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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

I have decided to know nothing

In Paul's first epistle to the church at Corinth, the apostle made the following astounding statement:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. (1 Cor. 2:1-3 NRSV)
Why do I say these words are astounding? There are two main reasons. The first concerns the preaching of a crucified Saviour. Earlier in the epistle, Paul had described the message of the cross as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The Jews did not expect that the Messiah would die, and their Law stated that "anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse" (Deut. 21:23). Likewise, it was foolishness to the Roman world to teach that a crucified man had more honour than Caesar. Crucifixion was reserved mainly for slaves and vile criminals, with slaves were sometimes sarcastically referred to as cross bearers. The famous Roman lawyer Cicero argued that no Roman citizen should be crucified (F.T. Zugibe, The Crucifixion of Jesus, p. 55). L.L. Welborn writes, "The cultured elite of the Roman world wanted nothing to do with crucifixion, and as a rule kept silent about it" (Paul, the Fool of Christ, p. 131).

Yet Paul and the other Christians did anything but keep silent about it; they went around proclaiming Jesus Christ, and him crucified! From the point of view of contemporary human wisdom, this gospel was offensive and nonsensical. Nevertheless, instead of trying to cover up the fact of the cross, the early church made it central to their message of redemption. John used extreme irony by teaching that in the very act of being "lifted up" on the cross, Jesus was "lifted up" in the sense of being exalted (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34 cf. Isa. 52:13).

It was integral to the purpose of God that the message of salvation should not be plausible and tolerable from the standpoint of human wisdom, but should be implausible and offensive. This was so that God might be glorified and no human might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:29). This brings us to the second astounding statement Paul made in this text: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ."

When we as Christians preach, teach, debate and discuss, more often than not we aim to convince others that we are wise, that we understand the Scriptures, that we have all the answers. Paul was a brilliant and well-educated man (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:4-6). He could have taken this approach and excelled at it. Instead, he pruned the gospel down to its bare essentials: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul used his Spirit-filled erudition, not to impress his readers with elaborate doctrines, but to preach the gospel in all its simplicity and all its power. He did the same in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. These letters are theological masterpieces with weighty methods of argumentation, but their aim was very simple: to show that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ.

Now I personally enjoy studying the Bible. I love delving deeply into the richness of the divine mysteries revealed in this book. However, I often need to remind myself that "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1b). In seeking to unlock these mysteries we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, like Paul did. In the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians Paul referred to Jesus Christ by name ten times! For him, it really was all about Jesus. Biblical exposition and theology is vain if it leads its audience away from the cross of Christ rather than towards it.

And so, to Christians of any stripe with whom I have had disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture, I pose this question: can we lay aside our differences and decide to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified?

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