This material, with some additions, was presented at the New England Christian Conference. Note: Tom and Sheila currently reside in Nashville, Tennessee.
As we make our way into this topic that I have titled "The Two Sides of the Cross," I want to take us into three passages of Scripture. My goal is to help us see a deep and fundamental truth that takes us to the heart of God and to the heart of Jesus' message.
1 Corinthians 1:18-30
I want us to start with 1 Corinthians 1. Paul had planted this church, spent more time (eighteen months) there than he did on average. But by the time he writes the letter he has been gone for a while and is hearing disturbing news about some of the ways Christians are living and treating each other. To get them back on track spiritually he takes them to the heart of the Christian message.
In verse 18 he says: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
The dramatic contrast between what the world thinks and what God thinks can be seen right here. The message of the cross is God's surprising, sometimes scandalous and oftentimes offensive message to those looking at life just through human eyes. It looks weak to those who think religion is about signs and miracles and powers. It looks very unsophisticated to those who think religion is primarily about knowledge and fine-sounding arguments. To both groups the message of the cross has a ring of foolishness. But to another group of people -- often ignored or ridiculed and sometimes despised by the world -- it is the power of God.
Paul is wasting no time in getting down to what the Corinthian church needed to hear and what the disturbing things among them indicated they were forgetting or no longer embracing. Certainly speaking to the trends he saw at work in the church there in v. 20 he asks: "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"
Man in his so-called wisdom and knowledge and use of his intellect, misses the point of life and how to live it, and God's verdict on the "wisdom of the world" is that it is foolishness.
In v 21 he tells us that the world in its wisdom did know God. Man can figure out a lot of things. I enjoy watching the History Channel and enjoy one of their programs called "Modern Marvels." A recent episode was on the amazing bridges that have built around the world. Just two weeks ago, our family went to Rhode Island for a weekend and on the trip crossed two of those impressive structures -- The Pell Bridge (or Newport bridge) and the Zakim Bridge in Boston (recently named one of the 10 greatest bridges in the world by the Travel Channel). Man can build some impressive things, but in all his wisdom he cannot make his way to God . Through the wisdom of the world you will never know God. You can have a Ph.D. from Harvard and another from Yale, but none of that will not help you to know God.
Looking at the two human tendencies Paul says in v. 22-25: "Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."
Paul preached on a lot of themes, but the most succinct summary of his message was simply, "We preach Christ crucified." He didn't preach the message of the cross because it was attractive or because it was cool or because it was soothing'because it was none of these things. It was a stumbling block to Jews, who were looking for signs and power. It was foolishness to Gentiles who were looking for sophisticated knowledge and impressive language. It was a message that would have driven a PR person crazy. He would have been telling you how this won't sell and how this will never connect.
But Paul preached the cross "Christ crucified" because it was at the cross -- the most unlikely place -- that you find the wisdom and the power of God. It was there that you find God's dramatic answer to human sin and failure and the barrier our sin has created to our relationship with God. The problem was real. The need was great. The solution was shocking and radical and it had to be preached.
When we go on to the end of the chapter we see that the wisdom of God at the cross does what the wisdom of the world can never do. In v30 Paul says: "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.'"
When we connect with what happened at the cross, Christ becomes for us wisdom from God'that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. This statement is extremely important and I want to come back to it in the context to the next text we want to examine.
I wanted to start in 1 Corinthians 1 to set the stage for us. It is all about the cross. That's Paul's message. I hope the next two passages I want to look at will make clear that this message of the cross has two sides: Jesus' side and our side.
To look first at Jesus' side of the cross, we could go to dozens of passage in the New Testament, But perhaps the best place to go is to one, amazingly, written 700 years earlier before Jesus was crucified. The passage, of course, is Isaiah 53.
This text is the culmination of what many scholars call the Servant Songs. Writing by inspiration of the Spirit, Isaiah began back in chapter 42 to describe the Servant that will be used by God. It is an interesting text because some of the passages indicate that Israel is the servant, but others are so different and so specific that they clearly show that the prophet is looking forward to the Messiah. And no passage in these eleven chapters more clearly describes the coming Messiah than Isaiah 53. That is why you have dozens of references or allusions to this Old Testament text in the New Testament. The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 was reading this very text and said: "Who is the prophet talking about?" Verse 35 tell us, "Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus."
In Isaiah 53 we find the Gospel according to Isaiah. We find here the good news about Jesus. We find here the message of what Jesus did when he went to the cross. In verses 1-3:
* The prophet first describes this coming Redeemer as one who would not impress people with his appearance (translation for us: he didn't have the Hollywood look).