“But, we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews and stumbling block, and unto the greeks foolishness” 1 Corinthians 1:23
Dear Covenant Youths,
Our text begins with the word, “but” which is a contrast. It is a contrast to what the world seeks, namely, the Jews and the Greeks. They represent the world at that time. The whole world could be divided between the Jews and the Greeks or Gentiles. According to verse 22, the Jews seek signs and the Greeks seek wisdom. And contrary to what they seek, the apostles preach Christ crucified. This means that the apostles do not preach to the itching ears of the Jews and Gentiles. The apostles are called to preach the gospel because therein and therein only is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. The world considers such preaching foolishness. And over against these clamourings of the Jews for a sign and the wicked pursuit of the Greeks for the wisdom of philosophy, Paul insists: we preach Christ crucified. By this emphatic statement the apostle means to say that his calling as an apostle of Jesus Christ is all of one thing: that of Christ crucified. That is the sole content of his preaching to the exclusion of others.
But before we plunge into understanding what is Christ crucified, it would be edifying for us if we would ask a question, what is preaching? When there is true preaching, Christ is preaching from heaven. Christ himself is talking. Now, it is not that a preacher is talking about Christ or does not even that a preacher speaks in the name of Christ but Scripture emphasises that when a minister speaks, Christ himself speaks. In contrasting Himself as the Good Shepherd, to hirelings and thieves, Christ claims that His sheep recognise his voice in the noise of many voices. They recognise his voice because they hear Him. “My sheep hear my voice.”
Preaching is an activity that belongs to heaven because the kingdom of heaven is the content of preaching and this is what most of what preachers say. And he uses earthly illustrations drawn from daily life in order to point out heavenly truths. The important thing is not about this earth but the things of heaven. Hence, the purpose of preaching is to prepare a people to live in heaven.
And to accomplish this task of getting people ready to live for heaven, preaching unleashes powers that make the powers of Tsunamis, volcanic eruptions or explosions of atomic bombs seem to be cheap firecrackers. The meditation of this truth cannot but frighten anyone who has assumed the responsibility of preaching. Indeed, oftentimes the only knowledge that compels a minister to mount the pulpit on the Lord’s Day is the cry of the apostle: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” It takes God’s terrible woe to persuade him to preach. The powers that are unleashed through preaching Christ crucified are greater than the powers which brought the worlds into existence as our Canons point out in 3rd and 4th head of doctrine, article 12.
And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture, and denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation, that after God has performed his part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted, or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently the supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. – Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Because Christ preaches, the Word of Christ which is powerful, irresistible, spiritual life-giving is a Word that plucks a depraved sinner from the brink of the fires of hell and carries him into heaven; it transforms the foulest sinner into a beautiful saint of God who blesses and praises in song and prayer to Him who dwells on high. Such power can be found nowhere else in all the worlds. Conscious of this awesome power that preaching possesses, the apostle insisted that the only way these things could be true was through the preaching of Christ crucified. How could that be?
Preaching comes in the form of words. These words are the Word of God and God speaks within Himself that Word because the first person of the Trinity speaks the Word, which is within the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son. And in order for God to reveal himself to His creatures, the triune God speaks the Word outside of His own triune life in Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). That Word became flesh to die on the cross, that Word is, therefore, the one Word of the cross. It is the Word of God in Christ, a Word that speaks from heaven about what God does in heaven through His own Son. That Word is given unto us in written form in the infallible Scriptures, and it is the one and only Word for all preaching. We interpret history according to one reality, that is, Christ crucified. There is no alternative interpretation to history. In the truest sense of the word, Christ crucified was always God’s purpose in all that He did from the moment of creation onward. God has freely and sovereignly, from before the worlds were created, determined to reveal His own glorious and perfect life through a Word which He speaks outside Himself. That one Word which He speaks is essentially Christ crucified. The cross is the heart and centre of all God’s purpose, so it is in the light of the cross of Calvary that all Christ’s work throughout al history can be understood and explained. It is in the Word of the cross that God reveals the infinite perfections of His own perfect life. And that cross forms the heart and focal point of all Christ did and does and shall do into all eternity. In that cross is salvation: it is salvation of a church chosen eternally, given to Christ, saved from sin and death, brought into covenant fellowship with the triune God to live with him, world without end. That cross is what history is all about – in this life and in the eternal history of the new heavens and the new earth.
And all this leads us to what constitutes a Christ-centred sermon. Firstly, Christ- centred preaching is God-centred. Christ is the Word of God in whom is hid all the fullness of the revelation of Jehovah God in all His infinite perfections. God-centred preaching extols the greatness of the glory of God and brings the people of God to give all praise and honour to him who is enthroned on high. Secondly, Christ-centred preaching is doctrinal preaching. Doctrinal preaching is such preaching that explains, expounds, and develops the truth of the Word of God, which is the full revelation of God himself. And we are to know this God for after all this is eternal life. John 17:3, says, “Eternal life is after all is knowing God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.” In order for it to be true preaching, the truth expounded must be applied to the life and calling of God’s people so that God’s people can know this God more and more each day. Thirdly, Christ-centred preaching is antithetical preaching. It is preaching of sovereign and eternal predestination in both election and reprobation. Such is the heart of the gospel, which gives to the gospel its life and power. It is the truth of God’s eternal purpose to save some and to damn others. This antithesis is realised in the cross on which Christ both attained salvation for his people and brought the judgment of God upon the unbelieving. This antithesis extends to the gospel itself – the contents of the gospel. The gospel is good news to the people of God, for those whom God loves and for whom Christ died. It is good news for those who believe. And it is bad news for those who rejects the gospel. It is inevitable that the preaching of the gospel brings antithesis, division and separation. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe, and to them only. Finally, Christ- centred preaching is preaching which leads God’s people to the cross. Every sermon must lead God’s people to the cross. That is the only place for them to go. That is where they want to go. That is where they hear voice of the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. There are two reasons why preaching always leads to the cross. Firstly, God’s people are very conscious of their sins and they need to find themselves regularly at the cross that they may receive the forgiveness and pardon, for there is redemption in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Secondly, God’s people must go to the foot of the cross so that they may find grace and strength to walk as God’s people in the world. They need the power of the cross and they must learn to rely upon it alone. In the cross alone lies the power of the new life in Christ.
Will all who hears the gospel come to accept it and believe in it? The answer is no. And one of the consequences of preaching Christ crucified is that it will be rejected by the Jews and Greeks. In speaking of the gospel rejected, the apostle Paul wants to point out two classes of persons that would represent the world who despises the truth in their own ways. The Jews stumble over the gospel while the Greeks consider it foolishness. I shall simply introduce the Jew and the Greek, and let them speak a moment to you and convict you of your sins. Now, let us consider the Jews. To him, the gospel is a stumbling block. The typical Jew is a typical man in his day. His religion is characterised by formality; he went up to the temple very devoutly; he tithed all that he had, even to the mint and cummin. You would see him fast twice a week, with a face filled with sadness and sorrow. He had the law in the black box in between his eyes; there was the phylactery, and the borders of his garment of great width so as to differentiate him from the Gentiles; that no one might even think that he was not a pure Hebrew. He had a holy ancestry; he came of a pious family; he was a right good man. He was not like the Sadducees at all, who had no religion, who did not believe in the resurrection. The Jews stood up for his synagogue and would not have the temple on Mount Gerizim, which was the place where the Samaritans worshipped. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. In the eyes of men, the Jew was very religious, a moralist and who loves the ceremonies of the law. And when he heard that Christ was the son of a carpenter and his mother’s name is Mary and his father’s name is Joseph, that is enough proof that Jesus cannot be the Messiah. And what does Jesus thinks of the religion of the Jews? He says, “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” And moreover Jesus he says that is not by works of the flesh that any man can enter into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, the Jews thought, “Jesus is a stumbling block to me; I will not listen to him.” And so the Jews will not listen to him: he is deaf to the preacher’s preaching and will not listen to it. The preaching of gospel is a stumbling block to him.
What is a stumbling-block? The word, “stumbling-block,” literally in the Greek is “scandal.” This word is translated in our Authorised Version as “offence.” The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses skandalon for the Hebrew word which means to trap, to hinder, to be the cause of ruin. Why is the preaching of Christ crucified a scandal? There are three reasons: first, the preaching of the cross speaks of sin, of the transgression of God’s holy law, of accountability for these for these sins, of guilt and liability to everlasting punishment. Secondly, the preaching of the cross proves man’s inability to do the smallest thing to save himself. God sent Christ to do what no man could do or even will to. And finally, the preaching of the cross speaks of the grace of God – amazing, unmerited, and powerful! When Christ crucified is preached, there may be no thought of merit, wages or works and no wonder that the natural man is offended with the gospel. The only possible conclusion anyone may draw, having heard the blessed gospel, is that God saves in sovereign grace. He saves through His gift of faith: it is by faith that it might be of grace! And let us remember that they stumble at Christ as the chief cornerstone because they are appointed and to be crushed by Him (I Peter 2:8). We who believe in Christ finds in Him our soul’s satisfaction now and forever. To the chosen, covenant generations He is precious! He that believeth in Him shall never be confounded.
The Greeks, on the other hand, are a different man to the Jew. To him, the phylactery is all rubbish and the broad hem garment, he despises it. Unlike the Jew, he does not care for the forms of religion. What he likes is eloquence: he admires a smart saying, an unusual expression. He is a Greek, and to him the gospel is foolishness. Such a man is found everywhere: in colleges, schools, and in the office. He is thoroughly wise. Ask him anything and he knows it. As for a wise saying or a nice quotation, and he can give it to you. And if you begin to preach to him about Christ, he will say to you, “stop your preaching. I don’t want to hear anything about that.” The Greeks believe all philosophies except the true one, studies all wisdom except the wisdom of God: he likes all learning except spiritual learning; he loves everything except that which God approves; he likes anything which man makes. And to such a man the gospel, Christ-crucified is foolishness.
Young people, as for you who believe heartily in Jesus Christ, the preaching of the Christ crucified is neither a stumbling-block nor is it foolishness but you confess together with the apostle Paul in verse 24, “but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” First of all, you are very thankful for the cross. Though the unbelieving Gentile deems it foolishness, you love the cross of Christ because it is through the death of Christ on the cross that your sins are forgiven, you are justified by faith, accepted and adopted as God’s children. In other words, through the cross you receive salvation in Jesus Christ. And you love the cross because this is your response to the great love of God for you. At the cross it magnificently displayed the love of God. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I John 3:1, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” Secondly, the cross is the ground for your assurance of your salvation. Do you doubt that you are a child of God? Look not on your ability to live holy lives or your faithfulness at doing your daily devotion, daily prayers, coming to Covenant Keepers meetings or coming to church regularly but look at the crucified Christ with eyes of faith to your Saviour that Christ Jesus has died for your sins and you will be assured that you are a child of God and bound for heaven.
Finally, make it your motto those ringing words of Paul to the Galatians: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
Written by: Paul Goh | Issue 8