The Stumbling Block

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 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 1:10-17

The Corinthian believers were quarreling and dividing based upon allegiance to particular leaders. And it wasn’t about preferring a sound teacher of God’s Word over false teachers. It would have been great if they’d had that kind of discernment. Rather, their loyalties were based strictly upon their worldly ideas of wisdom and power. Which teacher was most impressive, had the best pedigree, or was the most effective rhetorician?

There were some who followed Peter the great apostle of Pentecost. Others followed Apollos the great orator from Alexandria. Still others attached themselves to Paul the great theologian and evangelist. Then there were those who paid attention in Sunday School and knew they were supposed to say they followed Christ whether it was true or not.

Paul knew that this kind of division had the power to rip the church apart. And this is why Paul is at pains to explain to them that the human means is not the important thing. One plants another waters but it is God who makes it grow. But the even more fundamental problem of this party spirit in Corinth is that it was a denial of the cross – the central reality of the Christian life.

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. For it is written,
 “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

There are few differences in this world as radical as that which exists between those who are being saved and those who are perishing. The primary evidence of this radical difference is in their attitudes toward the cross of Christ. Christians understand the crucifixion of Jesus and his glorious resurrection as the central event in all history. The cross, for Christians (those who are being saved) is the source of all hope and wisdom and comfort. Yet that same cross is the very thing that hinders others from coming to Jesus at all. This is just as true in our day as it was in Jesus’ day.

In the text cited above Paul helps us to understand two realities: 1) The meaning of the cross in the experience of those who are perishing and 2) The meaning of the cross in the experience of those who are being saved.

1. The cross in the experience of those who are perishing
From the beginning the language used here sheds light on why so many find the cross to be a stumbling block. Paul is not shy about calling all those who deny Christ and his atoning work on the cross “those who are perishing.” This is a key to understanding why the message is so offensive in any age.

If the cross was just one way of salvation among many then it would be more palatable. If the cross was nothing more than an example of God’s suffering and vulnerable love then it would be more acceptable. It is when the cross is understood as an expression of God’s wrath as well as love that it becomes a stumbling block. It is when the cross is understood as God’s wrath being propitiated through His dearly loved Son that it becomes offensive.

Paul tells us here that Jews were looking for signs. They deeply desired something supernatural that demonstrated extraordinary power. And it’s understandable. Under Rome’s fist the Jews had no control over their economy or even their destiny. It is why liberation theology is so popular in the third world. It promises political deliverance.

The Jews expected God to send a Messiah who would deliver them from their earthly oppression. They wanted a political deliverance. They wanted a powerful, divine warrior. And they weren’t going to believe in Jesus unless he demonstrated the power and willingness to be a political deliverer for them.

The Greeks were looking for a different kind of proof. They were the intellectual and cultural elites of the day. Even though they had been conquered by the Romans, some would argue that the Greeks actually won by shaping Romans culture. The Greeks were pretty strict rationalists. They were also fascinated by philosophy. They loved soaring rhetoric. In fact, public debates between philosophers had become a kind of spectator sport for the Greeks.

The Greeks were not looking for miraculous signs like the Jews. They were looking for the most impressive and wisest system of thought. They would remain skeptics unless someone could satisfy them through rational argument. Bertrand Russell, the atheist philosopher said that he wanted to appear before God and say, “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!”

All of this explains why neither the Jews nor the Greeks had much interest in Jesus even though their judgments from very different perspectives. But they were not neutral in their estimation of Christ. They were offended by Christ. And the supreme reason for their disgust with Christ was the cross. Christ crucified was an insurmountable obstacle for those who demanded miraculous signs and those who demanded “wisdom”.

For those who demand powerful miracles the cross is a stumbling block because it is weak. Where is the power in a man stripped naked and slowly suffocating on a Roman cross? For those who demand wisdom the cross is a stumbling block because it is foolish. Where is the wisdom in a God-forsaken and humiliating death? It seems ridiculous to those who are perishing. I have heard George Carlin and Bill Maher literally mock the idea of Jesus dying on a cross so that other people’s sins will be forgiven. What is far more shocking however is to hear those within evangelical circles mock Christ’s atoning work by calling it “cosmic child abuse.”

How could the humiliating death of Christ be the occasion of God’s great salvation for his people? How can we believe that God would pour out his wrath upon his own dear Son in order to pour out his mercy upon sinners like us? What a foolish message!

And yet this is precisely what the gospel declares. The cross turns upside-down all human standards for evaluating power and wisdom. So Paul quotes the prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 29 when God declared that He will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning. For the Jews the Christ should have been a man of supernatural power and political might. For the Greeks the Christ should have been a wise philosopher able to influence his generation with wisdom and rhetoric. But God scandalized them all by sending His Son in the form of a crucified criminal. No wonder the message of the cross is a stumbling block. The term Paul uses is skandalon from which we get our word “scandal.” And yet this “mind-warping paradox” (Richard Hays) is God’s power and wisdom.

2. The cross in the experience of those who are being saved
The description “those who are being saved” is not meant to indicate that salvation has not been decisively accomplished for God’s people. Rather it is a reflection of what Scripture teaches elsewhere that although salvation is an accomplished reality there is also a sense in which it is a continuing reality yet to be fully realized. We can think of ourselves as already having been saved because our justification before God is a completed reality. However, our continuing sanctification points to the fact that salvation is daily being worked out in us. And, of course, we still wait for complete redemption (Romans 8) that Scripture refers to elsewhere as glorification.

Also, please notice that in verse 24 Paul refers to those who are being saved as “those who are called.” It carries with it the idea that those who are saved are not spiritual free agents who came upon the wisdom of God’s salvation in Christ by their own intellectual power or moral clarity. Rather we who are being saved were called out of darkness into his glorious light.

Jews demand signs. Gentiles are looking for something that seems wise to them. But, Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified.” The central message from Paul and the other apostles was what Paul calls the matter of first importance in chapter 15 – The Gospel – Christ crucified and risen. The fact that it is a stumbling block to much of their audience does not deter them from preaching the message of the cross.

Paul is doing just the opposite of what much of the church is doing in our day. George Barna in his book Church Marketing famously wrote that in order to grow the church then preaching must see the audience as sovereign, not the message.
The “wisdom” of many leaders in the church today holds that if we can draw a crowd by preaching on the five keys to good sex then by all means preach on that! “Don’t preach on sin, judgment, God’s wrath, and our divine substitute. Preach something more practical! Preach something that will appeal to your target audience’s felt needs.” Well, in Paul’s day the felt needs of one group was power displayed through miraculous signs. The felt need of the other group was to have a message that suited their notions of wisdom. But Paul and the apostles steadfastly refused to have their message determined by the expectations of the crowd. How instructive this is for the church today that so desires popularity and acceptance.

Paul is not saying that wisdom and power are meaningless. He is not calling people to not care about what is wise and what is powerful. We see here that he has come full circle in his argument. “Those of you who are so concerned with power let me tell you what is truly powerful: the message of the cross. It is not in miraculous signs. It is not in enough military might to drive out the Romans. Power is the message of the crucified and risen Messiah. It is the power to forgive sinners and justify them before Almighty God.”

To those who desired wisdom Paul does not finally conclude that wisdom is wrong, quite the opposite. There is true wisdom to be had. Indeed, God has provided access to His own wisdom. Imagine! The wisdom of God. But we must understand that He will overturn all our worldly notions of wisdom just as surely as He overturns our worldly notions of power. Wisdom is not seen in impressive rhetorical flourishes.

Wisdom; God’s wisdom is seen supremely in the death of His only begotten Son. It is on the cross that we see the ultimate expressions of God’s love and justice; His mercy and wrath. The cross represents the moral genius of God. We see the divine logic of the Gospel which dealt decisively with sin without diminishing either God’s perfect justice or His perfect love. In the cross we see that the power that counts in God’s view is the power that leads us to love and serve. The wisdom that matters to God is that which makes us wise unto salvation.

So, what does this message of the cross have to do with the divisions that exist among the Corinthian believers? Recall that their divisions were based upon following particular personalities. The rationale behind their loyalties was which person is most impressive or will bring me the most status. But the cross brings to nothing the wisdom and power and status of the world. It brings to nothing the supposed power of personality and rhetorical flashiness. The cross causes us to have radically different notions of wisdom and power than what is found in the world. We no longer evaluate people with the lenses of worldly wisdom or power.

In our relationships we have a choice either to wield influence and consolidate power or love and serve. We have a choice to pursue wisdom and power from a worldly perspective or to embrace the way of the cross. Before we speak, before we act will we must ask ourselves, “Is what I am about to say and do conform to the pattern of Christ’s cross?”