob and Jennifer just moved a couple of weeks ago. Bob is a thoughtful Christian who just got his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois Chicago, and has begun teaching at a university in Texas. As we corresponded about this, he referred me to one of his favorite quotations by Blaise Pascal. I'm going to paraphrase it.
When Christ appeared in his advent of mercy [when Jesus came to be born on earth] he came in such a way that those who do not want God's mercy would not see him for what he was. After all, if people don't want mercy it would not have been right for Christ to appear in such an overwhelming way but that they could only accept it. [Then it really isn't what they want.] Yet he would not appear in so hidden a manner that he could not be known by those who should sincerely seek him. He wanted to be recognizable as the Savior to those who seek him with all their heart and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their heart. Those who seek a Savior have enough light to see that Jesus is that Savior, and those who have no interest in the mercy of God will be able to look at Jesus and not see who he is or what he's done.
These things sound like an intellectual battle, and of course they are, but notice again what Paul says in verse 18: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." This intellectual tomfoolery is a deadly business. This arrogant wisdom is lethal. If people bend all their intellectual muscle to shaping and believing religions and philosophies that do not address this fundamental problem, then their hearts are far from God. Those people ultimately die. All who follow them perish, and they go to hell for not believing in the wisdom of God in Christ.
The great poet T. S. Eliot wrote their obituary, you might say. Listen: "All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance. All our ignorance brings us nearer to death. But nearness to death no nearer to God. Where is the light we have lost in living?"
No matter what the wise of this world think, we believe in the message of the cross. That distinguishes us. That's our claim. That binds us together. That's what we have to say to this world. Those of us who are being saved through the message of the cross, those of us who have been born again, who've had our sins forgiven and who find ourselves being shaped into the image of Christ as we make our way homeward, we know that it is the power of God.
The good news that Jesus brought us is not just a worldview, though it is that. It is not just a philosophy, a structure, though there is a piece of that, too. It isn't just a way of explaining how life in the world works. When the wise of this world claim their systems are powerful, they have such a small idea of what they mean. They claim you can tap into the power within you, or into the vague power of the universe, or, in some cases, into the aid of the angels. The power of the cross isn't remotely like any of those.
Remember, the problem is that our hearts are far from God. Romans 3:23 puts it so succinctly and memorably. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That's a death sentence. If I cannot be in the presence of God, the Giver of life, I will die. We all start in this place, we are cut off from the glory of God by our sinfulness and our distant hearts. We are, as I've said before, like cut flowers dying in a vase. In that condition we simply get sicker and sicker. The life drains out of our hearts. Souls wilt. We die day by day, a little at a time. And in the end we die forever. That's our condition.
The power of the cross meets that awful problem. When a person hears the good news that Jesus died and rose again to reconcile them to God, to draw their hearts near to the life-giving Lord; when a person hears the good news that Jesus, the Christ, rose from the dead physically to regenerate them, to give them the breath of life; when a person hears that good news and believes it, entrusts their souls to it; when they lay hold of it as God's wise and free solution for their perishing, then they are born again. God accepts Christ's blood as payment for our sins. He draws us to himself as to the love of a father. He implants within us his own Holy Spirit like breath to bring life to our hearts. And he gives us a homing instinct, a hope, the confidence that this world is not our home. The effect of believing and having that happen to us is powerful. For some it's deeply emotional. In others it's not. For all who put their faith in Christ, whether as a little child or as an elderly person, whether as a simpleminded person or as a scholar, it is powerful because dramatic things happen in our lives. If the message of the cross takes hold of us it is not merely intellectual.
The power of Christ crucified
Everybody has this story. There isn't a Christian who doesn't have this story. If you're a believer, the power of the gospel works in you. You see it. You feel it. You know how it changes you. A week ago we went with some friends to see the movie The Help. It's a disturbing picture of the blind racism in the South in the sixties. Afterward, with tears in his eyes, my friend said, "That is what Jesus saved me from." Everybody has that. Everybody who knows Jesus has been powerfully changed inwardly. And Jesus did it all.
You see this in verses 23 and following, "But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews … foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."
Christ, the power of God No matter where we started, as Jew or Gentile, whatever we believed, we are now gathered as the church because we believe what was proclaimed to us in the gospel. We have learned firsthand that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Christ is the power of God. Think about what powerful things Christ has done:
We were rebels, and Christ has made us the friends of God.
We were prisoners locked away for eternity, and Christ seized the keys and set us free.
We were born in sin and had no way of escaping this death, but Christ was powerful enough to show us the way to be born again.
We were dead in our sin. That's what the Scriptures say: dead. That's not a metaphor. It's a reality. We were dead, and Christ made us alive and immortal as a new kind of race of people.
We were homeless orphans with nowhere in the world to call home, and Christ brought us into the arms of our heavenly Father forever.
We were poor; Christ was powerful to make the likes of us rich.
We were nobodies, but Christ had the power to make us a royal priesthood and the people of God.
Christ, the wisdom of God Christ is the wisdom of God. We do not ponder enough all the virtually insurmountable problems that God had to solve in order to save us. They are mindboggling. Think about them with me:
Through Christ, God worked salvation for men and women while they were still in their sins. He figured out how people born once could be born again, how there could be a second Adam and a new race of people born to him whose sinful DNA was countered by God's own indwelling Spirit. Christ, the wisdom of God.
Through Christ, God found a way for the infinite God and the perfect Man as one to die as a suitable sacrifice for sinners and for those sinners to be drawn to salvation without violating their free will. Christ, the wisdom of God.
Through Christ, God found a way to keep all his promises and prophecies to Adam and Noah, to Abraham and Moses and David and the prophets. God had to work all those things he promised out to come true, and he had to fulfill every promise pictured in the Old Testament. The Passover, the Promised Land, the Sabbath, the manna, the wine, the Lamb, and the lion all come true in Christ, all in one Man. Christ, the wisdom of God.
Through Christ, God found a way to trap the devil in his own schemes. He became the devil's victim so that he might become the devil's conqueror. God found a way to tie the mighty Satan in knots. Christ, the wisdom of God.
And through Christ, God found a way to make his enemies his beloved saints, to make spiritual orphans his own dear children, to make prisoners free, to make lame hearts leap, and he found a way to open death's front door, for Jesus Christ holds the keys to death and Hades. Christ, the wisdom of God.
God's call We who trust Christ did not do so because of some miraculous sign or because it seemed philosophically reasonable to us. We didn't figure it out. In one fashion or another, someone preached the message of the cross to us. We heard the message of the cross in all kinds of ways: we heard it on the radio or television, we heard it from a Sunday school teacher or at a mother's knee, we heard it from a preacher in a church or a camp counselor, or we read it in a book, or we heard it from a hundred conversations with friends who prayed and explained. Not one of us comes to Christ except by simply hearing this message of the cross.
Did you notice the phrase in verse 24, "… but to those whom God has called …"? We wouldn't be here except that God called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. That tears down the last proud claim we could make: Well, at least I found my way to Christ. Not really. You were called. It would make no difference if I was smart or tender, I would not see the power and the wisdom of the cross had God not called so clearly and patiently and convincingly that even a spiritual fencepost like me could miss it. I don't know why I heard, why you did, but others didn't. But I know this: it was not because I was wiser. It wasn't because I was better or that my heart was nearer. It was entirely the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So where does this wonderful text take us? What do we do with it? First, never try to synchronize the world's wisdom with the gospel. It's tempting. We listen to these folks. Perhaps you have friends who love, the gurus, the self-help people and who want to embrace what you believe and what they believe and mix it together. It just won't work. Don't try to synthesize. The gospel, the message of the cross stands apart, and it will be foolishness to anyone who does not humble themselves before God.
Second, the people of God must always rally around the cross, around the resurrection, around Jesus, the wisdom and the power of God. This holds us together. There are lots of things that can pull us apart, lots of differences that we have, ways that we see things in different fashions, but this must bind us together. And when we start to lose that, when we start to get used to the cross, when it becomes something of a wallflower to us and we start moving away from the foot of the cross, we will start to divide. A contentiousness will take seed among us. Let's celebrate this cross. Let's not look for other things to hold us tightly. Only the Lord Jesus Christ.
And finally, let's plainly tell people the message of the cross. It is likely, given what we've read, that it won't be accepted. It's likely that they will think us naÏve or foolish. But not always. God calls people to himself when Christians set forth the good news of Jesus. We don't know who God is calling or when. We just keep speaking of Christ to them, praying for them, living our faith in front of them, being authentic Christian people who love Christ and who honor his death and resurrection. Whether they think it's foolish or not, we just keep doing that. It worked for you. Somebody you know is waiting. They're listening. It's starting to sink in. Let's be people who love to believe. Let's speak of the cross to those who are perishing.
Sing with me:
When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.