Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
(1 Corinthians 1:22-23)
The crucifixion of Jesus didn’t come to Jew or Greek as an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with meaning. It meant something already.
For the Jews, said Paul, the cross was “a stumbling block.” For the Greeks, it was “foolish.”
The Jews, says Paul, looked for “signs.” At the time of Jesus, Israel faced a very emotionally and spiritually taxing reality. They faced, if I can put it this way, a huge and painful gap between what God had called them to be and what they could see with their eyes.
God had called Israel to be his chosen people, his royal priesthood, his holy nation. They were supposed to be the nation that mediated between the world and God, the kingdom of God, the people who lived under God’s rule and so commended God to the world.
God had called Israel. They were supposed to be the nation that mediated between the world and God, the kingdom of God. But the reality was different.
But the reality was different. They were not gathered into a kingdom, but scattered among the nations. They were not a kingdom but a colony. They were not in power but under power. All across the Roman empire there were these communities of Jewish people—often fragile, on the margins, victims of anti-Semitic outbursts. And within the land of Israel itself, they were under Roman occupation, rule by the Republic of Rome rather than the kingdom of God.
Signs and Madness
And so they looked for signs. That is, they looked for signs of power—signs that God would do what he said he would do—flex his mighty arm, rescue them from their oppressors, send the warrior-king, the Messiah, to establish the kingdom of God amongst them.
Plug that back into 1 Corinthians 1:23 and see how Paul’s message sits in that context:
“We preach Christ crucified”
The word “Christ” means “the anointed one”, “Messiah.” To say to people expecting a warrior-rescuer that we preach “Christ crucified” is a sheer contradiction. It is to say, “We preach Messiah, Executed.” “We preach Dead King” “We preach a Crushed Crusher.” “We preach a Weakling Warrior.”
It’s madness. It doesn’t make sense.
Unless you understand the heart of the cross. You see, if you are looking for sheer power, the cross is non-starter. It looks wrong. It looks like the opposite of what you are looking for. But maybe the power of the cross is a different sort of power, a new power, a more powerful power.
In verse 23 Paul describes the message as a “stumbling block.” The picture comes from Psalm 118. The picture is of a building site. Stone, timber and tools have been delivered from all over the world. They are laid out by the construction workers, each piece in keeping with the architect’s vision and design. Like pieces of Ikea furniture just prior to assembly, each piece is separated out so that the builders can see how the parts relate to the whole.
But there’s one piece that seems just not to fit. It looks so different from all the others—like it was made according to the wrong specifications, or that it’s intended for another project altogether, sent to this site through an administrative error at head office. And so it sits there, unused. It starts to get in the way, with builders stubbing their toes on it as they go about their work. Now it’s an OH&S issue. The foreman asks,
“Are we sure this piece is a mistake?”
“Yep”, they all agree.
“Well, let’s get it off the site then.”
And so it is cast away. But it turns out that what looked like a mistake was, in fact, the cornerstone of the whole edifice. It looked different because it was the point of integration. It was the bit that brought everything else into shape.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
That’s what the message of the cross is like for Paul. Strangely shaped. Odd looking. Unsightly. Off he goes from town to town, synagogue to synagogue with his message that Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah. The Messiah has come, and the day of God’s kingdom has begun. But then, it is as if Paul takes the great stumbling block, this awkwardly large and weirdly shaped stone and puts it between himself and his listener.
Wisdom and Folly
Greeks were looking for something too. In their case, it was strength, beauty, wisdom. The dream was for serenity, for the life of the mind, for the reign of reason. Some three hundred years before, Socrates had died at the hand of the Athenian rulers. But he philosophised on the way out, drinking the hemlock which, given his composure, might as well have been drunk from a “Keep Calm & Carry On” mug. A “compare and contrast” essay of the deaths of Jesus and Socrates would lean heavily on the “contrast” side. The death of Jesus would have meant a lot of things to a first century Greek. But “wise” would not have been one of them.
The death of Jesus would have meant a lot of things to a first century Greek. But ‘wise’ would not have been one of them.
These were the characteristic responses of Jews and Greeks to Paul’s message—to Jews it look weak, to Greeks, foolish. But they were not the universal responses.
To those whom God has called both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:24)
Grasping the message of the cross is almost like getting a joke, or cracking a puzzle. The people whom God has called get it. They look at the cross and cry, “wisdom!” They tremble and say, “power!”
The cross plays into no-one’s expectations. And that’s by design. It offers a home ground advantage to neither Jew nor Greek. Nor secular people. Nor religious people. Nor good people. Nor bad people. No one. It creates its own landing space.
Paul’s weakness (2:2)
Coming to terms with the cross is learning to see it differently. It is to crack the puzzle and see in it the power and wisdom of God. But, once we see it differently, we are then able through it to see all things differently.
It the case of Paul, it changed not only the message, but the method of the messenger:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
(1 Corinthians 2:1–5)
For many today, discovering the cross has entailed a move from being secular to being, in some sense, religious. For Paul, a lack of religiosity was the least of his problems. Religiously, he was a zealot. “Zealot” for us means “really into religion.” But for Paul, it was more specific. It was that branch of religion that had comes to the conclusion that violence is necessary to defend and promote religious causes. We would call it terrorism.
The message of the cross changed all that for Paul. If Christ crucified was God’s power and wisdom, religious terrorism was shown to be its opposite. And so Paul’s modus operandi had to change completely.
The message of the cross changed all that for Paul. It had to change all of that for Paul. If Christ crucified was God’s power and wisdom, religious terrorism was shown to be its opposite. And so Paul’s modus operandi had to change completely.
“When I came to you I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom.”
Paul has a counter-intuitive message, which leads to a counter-intuitive strategy.
You see, it is not just our message that needs to be cross-shaped, but also the lives of its messengers and of our communities.
Imagine you are in a church that supports some missionaries in, say, Bali. You receive their latest prayer letter, full of all the normal sort of missionary fare—reports on the evangelistic contacts, the support levels, the kids. But then you notice something.
“In our efforts to connect with local people, we’ve recently discovered that by going to temple, lighting incense and saying a little prayer to one of the Hindu gods, we’ve won a much greater acceptance. It has really relieved the tension we’ve felt for years.”
If you’re in a Bible-believing church, it’s time to get the missions committee together for an urgent discussion.
But now, imagine you’re writing to a fellow Christian in another land (let’s say Bali), describing to them how we are going about our work of mission in the West. Imagine if we were to say:
“In our efforts to connect with local westerners, we’ve recently discovered that by assertive managerial leadership, celebrity endorsement, a quest for self-actualization and a more relaxed attitude to sexuality, we’ve won a much greater acceptance. It has really relieved the tension we’ve felt for years.”
Paul goes to Corinth, a Greek city, and say: “I did not use wise and persuasive words.” That looks like a missional fail of the first order. Paul was more than capable of using both wise and persuasive words (indeed, he is ironically demonstrating those very capacities in this chapter), and in the city of Corinth, he would have found an enthusiastic audience. But Paul put that aside. Why? Because what you win them with is what you win them to.
Paul wants to win them to the cross, so he wins them by the cross. “I determined to know nothing amongst you except Christ and him crucified.”
By that Paul does not mean, “I only ever gave sermons on penal substitutionary atonement.” No doubt he did teach regularly on Christ’s atoning and substitutionary sacrifice for sin. But the statement here is about the kind of Christ he preached. He says in effect: “The only Christ you were ever going to hear about on my lips was the one that was crucified.”
The Cross Today
The cross continues to be a stumbling block, both inside and outside religious communities.
On the one hand, the doctrine of the cross is under enormous pressure in the church today as people as people reject the idea of the cross as a penalty and Christ’s death as a substitute.
Mocked as a form of divine child abuse, reject as extreme, insane. Seen as offensive to human dignity because, well, we can’t have been that bad.
We live in a culture of self-actualization. If the Christian message is heard (or worse, taught) as: “you aren’t all you could be; God can unlock your full potential”, then the cross looks crazy. The cross stubbornly says to us: “Brother, sister—your fundamental problem is that you are a sinner, and God punishes sin.”
If the Christian message is heard (or worse, taught) as: ‘you aren’t all you could be,’ then the cross looks crazy. The cross stubbornly says to us: ‘Brother, sister—your fundamental problem is that you are a sinner, and God punishes sin.’
We will be exploring Christ’s death as a penalty for our sin later in this series. There have been times, to be fair, when that has been taught in a ham-fisted way, opening itself to some of the criticism it has received. But rightly grasped, Jesus’ death in the place of sinners and for sin is central to the work of the cross.
A Tiny Cross
There is another risk. The risk not of a cross without judgement, but a cross without reach. I think this is the risk for evangelicals in particular. The risk that our grasp of the cross will be technically true, but tiny.
When you hear the cross spoken of as the entry-level message; when you hear people wanting to “get beyond the cross and to more meaty issues”; when you hear Christian teachers who, after a few preliminary thoughts on the cross hit blue screen and run out of material, then you can be sure that our grasp of the cross is too small.
In the Bible the cross is big. It should be big amongst us.
True Power and True Wisdom
The cross is both the subversion and the fulfilment of all our longings.
Paul in Corinth wanted to undermine their quest for power, their pretensions to wisdom. He wanted to allow the cross to do its crushing work on human arrogance and human pretension. No flattery here.
But then notice verse 30:
“You are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”
The cross both subverts and fulfils. It refuses to flatter our vanities or leave our idols untoppled. And yet Christ is the power and the wisdom of God. Christ and his cross are, in some deeper and fuller sense, precisely what we were looking for. Our stunted, wicked ways are also expressions of longings and desires, which are rightly met in the strange place of the cross. The cross not only nullifies our quest for power, it shows us true power. It not only frustrates our quest for wisdom, it shows us true wisdom.