I’m starting a new series on the cross of Christ. For the next few months I’ll be posting meditations on different aspects of the things which the cross of Christ is declaring to us. Enjoy!
The Example of the Early Church
The Corinthian church was a mess. There were divisions and theological quarrels and pride about obscure knowledge. Gross sexual sins were being tolerated. Church members were suing one another. There was idolatry, overeating at potlucks (while leaving none for others), and a carnal fascination with spiritual gifts. If anyone ever talks about the early church as a model of success, they certainly don’t mean this particular early church. Paul wades into this familiar-sounding morass of fleshliness and spiritual immaturity with a very unlikely message:
18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
..22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24
2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 (NASB)
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures …
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (NASB)
Paul considered the cross of Christ to be so important and central to this mess of a church that he began and ended his letter to them with it. In fact, he was determined to know nothing else among them, and he delivered it to them as of first importance. The question is, how does the cross of Christ speak to these terrible (if all too familiar) problems? Is it possible that the cross of Christ, far from being some obscure point of doctrine or the subject of strange and dusty old hymns, is in fact the power of God which holds the key to solving the very real carnality and fleshliness in the church?
The Hole in our Gospel
There really is a hole in our gospel. It has nothing to do with soup kitchens or the homeless or changing the world, as wonderful as those things are. Our radical discipleship is not what is missing from our gospel. The cross of Christ is what is missing from our gospel. Many churches preach a great deal of warm friendly useful advice, which frustratingly enough, few people follow. Under the veneer of the smiling Sunday morning welcome, most churches are a carnal cesspool of hidden pornography addictions, mean-spirited gossip, heartless and selfish greed, theological quarrels and factions, and morbid fascinations with the strange supernatural manifestations. That is to say, they are full of sinful humans. In this environment, the cross of Christ seems a strange wart of confusing and even embarrassing theological necessity, more of a required point on a doctrinal statement, rather than a cherished central pillar of spiritual refuge and power. We see little or no relationship between the message of the cross of Christ and the real-life situations we face. Little attention is given to the cross of Christ, lest we push away visitors or struggling (tithing) members with too much strange theology and obscure doctrine.
There is a hole in our gospel because we are ashamed of the cross. We want to make the root Christian message into something we do for God. The gospel is actually the message that God has done something for us. All of this talk about sin and wrath and blood and crosses is a bit embarrassing. We want to get on with the practical stuff. I’m here to say that we need to give far more attention to what we have heard — that we have such a great salvation (Hebrews 2:1-3)!
Let’s make no mistake – the gospel is a strange and foolish message indeed! It asks us to embrace the notion of a wrathful God who in His holiness requires some sort of human sacrifice in payment of justice. It seems awful; isn’t God supposed to be loving? It is weird and even horrifying to celebrate the Messiah’s blood, to center our faith around something that is so universally considered to be evil. Most of us would hear Jesus say that we need to drink His blood and eat His flesh (John 6:53-56), and if we were honest, we would say that He is a lunatic and walk quickly away. It has become more culturally acceptable to pretend that you get it and to simply ignore the cross and focus on “sanctification.” The first step to understanding is to embrace the truth: you have no clue how this icky and repulsive message could be the solution to your problems. You have no idea why Paul the Apostle is so overcome with joy at this strange doctrine. The gospel of Christ and Him crucified embarrasses you.
I’m here to say that you can come to see that the message of the cross of Christ is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to mankind, and it really does hold the secret to solve your most urgent problems. The key is not to tell yourself to stop being ashamed of the cross of Christ, that’s not what I’m saying here at all! I’m saying that the cross of Christ is telling us something important, and if we will stop and focus on it and listen to its message, the light will dawn on our minds and hearts and we will find true release and honest liberation. I love these words from C. J. Ryle:
Let others, if they will, preach the law and morality; let others hold forth the terrors of hell, and the joys of heaven; let others drench their congregations with teachings about the sacraments and the church; give me the cross of Christ! This is the only lever which has ever turned the world upside down hitherto, and made people forsake their sins. And if this will not, nothing will. A man may begin preaching with a perfect knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; but he will do little or no good among his hearers unless he knows something of the cross. Never was there a minister who did much for the conversion of souls who did not dwell much on Christ crucified. Luther, Rutherford, Whitefield, M’Cheyne, were all most eminently preachers of the cross. This is the preaching that the Holy Spirit delights to bless. He loves to honor those who honor the cross.
The Word Made Flesh is a Crucified Word
In the first chapter of the book of John, we learn that the “Word” which was in the beginning was with God, and was God. This is the mystery of the doctrine of the trinity, that the members are God, suggesting a unity, and are with God, suggesting a distinction. We will delve into this in relation to the cross later. John tells in John 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
If Jesus Christ is the very word of God made flesh, then what is He saying to us? He didn’t just speak God’s words — He actually is God’s word. What is the message of this word of flesh and bone and blood? Of all the things He taught, there was no greater word than the cross. You can be certain that every word that Jesus spoke and every action He took was done in light of His crucifixion. When He rose from the dead, He was not raised as a completely healed man as if newborn. He retained the scars. His crucifixion has become an essential part of His identity. This preserved evidence of crucifixion was proof to the disciples of His identity, that the risen Savior is the the Savior who has suffered. He describes Himself to John in the vision as the One who was dead, who is alive forevermore (Rev 1:18). It is the Lamb standing, as if slain, who is worthy apart from all creatures, to open the scroll in the Father’s right hand (Rev 5:6). He is worthy because He was slain, and purchased men for God with His blood. (Rev 5:9). He is known as a slain lamb, and His worthiness is that He was slain. All of heaven understands the centrality of the cross of Christ. The Father Himself deems the suffering and death of His Son as precious and sufficient, and counts Him worthy above all others. This Savior is our lover and advocate, and He has friends in high places indeed!
It is time for the church to understand the tremendous value and power of what He has given to us. With reckless and passionate abandon He has loved us to the uttermost, and His love is sufficient to save us to the end of time and beyond. The cross stands forever as an unassailable word that we have been loved in a way that can never be undone. We have been valued and cherished above life itself by God Himself. The cross declares that we matter greatly to God. The cross of Christ is a declaration, and it deserves a great deal of attention.