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Preaching from the Pulpit of Ephraim Church of the Bible

1 Corinthians 1:17b; Emptying the Cross of Power

02/17 1 Corinthians 1:17b Emptying the Cross of Power; Audio available at: http://www.ephraimbible.org/Sermons/20130217_1cor1_17b.mp3

17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλέν με Χριστὸς βαπτίζειν ἀλλὰ εὐαγγελίζεσθαι, οὐκ ἐν σοφίᾳ λόγου, ἵνα μὴ κενωθῇ ὁ σταυρὸς τοῦ Χριστοῦ. 18 Ὁ λόγος γὰρ ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ τοῖς μὲν ἀπολλυμένοις μωρία ἐστίν, τοῖς δὲ σῳζομένοις ἡμῖν δύναμις θεοῦ ἐστιν.

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

In addressing the divisions in Corinth, Paul brings them back to the centrality of the cross and applies the simplicity of the gospel message to heal their broken unity. Paul goes back to his primary purpose as an apostle in order to undermine their divisive party spirit. He was not sent out to baptize; he was sent to proclaim the message.

Emptying the cross of power

1 Corinthians 1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Paul was sent out to evangelize, to ‘gospelize’, to herald the message of good news. Paul and the other Apostles had a unique and unrepeatable role in history as eye-witnesses, but we are all called to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2Tim4:5). We are all called to ‘contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). Paul tells us that it is important how we proclaim this message, and he warns of a significant danger to proclaiming the message wrongly. He says, that if preached wrongly, we could be guilty of emptying the cross of Christ. I could be guilty of gutting the cross of its ability to save, of rendering it useless, worthless and ineffective, of actually preventing salvation by my presentation? That is a terrifying thought. I don’t ever want to be guilty of emptying Christ’s cross of power. I want to understand what Paul is saying so I can heed his warning and allow the cross of Jesus to have its full saving effects on all who hear my voice.

Baptism Cannot Save

So what is it that empties or neutralizes or makes void the cross of Christ? First, Paul claims he was sent to evangelize not to baptize. If we put a saving emphasis on baptism, we would become guilty of emptying the cross of power. If we say that water baptism is necessary or required for salvation, we would be turning people’s focus away from the cross and toward the waters of baptism as their hope for salvation. Trusting in the wrong thing will not save you. Trusting in a rite, in an ordinance, will not save you. Only Jesus will save you. Not Jesus plus baptism, but Jesus alone. Dividing your faith between Jesus and something you do takes faith away from Jesus. Jesus alone, Jesus – plus nothing – will save you.

Wisdom of Words

Paul says that he was sent to proclaim the gospel. And he says that he did not preach with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be made hollow. How do words of eloquent wisdom empty the cross of power? What would it mean to preach the gospel with wisdom of words? The word translated ‘eloquent wisdom’ is sophia [σοφια]; it is the root behind our English words sophistry [an argument that sounds plausible but is actually invalid or misleading] or sophisticated [refined, cultured, educated, complex, pretentious, superficially wise]. Here we can put to use what we know about Greek culture. The Greeks were famous for their pursuit of wisdom. They sought to formulate a coherent system of thinking that would make sense of the universe. Sophists were often itinerant intellectuals that hired themselves out to teach their views of reality and the universe. Athens was less than 50 miles northeast of Corinth, and this is where Paul conversed with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers before coming to Corinth (Acts 17:18). Epicureans believed that pleasure is the greatest good; Stoics taught self-control as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; those who followed Protagoras taught relativism and atheism and that man is the measure of all things. These sophists were experts in rhetoric and were often more concerned with their ability to debate and persuade (and of course make money) than they were with truth. They were entertainers, masters of language and able to captivate an audience with their rhetorical prowess. In Corinth, you could gain social status by hiring the best teacher at the highest price. When Paul came to Corinth, he didn’t play into any of this. He refused to accept money for his teaching, working as a tent maker until support came from other churches that allowed him to devote himself to the preaching of the gospel. This was an insult to those who wanted to build status by hiring philosophers at exorbitant prices. Paul warned Timothy of this danger:

2 Timothy 4:3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

And he solemnly charged him to:

2 Timothy 4:2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. … 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

So when Paul says he did not preach the gospel with words of wisdom in order to not empty the cross of power, he is saying that he did not preach in a way that seeks approval from men, he did not preach in a way that would feed anyone’s ego or build them up. His goal was not to sound intellectual and impress them with his skill and learning. Nor did he preach in a way that would be emotionally manipulative. He says in the next chapter:

1 Corinthians 2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.

In his later letter to this same church he says:

2 Corinthians 4:2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Open statement of truth; not underhanded, no cunning, not adjusting God’s word in any way, not lofty speech or wisdom, not catering to one group or another. Do not empty the cross of power. If you proclaim the gospel in a way that draws attention to yourself, you are in danger of emptying the cross of power. If you are preaching the gospel in a way that strokes the ego of your hearers and makes them feel good about themselves, you are in danger of nullifying the transforming power of the cross. If you are tempted to adjust or distort the message of the cross in any way, to add to it or take away from it, you are being tempted to preach something other than the true gospel, and it will be worthless.

Examples of Emptying the Cross

At the risk of offending, I’ll give you some examples that may help to clarify what it might look like to empty the cross of power. These examples are not meant to condemn anyone; I have been guilty of using some of these methods myself. Our goal is for us all to abandon any method that would nullify the power of the cross.

The gospel is sometimes preached with high-pressure sales tactics or emotional manipulation. There is an emphasis on pushing for a decision and making the sale or closing the deal. Music is sometimes employed to set the mood and sway the hearer. Sometimes a celebrity testimony is used, to show that even popular people are following Jesus. Sometimes there is a push for a physical response; raise your hand, walk the aisle, put your name on the card, repeat the sinners prayer. The goal is to secure a decision from the individual before the service or the conversation is over. Walking the aisle or writing your name on a card or praying the sinners prayer never saved anyone. Trusting in Jesus is what saves. This kind of method may secure a ‘decision for Christ’, but it may not result in genuine conversion. It may even give someone a false sense of security that they did what was required to ensure that they go to heaven when they die without ever having a real relationship with Jesus.

Some methods of preaching the gospel appeal to what you will gain from believing. You will get your sins forgiven. You get to escape hell and secure a piece of property in heaven. Your marriage will be better, your health will be better, your finances will improve, your depression will go away, your family will be blessed, overall things will just be so much better and you will find the joy you have always been looking for. Some who have responded to this kind of message end up leaving disillusioned, feeling that the gospel did not meet their expectations or deliver the goods promised. It is absolutely true that you will gain much more than you lose, but Jesus pushed people to count the cost. Following Jesus may cost you your family, your marriage, your possessions, even your life. Jesus said:

Matthew 10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

The gospel is sometimes preached with an emphasis on how reasonable and logical it is to follow Jesus. Evidence is mustered, logic is appealed to, the rational nature of Christianity is highlighted. It just makes so much sense to be a Christian. Only a fool would pass up an opportunity like this. You would be really wise to follow Jesus. No intelligent person could come to any other conclusion once presented with the facts. This kind of preaching may secure intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel, an agreement that the claims of Christianity are historically accurate, that there is evidence to support the facts, but it may not result in the kind of turning and faith that saves. Christianity is true and if you know your stuff, you can argue someone into a logical corner, but you can never argue someone into the kingdom, into a relationship with Jesus.

Man-Centered or God-Centered?

All of these methods center on the person. They appeal to the emotions, they target the intellect, they seek to persuade the will. They say that following Jesus will make you feel good, or that following Jesus is wise, or that following Jesus is the best decision you can make. These methods tend to shift the emphasis of the gospel from God to the person. The good news is primarily a message about God. Paul says here that preaching the gospel is ‘the cross of Christ’. In the next verse, he calls it ‘the word of the cross’, which ‘is the power of God’. Down in verse 23, he declares ‘we preach Christ crucified, …Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’. The cross of Christ, the word of the cross, preaching Christ crucified is the power of God. The nature of the gospel message is news. Paul was called to evangelize, to proclaim the gospel. He was not called as a rhetorician or an orator or a salesman; he was called as a news boy. He was given a message; his responsibility was to declare it faithfully. Don’t distort it; don’t spin it; don’t edit it. Announce it with clarity; proclaim, herald the news. Response to the news is not your problem.

Think of the guy in front of the pizza joint advertising hot pizza’s for $5. He can stand there quietly holding his sign, or he can jump around waving his sign in the air and doing everything in his power to capture your attention. But he doesn’t have the liberty to alter the message. He can’t try to tempt you with a pizza for $2.50. He can’t offer you a sit down steak dinner at that price; they only serve pizza. And he can’t control your decision. If you’re hungry and that sounds like a good deal, you might go in. If you’re not interested you might shake your head and wonder how much they pay that poor guy to stand out there and make a fool of himself, but you will probably ignore him and drive by.

The gospel is news. Good news. We are called to proclaim it, to announce it, to herald it. The gospel is good news about a person; good news about God. The gospel is Jesus Christ crucified – God become flesh, the promised one, executed in our place as as a substitute. This is not my message; I did not come up with it; Paul or Peter or James didn’t come up with it. It is God’s message. It is not ours to adjust or adapt. We are entrusted with the message and expected to proclaim it faithfully. If we examine Paul’s practice through the book of Acts, we see that he went, as instructed to the Jewish synagogues and reasoned with them from the scriptures and proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. When the Jews rejected the message, he would turn and proclaim his message to the Gentiles. He faithfully proclaimed the message. He trusted God to use the message in the hearts of his hearers however he chose.

Is it a Sin to Speak Well?

Is it a sin to use logic, persuasion, or rhetoric in proclaiming the gospel? It is interesting to note that in this very passage in arguing for the centrality and efficacy of the cross, Paul employs persuasive rhetoric to make his point. As we study Paul’s letters, we find that he was a master communicator. But he never compromised the message in order to make a convert. And he did not depend on his own oratorical abilities to persuade. God has gifted some with amazing abilities to argue and persuade and defend, to communicate his truth. I would never want to imply that by using the gifts God has given them they are emptying the cross of its power. Use your gifts to the glory of God. The question is, what are you relying on? As you proclaim the good news, what are you trusting in? Your persuasive methods? Your polished presentation? Your impenetrable logic? Or are you relying on the power of the gospel message itself to save sinners? Are you relying on the Holy Spirit of God to use his truth to transform lives in a supernatural act of sovereign power?

Our objective is not to see how many souls we can save. We cannot save any. That is not our job. That is what God does when we are faithful to proclaim his message. We are not interested in coercion; we are interested in conversion; we are not interested in securing a commitment – we want to see a work of God happen in the heart of our hearers; the supernatural miracle of spiritual rebirth. So when we speak, we must simply depend on God the Holy Spirit to do his work.

Not About Us!

This is good news for us! This is so encouraging! This is very humbling but it is also freeing! Praise God that even when I have preached in ways that empty the cross of power, God can still use that to do his work. This means that there are no special skills or training required to do the work of an evangelist, to tell the good news to your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, your family, your children. God is not looking for a polished rhetorician but a town crier. Any schoolboy, any idiot can be employed as a herald. The impact of the message does not hinge on my ability or my presentation at all. Paul says ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’ (1Cor.3:6). The gospel is power, God’s power to save sinners. Proclaim it! Proclaim it boldly. Proclaim it faithfully. Proclaim Jesus Christ crucified as the only remedy for our severed relationship with the God who loves us. Believe the gospel. Believe that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Believe that God can use you in simple obedience proclaiming his truth to bring supernatural transformation to sinners. Preach the cross!

Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org

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February 17, 2013 - Posted by | 1 Corinthians, podcast | , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for explaining this verse. I struggled with it, but you broke it down very well. I am not called to save anyone. I am called to point others to the only one who can save.

    Comment by Irene J Steele | December 8, 2016 | Reply


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