The indispensable preaching of the cross
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-24, NIV)
In first-century Corinth, if you’d done some market research into what would gain a hearing for Christianity, the answer would have come back that we need something impressive. Some (particularly from a Jewish background) wanted to be wowed by signs and wonders. Others (Greeks) asked to be shown wisdom and impressive argument. This - the focus groups replied - was how to gain traction for Christ in this great city.
It’s surely surprising, then, that the heart of Paul’s message is something that seems very unimpressive: we preach Christ crucified. All the more surprising, in fact, given that he says that this is a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Why?
He gives us the reason: his message of the crucified Saviour is the message which saves. …but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. The term Christ crucified is surely shorthand for his gospel: the Saviour-King promised from of old; our plight, deserving God’s wrath, and Jesus’ substitutionary death, bringing us full and free forgiveness and access to God himself. This is the message which brought salvation to Corinth - and to us.
Paul wants his readers to know that this message which saves is apparently unimpressive, in order to alert them to a grave danger. In their desire to impress, the Corinthian church could drop the very gospel itself from their preaching. What a disaster!
Paul is not against listening to people, nor against the use of carefully-reasoned argument: his letter to the Romans, for instance, is a very thorough apologetic for the Christian message, carefully responding to questions. Nor is he denying that God can work great wonders (though see Ephesians 2:1-10 for one he particularly stresses). But he will never let anything take the central place of Christ crucified in his message. For this is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Throughout history, moving away from this gospel because we want to impress has been a problem for Christians. In 1919 the executive of the CICCU (the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) were approached by the leaders of the SCM (the Student Christian movement, then a larger group) to talk about joining forces. CICCU secretary Norman Grubb recalls: After an hour’s conversation which got us nowhere, one direct and vital question was put: “Does the SCM consider the atoning blood of Jesus Christ as the central point of their message?” And the answer given was, “No, not as central, although it is given a place in our teaching.” That settled the matter, for we explained to them at once that the atoning blood was so much the heart of our message that we could never join with a movement which gave it a lesser place. (From Cambridge to the World, by O Barclay and R Horn, p91)
As Good Friday approaches, it is a great time to remember that we need to keep on ensuring that Christ crucified is at the heart not just of our belief, but our message.
Subscribe to receive St Andrew the Great blog alerts by email.