By Ralph Douglas West
Friday, September 02, 2011
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Hanging inside the Manchester City Art Gallery is the painting by Holman Hunt titled The Shadow of Death. The painting depicts the inside of the carpenter's shop in Nazareth. Stripped to the waist, Jesus stands by a wooden trestle on which He has put down His saw. He lifts His eyes toward heaven, and the look on His face is one of pain, ecstasy or both. He stretches, raising both arms above His head. As He does so, the evening sunlight streaming through the open door casts a dark shadow in the form of a cross on the wall behind Him, where His tool rack looks like a horizontal bar on which His hands have been crucified. The tools remind us of the fateful hammer and nails.
In the left background, a woman kneels among the wood chippings, her hands resting on the chest in which the rich gifts of the Magi are kept. We cannot see her face because she has averted it, but we know it is Mary. She looks startled at her son's cross-like shadow on the wall.
Holman Hunt was the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a19th-century artistic movement that had a reputation for sentimentality, surrealism. Yet there were some serious and sincere artists, and Hunt was one of them. He determined to "battle with the frivolous art of the day," to do battle with the superficial treatment of trite themes. So he spent 1870-1873 in the Holy Land and painted The Shadow of Death in Jerusalem from the roof of his house.
Though the idea is historically fictitious, it is theologically true. From Jesus' birth and youth, the cross cast its shadow ahead of Him. The cross is inextricably tied to the Person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here an artist is so sensitive to the theme of Christianity he spent three years surveying the landscape of Jerusalem to paint the picture of the Christ succinctly, seriously, sincerely. If the artist can painstakingly take the brush seriously to paint the cross, how much more should we take the time to recognize the power of the cross?
Every religion and ideology has its visible symbol, which illustrates a significant feature of its history or beliefs.
The secular ideologies of the centuries have their universally recognizable symbols. The Marxist hammer and sickle represents industry and agriculture, and they are crossed to signify the union of workers and peasants, of factory and field.
The swastika has been traced back 6,000 years. The bent arms meant the four seasons or the process of prosperity. However, it was adopted by the Germans as a symbol of the Aryan race. Then Hitler took it over, and it became the sinister sign of Nazi racial bigotry.
The lotus flower is particularly associated with Buddhism. Because of its wheel shape, it is thought to depict the cycle of birth and death or the emergence of beauty and harmony out of the muddy waters of chaos.
Ancient Judaism avoided visual signs and symbols for fear of infringing the second commandment, which prohibits the manufacturing of images. However, modern Judaism has adopted the Star of David.
Christianity is without exception in having a visual symbol. A universally acceptable Christian emblem obviously should speak of Jesus Christ, but there is a wide range of possibilities. Christians might have chosen the manger in which the baby Jesus was laid, the carpenter's bench at which He worked as a young man in Nazareth, the boat from which He taught the crowds in Galilee or the apron He wore when washing the apostles' feet. Then there was the stone, which having been rolled from the mouth of Joseph's tomb, would have proclaimed his resurrection. Other possibilities include the throne, a symbol of divine sovereignty; or the dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Any of these seven symbols would have been suitable as a pointer to some aspect of the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, the chosen symbol is the cross.
When Paul left Athens—the intellectual, educational, philosophical center of the Greco-Roman world—he came to Corinth. I am sure as Paul came to Corinth alone, walking along the streets, it came to his mind there was religion everywhere in Corinth. There were religious institutions, philosophies, itinerant teachers and preachers of every kind; and here he was one small man on foot, walking toward Corinth. When he got there, he moved in with a poor man, who was a tent maker as was he.
What difference would one more Jew make coming to a city such as Corinth? No one heralded the coming of Paul. There was no mayor to hand him a key to the city. No one had any sympathy with him being there, not the Jews or the Greeks, not the pagans or the synagogue. Paul came to oppose everything the city of Corinth stood for in secular life and religion.
He was unimpressive, unwell and considered to be a poor speaker. He did not use clever logic. Yet today, the unanimous verdict of history is that the coming of one short, lonely, poor Jew was the most significant thing that happened in the history of Corinth.
This very day, thousands of tourists go to New Testament Corinth just to walk on the cobble stone pavement where Paul walked. Apart from Paul's presence 2,000 years ago, very few people other than classical scholars would be interested in going there.
Paul tells us something about his secret. His secret was his determination was "to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."
The Word of the Cross Diagnoses Us by Our Response
The diagnostic question before us demands a response. What is at the heart of Christian faith and belief? Paul calls his apostolic preaching the Word of the Cross. That means a word that originated from the cross. We need not discover, invent, impose, rationalize; we are not here to speak a novel word. "Let that remain in you which you heard from the beginning" (
That also means a word about the cross. To the extent our proclamation is not about the cross, it falls short of the apostolic preaching that comes from the cross and goes to the cross; the cross is the center and circumference of the New Testament message.
This also means a cross-kind-of-word, a cruciform proclamation (
Paul faced a cabal of mesmerizing, magnetic, charismatic public orators called the Second Sophisticate. They belonged to his age. They were travelling public speakers who showed up at city council meetings, asked for a subject to be assigned to the agenda and returned a few hours later with an overwhelming display of rhyming, syncopated rhetorical fireworks that left everyone amazed. Form overwhelmed content. These rhetorical geniuses also worked out at the Greek gymnasium and literally oiled themselves up before they spoke. They appeared to shine while they spoke.
In contrast stood Paul, obviously a human piece of wreckage from all of his experiences as an apostle (see the list in
"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (v. 2). This means a renunciation. "I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom" (v. 1). Paul did not rely upon his ability to speak or to reason in order to impress the Corinthians. Nothing about his bearing indicated he was a rhetorician or a philosopher, the two things the Corinthians most admired. Paul was a learned man who knew the Greek poets, Greek statuary, and was able to reason as well as Aristotle. Yet there was a renunciation of all human cleverness as he presented Jesus Christ. He relied on the bare presentation of the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
The message about the cross is a message about a Person. At the center of our testimony is Jesus Christ—not the church, a denomination or any theological system. We emphasize a particular aspect of Jesus Christ: His cross. We point to the one thing that is most scandalous and has the greatest stigma—His blood, sacrifice and criminal's death. From the world's point of view, this is a foolish message brought by a foolish messenger. Yet God has chosen to attach His saving power to that message.
We can preach the Christ of the cross when physically weak (v. 3). When Paul came to Corinth, he was in poor physical condition (
We can preach the Christ of the cross when psychologically fearful. Paul came to Corinth full of anxiety. He had a phobia, not for his own safety but because of his responsibility for the gospel message. He knew he was not up to the task. God honored his humility.
We can preach Christ on the cross when visibly shaken. Paul's inward weakness and fear manifested itself in a literal outward shaking of his person. Yet the power of God poured through this shaken man.
So how do we respond to the cross?
There is the response that says "foolishness." That response indicates one is already in the process of perishing even in saying it.
Although the world is somewhat more polite today, increasingly that politeness is disappearing. Aggressive atheists such as Bill Maher or Richard Hawkins lead a growing multitude that openly ridicules our message and our Christ. The cultural religion of America that once gave grudging respect to the message of the cross is disappearing. Real ridicule, enmity and open hostility in the public square are becoming the order of the day. The cross itself has become a hated symbol, and court cases call for its removal from public lands and cemeteries.
The current rector of All Souls Langham Place in London, the church of John R.W. Stott, told our group this past summer that the United Kingdom is only 10 years away from preachers being locked up, jailed, for preaching biblical Christianity under a proposed hate speech law.
In an unexpected way, this hostility even came to the fore of a recent debate about the Big XII athletic conference. In June 2011, the Pac-10 made a move to invite the secular institutions from the Big XII to join the Pac-10 in a super-conference. The oldest institution in Texas was to be excluded, Baylor University. The secularists at the University of California said clearly, explicitly, publicly and vehemently there is no place for a Christian school in this athletic conference. We are on the edge, if not already into, an American culture that looks at the cross and dismisses it as foolishness. What does a dying Jew on a hill have to do with me today?
There is also the response that sees power. Those who look at Calvary and see in it power are already in the process of being saved. Every time we hear the word of the cross, we are being saved. Notice the present tense: already continually being saved. For those entranced with the cross, living under the shadow of the cross, ruled by the cross, bowing at the cross, a strange power comes over their lives. That cross and the related resurrected Christ emit strange and powerful life-changing powers that cannot be explained any other way. My ego is subdued, my narcissism tamed, my corruption exposed, my obsessions corralled and my selfishness condemned.
The Cross Stands in the Face of Every Debate
Paul took his stand by Calvary and he calls for all comers; it is a challenge.
Where is the sophos of the philosopher? Come Plato, come Aristotle and debate the cross.
Where is the religious legalist, the defender of religious minutiae? Where is the person who wants to debate the marginal, emphasize the secondary, crown the inconsequential? In the Mishna, we find examples of the Jewish religious debates, such as removing a false tooth on the Sabbath. The letter kills, the spirit gives life. Religion becomes nothing but a list of moralistic rules without the word of the cross. All we do without the cross is compare lists of taboos. Yours may be martinis and cigars; mine may be pollution and save-the-whales. It makes no difference whether it is a fundamentalist list or a liberal list. Without the cross, we all become Pharisees with our own lists, claiming one list is better than another. The cross kills all lists and ends all comparisons. In the light of the cross, I am shown to be what I actually am: a weak, corrupt, sinful, depraved, erring, iniquitous, transgressing and rebelling piece of protoplasm, lifting up my fist in the face of a holy God, whose only recourse was to sacrifice His only Son for me!
Where is the spokesperson for the age—Larry King, Bill Maher, a whole swamp of people—who defend, present, explain the age of the now? In the face of the cross, they are inconsequential.
To say Christianity has intellectually embarrassed us is to ignore history. It is always a thrilling thing to see people with other gifts, but who subordinate them all for the Person and the work of Jesus Christ. Jonathan Edwards from 1703 to 1758 was considered to be the brightest mind in Colonial America—as one secular philosopher said about him. Edwards became a Christian and limited himself to the word of the cross—he should have been known as the greatest mind in American history. This historian went on to say Edwards should have changed the future course of American history, but he became involved in the religious hysteria of the Great Awakening. About the apostle Paul, some said he could have changed the course of history in Jerusalem. Instead, he confessed Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
For 30 years, D. Martyn Lloyd Jones preached in the great pulpit at Westminster Chapel in London. In 1926, he was a student at St. Bartholomew Hospital in London. He was offered an assistant professorship in that institution; in the midst of that medical career, God laid a burden on his heart to preach the cross of Christ so powerfully that he couldn't debate it. He couldn't elude it. He went to a home mission church for 10 years in Wales, then came back to London and spent 30 years conspicuously subordinating all of his tremendous powers of analysis and rhetoric to the cross of Jesus Christ. D. Martin Lloyd Jones could have talked about anything; he was a brilliant man. He held up the cross as God's only alternative. I must never be ashamed to stand for the simple, blunt message of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the cross of Christ I glory
Towering o'er the wrecks of time
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
The story is told that John Bowring, the author of those words, was sailing by the fire-gutted church off Macao, China, when he saw the only thing standing was the cross over the ruins of the church.
The Cross Nullifies All Human Wisdom
Be careful what you predict. It may come back to haunt you…or laugh at you.
You've heard of some of the unfortunate predictions of some well-known people, such as:
•The technology executive who said a few years ago there is no reason why anyone should want a computer in the home.
•The man who said, shortly after Alexander Graham Bell's invention, the telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.
•Steve Jobs begged Atari and Hewlett-Packard to invest in his computer. Everyone who owns Apple stock, an iPhone or an iPad is glad they said no.
•The general who said airplanes were interesting toys, but would be of no military value.
Human wisdom at its best is wrong about mundane things. It is certainly wrong about supernatural things. If humans make wrong assumptions about mundane things, how much more are they wrong about transcendent things.
Saving the world through the message of the cross is God's way of undermining human pride. The gospel undercuts all philosophies or religions that appeal to human wisdom.
The Jews always were seeking one more sign. They were God's covenant people. They had signs: the plagues of Egypt, the miraculous dividing of the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud and fire, the feeding of the people in the desert, the water from the rocks, the tablet written by God's own hand. At the cross they demanded one more sign.
J.H. Jackson preached a sermon in the Carr P. Collins Chapel on the campus of Bishop College; the sermon was titled "The Challenge of Deserting the Cross." In that sermon he highlighted the Jews demanding a sign of Jesus from the cross. "Come down from the cross and prove you are the Son of God." Jackson said, "He had already come down from heaven; they wanted three more feet."
The Jews wanted a sign, and the Greeks were always seeking intellectual proof. They wanted to think their way to truth.
The gospel always will be a scandal and foolishness to those not called. It is foolishness to the Jew and the Greek, but to the called it is power and wisdom. In the 18th century, George Whitefield shook England and America. He was one of the greatest preachers of the Christian faith. He was so powerful that unbelievers such as David Hume, the skeptic, would go hear him just to feel the power of God working in his message. However, Whitefield's tremendous exertion brought on repeated attacks of serious illness from young adulthood. He rose up sometimes to what almost seemed like death to go and preach. Asthma was his constant affliction.
John Wesley—on one of his last visits to the 55-year-old Whitefield—said: I had breakfast with Whitfield, who seemed to be an old man, seeming to be fairly worn out by His Master's service. Wesley went on to give the account of the last time Whitefield preached. His last sermon was in a field in Massachusetts, where he preached with overwhelming power. In that day, you could stand out in a field and farmers and townspeople would come and hear you preach.
After preaching, he rode to Newburyport, Mass., to spend the night in the home of a Presbyterian minister. That night as he was going to bed, he preached from the stairs of the house. People were standing, begging at the bottom of the stairs for him to preach to them; his preaching was so powerful. Whitfield spoke holding a candle, and he preached until the candle went out. At 6 the next morning, Sunday, Sept. 30, 1770, asthma choked him and he died.
Whitefield's body was marked by weakness, yet over against that weakness tens of thousands of people were converted when they heard Whitefield preach. They didn't sit there as we do. When he preached, people were so overwhelmed they fell over with conviction—all of it in the midst of his weakness.
It pleased God through the content and the act of preaching. Is it foolishness to say a man on a cross is the center of history and that the cross nullifies and cancels all human wisdom? No Caesar with his army, no philosopher with speculation, no scientist with empiricism, no politician with a scheme stands in the face of this foolishness that outlasts all of them.