1 Corinthians 1:18-25
What is the cross to you? Historically it was the most brutal and inhumane form of capital punishment invented by the Persians and perfected by the Romans. An ancient Jewish historian called crucifixion, “the most wretched of deaths” (War VII, 202ff.) and rightly so, for the victim was hung naked to a cross fastened with nails in both his hands and feet. This mode of death was a slow, extremely painful suffocation. The nails not only pierced the hands and feet, but also pierced the median nerve, which would cause severe sciatic-like-pain through the entire body, which would only intensify every time the victim pushed his body up to get air into his/her lungs. Eventually the person would become so fatigued that he/she could no longer thrust his body up, thus leading to a slow, agonizing suffocation. Mostly males were crucified, but when a woman was nailed to a cross, she was nailed facing the cross because few wished to see a woman die in such a fashion.
It would take about three days for a person to die. As if the physical suffering that came with crucifixion was not enough, often birds of prey would perch themselves on the cross of the dying victim to feast while they hung dying, yet still alive. What was dropped, was left for the wild dogs to eat. Typically, the body was left to hang on the cross, and then latter thrown into the city dump. Did you know that the word “excruciating” literally means: “from the cross”? The word we use to describe pain at its highest level is a word originally derived from the most horrible form of capital punishment humans have ever come up with. This is why the word “cross” was a dirty and shameful word that was unwelcome at the dinner table.
For many, the cross is little more than fashionable jewelry, for others it is a symbol of anti-Semitism, and for some it is of little concern. The Bible says of the cross, that it, “is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians1:18). Why and how is the story of Jesus’ death on history’s most horrific instrument of death the “power of God”?
The Word of the Cross Has the Power to Save (vv. 18-20)
What is the word of the cross? The word of the cross is the gospel that Paul preached to the Corinthians. The word of the cross is that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3-4). The gospel is foolish to most people because its message turns the values of the world upside-down. The message of the cross challenges the personal gratification the world tells you is your right, it devalues the pursuit of fame as something trivial rather than something to be treasured, and it shatters the perception of what power is.
Think about the message of the cross for a moment. For those of us who consider the gospel to be the power of God because we have experienced it as such, ours is a hope that sounds like it was torn right from the pages of mythology. God got a young virgin girl pregnant by His Holy Spirit so that the child of her womb would be both a god and a man to defeat the forces of evil, fix all the ills of our world, then rule as a King on earth and the way that he would do this is to first allow His god/man child to die in the most painful and humiliating death possible. No wonder the word of the cross sounds so foolish to most people.
Yet it is through the message of the cross concerning the historic facts that Jesus both died for our sins and rose for the forgiveness of sins, as outrageous as it may sound, that God is rescuing sin-cursed humans from His just wrath. Yet it is in verse 18 that we learn of only two types of people in the world: 1) Those who are perishing, and 2) those who are being saved. Each type of person will respond to the Gospel in completely different ways. Those who are perishing see the message of the cross as nothing more than a crazy tale for weak-minded people. We learn in chapter 2 of Paul’s letter that the reason why those who are perishing reject the gospel is more spiritual than rational: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of the God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 4), and in 2 Corinthians we learn that the gospel “is veiled to those who are perishing” (see 4:3).
Every single person is born with a spiritual veil that prevents him/her from seeing the light of the gospel as being fundamentally true and the only means to escaping the wrath of a holy God. But to those of us who are being saved, the gospel is the power of God. The gospel is the power of God because it is the only means God uses to remove the veil that every single human being is born with. Yet, it is not only the Gospel that removes the veil for spiritually blind people, but it is also done in partnership with the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus said concerning a person being born again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). Yet God ordained that the means by which the Gospel would be delivered to a person so that the Spirit can then make sense of it is through His people (see Rom. 10:11-15).
Then in verses 19-20, Paul refers to Isaiah 29:14 as support that this is the way God has always operated: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” The point is that God operates on a whole different playing field than those who operate according to the ethics of sin-cursed human beings. The point being made in these verses is not that the pursuit of wisdom, scholarship, or skillful debating is wrong, but that it is God alone who enables the blind to see through the proclamation of His gospel in partnership of the work of the Holy Spirit; it is not in the wise, the scribe, or the debater of this age that a person’s salvation rests.
At the end of the day when it comes to our salvation and the salvation of others, it is God alone who saves through the means of His son who He sent to die in our place under His wrath and, after being buried in a tomb for three days… He rose from the grave as the victor over sin and death. When Paul came into Corinth preaching the Gospel, he said that he did not come, “with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power”(v. 17).
The Word of the Cross Powerfully Transforms Lives (vv. 21-25)
From the beginning God demonstrated His wisdom in redeeming a cursed creation that the world in its wisdom deemed ridiculous. When God planned to cleanse the violence from the earth with a flood because he, “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5), he told Noah to build a boat because he was going to flood the earth.
Abraham was called out of Ur as a moon worshiper to become a Yahweh worshiper; God promised this man an heir even though he and his wife Sara were quickly advancing in age to the point that fathering a child would be highly improbable. Conventional wisdom of Abraham’s day suggested that he father a child through one of his servants, which he did try, but that was not the promise God made to Abraham. God promised a son that would be both his and Sarah’s, and in their old age God provided an heir. The Bible says that,
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:29–38)
God raised a shepherd boy up to be a king over Israel through whom would come a descendant who would rule the nations, He spoke through unlikely prophets of old, and chose an unassuming and impoverished virgin and her fiancé to raise up the promised Messiah that she alone would be the biological parent of. God’s wisdom often rubs against the grain of the world’s conventional wisdom and is why the apostle Paul wrote in verse 21, “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 the Jew, the crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate proof that Jesus was cursed of God instead of sent by God (Deut. 21:23). And, for the Greek, the story of a suffering God who died and physically rose from the grave sounded ridiculous. Even so, the Christian has one message to proclaim that tears down such strongholds of disbelief, and that is the proclamation of the Gospel through the power of God’s Spirit.
To those who God calls out of the darkness of disbelief, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Our Savior’s death and resurrection demonstrates the power of God over sin and death and displays the wisdom of God who alone has the power to save and redeem. This is why Paul concludes verses 25 with these words: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
It was the word of the cross that Paul, the apostles, and every person whose life has been transformed by the good news that Jesus “…died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” All of the apostles, with the exception of John, died because of the word of the cross. John outlived them all, but suffered more than any of them.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the apostle John. It was John who stood with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross as he hung naked, humiliated, and dying. He heard the mocking of both of the criminals who were crucified on the left and right of Jesus. He witnessed how the one thief changed his tone and asked Jesus to remember him when He entered his Kingdom, John heard Jesus promise the man: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43) although the man did nothing but ask to be remembered.
John heard everything Jesus said in his final hours. He heard Jesus pray: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). John listened as Jesus turned his gaze upon both his mother and John: “Woman, behold, your son! Then he said to the disciple, Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27). John heard Jesus plead with God for the first time when, instead of addressing him as Father, he addressed Him as God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Then, as if John needed to be reminded that the Lord of Glory hung before him as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, Jesus said, “I thirst” (John 19:28). Finally, the moment had come, so Jesus declared: “It is finished!” (John 19:30), and then loud enough for the crowd to hear, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).
For John and the rest of the disciples, that was the end of it. No one expected a resurrection, but three days after Jesus was buried… that is exactly what happened. When the women came to the tomb to finish anointing the body of Jesus, they found the stone removed, the entrance exposed, and two angels who said to the women: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5-6). When the women came back to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen, Peter and John ran as fast as they could to see for themselves; John beat Peter to the tomb to discover that the body was indeed not there. Not long after, Jesus appeared to Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples. Jesus also appeared to more than 500 people, and then eventually to Paul (see 1 Cor. 15:5-9).
If the resurrection was just a story and nothing more, none of the disciples, nor any of the others who witnessed the resurrection would have been willing to lose both their property and their lives over a fabricated story. The last time John and Peter saw their resurrected Christ, Jesus warned Peter that he would die because of his commitment to the Word of the Cross: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). It is said that Peter died by crucifixion on an inverted cross. John not only heard the news of Peter’s death, but also the horrific deaths of every friend of his who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus.
About thirty years after Peter’s death, John was exiled on the island of Patmos for his love of Jesus and commitment to the Word of the Cross. In his 90s, John was alone and in many ways incapacitated. While in exile, he wrote the book of Revelation revealed to him by God, “…to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1). Revelation was written to encourage a suffering Church, but it no doubt served to encourage a lonely and isolated John.
A large part of what John was able to experience through what God revealed to him on Patmos was through visions. What he experienced was simply breathtaking, for he saw God on the Throne of heaven and the Seraphim praising Him, declaring: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8). And every time the Seraphim testified to the holiness of God, the twenty-four elders fell down before God and worshiped Him, casting down their crowns as they said: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
John saw a scroll in the right hand of God. As to what the scroll is and what it symbolized, one possible explanation is that this scroll is the a type of deed for all creation. As John witnessed all that was taking place in that moment, he heard a mighty angel proclaim: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals” (Rev. 5:2)?
There was only One approved to open the scroll who had the authority to break its seals, and he was nowhere to be found. The one qualified had to have the authority of God while also fully human; John only knew one who was qualified and when He was not seen or found in that moment, John sobbed (v. 4). The reason why John wept when no one was found worthy to open the scroll was because the scroll contained God’s plan for redemption. If no one was found to open the scroll then as one pastor put it: “…then there will be no triumph for the gospel, no marriage supper with the Lamb, no new heaven and new earth, no eternal life. Only weeping.”
Notice what the elder declared to John in the midst of his grief: “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (v. 5). Who is the Lion of Judah? He is the rightful heir of the throne of David… The Messianic King who will make all things new. In these verses, Jesus is described in a way that embodied the Word of the Cross Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, for John sees the Lion of Judah “as a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…” (v. 6).
Jesus is the one worthy to open the scroll because he is the Lion and He is the Lamb. If there was no resurrection, then there is no Lion and there is no Lamb who is able to stand to receive the scroll, but only a dead martyr. Because Jesus rose from the grave, all of heaven celebrates and all of the nations will be reached with the Word of the Cross that the world deems weak and foolish, but is indeed the power of God:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.” (Revelation 5:8–14)
The Word of the Cross is the gospel of Jesus Christ that, “…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). In this room there are examples of all kinds of stories of power displayed in lives that have been transformed by the good news that Jesus, “…died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3-4). He is risen!
John Piper. Christ: The Lion and the Lamb.