“The Message of the Cross” (I Cor. 1:18-24 sermon)

A few weeks ago we installed a new wooden cross over our baptistry. Many people have commented that they like it — but some might ask: why would we put a cross here in our worship center? The answer is that the cross is the central element of Christianity. It is the most important symbol of our faith, because it represents the message that is at the heart of the gospel, without which there would be no Christianity at all.

The gospel in a nutshell is that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins. The cross is central in that message. Because of that, I want us to spend some time this morning looking at I Corinthians 1:18-25 together, as we study “The Message of the Cross.”

I. The Offense of the Cross

Ever since the gospel first began to be preached, the message of the cross has been rejected as foolish or unbelievable. We see the offense of the cross referred to several times in this passage:

— :18 “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing

— :23 “Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness”

Paul says that to both the Jews, and the Gentiles (or non-Jews) the cross was offensive.

First of all, the idea of a “crucified Messiah” was just foolish to the Jews. Their whole expectation of the Messiah was that He would come and crush the Gentiles.

To help you understand their viewpoint, think of the message we shared last week from Psalm 2. We talked about how that Psalm proclaims that although the world is in rebellion, God is still on His throne, and He points the world to His Son, whom He appointed to rule the world “with a rod of iron; and … shatter them like earthenware.” We know now that this is what will happen in the last days; that first Jesus had to come as a Suffering Servant like Isaiah 53 describes, to die for our sins on the cross. But the Jews didn’t understand that. They thought that when He came the FIRST time that He would come with that “rod of iron” to shatter the Gentiles! They saw this Jesus dying on a cross, and basically said, “This can’t be the guy; He is not ruling the world with any rod of iron; He was killed by the world!” So you can begin to understand how the idea of a “crucified Messiah” just didn’t make any sense to them. The Messiah was coming to RULE, not to die! They stumbled over the message of “a Christ (Messiah) crucified.”

And to Gentiles it was “foolishness.”
The Jews rejected the cross because it was not what they expected from the Messiah. But the non-Jews, like the Romans also thought it was foolish. You can just imagine the response of many of the Romans. Rome worshipped power. Rome WAS power! They served a god of war! Offering them the gospel of a man whose country they held in bondage, and whose supposed leader they had nailed to a cross and killed, was indeed foolishness.

John R.W. Stott in his book The Cross of Christ (p. 25) tells how they discovered some ancient Roman graffiti on the wall of a house on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It was a crude picture of a man hanging on a cross — only in the drawing the man on the cross had the head of a donkey. That was their way of making fun of Jesus — this “donkey man” they had crucified. To them this business of a crucified Savior was foolishness.

We see an example of their attitude of the foolishness of the cross in Acts 26, when Paul was on trial before King Agrippa and Porcius Festus, the Roman procurator (governor) of Judea. After Paul shared his beliefs, Festus cries out in Acts 26:24 “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you mad!” It was just foolishness to him — and to many, many Romans who were just like him.

“To Jews a stumbling block, to Gentiles foolishness …” — and the cross still is a a stumbling block and foolishness to many people to this day.
I’ve read where people have said things like:

— “How could some man dying on a cross 2000 years ago do anything to save us today?”

— I’ve seen where several critics have written that the God of the Bible must be some kind of sadist, to want to see His own Son pierced through with nails and impaled on a cross. They despised the idea of salvation through the cross as “barbaric”, and assert that it has no place in our “modern”, intellectual world.

But the cross is not only an offense intellectually; the idea that Jesus died on the cross for our sins can also be an offense egotistically, for a couple of reasons:

— First, it is an offense to some because it calls them “sinners” who need someone to die for their sins. That offends them. They say things like: “Don’t you call ME a sinner!” or “I am a pretty good person”, I don’t need someone to die for my sins!

— Second, the concept of salvation through the cross of Jesus takes away all thought of “merit” in salvation. It is not what YOU do to save yourself; it is all what HE did on the cross. That is a blow to many, who think they “deserve” to go to heaven. They have a pride about their accomplishments, and they don’t want to humble themselves and admit that they need someone else to save them.

Then some just mock it, and don’t want anything to do with it. After we got out of high school, I remember a friend of mine witnessing to a guy we knew, and he mockingly said, “Yeah, yeah, I know, he died for us all.” He was just mocking the message. It was just foolishness to him.

But just because you mock something doesn’t mean it’s not true. A few miles from where we lived in Southwest Louisiana, there is a bayou that separates Louisiana from Texas. A few days ago, a man saw the sign that says, “No swimming, alligators” he cursed at the sign, and said he was going swimming in the bayou anyway. No sooner had he gotten in, than a woman screamed that an alligator had him, and the man was pulled under and killed. That message was foolishness to him; he mocked it — but he lived to regret it.

In the same way, many people today despise the message of the cross. To some, the message of sin and the cross is a stumbling block to their pride. To others, the cross is just “foolishness.” But we need to remember that just because some people it is foolish, does not mean it is not true!

II. The Proclamation of the Cross

Despite the cross being “foolish to world, Paul says that the focus of the Christian message is the cross of Jesus.

— He says in :23 “But we preach Christ crucified”.

— And in :18 he calls the gospel: “the word of the cross.”
One of the key things we should not miss in this passage is that the cross is so identified with the gospel here that Paul calls the Christian message: “the word of the cross”. The cross is central to Christianity. It is the heart of the gospel. Christianity is all about what Jesus did on the cross. It is “the word of the cross”:

— it’s not the word of how everyone can be physically healed

— it’s not the word of how your business can succeed

— it’s not the word of “your best life now”

— it’s not the word of how you can speak in tongues

— it’s not the word of social change

— it’s not the word of the American Dream

It’s “the word of the cross”: Jesus Christ came to die on the cross to pay for our sins. That is the central message of Christianity. “It’s about the cross”!

You can’t omit the message of the cross without totally compromising Christianity. In fact, you don’t really have Christianity any more without the cross.

Because the cross is “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” to many, some have tried to “smooth it over” by taking that part out — but you can’t do that without destroying the message. It is not Christianity any more without the cross.

The cross is the “bones”, the “skeleton”, if you would, of the gospel message. It is what holds it all together. If you take the skeleton out of a body, what do you have? You don’t really have a body; you basically have a pile of mush on the floor! The same thing is true with the gospel. Take out the cross — the “skeleton” of the gospel — and all you have remaining is a pile of theological mush; you don’t have Christianity without the cross!

I fear that for perhaps a generation or so, we have tried to get away from the “foolishness” of the message of the cross. In a desire to be “relevant” and to “get more people in” many pastors and churches have backed away from the message of the cross. The idea has been: “Let’s dress cool, and soup up our music, and kinda ‘smooth over’ the message — and not really emphasize things like sin, and the cross of Jesus and we’ll draw people in.” The problem with that kind of “camouflaged Christianity” is that cool looking facilities or slogans or slick presentations can’t save people. There is only ONE thing that can save anyone, and that is the message of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Romans 10:17 says: “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” What that means is that when we share Christ — the message of the cross — it sparks faith in the hearts of people. Nothing else does that! “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”

Nothing else does that: pretty buildings don’t cause faith, friendly people don’t cause faith, our programs don’t spark faith — only the word of Christ on the cross will give birth to faith.

That is why we as Christians must be committed to proclaim the word of the cross. (And that is why Satan would have us emphasize anything other than that! He knows the only thing we can do that will really give birth to saving faith in people’s hearts is to share the cross of Christ.)

So we need to make sure that when we witness, we include the cross. It is always a good thing whenever we get to “plant a little seed” or say any good word on behalf of God. But I never really “chalk it up” in my mind as a full-fledged “witness” unless I have mentioned that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins — because THAT is the gospel. THAT is what will cause faith to rise up in hearts.

That is the one thing we must continually bear witness to: “Jesus died on the cross for our sins.”

We need to make sure that whenever we talk to people about the Lord, they understand the message of the cross. There can’t really be salvation without it.

We need to be mindful about this as we deal with children. We often try to “dumb it down” for kids, and just tell them that they “need to ask Jesus into their heart.” But we need to be careful about that. “Asking Jesus into your heart” in itself is not the gospel. We need to explain what that means: Why is Jesus not already in your heart? Because you have sinned and separated yourself from God. What did Jesus do to save you from your sins? He died on the cross to pay for our sins. THAT is what they need to understand. And THEN, knowing their sins, knowing that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, they can ask Jesus to save them, and send His Spirit into their hearts — which is “asking Jesus into their heart.” But what our kids really need to know and trust is “the message of the cross.” If they’re too young to understand the message of the cross, that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, then they’re too young to be saved. Let’s be sure that we are leading our children to the message of the cross, and that their testimony is that Jesus died on the cross to save my sins.

And it’s not only our kids — let’s make sure that the message we share with everyone is the message of the cross. Let’s keep the cross central in our church: not only hanging over the baptistry, but in our preaching, in our witnessing, in our discipleship, in our ministry — and in everything we do. May we never become a compromised, cross-less pile of mush as a church. We could take that great song that La’rel & the choir sung this morning and just plaster it across everything we do as a church: “It’s About the Cross”! Let’s make the proclamation of the cross our unchanging priority!

III. The Power of the Cross

The reason we need to emphasize the proclamation of the cross is because of the power of the cross:

:18 “But to us who are being saved it is the power of God”

:21 “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”

:24 “But to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

The cross is the power of God for salvation. The New Testament tells us a number of things about the power of the cross and what it accomplished:

— Romans 5:9 says that we are “justified” by the blood of Jesus on the cross, and “saved from the wrath of God” through it.

— Ephesians 2:16 says that through the cross God reconciled man to man, and man to God, and put to death the enmity between us.

— Colossians 1:20 says that God made peace between us & Him through the blood of the cross

— Colossians 2:15 says that God disarmed the spiritual powers, and triumphed over them through the cross.

— I Peter 2:24 says that Jesus bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.

— I John 2:2 says that the wrath of God against us for our sin was “propitiated” or satisfied through the death of Jesus on the cross.

— Colossians 2:14 says that God “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross”!

It is just like the great old hymn declares:

“My sin O the bliss of this glorious thought;

my sin not in part, but the whole,

is nailed to the cross, and I bear it more!

Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul!”

THAT is the power of the cross: you can know that your sins are forgiven, that you are right with God; that you have a home in heaven; victory over Satan, peace with God — peace even in the face of death, because of the cross.

Those of you who were here last week remember that I just finished reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor & theologian who opposed Hitler in World War II Germany. Near the end of the book, a German doctor who was there when Bonhoeffer was executed wrote about watching him die. He said that before he went to the gallows to be hanged, he knelt to the floor and prayed the most moving prayer. He then went up to the gallows “brave and composed.” The doctor later wrote: “In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

How could Bonhoeffer be so brave and composed in the face of death? It was the power of the cross of Jesus Christ that gave him peace with God, and made such a difference in his life.

But listen folks: we needn’t go way back into history to find such testimonies. We have them in our own congregation — in men like Eddie Wright and Dean Miller, who in just the past few months bravely and courageously faced death with peace in their hearts and smiles on their faces; unafraid; ready to go. I can testify of them like that German doctor did of Bonhoeffer: in 30+ years of ministry I have hardly seen men die so peacefully, so submissively to the will of God! Where did that come from? How could they do that? It was the power of the cross! These men had peace with God. They knew that Jesus had died on the cross for their sins; they knew were right with God; they knew they had nothing to fear — and so they could face death with confidence and a smile on their face! THAT is the power of the cross!
And that same power is there for you too — if you will believe it, and receive into your life.

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God”!

INVITATION:
— That power of God through the cross is not only for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eddie Wright and Dean Miller. It is for anyone who will believe. Paul wrote in another place, Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Today, if you want forgiveness of sin, and peace with God, admit your sin to God, and ask Him to save you by the power of the cross of Jesus Christ — and turn and follow Him from this day forward as His disciple.

If you are doing this for the first time today, I hope you’ll come and share that with me, and let us set up a time for you to be baptized and publicly proclaim Jesus as your Savior.

— Others of us need to recommit ourselves to proclaiming the message of the cross. You might admit that perhaps even subconsciously you have moved away from telling about the cross of Jesus, and today God is reminding you that this is the one thing you must NOT omit! Numbers of us today need to ask God to help us share “the word of the cross” in our classes, our ministries, to our children, and everyone we know.

— Maybe you know someone who needs to be saved today; who needs to put their trust in the power of the cross. Perhaps your response is to come forward and pray for them in a special way. The Apostle Paul wrote “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” Our hearts’ greatest desire should be for the salvation of those we love. This invitation time should be a time of intercession for lost people on our hearts.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
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