Our theme this year has been centering our thoughts on the cross of Jesus. The cross changes everything about how we live and how we look at life. For today’s lesson, I want for us to focus our attention on something the apostle Paul says 1 Corinthians 1:17.
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 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. (1 Corinthians 1:13–17 ESV)
The point I want to focus our attention on is the concern that the apostle Paul has. His concern is that the cross would be emptied of its power. It is worth noting that Paul does not say that he does not want the gospel emptied of its power. Rather, Paul says his concern and the way he preaches is so that the cross of Jesus would not be emptied of its power. The word “power” is added to understand what Paul is saying. The Greek just reads, “Lest the cross of Christ be emptied.” Paul does not want the cross to be made ineffective or useless. Here is the big thing I want us to think about for a moment: it is possible for us to empty the cross of Christ. It is possible for us to make the cross of Jesus of no effect. It should be a terrifying thought that we could empty the cross of its power. So let us consider this passage and look at how the cross could be emptied of its power and then we will consider what we do that could have the same effect.
Not With Words of Eloquent Wisdom
The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that he does not preach with eloquent wisdom so that the cross of Christ would not be emptied of its power. Now this does not mean that Paul does not try to speak well or be engaging. Nor does this mean that Paul uses no wisdom as he proclaims the gospel message. This does not mean that Paul does not try to do a good job in how we delivers God’s word. The idea is that of manipulative rhetoric or cleverness in speaking. In the Roman world, the greater concern was for how something was said and not the content. If you think about it, it is quite similar to our world today where style is praised over substance. Just think about what has happened in presidential debates over the past decade or so. The content or the platform of the person is not relevant. All that is relevant today is being able to have quick wit and say things in a way that is memorable and can be made into a sound bit. Paul says that this is exactly what he does not do. You will notice in verse 23 that he emphasizes that he just preaches Christ crucified and lets the effect be what it will be. The message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and a foolishness to the Gentiles.
If the message of the cross causes stumbling to the Jews and causes Gentiles to say the message is foolish, shouldn’t Paul change how he delivers the message? If people are rejecting the cross, maybe we should change up how we deliver the message. But the apostle Paul says that he will never do this because this is how the cross of Christ would be emptied of its power. We need to see that there was a serious temptation in the first century for those who proclaim the gospel to win people to the gospel, not with the content of the cross of Christ, but with the flair of the speaker. He could come to them with such style that he could win people over by liking him and how he speaks. Eloquence that elevates the status of the preacher nullifies the power of the cross. When you look back at verses 10-15 we see that this was the essential problem. People in the Corinthian church were declaring that there was fighting among them because some are saying that they follow different preachers like Paul, Apollos, or Peter. Paul does not want to do anything that would take the focus off of the message of the cross of Christ. Paul does not want you to pay attention to him or make much of him. Paul did not want approval ratings for him. Paul did not intend to charm and captivate the crowds with alteration or fancy presentations. Putting the attention on himself or jazzing up the message to make it more palatable is what Paul says emptying Christ’s cross of its power.
This is why Paul quotes Jeremiah in 1 Corinthians 1:31, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” We are not boasting in people but in knowing God. Paul furthers this in chapter 2. In chapter 2 Paul declares that he did not come to them with lofty speech or brilliance of human wisdom. Paul did not come to them with the “wow factor.” He just came to them with the message of Jesus crucified (2:2). His message and his preaching was not with persuasive words or clever speeches (2:4). Paul revealed the power of God “so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (2:5). Paul’s goal is to elevate the content, that is, the wisdom of God, and by doing so the human that brings the message is diminished. I have told you that I have been in a pulpit that has engraved before the speaker the message, “Sir, we desire to see Jesus.” This is what Paul said he did and to do anything else is to empty the cross of its power.
Eloquence that elevates the status of the speaker cancels the power of the cross. The proclamation of the cross does not encourage applause. The cross is the call for people to be broken by their sins and repent. The cross does not make us feel good. The cross does not elevate our self-esteem. The cross publicly proclaims that we are terrible sinners and it took the sacrifice of the Son to deal with our horrible sinfulness. The message of the cross is the rejection of self and the embracing of Jesus. So how could we use the message to elevate ourselves or make much of ourselves? It is a contradiction. If we understand the message of the cross then we could not promote ourselves or make anything about ourselves. In our home, it is not about me. In the church, it is not about me. At work, it is not about me. It is never about me because of the cross of Jesus. So how do we empty the cross of its power today?
Ways That We Empty The Cross of Its Power
First, if we have a mentality that we think we need to soften or alter the message of the cross so that more people will receive it, then we are emptying the cross of its power. This does not mean that we are cruel. This does not mean that we are harsh. But it means that we are not trying to figure out how to call people to the gospel without the cross. The message of the cross is the death of self and the complete embracing of Jesus as our new life. Listen to how Paul said this in Colossians 3:2-4.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:2–4 ESV)
All that people should see is Jesus in us. There is no deception. There is nothing false. There is no elevation of self. There is nothing but Jesus. We are calling people to that life. We are not calling people to Jesus without a cross. We cannot for in doing so we are emptying the cross of its power.
Second, we empty the cross of its power when we do not want our gatherings to be gospel saturated nor filled with the cross of Christ. Our excitement must be generated from God’s word alone, not in how entertaining our gatherings are. I wonder what Paul would say to churches that make the gatherings of God’s people about the entertainment value. When the goal of worship is about excitement and feelings rather than the content of the gospel message then we are doing the very thing Paul condemned in 1 Corinthians 1-2. When we want coffee, donuts, and barbecues rather than the proclamation of God’s word then we are exactly what Paul is talking about. When we want to have emotion responses rather than our minds engaged and hearts pricked then we are emptying the cross of its power.
I am really disturbed by a multiplying trend of churches stopping Sunday evening worship. Now, please hear me, I am not disturbed because I think Sunday evening worship is in the scriptures or that a church is sinning or doing something wrong by not having Sunday evening services. That is not at all my point. Here’s my point: what else could be more valuable to our time than spending it digging deeper into God’s word? The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). This is not to say that there are not other important works that we need to be doing together. But why do the other good works we can do together have to come at the expense of the proclamation of the message of Christ? My concern is that we have lost our taste for digging into God’s word. We want to feel good and have fun over deeply engaging in the one thing that God says will give us faith and grow our faith: the word of God. Only the word of God has the power to cut us to the very core (Hebrews 4:12) so that we do not fail to enter God’s rest.
Third, we empty the cross of its power when we make worship about people. No one should attend this congregation because of me. They should attend because the word of God is opened and proclaimed every week. No one should attend people we have certain song leaders, but because the songs we sing are grounded in God’s word and offer the worship God desires. We should never be excited about the people but about Jesus in our worship activities. There is only one reason any person should leave this church. It should not be over who is preaching or who is teaching. It should be when this church no longer proclaims the cross of Jesus and no longer opens the word of God and declares, “Thus says the Lord.”
This point also rubs the other direction. We should never making anything about us. The church is not and cannot be about one person or any people. This is the church of Jesus Christ, not the church of Brent or the church of you. We need to work so that the church always stays focused on Jesus and not on us. When we make people pay attention to us, we are emptying the cross of its power because we are causing people to take their eyes and their attention away from our Lord. Paul did not want the attention to ever rest on him. As we enter another election cycle, let us be sure that we are showing Jesus, not red or blue.
Finally, let me give you personal encouragement to share the gospel. You can deliver the message of the gospel in weakness, fear, and trembling just like the apostle Paul. You do not need to have a methodology. You do not need to have speaking skills. The gospel does not need your skills. In fact, Paul says that this can actually get in the way of the gospel message because we can think that we are the important part of the process. We are simply clay jars that hold the treasure of the gospel. Human brilliance is antithetical to the cross of Christ. This truth is so liberating for each of us to proclaim the gospel. There is only one way we can mess up the presentation of the gospel: by not presenting the gospel to people at all. We empty the cross of its power when we are ashamed of the cross.
In short we must consider not only that we can empty the cross of its power, but there are a variety of ways we can do this. Ultimately, when the focus of our lives or of our worship or of our teaching is not squarely on the gospel, in particular, the cross of Jesus and its implications for us, then we are emptying the cross of its power. Our worship cannot be about ourselves. Our lives cannot be about ourselves. Our teachings cannot be about ourselves. Everything we do must point people to God.