Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
What Man Thinks Of The CrossDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 10, 1996
Selected highlights from this sermon
The cross was the remarkable plan of God, and it divided humanity into two camps.
There are those that hate it and find it offensive. It testifies to humanity’s failure, showing us our need for divine intervention. Put simply, the cross stands against the pride and wisdom of humanity.
But there are others who adore the cross and find hope with a new view of the world. Let us look to the cross and claim the revealed power of God by faith.
Whenever I am on a plane, I like, if possible, to talk to the person next to me about Christ. This summer my wife and I were riding together on a plane, and across the aisle from me there was a woman who had a necklace with a cross. Ever wanting to be the person to build a bridge into people’s lives and to try to find out where they might be spiritually, I said to her, “Thank you for wearing that cross.” I said, “We really do have a great Savior, don’t we?” And she looked at me and she said, “Well, I don’t think that I maybe understand the cross like you do.” She said, “Look at this,” and she took the necklace (the pendants) and put them in her hand and she said, “Under the cross there is a Jewish star, and behind the Jewish star there is a little trinket to the Hindu god, Om.” She said, “I am in social work and I’ve discovered that people come to God in many different ways.”
You can imagine the interesting discussion we had for the next 20 minutes as the plane was coming into a landing in Pittsburgh, as I had the opportunity to explain to her that you can put the cross on the same necklace as the god Om and other religions, but in reality they can never be together. To think that the cross can be combined with other religions is to totally misunderstand it, and to empty it of its power in your life.
Can the cross be combined with other religions? Do we understand the cross if we think that that is possible? I want you to know today that the cross is a great divide. On the one hand there are those who believe in it, who have an eternal destiny with God forever - those who understand it – not just those who pray a little prayer but those who understand it. And on the other hand there are those who despise it, though they think they honor it. After all, they may wear it as a necklace, but nevertheless they despise its message and they will spend eternity elsewhere, and never the twain shall meet – ever.
The cross! What does man think of the cross? It is a scandal beyond irony that the very cross in which the Apostle Paul gloried and which means so much to God, as we learned last time, can mean so little to people, and that what God honors, men often despise.
The passage I want you to turn to is 1 Corinthians 1. The city of Corinth was situated, of course, not too far from Athens. Some of us have been there. And the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the fledgling church, which was once again one of those islands of righteousness in a sea of immorality. And he talks about the wisdom of this world.
You’ll notice in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul says, “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. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 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 Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Why does Paul bash human wisdom like he does? Well, there are two reasons. First of all, the problem rests in man’s mind. It isn’t that we’re not smart. Just think of pocket calculators. Think of putting men on the moon. Think of all these technological discoveries, computers and the Internet and viruses and all the other things we have to put up with in life. Of course people are smart. The problem is that when they get beyond the physical and the mechanical and the scientific, and they begin to speculate in that realm, which is sometimes called metaphysics, they do not have the building blocks upon which to construct the system to figure the world out.
For example, if you had only the world you would never conclude that God loved it. You could not possibly conclude that based upon what is happening in Rwanda and other countries of the world, and where you see earthquakes and floods and devastations. You would never know how God was to be approached. You would know very little about Him. And that’s why you have today, as people cut themselves off from biblical revelation, pragmatism, and relativism and individualism because we are all like those ants that I’ve told you about on a Rembrandt painting who noticed the roughness of the canvas, and the change of color beneath their feet, but they had no idea what the whole picture looked like. Men have a lot of knowledge, and when it comes to the things of this world, they have a lot of wisdom. But when they speculate about God there is no way for them to possibly understand Him.
The problem is man’s mind. The other problem, of course, is man’s heart. We, at root, do not want to really understand God anyway. We are, at root, running from God because we are desire driven. Take, for example, the issue that consumes a lot of our time, attention and prayer, the issue of abortion. As you know, all of the evidence (theological, physiological, philosophical and medical) is on our side in this debate that preborn infants are actually infants. And the amazing thing though is there are people who see this evidence and they still take a different position, and they still are in favor of the killing of preborn infants under certain circumstances. Now why would that be when all the evidence is there? It’s because there is something within the human heart that says, “I can discard the evidence when I want to do what I want to do, and believe what I want to believe,” because fundamentally there is an unwillingness to believe, even despite the evidence. Remember that. We are all desire driven, much more so than we are willing to admit.
Years ago I remember reading a story of a man who was going to hire a secretary, so he asked his assistant to do a battery of tests on three secretaries – their typing skills, their aptitude and their experience. And after all of the tests were done, the assistant brought him all the information and said, “Here’s all the information.” The man said, “Just discard it. I’m going to hire that beautiful brunette.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter what the evidence says. I want to do what I want to do, and that’s the nature of the human heart. And so the world by wisdom knows not God. The little that it knows about God it discards because at root we do not want to be subject to the Lord our God.
Now what I’d like to do in the next few moments is to show you scripturally, as we look at this passage, why it is that the wisdom of this world and the thoughts of this world clash so pointedly with the message of the cross. And we pick up the text where I left off reading where the Apostle Paul says in verse 22, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, (and then you have to read verse 23 because they are connected together) but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”
First of all, the cross runs counter and clashes with the pride of man, as represented by the Jews. The Jews sought for signs. The Jews were put off by the weakness of Jesus Christ. Far from being convinced that Jesus was the Messiah because He died on a cross, far from that convincing them, it did just the opposite. They said to themselves, “Who in the world would like to be aligned with somebody who is a loser? If the Messiah comes, surely He is going to be killing the Romans. The Romans are not going to be killing Him.” Scripture says that Jesus was crucified in weakness. I mean, there He hangs helplessly and nobody is delivering Him. “Who can believe in a man like that?” the Jews said. He is weak. Furthermore they said, “Give us a sign.” You know, they, of course, wanted a Messiah who was politically strong. They wanted a Messiah who would come and throw off the Roman occupation, and all those taxes. Every denarius that was paid was paid in anger and resentment to a foreign power, and they wanted political deliverance, and they wanted it right now.
Furthermore, they said, “Give us a sign that we might believe Thee.” They kept pestering Him as recorded in the Gospels. What they wanted to do was to find somebody who could do anything that they wanted, and any miracle that they would suggest. It was just like Pilate, as we learned last time, who said, “Give me a sign. Do something.” And Jesus kept silent, and this reticence of Christ, this hesitancy, really bothered the Jews. And they said, “If He’s the Messiah, why doesn’t He do those big miracles that we think He should?”
Years later there was someone who came along who said he would be able to part the Jordan River by his word, and he gathered a whole group of disciples at the Jordan River, and commanded it to stop flowing. As you guessed, it continued to flow. And then there was another man who took 30,000 people to the top of the Mount of Olives and said, “When you are here at my command, the walls of Jerusalem are going to collapse.” Well, the walls didn’t collapse. That’s the kind of a sign the Jews were looking for. “Give us something big.” Jesus said, “There shall no sign be given to you except the sign of the prophet, Jonah, because as he was three days in the heart of the fish, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth.” Jesus said, “The resurrection is my final, most complete, and best verified sign you’re ever going to get.”
Throughout the history of the Church, this has been a question. How many signs do we need in order to believe? There’s been even a whole movement called Signs and Wonders. This was a problem for the Reformers because when they began to look at the Bible, and they began to peel away layers of tradition to get to the message of the cross, Rome said, “But you don’t have miracles, and we do. We have statues that weep. And we have relics that multiply themselves, and you have nothing.” The Reformers said, “To us the power is in the message itself, for it pleases God through the Word preached to save those that believe.” It has always been that question.
New Agers today like to say, “We have signs.” I remember that years ago when Billy Graham was in India, there was a Hindu priest who challenged him to a healing duel. They were supposed to line up all these sick people and see who could heal the most the fastest. Well I think Billy was wise in not taking him up on it. This man may have had some very interesting alien powers by which he may have been able to pull off some (quote) miracles, and Billy might not have looked very good in that context.
But it is, you see, through the message that is preached. And New Agers say, “We have the miracles,” and people are saying today, “Maybe what the Church needs is a whole bunch of miracles.” The Apostle Paul says, “You know, the Jews are looking for signs, and they are missing the whole point.” It’s not that we don’t have an explosive, powerful message, but it is the message itself of the crucified Christ that does the miracle and does the great work, and there is a miracle for you. So first of all, the cross clashes with our pride and our desire to believe in somebody who is going to do all these marvelous things that were expected when He was on earth.
The cross also clashes with our wisdom. “The Greeks seek for wisdom.” Now if you know anything about Greece, it gave us Plato and Aristotle, two of the smartest men who have ever lived (period). Nobody, I don’t believe, has ever philosophically reached his or her heights. Whole dissertations today are still being written about Plato and Aristotle. And yet, you know that Plato and Aristotle (and the Greeks in general) believed that God was a god of apathea. You do catch the word, don’t you? It’s the word apathetic. You see, reasoning from the world to God, they concluded that God could really have no contact with the world, and that He was a God without emotion. He could not be affected. He could never be changed. He could not possibly be interested in human beings. That would be to denigrate Him, they taught. And then most of all they said that there is no way that the Word, that God could ever become flesh, because in their view whenever you had flesh, which had changeability, you had imperfection. So when John writes in chapter 1, verse 14, “And the Word was made flesh,” that phrase was like an explosion in the philosophical world of that day which said, “Yes, God became man.” And the Greeks stood back and said, “Absolutely unthinkable! It does not fit with our conception of God and with our conception of good and evil.”
Now there were two different kinds of Greeks. There were the Epicureans, who were, of course, the hedonists of the day, but they were also the materialists. They were the Carl Sagans. You know, “The Universe is all that ever was and ever will be.” That’s where they ended.
And then there were those who were the stoics, and they were the New Agers of the day. They were into physic energy. They were into astrology. They were into believing that the soul becomes one and loses its identity with the Universe in a great oneness. By the way, you did hear about the New Ager, did you not, who went into a hamburger shop and said to the man, “Please make me one with everything?” Am I going too fast for some of you? (laughter)
When the Apostle Paul was on Mars Hill and was preaching there, he was preaching to both groups, just like we do today. We preach to the materialists and we also preach to the New Agers. But there was one thing that they really did agree on, and that was that salvation was through ideas. Salvation was through human wisdom. Salvation was a matter of knowing things that we could figure out on our own. They were scandalized at the thought that God had to reveal to us something we didn’t know, because after all, we know enough, number one. And number two, they were offended at the very notion that God had to come to redeem man because we were that bad off. And their big thing was that man’s problem is not sin. It is simply ignorance, and the answer to man is more knowledge, so they could not accept the cross. And to them it was plain foolishness.
So you see the cross clashes with our pride. It clashes with our wisdom. It also clashes with our values. Read this. “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not (That’s what He has chosen.), to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
In the early Church there were many different converts. In fact, Pliny tells us that people were converted from all different walks of life, and you had some who were rich and you had some who were poor, and some who were educated. But by and large, Christianity flourished among the lower class. It always has. It flourished there, not because it is intellectually indefensible, but usually those who are going through tough times recognize their needs. And remember that there were many slaves in the Empire in those days. And a slave, according to Greek teaching, was a tool. A slave was a thing without any rights, without any value, except insofar as he helped his master. That was all. In fact, it was incredibly cruel. Even the children of slaves (if they had children) were considered to be owned by the owner, and the parents were not considered the owner of their own children. It was tragic but, you see, it was the remarkable truth of Christianity (and the surprising good news) that it is exactly those kinds of people that God often calls to greatness, because there are not many wise according to the flesh. There are some but not many. Not many mighty are called, and not many noble. Do you remember Queen Victoria? She said, “Thank God for the letter M.” And she said that when she read this text she was so thankful that it did not say, “Not any noble are called,” but said, “not many,” because she was among the called. Since that time there have been some members of that royal family that at least, looking across the ocean, it appears as if they are not yet called.
But nevertheless it says not many mighty, not many noble, but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. And God comes along and takes a slave who was anybody in this life and elevates him to be a somebody, to be a son and a daughter of God Almighty. And Christianity taught that you might not matter in this life at all, but you matter to God, and that God sometimes, to scandalize the human mind, takes people whom we think are great and mighty and wonderful, and they think that about themselves too, and He bypasses them and He goes to the needy and the downcast and the nothings of this world, and He makes something out of them. He loves the unlovely and He elevates the lowly.
It was Bonhoeffer who said that Christianity teaches the unending worth of the apparently worthless, and the unending worthlessness of that which is apparently very valuable. That’s the genius of it. And why does God do it this way? He does it so that no flesh shall boast before God, and so that nobody can ever say it is because of my wisdom or it’s because of who I am. It is all because of His grace. It is all because of His mercy. It is all because of the depth of His undeserved love that He has made us what we are, and that’s the message of the cross. It runs so counter to human wisdom.
To summarize – three lessons! First, the cross, you see, is considered foolishness because it is actually a witness to our failure. The Jews failed. The Greeks failed. We fail. We are all equally under sin. We are all equally in need, and the world does not want to hear that. Do you know what most people believe? They believe that they were born normal. By the way, have you ever wondered what normal is? Have you ever met anybody who is normal? Do you know the name of anybody who is normal? But they believe that they were born normal, and all of their hang-ups are because of what other people have done to them. See, that’s what they believe, and there are some people today who struggle greatly because of terrible things that have been done to them. But the point is that we have to understand that we were born sinners already – born in trespasses and sin, born dead toward God. And unless God were to quicken us and enliven us, and grant us the gift of faith, we would stay that way, and the cross, therefore, as it is preached, is despised, and thought of as foolishness. That’s why it’s not very popular today - the idea that there has to be a sin bearer for us. And people say, “I’m not that bad. Thank you. It may be necessary for you, but not for me.”
So first of all, the cross is a witness to our failure. Secondly, to accept the cross is really to accept a whole new worldview. It is a whole new way of seeing the world, and seeing God. Think of that woman to whom I witnessed, the one who was wearing the cross of Christ, and also a pendant to the god Om. Think of what she needs to do in order to believe in Christ. Now mind you, we could have maybe had a little prayer on the plane. I could have convinced her that what she needs to do is to pray to Jesus. And she could have said, “Oh yeah, sure, I’ll pray to Him. Yeah, I have nothing against Him. It’s just that I have all these other gods too.” And if she had said that, she would not have believed, and the cross in her life would have been of no effect whatever. What she needs is a whole new vision of God. She needs to see God’s holiness; the fact that He is so holy and so far removed from us in terms of moral holiness that there is no way that we can just come to Him on our own terms.
Luther spoke about the mystics in his day that thought that they could come to God on the ladder of their own works to see God naked, talking about those who think that the cross does not have to intervene. Why, there are many different ways to get to Him - somebody who believes that has not yet seen the cross. They have not seen the holiness of God, and they most assuredly have not seen themselves. That’s why it’s so important, you know, to get people lost before they are saved, because, if so, they’ll be praying prayers that are meaningless down the road because they have not seen the fact that the cross of Jesus Christ is not just a bridge to God. The cross of Christ is the bridge to God, and there can be none other. None, because there is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved. There is none other. It’s like thinking to yourself, as you come to a door, that it doesn’t matter what key you use because somehow there is a lock on the door and all keys fit. No, the door to heaven has only one key that fits and that is the cross of Christ when He died for sinners and became the sin bearer of those who believe.
So do you see in our post-modern day how people don’t understand the Gospel at all? They may say wonderful things about Christ, and this lady is going to have to learn some day that actually the more you add to the cross, the more you subtract from it. The minute you try to amalgamate it and bring it in with another view, you dilute its power, and that its power is in the purity of its message. The cross of Christ!
And then third, and most important, the cross is the power of God. It is the power of God. This message is [the power of God]. You see, what I fear is that when we come now to the end of the message, there are some of you who will say, “Well, you know, if what you say is true, why should I bother to witness? Why should I bother telling people about Christ because you are saying they consider it foolishness? They see it as something that goes to the heart of who they really are as sinners, and they don’t want to acknowledge that. Why should I bother?” Well, if that’s your conclusion, you most assuredly have missed the point of it all.
Notice what the text says in verse 21: “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Don’t get hung up on the word preach to think that you have to preach a sermon. “The folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Yes, it is a scandal. Yes, by some it is considered to be foolishness, but it is exactly at that point that its genius is most clearly seen, and its power is released. It is then that it explodes in people’s hearts. That’s why I am not discouraged if people don’t immediately believe.
That woman for whom I prayed several times after I witnessed to her on the plane, who knows but by now she has already come to saving faith in Christ, not only because I left a witness with her and explained why the cross has to stand alone, but I also gave her a copy of book I like to carry with me entitled How You Can Be Sure That You Will Spend Eternity with God which she promised she would read. Who knows? There are many people who think that the cross is foolish but you present the message and it begins to wear on their soul, and they begin to think about it, and God begins to change their heart, and somewhere down the road they come to saving faith in Christ. And the message that they thought was stupid is now a message of strength and glory and liberation and power and release and blessing. That’s where its power lies – in the content of explaining the Gospel.
Do you realize that there are thousands of people in America every single day that come to saving faith in Jesus Christ? Thousands of them, scattered throughout this nation! And if you were to add all those throughout the whole world, there are tens of thousands of people throughout the entire world – in all the different countries of the world – who every day experience the power of the cross.
Yesterday I was at a meeting where a couple shared for a half an hour. It was quite an experience. They talked about an impossible marriage. They were both into the drug scene not only because they used drugs, but also they actually sold drugs. And so because they didn’t know whether they should be married they lived together for six years, and because they had so many arguments they thought, “You know, if we get married maybe our arguments will stop.” How do you like that? Now that’s really the wisdom of the world. I mean, now we’re talking really wise.
Well, of course, the arguments didn’t stop, and then they thought to themselves, “Maybe if we had a baby, then our arguments would stop.” So they had a baby – a little girl – but eventually he left and began to live with other women and go back to his lifestyle and do drugs again. But meanwhile she became friends with some Christians who introduced her to Christ, and now she said she was going to Bible studies, and people would say to her at work, “What are you doing for an exciting evening?” and she said, “I was a woman who got blitzed every night, and now I tell them I am going to a Bible study.” And they thought, “Well, that really is foolish.” As long as you are into drugs you are not stupid, but to go to a Bible study, now that is stupid.”
For 3 1/2 years she hung onto that marriage with an entire church praying for her husband. He became friends with the pastor. The pastor shared with him. They became friends. You see the purpose of friendship evangelism is not to dilute the message of the cross. It is to build some credibility so that we can get people’s ear. And that’s what the pastor did. You can’t just dump the message on them and expect people to respond to it. They’ve got all of these misconceptions. They wonder who we are. They wonder who this strange person is that loves the Bible and goes to Moody Church. It takes a while for them before they actually know that you are authentic and that you are believable. And it gives you then the right to share the Gospel. Well that’s what happened. He came to saving faith in Christ five years ago, and he stood up there just in tears telling what God had done in their lives and how He restored trust in their marriage. That’s the power of the cross. No other message can do that. There’s no way that we can turn to some theory to say that that’s what is going to happen. Why? It pleases God. He said that when the pastor asked him about his relationship with God, he was offended. He said, “I was a good Lutheran.” But it pleases God by the foolishness of the message shared to save those who believe. What a message.
And at the very time when the Evangelical church should be excited about this message, it is losing its nerve. We cast about, looking for an answer to our problems. We think it is in politics, or we think that surely the answer to people’s problems is in psychology, or it’s in taking the cross and dressing it up, and making it look a little better so that we can have some real entertainment. Now that will really do it! We are looking for some way to do something because our nation is in such need. And God says, “I’m pleased by the foolishness of that message to save those who believe.” Jesus was not crucified between two candles in a cathedral. Jesus was crucified on a cross that was in an area that was so cosmopolitan that the message above His cross had to be written in three different languages – Hebrew, Greek and Latin.
He was crucified in a place called “The Place of a Scull” because so many sculls apparently had been there. It was kind of the garbage heap of Jerusalem, and that’s where He died. And when He died there, there was one thief on one side, and there was another thief on the other. And you remember the one who was on one side represents all those who reject the cross of Christ. Do you remember what he said? He said, “If you are the Son of God, well then come down from the cross and save us. Show us a sign that we might believe Thee.” On the other side there was a man who said to the guy across the way as they were dying, “Look, you’d better watch what you are saying. The man is innocent, and you and I are dying because we deserve it. But this man didn’t do anything amiss.” And then he turns to Jesus, and what does he say? He says, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Think of the faith that man had. It was much greater faith than you and I need to believe on Christ, because he never even saw the resurrection. All that he saw was a man who was dying who was in the same mess as he was. Christ appeared to be as helpless as the thief next to Him. But he saw in that death something that was for him. He saw the cross and just said, “Remember me.”
Now you think about it. Jesus died before he [the thief] did because it says that when the soldiers came they found out and they were surprised that Jesus had died already, and the other two guys had not yet died. The soldiers made sure they did. But you know what that means, don’t you? It means that when that thief died, the first person he saw when he got to Paradise was Jesus there, waiting for him. What a message! It pleases God, by the foolishness of the cross, to save those who believe.
And we can say with William Cowper,
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day,
But there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
And there at the cross when Jesus Christ died, He did something for sinners that no other god can ever do. He died for us, and if you believe, He died for you. And even in this great auditorium today there are probably dozens of people who have never believed on Christ. You have never finally ended all of the jockeying for control of your life, to say, “Lord Jesus, if You died for sinners, I receive You as mine,” that you also may be in Paradise. It pleases God from the foolishness of the message to save you if you believe.
Let us pray.
Our Father, we thank You today for the message in all of its starkness, and in all of its revoltedness (if I can say that) of a Man dying – gruesome, blood, sweat and smells. And yet, Father, as we look at that event, we say with the Apostle Paul, “God forbid that I should glory in anything except the cross of Christ.” Thank You for taking a moment of darkness and turning it into a moment of blazing light. We pray that even today You might reach out and call some to Yourself.
And now this is your opportunity to pray again. Do you want to reach out to God? Wherever you are, you say, “Pastor Lutzer, right now I believe on Christ. I give up all attempts to save myself. I know that God is holy and that I am a sinner. And right now, as best as I know how, I transfer all of my trust to the One who died on the middle cross.” You tell Him that right now.
Father, in grace we pray that You might complete the work that has been begun, and may no one leave here today without knowing that they belong to You forever. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.