The Cross of Christ

March 29, 2024 ()

Bible Text: 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:8 |


The Cross of Christ | 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:8
Brian Hedges | March 29, 2024

The earliest known pictorial depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus was found inscribed on a wall in Palestine Hill near Rome. It’s called the graffito blasfemo. It is the inscription of a donkey being crucified on a cross, with a man who is turned toward the donkey and an inscription that says, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

Of course, this depiction was intended as an insult, an insult to people who would worship a God who was crucified. It is a reminder of just how scandalous the cross was in the first centuries of the church.

It was crazy that people would worship a man who had died a criminal’s death through crucifixion. A polite Roman citizen would not even use the word “crucifixion” in company with others. It was considered an indecency. Yet Jesus Christ crucified became the object of the worship of those earliest believers and disciples, and it’s no wonder, then, that Paul said that the message of the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.

Yet here are, on a Good Friday, celebrating this cross, and worshiping this crucified man. Why do we do it? What does it mean? Why is the cross so central to the Christian life, the Christian faith?

We’re going to look at a passage tonight in which the cross is central, a passage that I think explains a lot. It’s found in 1 Corinthians 1-2. We’re going to be reading 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:8.

This is part of a short series that we’re doing for Holy Week called “Christ in 1 Corinthians.” On Sunday Brad introduced the series as he talked about the call of Christ in 1 Corinthians 1. Of course, we will continue by looking at the resurrection of Christ in two days, then the next Sunday will be on the body of Christ. But tonight we look at the cross of Christ.

As I read through the passage, I want you to notice the underline words. I underlined every reference to crucifixion or to the cross, and you’ll see that this passage is bracketed by references on either end. 1 Corinthians 1, beginning in verse 17:

“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

“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.’

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

This is God’s word.

This is a stunning passage, full of paradox—weakness and strength, power and glory, wisdom and foolishness—and all of it is somehow connected to the cross. Commentator Richard Hayes says that “Paul here is launching into an extended meditation on the meaning of the cross, seeking to show that prideful confidence in human wisdom is antithetical to the deepest logic of the gospel.”

It’s an extended meditation on the cross. Right at the heart of it, Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Those are puzzling things for someone to say. Why would Paul say, “I decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified”? Surely when Paul was in Corinth he preached on other doctrines, on other things, not only on the cross? We actually know from the records that are found in the book of Acts that Paul preached not just the cross but he preached the resurrection. He expounded from the Old Testament how Jesus the Messiah was the fulfillment of all these things that God had promised. Yet Paul says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Just ask, what does he mean?

I think it’s important in studying this to read it in the context of this letter, the letter to the Corinthians, the first of Paul’s letters, where knowledge and wisdom are key themes that run through this letter. You saw this already in the reading, with this reference to wisdom and the contrast between the wisdom of the world and God’s wisdom, between human wisdom and divine wisdom. There’s a contrast there.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:20, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” The wise refers to the philosopher, the Greek philosopher. The scribe refers to the expert in Jewish law. The debater of this age refers to the popular rhetorician, the one who is able to speak with great eloquence. Paul says God has made all of this foolish, this wisdom of the world.

Then, nine times in this letter Paul asks the question, “Do you not know?” He talks about the problem of a certain kind of knowledge, knowledge divorced from love. He says in 1 Corinthians 8, “Now concerning food offered to idols, we know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”

I think that as Paul is writing to this church, the church of Corinth, which is struggling with divisiveness—it’s about to split into parties, groups, factions; there are power struggles happening in the church. This is a church that is embattled over some people who are flaunting their liberties even though it hurts those who are weak. This is a church where many people have an overly-triumphalist mindset, and they are claiming to possess high spirituality and exercise wonderful spiritual gifts, and they’re doing this in a culture that prizes eloquence and visible displays of knowledge and power, and all the while they are lacking in Christlike, self-giving love for one another.

To them Paul is saying, “You missed it. Your whole attitude and mindset is out of step with the cross of Christ. Don’t you remember what I preached to you? I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified! The whole shape of my ministry to you is cruciform. It was in the shape of a cross.”

When Paul says this, I think he is telling them that unless their whole way of living and being and knowing is not radically transformed by the gospel of the crucified Christ, that they’ve not yet fully understood the gospel. He’s not just reminding them of the basic message; he’s pressing it home. He’s doing it in ways that are meant to utterly change the way they look at everything else.

We might put it like this: to say that we know nothing but Christ and him crucified means that the only way to know anything rightly is to know it through Christ and him crucified. So my approach tonight is just to take three big things that we all need to know something about—God, ourselves, and others—and to suggest that the only way we can rightly know God is by knowing God through Christ and him crucified. And the only way that you can rightly know yourself is by knowing yourself through Christ and him crucified. And the only way we can rightly know others is by knowing them through Christ and him crucified. Let’s take each one in turn.

1. Knowing God through Christ and Him Crucified

First of all, the only way to know God is through Christ and him crucified. You see this especially in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, those first verses that I read, where Paul talks about the message of the cross, which is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. He contrasts this with the wisdom of the world, right? But he is telling us that the foolishness of the cross is wiser than the wisdom of men, and he considers the cross and all of its shame weakness, the indignity of the cross, and he says that this weakness of the cross is stronger than the strength, the power of men.

The whole idea here seems to be that he wants us to know God and know God only in terms of Christ and him crucified.

Martin Luther, in kind of a paradoxical way, contrasted the theologians of glory with the theologians of the cross. The theologians of glory were those who claimed to have this unfiltered view of the majesty of God, to know God in his naked splendor. Luther said no, nobody really knows God like that. The only way you really know God is by knowing the God who is revealed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

You might think of it in terms of a solar eclipse. We have a solar eclipse coming up in ten days or so. Everybody’s preparing for the solar eclipse! It only comes around once every ten years or so. People are going to look at this eclipse, but of course, you can’t safely look at the eclipse unless you have the special glasses, right, that filter out certain rays. If you don’t have those glasses, you’re going to burn out your retina; you’ll do damage to your eye.

I think in a similar way, what Paul is telling us—this is part of the reality for us—is that anyone who claims to have a vision or an understanding of God that bypasses the cross is actually blind. You can’t really know God unless you know God through Jesus Christ and him crucified.

How do you gaze upon God? How do you know God? Jesus, the night before he is crucified, says, “This is eternal life, that they might know you, and they might know your Son whom you have sent.” He says that as he’s right on his way to the cross. To know God is to know Christ, the Christ of the cross, and it’s the only way in which we can know God.

I just want to ask us tonight, when you think about your relationship with God, does the cross have center place? You might say, “Well, I believe in God. I believe in God as a Creator. I believe in God as this omnipotent, all-powerful being. I believe that God knows all things. I believe that God is eternal.” All those are true things; those are true propositions. But you can believe those things about God and not know God. You know things about God, but you don’t really know the heart of God until you know God as he has revealed himself in Jesus. It’s the cross that displays for us the power and the wisdom of God. It’s the cross that actually brings us into relationship with God.

So ask yourself tonight, does your understanding of God have a cruciform shape? A God who works in mysterious ways, not a God you can always understand; a God who shows his power in weakness; a God who advances his purposes through suffering; and a God who humbles human pride even as he exalts the humble. This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the God revealed at the cross.

2. Knowing Yourself through Christ and Him Crucified

We can only God rightly if we know him through Christ and him crucified; and secondly, we can only know ourselves rightly if we know ourselves through Christ and him crucified. You see this in 1 Corinthians 1:26 and following, where Paul is really reminding them of their humble origins, conditions. He says,

“Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are [then he tells the reason for this], so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

It reminds us that when we begin to understand who we are in light of the cross, it removes all boasting. The cross removes all boasting. There’s no room for an inflated ego when you’re kneeling at the foot of the cross.

Think about the things we tend to boast in. We tend to boast in wealth or in education, or in beauty or strength, power or prestige or success. Even if we don’t swagger—that would seem impolite, to actually call attention to ourselves—we don’t really do that. Even if we don’t swagger, aren’t these the things that, if we’re not careful, make us feel good about ourselves, or maybe the things that make us feel better than other people?

The cross says that all of those things are irrelevant. God doesn’t choose people on that basis. God doesn’t assess people on that basis. He doesn’t accept people on that basis. The cross humbles us, and it removes all boasting, because it tells us that our only hope is not in anything in ourselves, not in anything we can boast in; our only hope is in what Jesus Christ has done for us.

Then we think about the cross and what it reveals about humanity. It shows us our sin and it shows us God’s grace.

It shows us our sin. You might wonder, where in the world do you see sin most clearly? I would say it’s not by looking at it directly. It’s not by dwelling in the gutters of this world, with all of its horrific, soul-defiling evil. It’s not even when you consider the flames of hell, where unrepentant sin will be punished forever and ever. If you want to know what sin really is, look to Calvary. Look at the cross.

A preacher at Moody Memorial Church back in the twentieth century, named Henry Ironside, said,

“Stand in faith by that cross. See that blessed Savior suffering, dying there. See the nails upon which he hangs and the blood dripping from those awful wounds. See the thorns crushed upon his sacred brow and the blood enwrapping his naked body with a crimson shroud. That is what sin has done, the sin that is in your heart and mine.”

The cross shows us our desperate plight, that it took this for us to have a relationship with God. It took this. It took the Son of God hanging naked on the cross, being tortured, and bearing the judgment that our sins deserved.

The cross also shows us God’s grace, because it shows us how much God loved us, that he would be willing to send his son to die for us.

I love these words from John Newton, one of his hymns.

“I saw One hang­ing on a tree,
In ag­ony and blood,
Who fixed His lan­guid eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.
And ne­ver to my dying breath,
Can I for­get that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke.

“My con­sci­ence felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in des­pair,
I saw my sins His blood had spilt,
And helped to nail Him there.
But with a second look He said,
‘I free­ly all for­give;
This blood is for thy ran­som paid;
I die that thou mayst live.’”

The cross shows us our sin, but it shows us God’s grace! Because at the cross, Jesus achieved everything that was necessary for our salvation.

We see it in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31. “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Righteousness—that’s a right legal standing with God. It means that if you are in Christ you’re justified. It means that the verdict is “not guilty.” It means that all the debt has been paid, every cent that you could possibly owe has all been paid. There’s not a penny for you to add to what Jesus has already done. You’re right with God in Christ Jesus.

But also, sanctification—that means being set apart for God. It means belonging to him, being made holy in him.

Redemption—that’s God’s rescue of us, both now as we are redeemed from the curse of the law, we are redeemed from the power of sin. But it also means the redemption that’s yet to come, when we are redeemed from the very presence of sin itself, and our bodies are glorified, and we inhabit a new world, a world made new by the power of Christ.

Paul says if you’re in Christ Jesus, this is God’s wisdom. Christ is your righteousness, your sanctification, and your redemption, so that, “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”

This redefines our identity. It changes the way we view ourselves. It humbles on one hand, so we no longer think that we are all that; we don’t think that we’re better than anyone else; we don’t have any illusion of our superiority, whether or morally or in any other way. We know that we are sinners and our only hope is in God’s sovereign mercy. We know that; it humbles us, changes the way we view ourselves. But it doesn’t leave us in despair, because it shows us also that God loves us so much. He has received us, he’s welcomed us. It takes away fear and takes away despair; it takes away guilt, it takes away shame. It changes everything about the way you think about yourself, if you are in Christ, if you know yourself through Christ and him crucified.

Christ and his cross are the only way to know God. It’s only there that you really understand the power and the wisdom of God. Christ and him crucified is the only way for you to know yourself, because it’s only there that you see your sin and you see God’s grace and boasting is removed once and for all.

3. Knowing Others through Christ and Him Crucified

Number three, the only way for us to really know others rightly is to know them through Christ and him crucified.

Richard Hayes says, speaking about the word of the cross, “As the word of God breaks into the world, it divides humanity in two.”

He’s drawing it from verse 18, which says, “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.” Notice right there: the word of the cross. It hits people in two different ways. It divides the human race into two groups. Those two groups are described as those who are perishing and those who are being saved. The present tense is used, so it’s describing the process that they are in. They are people who are in the process of perishing, and there are others who are in the process of being saved. So it’s envisioning the final destination, but we haven’t reached it yet. But all of us will end up in one place or the other: we will either eternally perish or we will be rescued, we’ll be saved. So right now you’re either perishing or you are being saved.

Paul uses this same language in 2 Corinthians 2. He says,

“Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

So the cross divides the world into two groups: the perishing and the saved, the believers and the unbelievers, the church and the world.

I want you to think for a minute about how the cross should shape the way we view each of these groups and interact.

First of all, those who are perishing, or the world. They stumble at the cross. That’s what Paul says here in 1 Corinthians. They stumble. The cross is like a big stumbling-block, a stumbling-stone, that they trip over, because they can’t accept that God would reveal himself in this way, that God would save people in this way. It’s too shameful; it’s too lowly. There’s too much suffering, there’s too much blood and gore.

Maybe you felt that way when we were singing “Nothing but the blood of Christ” can wash away my sins! I mean, I can understand if some of you think that’s kind of a strange way to talk. “These Christians talk about the blood washing away their sins. Why do people talk like that? Why do they sing like that?” People stumble over the cross.

What should our response to them be? Well, just remember what Paul said. He came, and he determined to know nothing among them except Christ and him crucified, so that “your faith would be in the power of God, not in my eloquence, not in my wisdom, not in my words.” He wasn't trying to manipulate them in anything, he wasn’t trying to compete with the philosophers. He wasn’t trying to be some kind of celebrity or superstar to win their hearing. He was just presenting to them the simple message of the cross so that their trust would be in the power of God.

That should be our heart as well: not viewing those who don’t believe as enemies, but viewing them as those who stand in need of the same thing we need, grace. It comes through the cross.

What about those who are being saved, or the church? What should be our attitude towards one another, our way of life as people of the cross? I want to say two things, then I’m done.

To be people of the cross means that we are called like Jesus to bear the cross for one another and with one another, and we’re called to boast in the cross and in nothing else. Bearing the cross—you remember that Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” The message of the cross is not only the message of what Jesus Christ has done for us, but it’s also a call. It’s a call for us to imitate him and to follow in his footsteps.

You can see how Paul himself lived this out in 1 Corinthians 4:9-10. He said,

“For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.”

Do you see how he’s taking the same terms that he used to describe the cross in 1 Corinthians 1, and he’s saying, “This describes us. This is us. This is what we were like.”

“We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

He’s describing his sufferings as an apostle and how he was willing to suffer all this in order to get the gospel to them.

You read this letter and you see that over and over again Paul redefines human relationships in terms of the cross. He tells us that we should be willing to lay down our rights and not claim our liberties if it hurts someone else. Why do we do that? Because Jesus did it.

He tells us that in the church we’re not to be consumed with the exercise of our spiritual gifts, but with building up others. The point isn’t to use your gift so that you feel good about your gift, the point is to love one another and be willing not to use a gift if it means loving others.

Think about other passages where he calls us to forgive as Christ has forgiven us. Over and over again he takes the cross and he applies it to human relationships. This is part of bearing the cross. It is, brothers and sisters, the call to a life of self-denial and service and denying yourself so that others can benefit.

Someone once wrote these words—let these test your heart tonight.

“When you are forgotten or neglected, purposely set at nought, and you don’t sting and hurt with the insult or the oversight but your heart is happy, being counted worthy to suffer for Christ, that’s dying to self. When your good is evil spoken of, when your wishes are crossed, your advice disregarded, your opinions ridiculed, and you refuse to let anger rise in your heart or even defend yourself, but take it all in patient, loving silence, that is dying to self. When you lovingly and patiently bear any disorder, any irregularity, any unpunctuality, or any annoyance; when you stand face to face with waste, folly, extravagance, spiritual insensibility, and endure it as Jesus endured, that is dying to self. When you are content with any food, any offering, any climate, any society, any raiment, any interruption by the will of God, that is dying to self. When you never care to refer to yourself in conversation or to record your own good works or itch after commendations, when you can truly love to be unknown, that is dying to self. When you can see your brother prosper and have his needs met and can honestly rejoice with him in spirit and feel no envy, nor question God while your own needs are far greater and in desperate circumstances, that is dying to self. And when you can receive correction and reproof from one of less stature than yourself and can humbly submit inwardly as well as outwardly, finding no rebellion or resentment rising up within your heart, that is dying to self.”

Of course, none of that justifies anyone intentionally hurting someone else; that’s not the point of that little reading. But it reflects the attitude that we should have of self-denial, that we do not easily take offense, that we are not out to make a name for ourselves, that we are not constantly playing the comparison game, that we are willing to let others be recognized even when we are not. Our orientation is not to build up self, it’s to love others, and we’re willing to deny ourselves to do that. That’s part of the call. We bear the cross.

Finally, we boast in the cross, not in any of those other things we listed before—not in riches, not in education or wisdom or intelligence, not in strength or beauty, not in success. But also—and this is important for the Corinthians—not in our spiritual gifts, not in our knowledge of the Bible or theology, not in our abilities to speak well, not in the tirelessness of our service in the church, not in anything that we can accomplish in Jesus’ name, not in anything that we have done or can do, but we boast in Jesus Christ and him crucified. We boast in Christ alone, in Christ who is our wisdom, in Christ who is our righteousness, in Christ who is our sanctification, in Christ who is our redemption.

“Far be it from me,” Paul said, “to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” Let’s pray.

Father, these are challenging words tonight for us. As we think about the example of the Lord Jesus and how we are called to have the same mindset, as we think about the example of Paul and how much he was willing to suffer the indignity that he so often experienced, yet so determined to make Christ and him crucified known. Lord, it challenges our innate concepts of self-regard, but when we remember the price that was paid, when we see Jesus hanging on the cross suffering in our place, and when we reflect on the depth of that kind of love that would give himself to others, Lord, how can we not imitate that love?

So we ask you to work this into our hearts tonight. We ask you to free us from self-regard and instead give us a heart to glory in the cross. We pray that you would fill our hearts with the same kind of love, the Calvary love of Jesus, and that that love would characterize our relationships with one another. We pray that in all of it we would boast in the Lord and glory in you. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.