1 Corinthians 1:17-25
For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words…
The mention of baptism leads the apostle to speak of his preaching at Corinth. His mission was "not to baptize, but to preach the gospel," and he proceeds to vindicate his discharge of that mission as against those who preferred the "wisdom of this world."
I. THE THEME OF EVANGELICAL PREACHING. He calls it "the word of the cross;" "Christ crucified" (comp. 1 Corinthians 2:2). Here at Corinth, even more than elsewhere, Paul felt the necessity of adhering to the simplicity of the gospel and disclaiming the "wisdom of words" upon which others laid stress. The central point in his teaching was that which he delighted to sum up in the expression, "the cross of Christ." He did not keep the Crucifixion out of sight as a thing to be ashamed of, but gloried in it as the distinguishing feature of the good news he proclaimed. The humiliation and death of the Saviour of men, his "becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8), is the very kernel of the gospel, the key which unlocks the mystery of his work. Paul might have told them of a purer morality than their moralists had taught, and a sublimer philosophy than Socrates or Plato had imagined; but this would at best have stirred only a few minds to new thought, and made a few earnest hearts feel that perfection was further off than ever. It was otherwise when he could speak to them of the cross of Christ, with all that it implied; for in this is the Divine answer to the great life query which men had striven in vain to answer - How can man be just with God? Here is the One dying for the many, the Son of God suffering as a substitute for sinners, and thus salvation actually accomplished. To preach this was truly to bring glad tidings. The example of the apostle is a pattern for all preachers. Let us not think to recommend Christianity by hiding the cross or reducing it to a figure of speech, as if the death of Christ were merely a testimony to the sincerity of his life. Christianity without the cross is no real evangel to men. You may admire the spotless life of Jesus, rejoice in his wonderful teaching, bless him for his Divine philanthropy, and weep over his undeserved fate; but this would simply make him a greater Socrates or a greater Paul. It is his atoning death above all that makes him more to us than any of the illustrious teachers or martyrs of history. But while this is true, we must not suppose that preaching Christ means nothing more than a simple recital of the way of salvation. Paul's letters are virtually summaries of his oral teaching; and in them we see how the one theme expands into the whole circle of Christian truth, how Christ appears as Prophet, Priest, and King, and how the gospel is applied to the trials and duties of actual life. Let us not make narrow what God has made so broad. Let us not stunt and deform our spiritual life by feeding only on one kind of nourishment, and refusing the large provision he has made for us. We shall preach Christ aright only by exhibiting the fulness that dwells in him.
II. THE METHOD OF EVANGELICAL PREACHING. Whilst the main reference in this passage is to the theme of the preacher, there is also a reference to the manner in which that theme is presented. "Not in wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made void." We may preach Christ in such a way as to neutralize the gospel's peculiar power.
1. We may do this by merely speculating about the death of Christ. Philosophical essays on the work of Christ, and disquisitions on Christian doctrine, have their place and value; but they must not usurp the place of simple preaching. They appeal only to the intellect, whereas the sermon appeals to the heart and conscience as well. As a matter of experience, it is found that the style of preaching here condemned is productive of little spiritual fruit.
2. We may do this by a rhetoric which hides the cross. The gospel may be so adorned that men's attention is drawn to the gaudy trappings or to the preacher himself, instead of being fixed on the truth; and in so far as this is the case its influence is lost. The flowers with which we bedeck the cross too often hide it. The right idea of preaching may be gathered from the two words translated "preach" in this passage. The first means "to bring glad tidings" - the good news of a Saviour for sinners (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι, ver. 17); the second signifies "to proclaim as a herald" the facts of salvation and the invitations and promises founded upon them (κηρύσειν, ver. 23). Evangelical preaching is a publication of the good news to men, a direct setting forth of Christ in all his offices. Thus presented, the cross is full of power to draw men to the Saviour (John 12:32).
III. HOW THE GOSPEL ARREARS TO THOSE THAT REJECT IT. The preaching of the cross affects men according to their prepossessions. Bent of mind, education, surroundings, largely determine their attitude towards Christ. Two classes are mentioned by the apostle who rejected the gospel for two different reasons.
1. The Jews. "Jews ask for signs," i.e. they crave for some outward miraculous exhibition to call forth their wonder. "Master, we would see a sign from thee" (Matthew 12:38) was their constant demand of Jesus; and, in so far as the demand was a legitimate one, it was complied with. Peter on the day of Pentecost could speak of Jesus of Nazareth as "a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs" (Acts 2:22). The chief sign of all was the cross; but the Jews did not understand it. They stumbled at it as a "scandal," which they could not get over, and which seemed to them to say the opposite of what God intended. The cross was in their eyes the token of humiliation and shame. They looked for a Messiah attended by far different manifestations, and they would not believe in One who had been crucified. There are still those among us who, like the Jews, seek after signs. They crave for the outward, the visible, the sensational - for something to dazzle and startle. The Roman Catholic will go hundreds of miles to visit the spot where "our Lady" is supposed to have appeared, will gaze with devout reverence on the curdled blood of Januarius turning liquid before his eyes, and will touch with awe the relics of some saint, believing that they will cure his diseases. The Protestant, disdaining these superstitions, shows the same spirit in other ways. He may love the sensuous in worship and the sensational in preaching. He may run after the man who is an adept in oratorical jugglery, who knows the day and the hour when the world is to end, etc. Whatever is novel, unusual, popular, is sure to find such sign seekers among its ardent supporters. To men of this temper the cross of Christ is still a "stumbling block." For it speaks of humiliation, of obedience unto death, of a quiet unostentatious doing of the will of God; and this is the very thing such people feel to be distasteful. To go with Jesus into the garden, and there drink the cup God puts to our lips; to endure with him the contradiction of sinners, and be exposed to shame and hissing; to go after him, denying ourselves and bearing our cross; - this is the meaning of the sign. Is it any wonder if men stumble at it?
2. The Greeks. "Greeks seek after wisdom." The idea of a crucified Saviour was to them foolishness. Accustomed to the speculations of their own philosophers, set forth with learning and subtlety, these lovers of wisdom applied to the doctrine of the cross a purely intellectual test. It was in their eyes a new philosophy, and Jesus of Nazareth was to be tried by the same rules as the founders of their own schools. To these critical Greeks Paul had nothing to offer but the story of him who was crucified (compare our Lord's words to the Greeks, John 12:23, etc.). The cross for them, as for the Jews, had but one language - it spoke of the lowest infamy; and to preach salvation by a cross would be in their view the sheerest absurdity. These Greeks have still their representatives in modern life. There are those who glorify human intellect, and think themselves capable of solving all mysteries. How many of our men of science seem to lose their heads when they come to speak of Christianity! They have nothing but a sneer for a "theology of blood;" and their quarrel with Jesus is that, after giving the world such splendid precepts, he should have imagined that he could save men by letting them crucify him. In forms less extreme than this the same spirit may be traced. Many hearers of the Word have more regard to the mental grasp of the preacher, the literary finish of the discourse, or the manner in which it is delivered, than to the scriptural and edifying character of the truth preached. The simple preaching of Christ crucified is to their thinking comparative folly. Let us not be carried away by this craving for wisdom. "When once the idolatry of talent enters the Church, then farewell to spirituality; when men ask their teachers, not for that which will make them more bumble and Godlike, but for the excitement of an intellectual banquet, then farewell to Christian progress" (F. W. Robertson). Observe the apostle's statement with regard to these despisers of the cross: "In the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God." Men groped after him, but could not find him. It was part of the Divine scheme that the wisdom of the world should have free scope to work; and only when it had exhausted itself was the world ripe for the bringing in of the gospel. This was a part of the preparation for Christ. Human wisdom is still inadequate. It cannot save a single soul. Men perish as they speculate; men die as they frame theories of life. In God's view, man's wisdom is folly; in man's view, God's wisdom is folly. Which is the wiser?
IV. HOW THE GOSPEL APPEARS TO THOSE THAT RECEIVE IT. They are described as "called" (ver. 24), as "believers" (ver. 21), as "being saved" (ver. 18); each term presenting a different aspect of their condition. They are called by God out of the world into the fellowship of Christ; being called, they believe in him; and believing, they are in the way of salvation. There is no salvation without faith, and no faith without the calling of God by his Word and Spirit. Now, to all such Christ is "the Power of God, and the Wisdom of God." The Jew stumbled at the cross as a thing of weakness; the believer rejoices in it as a thing of power. It has done for him what all other appliances failed to accomplish. It has made him a new creature, bringing him out of darkness and death into light and life. Every one who has been cured by a particular medicine is a witness to the efficacy of that medicine; so every saved sinner bears testimony to the power of the cross. And there is wisdom here as well as power - "the wisdom of God." Christ crucified is not a philosophy, but a fact; yet through this fact there shines the highest wisdom. We can well understand how the Greek mind, once brought to the obedience of faith, would revel in this view of the cross. He would learn to see in Christ "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3). In him "God is just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26). In him we have the highest exemplification of that great law of the kingdom: "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Matthew 23:12). All that the ancient philosophies had been striving after - the knowledge of God, the nature of man, and the meaning of human life - is to be found in Christ and him crucified. Here is the centre of all knowledge, round which all else revolves in order and beauty. Here is the shrine where the wise men of the earth must fall down and worship - the touchstone by which their speculations must be tried. Here is "the wisdom of God," outshining every other manifestation in creation and providence - that wisdom by which we become wise unto salvation. - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.