The message of the power of the cross was preached by Paul to a congregation very much embroiled in the practical meaning and effects of power. Power and its irresistible influence were thick in the air at Corinth. Powerplays, if you will, were being instigated in Corinth by divisive parties simultaneously following Paul, Peter, Apollos and one who sought to trump them all, the "Christ party."
False teachers attempting to supplant the foundational preaching of the apostle also sought their own power. The corruption of the flesh was displayed in all of its sullied concerns over power and no doubt mixed with the heightened, power-hungry culture of this mighty, crossroads city church. These powers, familiar to every pastor in ministry, were ones Paul resisted in 1 Corinthians. Indeed, the forces at work in Corinth could be described as the very spirit of a power from a lower, base origin that each and every one of us must face and which is so often contesting for prominence in the pulpits, as well as the pews of our churches.
The response of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:17-18 is the noble theme of our lives and vocations which triumphs in Christ for His glory and our good: "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."
A Word from Another World
What is the source of your power in preaching? What is the object? What is the controlling motivation in not only your preaching, but in your living? These are questions with which I rarely wrestle. I am usually too busy in the ministry to think about the ministry. Therein, of course, lies the danger. I can get it wrong.
I once heard a pastor of a very large church admit that on a Sunday night when the cameras and radio microphones were off, as he looked back on his ministry, he realized that so much of it was done in the flesh. His transparency that night troubled many who had idolized the man. His transparency that night convicted me.
In my recent days of affliction of the body, I have been granted the blessing of meditation. The body having succumbed to some complex medical issues of neurological misfires creating a slowing of the heart has also, as sort of a severe grace, slowed my stride. The imposed decelerating has allowed for a more focused view of Scripture, less utilitarian (that is always looking at the Word as the thing I must prepare as quickly as possible for the next preaching assignment) and now more contemplative.
I say this is a severe grace, because without this illness I doubt I would have slowed down. If I had not slowed down, I would have missed this most critical message of God to the preacher in 1 Corinthians. What then is here for the pastor who pauses to listen with a receptive soul to the Holy Spirit?
In the lesson, Paul stretched forward from the presenting issues of powerplays in the embattled congregation to lift up the known and unknown power that was the power of the gospel he had delivered to them and the power that would deliver them from themselves: the power of the cross. In focusing on this paradoxical power, the Holy Spirit has granted us not only divine insight into the mind of Paul, but into the very mind of God for our ministries. Paul turned to the "Word from another world," as Robert L. Reymond has called it, to solve the problems in this world. In fact, there is no other way.
That is the lesson: Because God has revealed His plan for preaching so clearly, we who preach are bound by the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word. There are four undeniable demands on the preacher of the gospel drawn from this sacred Word about the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word.
1. The power of the cross is our God-given message for preaching.
Paul entered the emergency room of Corinth's crisis with not only a description of the problem—a party spirit that was splitting the church—but also with the diagnoses and treatment for the congregational wound as the heaven-sent physician of the soul. In verse 17, Paul made the necessary move for the healing of the wound when he declared, "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."
It is to be understood that Paul was not diminishing the command of Jesus in the Great Commission to go and baptize. Indeed, he gave the caveat of this argument by admitting he had baptized only a few. The force of his words is that Christ set him apart, not as a pastor but as an evangelist. Thus, he came to that great metropolis with a single-minded focus and a single-minded message: The power of the cross is the gospel that saves and transforms. There was no other message.
Years ago, a young oilman and entrepreneur from Midland, Texas, with an Ivy League education and a powerful political family name, decided to run for governor. His simple compelling story resonated with Texans, and the voters ousted the then-thought unconquerable legend, Gov. Ann Richardson, to elect George W. Bush. Later when Democratic officials were preparing to go up against Gov. Bush, who was set to run for president for the GOP, Richardson was said to have remarked, "Do not underestimate George W. Bush. I have never met a candidate who stayed on point like him."
Paul stayed on point, and no one should have underestimated him in that ability! The point was, of course, that the power of the cross is the God-given message he was entrusted with for preaching. Thus, it is so for each of us.
To stay on point—this point—as a preacher in this age is not an easy task. There are many voices which would call for you to replace the simple message that Jesus Christ defeated Satan, shed His blood to save the souls of all who would ever call upon Him and satisfied the divine law of God violated by man in Eden through his atoning death on Calvary's cross with an alternative message.
There is the message of universal love, universalism, the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God apart from Christ; within evangelical circles, a message that doing work for the poor is our fundamental calling. As positive a message as some of those might be, as fashionable as they may be, they are, in fact, ancillary messages to the message of the cross. This is so with the case of mercy ministry.
There are also heretical messages that defy the power of the cross in the case of universalism. "Love wins" is not a phrase that should describe a 21st century intellectual and existential struggle with the doctrine of hell, but a focused phrase that describes what happened on that God-forsaken hill outside a holy city. For there the Son of God endured our hell, suffered for our sins; in an upside down, paradoxical event, God killed the power of sin with the power of the cross.
This message is how we grow churches in Christ. This message is how we also achieve vocational satisfaction as preachers, for we were made to preach the cross. Lift up Jesus Christ, His vicarious suffering and His substitutionary atonement on that filthy Roman tree; and you will discover the joy of preaching again. For that is our message—or rather—God's message for us to preach.
The great poet-preacher of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1631 preached about this message of the cross in his final sermon titled "Death's Duel." There Donne reminded us of the wonder, the absolute glory, of this message to mankind. Listen to the very cadence of transcendent glory ascending from miracle to miracle until he announced the highest of all glories in the cross:
"That God, this Lord, the Lord of life, could die, is a strange contemplation; that, the Red Sea could be dry (Exodus 14:21), that the sun could stand still (Joshua 10:12), that an oven could be seven times heated and not burn (Daniel 3:19), that lions could be hungry and not bite (Daniel 6:22), is strange, miraculously strange, but super-miraculous that God could die; but that God would die is an exaltation of that."1
Do you climb those steps of exaltation of the cross in your preaching? Perhaps you should see the duel of death and life that Donne saw in his own life. Perhaps you might look upon the congregation before you as Spurgeon is said to have dreamed of it, as souls hanging in the balance before him as he delivered the sacred message. Then, when we know there is no hope but in God's plan of salvation, the cross of Christ will we preach with such soaring Godward voices!
Are you staying on point in your message? Are you preaching with passion? Do you know the power of the cross in the passage before you? Are your sermons coming increasingly in cadence with the beat of the nails into the flesh of the Son of God? Is there glory in your messages? Then the cross will be there.
We who preach are bound by the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word, and there is a second undeniable demand revealed to us in this passage:
2. The power of the cross is our Christ-controlled means in preaching.
When Paul preached, "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," he was addressing the problems of division in the church with the force of the cross—not the ordinance of baptism, which flows from the cross (and I do not deny the power of the cross communicated to the soul through the sacraments, but the Word preached, rather than the Word portrayed, is here the focus for Paul).
Paul was saying there was only one way to heal the fractions of the church and that was through the power of the cross. Why is that? Because the preaching of the cross is the supernatural means that achieves supernatural goals in the church. How do we grow a church? How do we counsel? How do we bring revitalization to our churches? How may we expect revival to come to our churches? It will not be through any other means except the one given to Paul and to us: preaching the power of the cross.
I want to look at only one of the goals we have as pastors. We each have people who (especially in this generation) are hurting and in need of healing. It may be relationship wounds, wounds of abuse or wounds from other Christians, but we have a remedy. That remedy is the preaching of the power of the cross. To say a broken man or woman is healed by looking to God, who dying for the sins of those He created on the instrument of execution used by a pagan power for hard-core criminals, does not seem right. Then again, does it seem logical to think the ancient people of God could be healed simply by looking up at a brazen serpent on a pole?
At the cross, the logic of man—eloquence so loved by the Greeks, philosophy so loved by the Gentiles, signs and wonders so sought by the Jews (all preferences represented in the parties at Corinth)—is undone by what looks to be the foolishness of God. If we look at the cross of Christ from a human point of view, we indeed get what one well-known media mogul called "foolishness and weakness."
God dying for His people by being stapled to an old rugged cross on a dung hill by His own creation rather than defeating enemies the way human kings ordinarily defeat enemies—by obliterating them—seems preposterous. However, it is the Christ-controlled means of preaching that brings abundant life and eternal life. Paul calls this the gospel of God in Romans 1:1. What do you call it? Oh that we would each call it the only message that can save, transform and build up the church—for it is.
Is it that for you? Is it your Christ-controlled means for bringing everlasting, abundant life and cultural transformation to the little piece of the kingdom of God entrusted to you? I would not go further in this message as a pastor without recommitting myself to God and His covenant of grace and that mediation for that covenant, the cross of Christ!
Now, here is a third undeniable demand of the centrality of the cross in our preaching:
3. To ignore the power of the cross is an eternally fatal mistake of preaching.
Look again at 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." For those who refuse to receive the grace of this message of the cross, this message seems ridiculous. The unregenerate man or woman who is going about his or her own way cannot without the intercession of the Spirit of God discern the meaning of the cross.
Such poor people cannot understand without the power of the Spirit grasp the reality that they are sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, unable to save themselves from the judgment to come with good works, unable to give remedy for the sin nature which is at work within them. Thus, they see no need for a Savior to die on a cross for them. However, for those who will be saved, which includes those who curse Christ today but who will (by the grace of God) preach Christ tomorrow, they must have the message of the cross!
Some years ago, Dorothy Sayers, mystery writer, literary critic and Oxford scholar who was a member of the famous Inklings with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams wrote a searing reprimand against clergy in her Church of England. Sayers' concern was the clergy had become so concerned about not offending anyone with stories of blood, crosses and atonement that they actually were misleading the people—leading the people in the pews in front of them right into hell. I have read few writers who spoke more plainly about the situation that the church faced in the mid 20th century, and we must admit the church faces now:
"Let us, in heaven's name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended…surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ."2
To adapt men to Christ is to preach in the power of the cross. What is that message? The gospel of the cross is that Christ lived the life we never could live and died the death that should have been ours. We are saved from judgment by Almighty God through only one way: transferring our trust from self, religion or anything else to the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us through the sacrificial act of blood atonement at Golgotha. Without the cross of Christ in your preaching, you cannot expect souls to be saved, lives to be transformed and to march with the triumphant processional of the kingdom of God through history.
You must preach Christ and Him crucified to be "in that number." You must preach man's sin and Christ's salvation. You must preach a hell to be shunned and a heaven to be gained through the grace of God in Christ on that cursed tree! For a man in the pew to ignore this message of the cross is to miss heaven. For the preacher in the pulpit to ignore this message of the cross is to miss your calling! If Jesus Christ saved you and then called you to the ministry of the gospel, then Christ called you as He did Paul to preach the cross of Jesus. For only in that old, old story is there hope for the sinner and growth for the saint.
There is a fourth undeniable demand of this text in making the power of the cross the centerpiece of our preaching:
4. The power of the cross is the church-wide mission through preaching.
This expository demand comes as we look at the passage in light of the rest of redemptive history. "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." There is not only a statement here to an erring congregation in one city and one age, but also a principle being laid out for the church in every city and every age.
Preaching the cross is the power of God. It is the standard message and means for advancing the kingdom of God and is how Almighty God is going to bring about a new heaven and earth. Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of the plan. The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is tied together by a single scarlet thread, which is the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The motif of the cross—the very thing which seeks to destroy and undo God's plan, becomes the very thing which advances God's plan—is given here. It is the pattern of all that God is doing in the world in redemptive history then and now. Thus, we must not abandon the centrality of cross-preaching in our churches, or we will lose our way. Bringing men and women, boys and girls to the cross of Christ is our mission.
"It doesn't sell well in the Islamic world," someone says. "We must re-construct the gospel narrative and adapt it to them." "We must be careful with how we say this for postmoderns, for they are unable to receive a unique Christ," says another. "Let us get around the cross, its explicit claims of saving us from hell, and focus on another aspect of Christianity for now."
"NO," says Scripture. There is but one way: salvation from an eternal hell through the blood of Jesus; through the stumbling block which is Jesus Christ; through the enigmatic, glorious and unimaginable scene where Christ dies for our sins and the earth trembles in revolt as the darkness descends. Nature itself cannot stand the mind-stretching scene of God Almighty on a cross bearing the condemnation of a world of lost sinners in shame. This is God's work. Let the earth tremble and go black. Let us fall on our faces and cling to this cross. This is how the mission of the church will go forward.
Last century, Lesslie Newbigin said that when a congregation ceases to be about missions, that congregation ceases to be the church.3 We may rightfully add from this passage that when we stop preaching the power of the cross as our central message, we have shut down missions and ceased to be preachers of the gospel.
His Theology Became His Biography
We have seen that because God has revealed His plan for preaching so clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, we who preach are bound by the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word. We have examined four undeniable demands on the preacher of the gospel drawn from this sacred Word about the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word:
1. The power of the cross is our God-given message for preaching (v. 17).
2. The power of the cross is our Christ-controlled means in preaching (v. 17).
3. To ignore the power of the cross is an eternally fatal mistake of preaching (v. 18).
4. The power of the cross is the Church-wide mission through preaching (v.18).
There is one more absolute imperative word that must be spoken about this passage and our work: If this message of the cross has not powerfully transformed you through a sacred encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ—where you have seen your sins on Christ on that cross, where you have known the power of Christ to transform your pain to praise and your trials to triumph in your soul if not in this world—then you are of all men to be pitied. For how can you preach the power of the cross if you have not gone to the cross yourself? How can you discover the redemptive word of Christ in all of Scripture if you have not seen your life in the passage you are to preach?
For the apostle Paul, all theology was personal. All doctrine was biographical. He never could get over what God had done in his own life. He never could get over the wonder of the gospel that saved his own soul. His theology had become his biography.
I pray we can bring our hearts back to Christ again at Calvary. Bring your life—and your preaching—back to the cross. For only there can our minds and hearts be divinely recalibrated for a life of service to the Lord and inspired for a faithful gospel witness to the power of the cross.
No other means, no other mission can bring you the joy of service to the Master but to exalt Him as the crucified and risen Savior who died on a hill far away. This is still the greatest story ever told and the greatest power ever known. Thank God for the message of the power of the cross.
1 John Donne and Izaak Walton, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; and, Death's Duel, 1st ed., Vintage Spiritual Classics (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).
2 Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
3 Lesslie Newbigin and Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 154.