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A meditation on 1 Corinthians 1

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An old fisherman walks into a pub and he’s downcast. He’s been out on the lake all the previous night and not caught a single thing. He steps up to the bar and there’s a young fella in the queue ahead of him. The young fella motions to the barman and exclaims that he’s just caught his 50th trout that week. The bar erupts in appreciative applause, and the old fisherman for a moment is happy that he’s getting a free drink in hard times. But deep down there is a nagging jealousy that this youngster has caught so many fish while he has been labouring endlessly with no result.

During the course of the night the two get to talking and the old fisherman finally gets his chance to ask about the young man’s catch.

“What bait did you use?” the old man asks.

The young man wipes away the flecks of foam from his top lip, “Cheese.” he says.

The old fisherman is stunned, racking his brain trying to figure out how cheese could ever tempt a trout. “Wh-how…?”

“Easy,” the young man says, “I use a little wooden block with a metal trigger. I set the cheese at one end, the trout swims up, nibbles the cheese and WHUMP!” he bangs his fist on the table, “The critter is crushed in the trap.”

Sensing something wrong with the story, the old fisherman asks, “Do you mean…a mousetrap?

“No,” replies the young man, taking another swig, “a trout trap.”

“Well…okay…” the old fisherman raises one eyebrow, “where do you catch them?”

“Round the back.” the young man says, thumbing at a nondescript area behind him.

“Round the…back?”

“Aye,” the young man says, “out in the alley. I lay the traps down at night and in the morning they are heaving!”

“Could you…could you show me what you mean?”

“Sure.” The young man whips out his phone and scrolls through his pictures. Finally coming to a stop he flips the screen towards the old fisherman.

The old man looks at the picture, then gives a puzzled look at the young man, then back at the screen. “Son,” he says, trying to stifle a bemused laugh, “that’s a dead mouse.”

The young man sniffs and pulls his phone away. Indignantly looking down his nose at the old man he says, “Well, that’s your interpretation.”

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The church in Corinth was a church that had let go of the brakes. It has massive issues all throughout it from the lay people right through to the leadership. They were permissive of sexual immorality and refused to practice church discipline. They used the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the wrong way, causing confusion among the congregation and the world outside. There were some who even stirred the people up against Paul and his message so that he had to write twice to them to try to turn the ship around.

The predominant issue Paul is going to address, however, in the passage is the issue of divisions. We are told in verse 10-14 of 1 Corinthians 1 that the church has broken off into self-defined groups. One group prefers the teaching of Apollos. One prefers Simon Peter. Another group champions Paul. One particularly hyper-spiritual group even divides themselves by calling their faction ‘of Christ’. This is the situation Paul is wading into in this letter, and so in his opening address he pleads for them to unite around a common ground.

Paul, however, is very clear about what that common ground must be. It is actually a very narrow definition of what should unite them. He doesn’t call on people to simplify their beliefs down to “God is love” and “God wants you to be united”. Even though both of these are true, they both leave room for each faction to reinterpret to their own presuppositions. No, Paul calls them to unite around one, central theme, and it’s that theme which is the focus of this study.

Verse 18 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.

v22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, v23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentile, v24 but those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

See Paul never calls for unity for unity’s sake. This is the call of the ecumenical movement: that matters of the atonement, salvation and justification don’t matter so long as there is unity. This opinion has been championed of late by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in recent days, among others. But the Bible does not call for unity for unity’s sake. In fact, as you read Paul you will see that there are times when God clearly calls for division from certain things and certain teachings (Galatians 1:8-9, Romans 16-17, 1 Timothy 1:3-5).

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Therefore it matters infinitely not just that we have unity in the church, but what we are being called to unify with. In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul is abundantly clear. We are to be unified in our message, and that message is Christ and him crucified.

And nobody wants to hear it.

That’s what we get from verse 22. See the dilemma Paul is in here. The people outside the church in Corinth don’t want to hear the message Paul is preaching. What do they want instead?

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom

We’ve already seen how the church had started to pride themselves on their great teachers like Apollos, like Peter, like Paul and even Jesus. This is what has brought division. Casting aside the explicit message of the gospel they taught Paul, Apollos, Peter and Christ as if they were another one of the great philosophers. “Come hear Apollos: the next Aristotle!” “Cephas: the heir to Socrates!” “These are people,” they’d say, “who can teach us the way of wisdom!”

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And so the message of the gospel is replaced with a how-to manual. How to live “Your Best Life Now”, how to be “Purpose-driven”, “You too can be like David if you follow these 5 steps!” There are entire churches and ministries today who are based around this message – and it comes from a denial of sin in the heart of man. Gnosticism teaches us that man’s salvation lies in his education, that the way of knowledge, of enlightenment, is the true way to God. That mankind is essentially good and just needs to be taught the right path. The Bible does not teach us that the root of mankind’s problem is a lack of wisdom, or of purpose, but it is that they are wicked sinners in need of a saviour. “Ryan that’s foolish,” you might say, “people don’t actually believe that anymore! We know men are essentially good. They need helped from their brokenness and poverty and hunger. Preaching against sin is just silly!” And you would be just like the Gentiles who tell Paul that the preaching of the cross is ‘foolishness’.

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There is another group Paul is preaching to who want something else. This is where it got interesting for me when I was examining the text. The Jews, we are told, demand a sign. Just like they did back during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 2:18) they will not believe unless they see a sign. This has led the Corinthian church to make a public spectacle of their use of the miraculous gifts that Paul is going to address in chapters 11 through to 14.

“But it’s what they want!” the church might reply, “It’s how we can get them into the church, Paul! What’s wrong with giving them what they want?” It is true, in fact the gospel without some sort of miraculous sign is a “stumbling block” to them. They can’t make that leap between what they hear and what they can’t bring themselves to believe.

Notice something very striking here.

Paul refers to two people groups. The Jews and the Gentiles. From his perspective in the world of the early church, there is no one else. This is 100% of Paul’s audience: Jews and Gentiles, and neither of them want to hear the gospel. Paul identifies both as a way of referring to everybody in the world at the time. Do you see the conflict here for the early church? They are tasked with preaching a message which, on the face of things, looks like everyone is rejecting. Neither the Jews nor Gentiles want the message of Christ crucified. “Wow us with miracles, instruct us with wise words, but don’t convict our hearts with the cross of Christ!”

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Do you feel the pressure the church is under? You can almost understand them sitting down in a meeting and saying, “Look, nobody is buying this. Why don’t we start by finding out what they want us to give them, and then meet that need and by that way we’ll see people come into the church. Our message would be more effective if we just became a little more seeker-sensitive.

Just like the young fisherman in our story, you can hear his condescension when he admonishes the older man just to change his bait, and his location, and then he’ll catch loads of fish! The problem is that the young man is not catching fish at all, because he’s actually the one using the wrong bait. On the face of things his methods are extremely effective, but they are wrong.

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My favourite panel in all of comic book history

Yet Paul, rather than embrace this, stands resolute against it. You can see this is his repetition of the clause here and in chapter 2, “but we preach Christ crucified“. Paul has no interest in being ‘seeker-sensitive’. On the battlefield of evangelism he is not budging one inch away from his original message. He has no intention of changing the bait. He is more concerned with remaining obedient to his calling (verse 1) than to gaining a following.

This is not the first time God has done this either. Back in Isaiah 6 we see the prophet Isaiah confronted by the glory and majesty of the Lord so much so that he is completely undone. Then we have the well-preached passage where God asks for someone to go for Him and Isaiah replies “Here am I, send me!” and everyone wipes away a tear and goes out and joins the mission field and hurrah! Only I’ve rarely heard a minister finish that chapter. What exactly is the mission that God gives to Isaiah?

And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

“‘Keep on hearing,[c] but do not understand;
keep on seeing,[d] but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,[e]
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”

I mean, you can just hear the gulp as Isaiah listens to this commission. Imagine a new pastor hearing this mission, “Go and tell people to keep on being deaf and blind. Make their hearts dull and their senses useless in case they turn and repent and be healed.”

Isaiah has enough in the tank at this point to ask, “How long do I have to do this for?” To which God replies in verse 11:

“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is a desolate waste,

 

The news just doesn’t get better. Isaiah’s mission, his job, is to preach to a people none of whom will accept him. None of them will repent right up until God destroys the land and takes them off into slavery. In this commission, Isaiah’s job is not to get bums on seats. His success is not measured by how many people come forward at the end of his rallies, because God tells him from the start that no one will. Isaiah, like Paul, has been given a mission from God and his success depends on his faithfulness to it – nothing else.

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Church, have you sacrificed the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified for popularity?

There are whole church movements who are built around this – performing signs and wonders to attract the unbelieving world. “Doing the stuff,” as John Wimber would call it. “Power evangelism” as Robbie Dawkins would say. “Manifesting the power of God” as Bill Johnson would say via Smith Wigglesworth. What they mean is operating the miraculous gifts of prophecy and healing (and several other things not found in scripture).

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Notice, however, that in our chapter there is a distinction made between “signs” in verse 22 and “the power of God” in verse 24. Paul will also mention this phrase (“the power of God”) in Romans 1:16. In both passages Paul makes the case that signs and wonders aren’t what he means when he says “the power of God”. I am sorry to disappoint Messrs Wimber, Dawkins, Johnson, Wigglesworth et al., but Paul describes the gospel of Christ crucified as the power of God, not signs and wonders. How do we “manifest the power of God”? We preach the gospel. How do we conduct “power evangelism”? We preach the gospel. How do we “do the stuff”? We preach the gospel.

 

“But this is totally ineffective,” you might say. “Everyone either thinks it’s really stupid, or can’t understand it. At least with signs, or with wisdom people can actually see the benefit of what we are doing. How are we ever going to get people into church if all we do is preach Christ crucified?”

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The answer is found in verse 24. Paul says in 23 that the Jews in general think it’s a stumbling block, the Gentiles in general think that it is foolishness, but Paul doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to say in verse 24 “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (emph. mine) That is the reason that Paul preaches Christ crucified! If he were to merely perform signs, or teach wisdom, he would get loads of people to come, but not have them transformed by the power of God. If he preaches Christ crucified, he gets fewer people to come, but they are transformed by the power of God! Who are these fewer people? They are those whom God has called. They are those given to the son from before the foundation of the world, the elect, the ones the Father has chosen to show his mercy to. They are saved by the power of the gospel and nothing else.

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So we preach Christ crucified. We do not waiver from the message that our sins have been cleansed, we have been forgiven of our rebellion and treason against the most high God of the universe by the broken body and shed blood of his son Jesus on the cross. We are all drawn nigh to God through his shed blood alone. There is no more dividing partition between ourselves and the Father. No pope, priest, prophet nor anyone else stands before God for us – we are welcomed in through the blood of the lamb, and at the same time sent out to be messengers of this great love that we have been shown. That love that caused a perfect, sinless lamb of God to willingly lay down his life for those who cursed his name, spat on his face and nose-dived towards a lost eternity before he stooped to save us. The riches of his grace and mercy that he lavishes upon his elect to be called sons of the living God. The blessing of being trusted with his gospel to go out into the world and roll back the darkness wherever it may be found in the hope of a promised eternal inheritance.

 

Compared to that, signs, and wisdom, seem pretty cheap.

 

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

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