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The word of the cross
Part 1: 1 Conthians 1:18

by John H. Essex


 
 

... of the law was attached to such a death. It brought down the curse of God. On the human side, however, It showed what human religion and human wisdom can do. When God's Image was present among men they not only failed to appreciate Him, but displayed the innate hatred of their carnal religious hearts by dooming Him to the death of the vilest criminal. He Who spoke as never man spoke should have been welcomed by the wise men of the world, but they showed the essential stupidity of human wisdom by gibbeting the embodiment of all wisdom upon the ignominious cross. Yet God has made that scene of weakness and shame the brightest exhibition of His power and glory. Though it seems to sound the depths of powerless infamy, it eclipses all the power and wisdom of men. The word of the cross is still despised, but its proclamation Is salvation to all who believe. The height and summit of mans wisdom cannot reach to the divine folly."

A. E. Knoch in Concordant Commentary


     Shall we, too, be writing stupidity and be penning utter foolishness? Does not the apostle Paul describe our subject as "stupidity indeed"? Have we not confirmation of this in the writings and sayings of many who profess to be wise in the world? Do not most of them expose their lack of interest in the theme by ignoring it completely!

     Yes, Paul describes "the word of the cross" as "stupidity, indeed, to those who are perishing," but then he adds by way of contrast, "yet to us who are being saved it is the power of God." And then the apostle proceeds, in perhaps the most scathing terms since Jesus lashed the scribes and Pharisees, to denounce the wisdom of the supposedly wise men of this eon, who seek in their own ways, and often without reference to God at all, to settle the great problems that only God can resolve. They seek salvation through science, and peace through philosophy; God provides both through the cross. But let us see what Paul says:

     "For it is written, I shall be destroying the wisdom of the wise, and the understanding of the intelligent shall I be repudiating. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the discusser of this eon? Does not God make stupid the wisdom of this world? For since, in fact, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom knew not God, God delights, through the stupidity of the heralding, to save those who are believing, since, in fact, Jews signs are requesting, and Greeks wisdom are seeking, yet we are heralding Christ crucified, to Jews, indeed, a snare, yet to the nations stupidity, yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, for the stupidity of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor.1:19-25).

     Now what does all this mean? There was some reason why humanity as a whole could not easily accept the teaching of Paul concerning the cross. The Jews, who were highly religious, viewed the matter with suspicion--to them the cross was a snare. The nations who were highly cultured, viewed it with disdain--to them the cross was stupidity. We may see why later. But for the moment let us realize this, that though Paul occasionally speaks of "my evangel," as in Romans 2:16, he never claims to be the author of it. Quite the contrary. In the very first verse of his Roman epistle, he explains that he has been severed, or separated, from the rest to proclaim the evangel of God, which, in verse 16 of the same chapter, he declares to be "God's power for salvation to everyone who is believing--to the Jew first and to the Greek as well."

     Yes, to those who are called, whether Jew or Greek, this evangel, which has for its keystone the word of the cross, is both the power of God and the wisdom of God, and it is something separate and distinct from anything that had been proclaimed before. It is fundamental to the purpose of God, and yet there are some peculiar things about this teaching of the cross.

     For instance, if the cross is so important a feature of God's operations as Paul maintains, how is it that John never refers to it in his later writings? There is no mention of the cross in any of his three epistles, nor in the book of Revelation, the Unveiling of Jesus Christ, which he also wrote. True, we find allusions to "the blood of Christ" and "the blood of the Lambkin," but the cross is not mentioned. Why, again, has Peter, in his two letters, nothing to say about the cross of Christ? Or James? Or Jude? If the word of the cross is as important as Paul suggests, how is it that all these others (who, after all, were contemporary with Paul) seem to ignore it?

     This is a question which all believers must face up to. It implies--it must imply--that Paul was giving a different message from the rest. If, as we surely believe, Peter, James, John and Jude all spoke as they were moved by the holy Spirit, then, without doubt, they too would have been impelled to speak of the cross if it had been essential to their messages. We are forced to conclude that there is one great difference at least between the evangel as proclaimed by Paul, and that proclaimed by Peter, James, John and Jude, and that this distinction is to be found in their relationship and attitude to the cross of Christ.

     For look how freely and emphatically Paul speaks of the cross. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 he expresses a concern lest, in his own preaching, the cross of Christ should be made void; and in the next verse he describes the word of the cross as the power of God to those who are being saved. A little later, in verse 23, he infers that, in his preaching of "Christ crucified," be is in fact proclaiming "Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God." Again, in the second chapter, he affirms his decision "not to perceive anything among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." And yet Peter, James, John and Jude have nothing to say about the cross of Christ.

     To put the matter simply, we would suggest that Peter, John, James and Jude are writing to a people who have not yet come to the cross of Christ, and therefore they find no occasion to mention it. Paul, on the other hand, is addressing a message to some who have reached the cross, and, indeed, have passed beyond it. Therefore, he refers to it freely. Peter and those with him are looking forward to the millennial reign of Christ in which many glorious things will be happening, particularly in relation to Israel and through Israel to the rest of humanity, but a time in which, nevertheless, the effects of what was accomplished on the cross will not be observed. After all, Jesus presented Himself to Israel as their King, and proclaimed and practiced the evangel of the Kingdom, before ever He was crucified. Paul takes us by faith into a time beyond the Millennium--into the fifth eon, the Day of God--an era in which the effects of the cross will be fully operative. And--wonder of wonders and grace beyond measure--he even invites us to enjoy the benefits of those effects over one thousand years in advance--now. This we do in spirit, and by faith. To find out what these benefits are--what the message of the cross really is--we must look at what Paul has to say about it.

THE WORD OF THE CROSS DEMANDS A NEW CREATION


Now you may be surprised to learn that the word "cross" never occurs in Paul's great epistle to the Romans--the first of his writings as they appear in our versions. In a letter which deals with such fundamental matters as justification, conciliation, and God's sovereignty, one might have thought that a mention of the cross would be indispensable. It is certainly there by implication, but the word "cross" itself is absent. It is implied in the one usage of the verb form, "crucify," and this, in its context, is significant, for it gives us the real clue to the meaning of the message of the cross. This is what Paul says:

     "What, then, shall we declare? That we may be persisting in sin that grace should be increasing? May it not be coming to that! We, who died to sin, how shall we still be living in it? Or are you ignorant that whoever are baptized into Christ Jesus, are baptized into His death? We, then, were entombed together with Him through baptism into death, that, even as Christ was roused from among the dead through the glory of the Father, thus we also should be walking in newness of life. For if we have become planted together in the likeness of His death, nevertheless we shall be of the resurrection also, knowing this, that our old humanity was crucified together with Him, that the body of Sin may be nullified, for us by no means to be still slaving for Sin, for one who dies has been justified from Sin" (Rom.6:1-7).

     "Knowing this, that our old humanity was crucified together with Him, that the body of Sin may be nullified" -- that is, brought to nought. Paul is simply telling us that there is no place for this body of Sin in the evangel of salvation which he is proclaiming. He confirms this in his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians. Let us look at Corinthians first.

     The brethren at Corinth had acquired a not very enviable reputation on account of their panderings to the vices and lusts of the flesh. This was evidenced by their petty quarreling, by their strifes and divisions among themselves, and even by other practices that had been heard of among them. It is as a counter to all this that Paul, when he writes to them, lays such stress on the significance of the cross. "The word of the cross," he declares is "the power of God"; "Christ crucified," the "power of God and the wisdom of God." Far from pandering to the passions of the old humanity, tied to a dying flesh, they should have been thinking in terms of a new humanity, which comes with a new creation. "If anyone is in Christ," Paul tells them in his second letter, "there is a new creation: the primitive passed by. Lo! There has come new!" (2 Cor.5:17).

     The new creation is something entirely of God, and shows forth His power and His wisdom. In His sight, the old humanity of a believer in Christ has had its day. It is regarded as being crucified on the same cross as that on which God's Son was crucified. The Corinthians should have seen it that way. And so, too, should we look upon our bodies of Sin. They cannot help our spiritual life in any way; rather, they only hinder. They cannot contribute one iota of merit towards our salvation; they cannot even in the most minute degree please God. No dying body can, and these are, in fact, dying all the time, as every ache and pain testifies. Then why not reckon them as being dead already! In the words of Romans 6:11, "Be reckoning yourselves to be dead, indeed, to Sin, yet living to God in Christ Jesus, our Lord."

     But to be living in Christ implies a new creation. What a privilege, indeed, that God counts us as living to Him, even while we are physically retarded by these bodies of humiliation; but that is only because His Son dealt with the problem of sin in the flesh once and for all time on the cross, and our bodies of Sin are reckoned by God as having been crucified on the same cross.

     The Galatian case is rather different from that of the Corinthians. Their fault lay in trying to exalt the flesh, to give it an honor and a prominence to which it was not entitled. They sought to enforce the law of Moses on the basis that the flesh ought to be able to justify itself by keeping the law. Paul had to point out that "by works of law shall no flesh at all be justified" (Gal.2:16). Far from bringing credit to the flesh, the law only made sin in the flesh more manifest. Every additional commandment was one more to break. He asks them a direct question, "Undertaking in spirit, are you now being completed in flesh?" (Gal.3:3). The works of the flesh are given as adultery, wantonness, enmities, strifes, jealousies, dissentions, etc.; the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self- control. "Those of Christ Jesus," says Paul, "crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts" (Gal.5:24).

     The Galatians were even being pressed to return to circumcision--the ritual which God had established with Abraham-- but Paul counters this by saying that it had now become merely a means of glorifying the flesh. And then he adds, "Now may it not be mine to be boasting, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation." (Gal.6:14,15).

     Again, a new creation. The word of the cross demands a new creation. Peter, James, John and Jude have nothing to say about this. They are looking for a new birth, in conformity with the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, "You must be begotten anew" (John 3:7). They are looking for a new birth within the framework of Israel's promises; this is a vastly different thing from a new creation outside of Israel's promises. The new birth is a national blessing to fit Israel for the Kingdom, the thousand-- year reign of Christ on earth; the new creation is an individual blessing, and transports us in spirit past the millennial eon into the day of God, and fits us for our celestial destiny.

     When Paul speaks of a new creation, he means "new" in every sense--new absolutely. This is not the case with Israel during the millennial eon, for Israel is but a nation reborn, of the same stock as the nation originally born at Sinai. In fact, the promises originally made to Israel at Sinai are repeated to the regenerated nation by Peter in his first epistle, when he calls them a "royal priesthood," a "holy nation." During the thousand years they will serve humanity as a priestly nation, fulfilling the functions originally assigned to them at Sinai, but which were lost to the old nation through its repeated idolatry.

     But in spite of the new birth, and in spite of all that the regenerated nation of Israel can do during the millennial eon, let us not forget that it all ends in a tremendous rebellion against God, when Satan is loosed out of his prison, and he comes to deceive all nations which are in the four corners of the earth, to be mobilizing them for battle, their number being as the sand of the sea. This tremendous event is followed by the judgment of the great white throne, and in Revelation 20:11 we read that from the face of Him Who sits upon the throne, earth and heaven flee, and no place is found for them. They just cannot abide in the presence of the absolute righteousness and purity of the majestic Occupant of the throne. And John goes on to describe how all those who appear before the throne are judged in accord with their acts, and are condemned. This is the final condemnation of the flesh, and all that has been done in the flesh. But this is not the end, for John next perceives "a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth pass away." And all the sorrow and mourning and misery connected with them pass away, too, for He Who is sitting upon the throne declares that He is making all new. This is in line with what Isaiah had prophesied centuries earlier when he said, "For behold Me creating new heavens and a new earth, and the former shall not be remembered, nor shall they come upon the heart" (Isa.65:17, CV).

     This is the new creation, which John perceives only at the end of his visions, but to which Paul is pointing from the very beginning of his writings. The great point to be noted is that there is a complete break with the old. Nothing is carried over. And so it is, too, with the advance application of the new creation, as it affects a believer in Christ in this day of grace. "The primitive, the old, is passed by. Lo! There has come new."

     The cross demands a complete break with the old, and provides the way for the provision of a glorious alternative in the new. To those who are not prepared to make this break, the word of the cross is just stupidity; for in clinging to the old, they must perforce be like the Corinthians, and pander to the desires of the flesh, or like the Galatians, and give the flesh an importance to which it is not entitled. It is in these two factors that many sincere believers, who are also religionists, become enemies of the cross of Christ.

     But to see the full effects of the cross, and to appreciate its message in even greater grandeur, we must now turn to the prison letters of Paul.



THE WORD OF THE CROSS
PART TWO: COLOSSIANS 1:20

     "The blood of Christ is a most expressive figure of the permanent power of His sufferings. Thank God it is past, but its potency is permanent. It avails today, and will never lose its power.

     "But the blood of His cross--this goes far deeper still. It is not a mere literary variant, but a deliberate endeavor to distinguish between the death of God's Son and the manner of it. Peace is made by the blood of His cross. The blood is a reminder of its permanence. In Colossians 1:20...the cross is the basis of reconciliation. On this basis He will carry on all His future work of ruling and judging, of rousing and vivifying the dead. We will have our share in His work of reconciling God's creatures among the celestials, for we are His complement...as living examples of the power of the cross. For this reason we read in Colossians 1: 20 of the blood of His cross, for its abiding power will be the means at our disposal in bringing out perpetual peace."

A.E.Knoch in Unsearchable Riches LII, p. 174


     It used to be a practice among Greek writers to enter literary competitions in which they had to submit what was termed a trilogy, that is, three pieces with themes related to each other. Generally these were tragedies. Only a few specimens are now extant. But no trilogy submitted by any Greek writer for a competition could even remotely approach in grandeur the wonderful trio of letters written by Paul, which have come down to us as the epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. We have compared them to a Greek trilogy only because we wish to emphasize that they should be regarded as a trio, with themes that are connected, and not as individual messages. There is, of course, nothing of a tragedy about them. On the contrary, their grandeur lies in the fact that they expand our conception of God's purpose to include the whole universe. Whereas earlier writings, not excluding those of Paul, have their settings on earth, the prison letters usher us straight into the vastnesses of the celestial realms. Outside of the prison letters, we have God's salvation extended to all mankind; inside the prison letters, it reaches out to include heaven as well.

     Now, one of the most interesting features of the prison letters is that in each one we have a remarkable description of Christ. The wider scope of these letters makes these descriptions necessary, and, as we examine them, we find that they are connected in a wonderful way. Let us do this, taking the Colossian account first.

     Here we find Christ in His relationship to the motive behind all God's operations. God's purpose was conceived in love, which finds its first and greatest expression in "the Son of His love" (Col.1:13). It is as the Son of God's love that Christ is presented to us in this epistle, where He is also declared to be "the Image of the invisible God, Firstborn of every creature, for in Him is all created, that in the heavens and that on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones, or lordships, or sovereignties, or authorities, all is created through Him and for Him, and He is before all, and all has its cohesion in Him."

     Here we are among the heights indeed. These are the mountain peaks--the Himalayas of the Scriptures. And we are among the heights again when we come to the Ephesian description of Christ, for there He is portrayed as being seated at the right hand of God, among the celestials, "up over every sovereignty and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this eon, but also in that which is impending." It is in this account that Christ is given "as Head over all, to the ecclesia which is His body, the complement of the One Who is completing the all in all" (Eph.1:20-23). So, in Ephesians, we have Christ portrayed in His relationship to the ecclesia, the medium through which God's purpose is to be accomplished.

     But what about the Philippian account? The description of Christ takes us again into the heights. On the one hand, we have Him "inherently in the form of God" and deeming it "not pillaging to be equal with God," and on the other hand, we have Him highly exalted, and graced "with the name that is above every name." No heights can be higher than these, but between them, what do we find? A deep chasm, an almost bottomless rift, at the foot of which lies the cross. For He Who was in the form of God emptied Himself of all His pristine glory to take upon Himself the form of a slave, coming to be in the likeness of humanity, and having done that, descended the valley still farther by humbling Himself and "becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil.2:5-9).

     In this Philippian portrayal of Christ, we see Him in His relationship to the means by which God's purpose is to be accomplished. That means is the cross, and here the theme of the cross takes on a more profound significance. For the depths of a valley can best be appreciated from a vantage point on the heights, for then we can look straight down into the gulf below. That is exactly what we do in the letter to the Philippians. We endeavor to place ourselves (mentally) in the position that Christ occupied when He was in the form of God, and then, peering down, try to comprehend all that is included in the death of the cross. It is not just the death of Christ that counts, but all that goes with it--all that was attached to the cross--the degradation, the shame, the ignominy, the opprobrium, and above all the separation from God. For the cross was an execution stake for malefactors and murderers, and carried with it a curse.

     If you really want to see what is implied in the term, "Christ crucified," which Paul was so determined to preach to the Corinthians, go to the Philippian epistle. No two words can be wider apart, yet they are brought together. Christ, the Anointed of God, once on the heights in the form of God, and deeming it not pillaging to be equal with God, yet now crucified, cursed among the malefactors at the bottom of the abyss. Cursed (Gal.3:13) because it was to the cross that He nailed the old humanity with all its sin and wickedness, thereby settling the problem of sin once and for all. Truly, the depths of the Philippian epistle are the depths of love!

     Now, what about the effects of the cross?

     The Philippian account gives us the effects of the cross on Christ Himself. "Wherefore, also," continues the apostle--that is, because He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross--"God highly exalts Him, and graces Him with the name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean, and every tongue should be acclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God, the Father." Praise be to God!

     The glory with which God graces His Son because of His obedience unto the death of the cross, is such that it not only exalts Christ above all else in the universe, but also brings all creation into recognition and acceptance of this fact. Every knee will bow to Him, every tongue will acclaim Him as Lord. All in earth and heaven will ultimately rejoice in Him as their Saviour, for it is at the name of Jesus that every knee will bow. Truly He will see the travail of His soul and be satisfied. And God too will be satisfied, for the acclaim that will be given to His Son is in accord with His own will and purpose, and will redound to His own great glory, for the Son is the One in Whom He constantly delights.

     The Ephesian letter gives us also the effect of the cross on the ecclesia. It has a peace-making influence, settling differences between members. At the time Paul was writing, the most vital difference was that which divided the nation of Israel from the rest of humanity. This was a fleshly difference, inaugurated by God through the covenant which He made with Abraham, and marked by the rite of circumcision. For many centuries Israel had been the favored nation, and will be again during the coming millennial era. But see what Paul says in Ephesians 2, verses 11-18:

     "Wherefore, remember that once you, the nations in flesh--who are termed `Uncircumcision' by those termed `Circumcision,' in flesh, made by hands--that you were, in that era, apart from Christ, being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants, having no expectation, and without God in the world. Yet now, in Christ Jesus, you, who once are far off, are become near by the blood of Christ. For He is our Peace, Who makes both one, and razes the central wall of the barrier (the enmity in His flesh), nullifying the law of precepts in decrees, that He should be creating the two, in Himself, into one new humanity, making peace; and should be reconciling both in one body to God through the cross, killing the enmity in it. And, coming, He brings the evangel of peace to you, those afar, and peace to those near, for through Him we both have had the access, in one spirit, to the Father."

     There are those today who would strive to make the unity of the church. The unity was made nearly two thousand years ago--on the cross! Ephesians goes on to ask us to keep the unity of the spirit with the tie of peace. Ephesians emphasizes unities-- one...one...one! One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one expectation, and so on (Eph.4:4,5). And if the cross effectively kills the racial enmity between Israel and the nations, so that those of either group can be at peace with each other in the ecclesia, we may be sure that it equally effectively kills all other fleshly enmities. In the flesh we may be of different nationalities, different colors, different sexes, yes, even of different sects, but if we are called believers, members of that one ecclesia which exists today, the ecclesia which is His body, we should recognize that the cross kills all these barriers to unity, and try to live as an example to the universe, doing our utmost to keep the unity of the spirit with the tie of peace.

     Let us then be done with idle words, with thoughtless remarks, with petty complaints, with unnecessary criticisms, with everything that might hurt or offend, for such things are of the flesh, and tend to destroy peace. It is necessary that we should remain in the flesh for the time being, for we have a mission of peace in the world. As ambassadors for Christ, we preach conciliation (2 Cor.5:20). God is holding out the hand of friendship to all who will grasp it. But how can we preach peace- -how can we be true ambassadors of the Prince of peace--if we allow strifes to arise among ourselves? Discords are evidences of the old humanity recapping itself; by just so much as we give encouragement to the flesh do we become enemies of the cross of Christ. Let us never forget that the term "enemies of the cross" is used of those who are not walking according to the model offered by Paul (Phil.3:18,19). It was against a background of dissentions among such brethren that Paul preached his word of the cross (1 Cor.3:3,4).

     The prison letters abound with advice as to how we should conduct ourselves, and rightly so, for we are God's achievement, being created in Christ Jesus for good works, and what is being accomplished in the ecclesia today is but a sample, a demonstration, of what will be accomplished throughout the universe tomorrow. Colossians opens up the field, and gives the widest possible application of the message of the cross, extending its effect to the whole of God's creations. Here we read:

     "And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the ecclesia, Who is Sovereign, Firstborn from among the dead, that in all He may be becoming first, for in Him the entire complement delights to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all to Him (making peace through the blood of His cross), through Him, whether those on the earth or those in the heavens" (Col.1:18-20).

     This is the scripture which truly proclaims universal reconciliation. It is achieved through the blood of the cross. Because the One, Who was above all, descended to the point where He was below all; because the One, Who created all, humbled Himself to the point where He was accursed for all; the effects of the cross can, and will, be extended to incorporate every one of God's creation. For in that curse is included all the sin, all the iniquity, all the unrighteousness, that have plagued heaven and earth throughout the eons; in that curse is included all the enmity and alienation that have stood between God and His creatures; and they are crucified for all time!

     This is the triumphant peace-making achievement of the love of God operating in the Son of His love. It is God's power for salvation, untouched and untainted by human effort, and it is all- sufficient, all-conquering, all-embracing, all-satisfying, and all-glorifying to God.

     This is the Word of the Cross!


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