Date: 10 Jan 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:23
Over the next 3 Sundays I want to spend a few minutes each week looking at some of these early passages in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Today, despite having read a fairly lengthy passage from 1 Corinthians 1 & 2, I want to focus on a single phrase in 1:23, “we preach Christ crucified”. When you read the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians it soon becomes obvious that that is all Paul wanted to do: preach Christ crucified. Earlier in 1 Corinthians 1 he had been speaking about baptism and its importance. However, his main concern seems to have been that people who were baptised seemed to identify more with the person baptising them than with Christ, thereby almost creating a cult of personality. Paul was anxious to avoid that by no longer baptising anyone, having previously baptised only a handful of people, and even then he had to be reminded of some he had forgotten. No, Paul saw his primary role as preaching the gospel with preaching Christ crucified at the centre of that message. I personally find it interesting that I can’t detect in Paul’s numerous letters any mention of him carrying out any form of pastoral work as such. The closest modern version of Paul on that basis would probably be the greatest preacher of the 20th century, Martyn Lloyd Jones. During his many years at Westminster Chapel, the Doctor only ever preached, pointedly refusing to do anything but preach. I should point out that that the good Doctor preached at length at least 3 times a week!
Why Was Christ Crucified?
Enough with the preamble, let’s move on to ask the first question: why was Christ crucified? Why did God send His Son, Whose birthday we have just celebrated, to live and work amongst us only to have Him brutally killed just as His ministry seemed to be moving forward? The answer to that question comes in a single word: sin! In the creation story in Genesis 1, we read how God created the world and everything in it. In that account we see the phrase, “And God saw that it was good”, 5 times. On the sixth day we read, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God created a perfect world, that is until He created mankind and gave us free will. God didn’t want to create automatons to simply do whatever He told them, He wanted people to be able to think for themselves and make their own decisions; consequently He gave mankind free will, the ability to think for themselves. God created Adam and Eve giving them free will, which meant that on the very first occasion that Eve had a decision to make, she made the wrong choice. That choice was very soon followed by Adam making exactly the same mistake. In disobeying God and deciding to do their own thing, Adam and Eve sinned and in doing so introduced sin into God’s perfect world.
From then on sin abounded and God’s perfect creation became cursed by sin. Throughout the generations God’s people ignored Him, disobeyed Him, denied Him and made idols to worship instead of Him. At various times the people thought better of their evil ways and tried to make amends. They offered blood sacrifices of various types on the basis that the blood of the offering would wash away their sins and God would forgive them. That is, of course, what happened; the people sinned, they offered sacrifices and repented and God forgave them. The writer to the Hebrews summed this up by quoting Moses and wrote this, “He said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.’ In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:20-22). Notice that, the shedding the blood of a sacrifice was an important part of forgiveness.
God’s Law, that He had given His people, stated that in order for there to be any forgiveness there had to be repentance and a blood offering. The people complied with that bit of the Law regularly; they sinned regularly and therefore regularly made blood sacrifices in order to seek God’s forgiveness. The people constantly sinned and sacrificed; it was a never decreasing circle. Something had to be done to stop this never ending cycle.
God Sent His Son
To bring a once and for all solution to this conundrum, God decided to enter into a New Covenant with His chosen people by providing a sacrifice so big and so important that it would only ever be needed once and then everyone who repented and aligned themselves with that sacrifice would be forgiven as a result.
In order to satisfy His own righteous requirements, God sent His own Son to be that sacrifice. He sent Jesus to live among us as an ordinary human being doing the majority of things that we all do; that is, apart from sinning! As we know, Jesus was born in Bethlehem in extremely humble circumstances. Before He was 2 years old, He fled with His family to Egypt and became a refugee, eventually returning to live in the small town of Nazareth. He started His earthly ministry when He was approximately 30 years old and conducted that ministry in and around the region of Galilee where He performed countless miracles and constantly preached the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God. This was the Son of God living amongst God’s people as an ordinary human being.
Throughout His time on earth I believe that Jesus knew that He was to be the ultimate sacrifice, sent to pay the price for the sins of the world. At no time did He flinch from that inevitable event; rather, He was prepared to obey God in all that His Father asked Him to do. When the time did come for Jesus to be sacrificed, He died on the cross of Calvary. He died as a one-off sacrifice to pay for the sins of all who accepted Him as their Saviour; an offer that still applies today. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that, “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27b). Jesus was prepared to be that sacrifice knowing that it would be painful beyond belief but also knowing that for many, many people His death would bring forgiveness, peace and reconciliation with God, something which sacrifices made under the Old Covenant could never do.
I next want to ask, why crucifixion? Why couldn’t Jesus be killed by a guard in the Garden of Gethsemane at the time of His arrest? Why wasn’t He assassinated whilst He was conducting His earthly ministry? I’m sure that there would have been ample opportunity, after all the Jewish authorities had had Him under close observation for many months.
I believe that God chose crucifixion for its sheer brutality as a means of execution. It was excruciatingly painful, it was humiliating and it was the most common form of execution used by the occupying Romans. It was such a barbaric form of execution that Roman citizens were generally spared from the cross; the method being used mainly to execute terrorists and dangerous criminals. It was also very public with many victims being hung on crosses at the side of the road on well travelled routes meaning that they would be subjected to vile abuse from passers-by. Generally speaking it took a long time for someone to die making it an even more painful death than we could possibly begin to imagine. In the event of someone not being dead within 24 hours, a Roman soldier would break their shins in order to speed up the process. Finally, and also humiliatingly, the victim was denied a proper burial, being left at the crucifixion site for the birds. It is important to understand that a lot of this didn’t happen to Jesus; He died fairly quickly, He didn’t have His legs broken and having died He was quickly taken down and placed in a freshly hewn tomb. That last part was very important since Jewish Law stated in Deuteronomy 21:22-23a, that “If someone guilty of a capital offence is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God's curse.” For that word “pole” we may also read “cross”.
Knowing all this Jesus obeyed His Father’s will and went ahead with it. He was stripped, flogged, nailed to a rough wooden cross and then hung up on that cross in full public view for what could have been anything up to 24 hours. He was in utter agony and that agony would have been made worse by His Father deserting Him in His hour of need; why else would Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46b).
Talking and thinking about the crucifixion of Jesus and all that it entailed is tough; it is a very tough message. And yet, that is the message that Paul wanted to preach. Paul knew that Jesus had died to bring forgiveness for the sins of many. Everyone who heard and accepted that message, that Jesus had died to pay the price for their sins, would be forgiven and accepted into God’s family. As the writer to the Hebrews had said; no further sacrifice would ever be needed, the death of Jesus on that cross brought eternal life to all who accepted it. Just think about that, death brings life; how strange and difficult to understand is that?
Many at the time regarded that message not as being tough but as being foolish. Just as people today cannot understand the need for God’s forgiveness so they also struggle to understand and accept that someone dying could possibly bring about the forgiveness that they need or the eternal life that so many crave. It just seems so incongruous.
I intend to talk more about wisdom and foolishness next week, but let me just make a couple of comments now. For them to accept a message of God’s forgiveness through any means other than making blood sacrifices meant that they wanted to see miraculous signs. I don’t see any mention of precisely what sort of miraculous signs they wanted to see but they obviously didn’t include raising people from the dead, healing lepers, driving demons out of demon-possessed people and turning dishwater into vintage wine! Perhaps these sceptical Jews saw similar miracles every day of the week!
The Greeks, or Gentiles, on the other hand wanted to hear beautiful words of wisdom. The Greeks; who were famous for their scholars, for their philosophical wisdom and for their logical arguments; would only be persuaded by similar philosophical and logical arguments about a redeeming Saviour. Someone dying on a cross and being raised from the tomb on the third day after His death just didn’t cut it for them.
The same problems still exist today. Many say, if there is a God then why didn’t He heal my mother, father, child or friend when I asked Him? Given the recent heavy rains and consequential floods, many are asking why God allowed it to happen, why didn’t He stop the rain before the devastation that followed in its wake? Then there are those who simply cannot comprehend that there can be a God Who loves His people so much that He would send His Son to die for them. Next we meet those who suspect that there may be a “higher being” but seek other, frequently Eastern, spiritualities as an answer to their life problems. Add to that all those who refuse to accept that there is such a thing as sin and therefore, they aren’t sinners in need of a Saviour. Getting past those problems is difficult, but that is what Paul wanted to do.
Role Of Preacher
Paul saw his role in God’s service as preaching that message of “Christ crucified”; he saw that as the central message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul only ever wanted to preach that message, and yes, it is a tough message, but then Paul was a tough messenger! Paul didn’t preach what I would describe as “soft and fluffy”, he was happy to take on that tough message and share it with as many as he possibly could. Not only that but he encouraged his young protégé Timothy to do the same. Paul told Timothy, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4). Doesn’t that just sum up 21st century thinking?
The Apostle Peter preached a similar message on the first Day of Pentecost. In what may well have been his first sermon, Peter spoke of Jesus and told the huge crowd assembled in front of him, “This man [that is Jesus] was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23). That is exactly the same message that Paul preached a few years later. In future years, Paul was to have lots of success in terms of numbers of people accepting Christ as Lord and Saviour, but on this occasion in Jerusalem, Luke tells us that, following Peter’s sermon, “...three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41).
Thankfully many since Paul and Peter’s time have heard and accepted that message and come to faith in Jesus Christ. That is despite it being a tough message that is foolishness for so many and lacking in wisdom for others. On first hearing perhaps it does seem strange that someone dying a brutal death on a wooden cross over 2000 years ago can actually bring life. But, it is true; it was true when Paul and Peter first preached the message of Christ crucified, it is still true in 2016 and it will remain true until Christ returns.
Let us all pray that more would hear that powerful message and accept that Christ was crucified, but that He died for them, to forgive them their sins if only they would believe the message and accept Him as Lord and Saviour.