In surveying Paul’s letters to churches he planted, I have been pointing out lessons we can learn about following up with churches we have planted. In studying 1 Corinthians, we see two primary concerns that Paul sought to clarify and correct. The first is the need to keep the cross central and is the focus of this post. The second is the place of culture in Christian proclamation and life and will be the subject of the next post.
The cross was central to his message
Paul summarized his message as “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). As he said just a few verses earlier (1 Cor. 1:17), it is the power of the cross that is central to the Christian message. The word of the cross is the power of God that saves us (1 Cor. 1:18). This message that Jesus Christ was crucified distinguishes Christianity from Judaism and all other religions. In writing about the uniqueness of the gospel message, Leon Morris notes,
It was the place of Jesus that made the difference. To see him as Messiah was to put everything in a new perspective. Not only did the Christians see him as Messiah, but as the crucified Messiah. For them the central thing was the cross, so that Paul could sum up the message he proclaimed in the words, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1:23). Whatever subordinate and incidental issues were involved, the essential difference between Judaism and Christianity was the cross (for that matter it is the cross that is the difference between every other religion and Christianity). 1Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its meaning and Significance, p. 11.
All Paul’s teaching is cross-centered
When Paul proclaimed the “testimony of God” among the Corinthians, he determined to focus on “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1,2). It would have been an incomplete message to just talk about the miracles and teaching of Jesus without the cross. D. A. Carson comments on 1 Cor. 2:2,
This does not mean that this was a new departure for Paul, still less that Paul was devoted to blissful ignorance of anything and everything other than the cross. No, what he means is that all he does and teaches is tied to the cross. He cannot long talk about Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the Christian doctrine of God, or anything else, without tying it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross-centered. 2D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, p. 37,38.
So Paul emphasizes the cross in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians. The message of this cross is God’s wisdom, although it is “a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). In the middle of the letter, he points out that the central act of fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, is a celebration that “proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 8:26). This emphasis shows up at the end of the letter as well.
The cross, not human wisdom
Apparently, the Corinthians really admired “eloquent words of wisdom.” In contrast, Paul avoided this type of wisdom because it would distract from the centrality of the cross (1 Cor. 1:17). Human wisdom is not the source of our life in Christ. Paul wants the faith of the Corinthians to rest in the power of God, not in human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:4-5). Focusing on human messengers rather than the cross of Christ created divisions in the church (1 Cor. 1:11-17; 3:1-23). Paul asks “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Paul corrects the Corinthians’ preoccupation with human wisdom, eloquence, and status, emphasizing the cross of Christ as the defining factor in the church.
The cross was central to the Gospel
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, Paul returns to the gospel he proclaimed at Corinth. The Corinthians received this gospel (v.1). They also stand in this gospel (v.1). This gospel saves them (v.2). Paul then outlines the gospel truths of first importance in 1 Cor. 15:3-5. The gospel is that Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised from the dead on the third day, and he appeared to a number of people. His death for our sins and the resurrection on the third day are both “in accordance with the Scriptures.” His burial confirms his death and his appearances confirm his resurrection.
Paul certainly includes all this when he writes in 1 Corinthians 1:23 “we preach Christ crucified.” Throughout the letters of Paul, he uses the cross or the resurrection as a kind of shorthand for the gospel that includes these essential truths. The work of Christ for us on the cross and in his resurrection are the matters of first importance that are foundational for the church. As Ciampa and Rosner write in their commentary on 1 Corinthians,
Paul’s recounting of the gospel message reflects the fact that it is first and foremost a message about Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, rather than a message primarily about us and how we can be saved. It is Christ’s story which gives meaning to our lives, not our story which gives meaning to Christ’s life. 3Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, p. 745.
The cross is central to the Christian life
Christ’s death and resurrection are not only important for entry into the Christian faith and church. They are also central to the ongoing life of the church and individual believers. Ciampa and Rosner comment,
As Paul demonstrates throughout chapters 1-4, the cross is the key both to the initial establishment and ongoing moral renewal of the church. Any doctrine of the cross that treats it only as the entry point into the Christian life is seriously deficient. 4Ciampa and Rosner, p. 154.
As Paul says in 1 Cor 15:2, we are “being saved” by this message. In the rest of chapter 15, Paul makes it clear that the gospel falls apart if Christ did not die for our sins and rise again on the third day.
Keeping the cross central today
Some cultures may find it difficult to accept that Jesus died and rose again. The majority view within Islam is that Jesus did not die on the cross. Secular cultures may struggle to accept the idea of a literal physical resurrection. But given the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection in Paul’s message, we must not minimize this core teaching in order to accommodate cultures where it may appear like a stumbling block or folly.
Gospel workers cannot talk long about Jesus without mentioning the cross and resurrection. We need to lay this solid foundation and remind ourselves and the churches we leave behind that apart from the cross and the resurrection, Christianity is meaningless.
Just as Paul did not rely on human wisdom or rhetoric to convey his message, so our methods and programs need to be consistent with Christ crucified. The only foundation for the church is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11) and we need to carefully build on that foundation.
Foundational for unity
It is the cross that grounds the unity in the church. The divisions in Corinth resulted from identifying with a favorite teacher rather than Christ (1 Cor. 3:3-5). Do our methods and programs direct believers to trust in the cross? Keeping the cross central will strengthen churches to live in unity. As trustworthy stewards of the gospel, may our efforts in church-planting focus on God who gives the increase through the message of the cross.
Addresses immorality and idolatry
Moral purity and departing from idolatry also have their roots in the cross. The reason we are to avoid sexual immorality is that we “were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Remembering the price (Christ’s death on the cross) is a powerful motivation for healthy moral purity in our own lives and in the life of the church. Likewise idolatry is incompatible with our hope in the blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:14-22).
We will do well in following Paul’s agenda for the Corinthian church as summarized by Ciampa and Rosner:
The proclamation of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is a call to enter the new eschatological age established in and by him. It demands that all people submit in unity to Christ, living out true wisdom of the other-person-centered lifestyle of the cross. They must abandon sexual immorality and idolatry and instead worship the one true God. The goal of all of this is the glory of God. The Gentiles’ lives will be characterized by expectant hope for the final consummation of God’s glory (and so their own glorification) in the future bodily resurrection.5Ciampa and Rosner, 18.