The Present Power of Christ Crucified
I wonder if you would agree with the following view of the cross of Christ: the crucifixion of Christ was a once-for-all substitution of the Son of God in my place so that I would not have to suffer but could enjoy the abundant life that he purchased for me. This is a common view today—in practice if not in theory. And it is very near the view that Paul had to contend with at Corinth.
The Cross and the Christian
The problem with this view of the cross is that it leaves out a huge fact—namely, the one Jesus stated in Luke 9:23—"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." When Christ died on the cross for sinners, he not only stood in my place, doing what I never could do (forgiving my sin), but he also showed me what I must do if I would save my life, namely, take up my own cross and join him on the Calvary road of death to self.
Christ died to save us from hell but not to save us from the cross. He died so that we could be glorified, but not to keep us from being crucified. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily." For the Christian the cross of Christ is not merely a past place of substitution. It is also a present place of daily execution.
Paul says in Romans 6:6, "Our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin . . . Reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." In other words, never let the cross lose its crucifying power in your life! Never let it slip into the dim and misty past as though Christ died for sinners so that you can live for pleasure.
The pleasures are coming! Some are already here—like forgiveness and acceptance and a measure of holiness and healing! But just like Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him, so it is with us in this fallen age according to the book of Hebrews (12:1–11). Most of the joy we long for is still over the horizon. And so the writer of Hebrews says to us (13:13–14), "Let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come."
In other words if you would save your life, you must lose it, and if you would follow Jesus, you must take up your cross daily. The great tragedy of much contemporary Christianity is that the cross is safely relegated to the distant past. And practically what it means is that Jesus was soaked in blood so that I can soak in a Jacuzzi. And the bigger the tub, the more we honor the cross—so goes the prosperity gospel.
The Root of All the Pride and Boasting at Corinth
Now what does all this have to do with our text in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5?
What Paul wants to show in this chapter is that the reason there is so much pride and boasting at Corinth is that they are not letting the cross have its crucifying effect in the present. They think they have advanced beyond the cross. The cross may have been necessary to get them over the problem of sin; but now they are filled and rich and wise and strong! They are kings! In their own eyes. The weakness of the cross, the foolishness of the cross, the humiliation of the cross—these are long gone!
Look at Paul's agonizing use of irony in 1 Corinthians 4:8–11.
Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 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. [Notice those two words: we are weak, and we are fools—the same two words used to describe the cross in 1:25. Divine weakness and divine foolishness! Now continuing at the end of verse 10:] You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. . . [verse 16] I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
Now what's he saying? He's saying that they are wrong to think that Jesus died on the cross so that IN THIS AGE they might have fullness, wealth, kingly dignity, worldly wisdom and strength. The cross is not a mere event in history; it's a way of life! Take up your cross DAILY, Jesus said! They weren't taking up their cross daily. They were taking up their scepter daily. They were sitting on their throne daily. They were leaving in the past what belongs in the present, namely, the cross. And they were trying to bring into the present what belongs in the future, namely, the power and dignity of glorified saints. And the result was that the cross was being emptied of its power to humble, and the inheritance was being contaminated with pride.
And Paul was doing what he could in these early chapters of 1 Corinthians to show us that the Christian life is a life on the cross. The cross is not merely a past place of substitution; it is also a present place of daily execution—the execution of pride, and the execution of boasting in men, and the execution of self-reliance, and the execution of the love of money and status and the praise of men.
Paul's Experience of the Present Power of the Cross
What Paul does in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 is illustrate from his own experience what he means by the present power of the cross. Let me try to lay out for you the building blocks of these five verses and then look at a few of them more closely.
Paul describes the way he came to Corinth with two negative statements about how he DID NOT come, and two positive statements about how he DID come. In addition he tells us the GROUND of this kind of coming, namely, the cross. And he tells us the GOAL of this kind of coming, namely, that faith might rest in God's power not man's wisdom.
How Paul Did Not Come to Corinth
First, notice the two descriptions of how Paul did not come to Corinth. The first is in verse 1: "When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words of wisdom." The second description of how he did not come is in verse 4: "My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom."
This is exactly what Paul had said in 1:17—he preached the gospel, not with eloquent wisdom. We are going to see tonight that there was indeed a wisdom in what Paul spoke but it is not the wisdom of this world. And Paul's style of presenting the gospel was not with flourishes of eloquence that might win a following of people who just admire oratory.
We know from Paul's letters that he was a profound thinker and that he could use language powerfully. But the point he is making here is that he did not preach the gospel with the hope of appealing to the worldly, unspiritual admiration of those things. He did not want people to respond because of his oratory or his intellect.
How Paul Did Come to Corinth
That is the description of how Paul did NOT come. Now what are the two descriptions of how he did come? The first is in verse 3: "I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling. And the second description of how he did come is in verse 4. After saying that his speech and message were not in plausible words of wisdom, he goes on to say positively, that his speech and message were "in demonstration of the Spirit and power."
So the two descriptions about how Paul did come to Corinth are that he was with them in weakness and fear and trembling, and that his message was in demonstration of the Spirit and power.
What Paul's Weakness Was
What was Paul's weakness? In 2 Corinthians 10:10 his opponents were saying, "His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech is of no account." Evidently Paul did not have a very strong, appealing appearance. In fact there seems to have been something wrong with Paul physically that made him chronically weak and unattractive.
Listen to how Paul describes the first time he preached to the churches in Galatia (Galatians 4:13–14): "You know it was because of a bodily ailment [=weakness] that I preached the gospel to you at first; and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God."
The reason I think this weakness or ailment or condition was chronic is that Paul describes his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12 with this same language of weakness. He says in verse 9 that he will all the more gladly exult in his weaknesses because then the power of Christ rests on him. Jesus says to him, "My power is made perfect in your weakness."
That's just the connection he makes here in our text, isn't it? He says in 2:3 that he was with them in weakness. And then he says in verse 4 that his words were in the demonstration of the Spirit and power—the same power that he says is made perfect in his weakness.
Paul doesn't try to hide or deny his weaknesses that make him despicable to some. Instead he exults that God would be willing to use such an earthen vessel so that the powerful effect of his preaching might be clearly of God.
Paul's Fear and Trembling
And besides weakness there was this "fear and trembling" mentioned in verse 3. Which at least means this: he did not come to Corinth with a cocky air about him. There was no swagger or vanity or ostentation or pomposity. Instead there was meekness and a real trembling because his inadequacy was so great and the stakes were so high and the dangers were so real.
If you say, "Wait a minute, I thought Christians are supposed to be confident and fearless," consider these words from a man who knew his share of suffering and opposition, John Calvin.
The servants of the Lord are not so dull as not to see threatening dangers, nor so insensitive as not to be affected by them. No! and in fact they must be seriously apprehensive for two main reasons: 1) that, humbled in their own eyes, they might learn to lean and rest completely on God alone; and 2) that they might be trained in true self-denial. Paul, therefore, was not without a sense of anxiety, but he controlled it, so that he nonetheless continued to be undaunted in the midst of crises. (Commentary on the text)
Doing Everything in Relation to Christ Crucified
Now what does all this have to do with the cross of Christ? That Paul is trembling and fearful, that he is weak and unimpressive, that he avoids flourishes of oratory and intellectual ostentation—what's all that got to do with the cross?
Well, in verse 2 Paul says that the reason he came to Corinth in this way is "because I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." What does this mean?
It does not mean that the only thing he mentioned in his 18 months in Corinth was the cross, because again in this letter he scolds them for not understanding other things too.
I think what it means is that whatever else he knew, whatever else he spoke about, and whatever else he did, he would know it and say it and do it in relation to Christ crucified. This brings us back to where we started. He will not let the cross become a historical relic. He puts it at the center of his everyday work and relationships. He makes tents in the shadow of the cross. He preaches in the shadow of the cross. He disputes with opponents in the shadow of the cross. He eats and drinks and sleeps Christ crucified.
And the effect this has on him is make him a man of broken-hearted love, so out of step with this glory-seeking world that he can only be explained by the power of God.
What Paul Means by "Power"
I didn't say much about the word "power" in verses 4 and 5 where Paul says that his message was in "demonstration of the Spirit and power, that you faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." Many take the power in these two verses to refer to miracles. Paul certainly worked miracles. But I doubt that is what he means here.
I can't help but think that primary in Paul's mind is the power referred to back in 1:17 because it is the closest parallel to this verse, "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom [that's the connection with 2:3–5], lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."
And so when he says in 2:4 that he did not come with this kind of eloquence but came in the demonstration of the Spirit and power, he most likely means the power of the cross. Christ crucified is called the "power of God" in 1:24 and therefore it's called the "power of God" in 2:5.
What Paul Wanted Most of All
What Paul wanted more than anything in his life was to get out of the way of the power of God. The thought that anyone might pin their hope or their faith on his eloquence or his strength was a dreadful thought to Paul. All he wanted was to placard Christ crucified so that the power of the cross could save sinners.
And so what did he do? He died on the cross every day. He died to intellectual show. He died to impressive eloquence. He died to the secular demands of suave, self-assured, powerful, attractive performances.
He was with us in weakness and in much fear and trembling so that our faith—yours and mine, this morning—might rest not in the wisdom of a man, but in the power of God—the power of Christ crucified.
I beg of you today, don't treat the cross like a historical relic of the past. It is the very power of God to change everything in your life. If you would be his disciple, if you would save your life and not lose it, take up this cross daily, count this world to be the Calvary road, not the streets of gold. Then people will see that your treasure is in heaven, and God will get the glory.
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