And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NKJV)
When the Apostle Paul arrived in Corinth he had just come from Athens, Greece, where he was to meet up with Silas and Timothy. As he was waiting for their arrival, however, he saw that the city was full of statues of their “gods,” and his spirit was provoked within him. So, he began to preach and reason with the Jews in the synagogue and the Gentiles in the marketplace. In the process, he met some philosophers who brought him to Mars Hill to speak. This was Paul’s first opportunity to address such a large group of world renown intellectuals and even public officials.
Paul spoke powerfully in addressing their worship of the “unknown god.” In their zeal to include all gods and not offend any, they dedicated a statue to this deity. Paul told them that this One, the God they knew little about, was the One who created the world and everything in it. Paul wove a rich tapestry of subjects like, idolatry, repentance, the coming judgement, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ into his sermon. He was a skillful orator!
Until that time, Paul’s ministry had been accompanied by signs and wonders, divine interventions, riots, earthquakes, visions, and the conversion of souls. His ministry was one of revival and harvest. However, on this occasion, none of those things happened. One thing was absent in Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill: the message of the cross.
In Romans 1:16, Paul declared, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” And then in 1 Corinthians 1:18, he wrote, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Whereas Paul preached about Jesus and the resurrection prior to Mars Hill (Acts 17:18), the power of God seemed to be strangely absent from his preaching to the intellects on Mars Hill. (Acts 17:22-34) The result? Some men mocked him, others wanted to hear him again, and a few joined him. There were no miracles, no riots, no divine interventions, and no great harvest of souls.
When Paul arrived in Corinth, however, he seemed to be a different man, coming to them “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.” (1 Corinthians 2:3) During his journey to Corinth, did Paul reflect upon his experience in Athens? Some Bible scholars think so, and I agree. When Paul was on Mars Hill, it seems that he may have stepped back into his natural ability and gifting – rather than relying on the power of God. When faced with the greatest intellectuals of his day, he may have returned to his own intellectual ability and eloquence of speech in trying to reach them. This makes sense in light of what he says in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (quoted above) and also in 4:20: “For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power.”
It seems as if Paul had a revelation during his trip from Athens to Corinth. He realized that without the message of the cross we merely have an intellectual gospel. The power or dunamis of God, is the miracle working power of the Spirit of God that brings a great harvest of souls. Apart from that, we are powerless in changing the hearts of men. We may be able to refute the naysayers with an intellectual gospel, but without the power of God, few will really come to faith in Christ. Perhaps that was why he was determined “not to know anything among [the Corinthians] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2),
Much of today’s preaching seems to be centered on having a wonderful life. We are told that our life might be good – but that Jesus will make it even better! Give Him a try; what do you have to lose? This kind of preaching appeals to the natural man. It is all about improving oneself, having a better life, and experiencing an abundance of wealth and happiness. But where is the cross? Where is the message of surrender? Where is the message Jesus preached to His disciples? “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.’” (Matthew 16:24)
The true gospel might best be summed up in a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was imprisoned during WWII. The political rhetoric of his day was much like ours. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Bonhoeffer refused to drink the socialistic poison that Hitler was feeding the Church. He realized where it was all heading and the impact it would have on the gospel. As a result, he was tortured and put to death for his faith – two weeks before his death camp liberated. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.” That is the gospel that Jesus preached.
Recently, I had a pastor friend tell me that he doesn’t like “negative or hard messages” having to do with suffering or even dying to self. He prefers messages on the love of God. I think we all prefer to hear about the love of God, but without the message of the cross, we will remain powerless. The Apostle Paul was stoned, beaten three times, and rejected over and over again – and it wasn’t because he was only preaching on the love of God! Paul also preached on the cost of discipleship, telling men everywhere to repent, turn from sin, and surrender to God. He wrote to the church in Galatia, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20 KJV)
Later in Galatians 6:14 he declared, “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” It is the cross that separates the Christian from the world. Paul told the church at Corinth, “Therefore come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” (2 Corinthians 6:17) People are not offended by preaching the love of God, but they may be offended by preaching about the cross of Christ. Why is that? Because the Cross demands that we die to the things of this life – because those are the very things that will turn our heart away from God. The pleasures of life and the cares of this world will cause the seed of God’s Word to wither and die. (Matthew 13:22)
The human heart must be broken in pieces a thousand times in order to receive the fullness of Christ. We can’t serve two masters – the world and God – at the same time. The Apostle John wrote extensively about the love of God, but also wrote these words: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)
Jesus told us that the road to eternal life is narrow, and few find the way. (Matthew 7:13-14, 13:24) And yet, modern preaching has made the road wide and easy for everyone to find. Is it possible that our watered-down gospel is making disciples today twice as fit for hell as we are? (Matthew 23:15) Have we become deceived in thinking that success in God’s kingdom is all about beautiful buildings, large crowds, and the accumulation of wealth? Preaching the message of the cross doesn’t exactly attract large crowds today. It never has.
Many have left the cross for “Christian self-improvement methods.” Having begun in the spirit, they seek perfection through the religious works of the flesh. In the process, however, they depart from the power of the cross, which alone is able to save us to the uttermost. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul wrote, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
When the Church departs from the “foolishness of the cross” and the determination to preach “Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” we begin to perish. When we abandon the cross, we no longer have the power to crucify the old man. As a result, we struggle in our sins, wondering why the gospel seems to have lost its power. Only the true work of the cross will produce an inward work of God’s grace that transforms us into His image, day by day.
Perhaps that is why Jesus said in John 12:25, “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The cross alone has the power to crucify the old man, so that the new creation in Christ Jesus can emerge. If we hold on to this life, we will lose it. But if we let go of this life, we will truly discover the resurrected life on the other side of the cross. When that happens, it will no longer be “I who live, but rather Christ who lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20)
Ultimately, God will never force Himself on the will of man nor invade a reluctant soul. We must willingly surrender to the power of the cross to walk in the fullness of the His Spirit. Jesus wants to live His life through us. Are you willing to pick up your cross and let its power live in you?