In emphasizing the unity of the church in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Paul asks the church pointedly: “is Christ divided?” (v 13). With their divisions, the Corinthian church was pulling away from Christ, the one who unites his church. This led Paul to explain that in his own ministry he took pains to emphasize Christ and the gospel. For Paul, that even meant curbing the amount of baptisms he performed. The point of his ministry, the purpose for which Jesus called him to be an apostle, was “to preach the gospel.” And he not only had the responsibility to preach, but his calling as gospel preacher transformed the very way that he ministered. That is, Paul deliberately preached the gospel in such a way (“not with words of eloquent wisdom,” v 17) that the message itself was as it were unadorned, and thereby the power of God was on display (“lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power,” v 17).
The paragraph that follows 1:10-17 is very important to illumine why Paul looked at ministry as he did. Verse 18 opens this up: “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.” The “word of the cross” is the message of the cross. This is an important reminder for us. Preaching is an important and even essential means God uses to bring sinners to Jesus, but it is not the preaching per se. Just because you preach doesn’t mean that you’re preaching the “word of the cross.” I could not possibly believe any less strongly than I do that we ought to emphasize preaching in our assemblies and in our evangelism. (I consider a one-on-one encounter where the gospel is communicated to someone a kind of proclamation or preaching.) But if you simply “preach,” or get up and speak and perform an act of what you consider preaching, and you do not proclaim the “word of the cross,” or the teachings of Christ, you are actually undermining the “word of the cross.” In other words, just because you think you’re preaching, doesn’t mean that you are actually communicating the “word of the cross” to sinners. The point of preaching ought to be that we proclaim Christ, his person and work, the grace that comes from him, and the ramifications of that graciousness of God through Christ to us in the way we live and obey Christ. There may be sermons where these different dimensions are emphasized to a greater degree than others, but the main point is that in v 18 mere preaching, despite the importance of preaching, is not enough. Someone speaking behind a pulpit is not what God uses to bring about change in the lives of men; it is indeed the content of the message preached, for that content as preached is what presents Christ to sinners.
The first clause of verse 18 teaches us that for those who are apart from Christ, the message of the cross is foolishness. This was true 2,000 years ago and it is true today. When you think about it, the message of Christianity is a strange one. We believe that a peasant Jew from Galilee was actually God in the flesh, and that this revolutionary figure preached about obscure promises to the Jews calling them to turn to God. And, what is more, that this Jew was finally captured by the Jews, crucified by the Romans under Pontius Pilate. And even more astonishingly, we believe that this fellow rose again from the dead and then ascended up to heaven. The Jews of Paul’s day, of course, rejected this message outright: “Jesus was a blasphemer.” The Greeks mocked it on a number of fronts: “your ‘God’ died?” “you believe in a resurrection?” The message itself is strange and even distasteful to these sorts.
But we believe that that otherwise insignificant death is actually what makes us right with God. We believe that it provides us with more blessings than we can even begin to name. That’s why Paul says, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” But what does that phrase mean, “it is the power of God”? The “power of God” stands in contrast with “folly” in the first half of the verse. For us, it is actually what brings about God’s powerful salvation in our lives. This strange message is nothing less than what God uses to turn our world upside down for his glory, reorienting our entire lives towards Christ and God. Jesus’ cross brings God’s power to us.
When you think about it, there would be no spiritual benefits for us without Christ’s cross. It is the cross that satisfied and turned away the wrath of God toward us. It is Christ’s death whereby God powerfully silences Satan and his accusations against us. It is God’s power in the cross that saves us from death. God is powerfully at work in his people through the cross of Christ. In Christ’s cross we are justified. Christ died for our adoption. We are sanctified through the grace that comes through our crucified Christ, whose death enables us to put sin to death and whose life enables us to walk in newness of life. We will be glorified because of our Savior who died and rose again. The cross of the humbled King of the Jews is what gains us entrance into this exalted King’s coming kingdom.
Now let’s connect all this with verse 17. There Paul says that he ministered the gospel in such a way so that he would not empty “the cross of Christ . . . of its power.” In other words, if he would have ministered in a way that drew away from Christ, or that gave the message a “crutch” (“eloquent words of wisdom”), this would actually draw away from God’s power. For it is not only God’s power to do all that I just described, but it is also God’s power to take that message of the cross and draw sinners to himself. In that message simply proclaimed, God wants to do a powerful work in men. In that Jesus and his work exalted, God wants to bring people to himself.
Paul believed that there was a way in which the gospel could be preached that resulted in surface-level decisions. And perhaps worse yet, these methods robbed the message of the cross of its power, not allowing it the freedom to work in sinners. These methods as it were overshadowed the message itself. Thus such “eloquence” actually hindered the power of God.
Paul is warning us not only to be careful about our content (preach the gospel!) , but also to guard our method of proclaiming that content (preach the gospel!).
Do you believe that the message of the cross is such that it alone could bring a sinner to salvation? Or, in the name of being “missional,” do you insist that we need to make that message of the cross hip or cool or trendy or sophisticated? Paul is saying very plainly, the message itself is the power of God. And the power of God needs no crutches.