"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). We have a word for people like Paul. We call a person like him a “one-note Johnny.” He was a man of one message. If you heard him in Thessalonica or Athens or Rome, it was always the same—Jesus Christ and him crucified. He never strayed from his basic message. Someone once asked the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon (many think he was the greatest preacher since the Apostle Paul) why all his sermons sounded alike. “That’s simple,” he replied. “I take my text wherever I can find it, and then I make a bee-line for the cross.” He and Paul came from the same mold.
In our text we discover the pastor’s life work. If a man could come to the end of his ministry and have someone say, “He spoke to us only of Jesus Christ and him crucified,” his ministry would not have been in vain. As Dr. Criswell pointed out, if people want to know about sports or the latest news, they can read the paper or turn on the TV. These days you can watch Fox or CNN or MSNBC or you can surf the Net or watch 500 channels or listen to the radio. If it’s news or sports or the weather or the latest world crisis, there are plenty of ways to follow the story. But if you want to know how to be right with God, if you want to know how to have your sins forgiven, if you want to know how to go to heaven, then you need the message Paul preached: Jesus Christ and him crucified.
This is my 25th year as a pastor. I find myself in a stage of life where I am trying to get rid of things I don’t need to carry with me. For most of us, life can be divided into two phases—accumulating and de-accumulating. After decades of trying to amass things, I am well over into the de-accumulation side. Now that our sons are gone more than they are home, the house looks a lot bigger to me than it used to. And I find myself throwing things away left and right. It’s not a good week for me unless I can fill up a trash bag or two with things I don’t need anymore. I find myself going through something similar spiritually. As a pastor, I want to go back to basics in every area. I want to find those things that are true and that matter eternally, and that’s where I want to spend the bulk of my time in the next few years. I pray, “Lord, strip away the things that don’t matter, even the good things, so that what is left are the things that will still matter 10,000 years from now.”
As a pastor, I have seen a lot of fads and trends and movements in the last 25-30 years. I’ve lived through the bus ministry, small group ministry, body life, Bill Gothard seminars, sharing services, the Charismatic renewal, church renewal, church growth, the balanced church, contemporary worship, renewal worship, liturgical worship, concerts of prayer, prayer and fasting, the Willowcreek movement, Experiencing God, the Prayer of Jabez, and in our own time, the Purpose-Driven Church and the 40 Days of Purpose. Not to mention the Puritan revival, Christian hedonism, Gen X worship, and preaching to the postmodern mind. I hasten to say that there is much that is good and useful in all those things. You can find valuable truth in each one of those trends and movements if you look for it. But sooner or later, all those movements are destined to be forgotten. They will be one more addition to the stack of dusty seminar notebooks that I’ve lugged around from place to place for the last 25 years. The grass withers, the flower fades, only the Word of the Lord lasts forever. And that’s why Paul labored as he did: “so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (v. 5). All that comes from man must perish with man; what comes from God lasts forever.
Two weeks ago we saw how the world views the preaching of the cross as foolishness (I Corinthians 1:18-25). Last week we discovered that God delights to choose weak and foolish things (like us!) to make up his family so that no one can boast in his presence (I Corinthians 1:26-31). Today we will see that the message of the cross must stand at the center of all we do. In this passage we see Paul’s message (v. 1-2), his method (v. 3-4), and his motive (v. 5). It’s the answer to the question, “Paul, why do you do what you do?” If we want a ministry with a world-changing impact, then we need to heed his answer.
I. His Message v. 1-2
“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:1-2). Note that Paul begins not with the positive, but with the negative—"I did not come.” The terms “eloquence” and “superior wisdom” describe a certain oratorical style commonly associated with the sophists. They were the greatest public speakers of their day. Great crowds flocked to hear them because they spoke in the style of traditional Greek rhetoric, with extensive quotations, with literary allusions, and with a refined style that made them seem brilliant, witty, charming and entertaining. They combined the suave demeanor of Peter Jennings with the clever wit of David Letterman. Evidently some early Christian preachers felt the need to emulate their style. They crafted their sermons into eloquent, stylized, highly polished discourses. Paul utterly rejected that approach to preaching although he could have done it himself. As a well-educated rabbi, he knew Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and no doubt he also knew Latin. Trained at the feet of Gamaliel, he could hold his own in any argument. If Paul wanted to show off his intellect, he certainly knew how to do it. But he rejected that approach.
There have always been preachers who felt the need to copy the ways of the world. Here’s one way to spot the sort of approach Paul rejected. When you hear a man enamored by worldly wisdom, you say, “What a wonderful sermon!” When people heard Paul preach, they said, “What a wonderful Savior!” Paul cared not at all what people thought about him as long as they heard the message of Jesus. His reputation didn’t matter as long as the gospel was preached clearly.
The phrase “I resolved” means he made a conscious choice to do things a certain way. He didn’t fall into it by chance or by force of habit. Paul preached as he did because he chose to do it that way. That same choice confronts every minister of the gospel. It’s so easy to be sidetracked by good and worthwhile things. We can preach about social issues, the political debates of our day, the crisis in the Middle East or the decline of the family. We can tackle Bible prophecy or we can major on predestination or we can spend our days arguing about some aspect of church government. There is a place for all those things, but that place is never at the center. For Paul the choice was clear: “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He started there and that became the center of his preaching. Once the center was in place, every other truth could be arranged around it. But Jesus must be in the middle of all things and all things must be properly related to him.
Not to the Rotary Club
Here are three words to summarize Paul’s preaching: clarity, simplicity, boldness. Paul was so clear that no one could miss his message. He was simple because he spoke plainly about what Jesus Christ accomplished in his death on the cross. And he was bold in stating that truth over and over again. He was a man of one message, a preacher with a one-track mind, a one-note Johnny who would not be silent. He focused on the cross because that was the one part of the Christian message the world could not duplicate. We have a Rotary Club here in Oak Park that does wonderful work for our community. I know many of the members and I appreciate what they do, but it is not given to the Rotary Club to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. We have the Republicans and the Democrats and they think they have it all figured out. They don’t, but God bless them anyway. They have their politics, but it is not given to them to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. We have the public school system that labors valiantly to educate the children of America. They do the best they can, and God bless them in their efforts, but it is not given to the public school system to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. That calling is given to only one organization on the face of the earth—the church of Jesus Christ. To us—and only to us—did God vouchsafe the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified. That is our message, our only message. We are to tell it because no one will if we don’t.
The Greeks loved philosophy so Paul could have said, “I need to talk about Plato and Socrates in my sermons.” But he didn’t, even though no one would have blamed him if he had. The words of James Denney ring true to me: “No man can give at once the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.” You can impress people with your cleverness or you can impress them with Jesus, but you can’t do both.
It is not enough for us to say that Jesus was a great moral teacher. He was, but the world largely believes that already. And it is not enough to say that he came down from heaven. Many already believe that. It’s not even enough to say that he was born of a virgin. We must go all the way and declare that God himself came down to earth in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We must say that when he died on the cross, God laid on him all our sins. He took our place, dying where we should have died, bearing our punishment, standing as our substitute, taking our sin and its punishment upon himself. He died that he might be our Savior and bring us home to God. He was the just dying for the unjust, the good dying for the bad, the righteous dying for the unrighteousness, the holy dying for the sinful. And in his death he won our salvation. Then he rose from the dead on the third day, proving all his claims to be true.
This is the message unbelievers need to hear. What good will it do to say to an unbeliever, “Be nice” or “Try harder” or “Clean yourself up” or even “Give money to the church.” That advice is both dangerous and misleading. Unbelievers can never really be nice or try harder or clean themselves up apart from God. And they don’t need to give money to the church. They need to be born again.
The Gospel in Ten Words
Here is the message of the gospel in just ten words:
Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead.
That’s the whole gospel right there. There is enough truth in those ten words to save the whole world. Stop right now and say those words to yourself. Go ahead. Say them out loud: Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. That’s good. Now do it again: Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. Say it out loud so that those ten words will burn into your soul. This is the heart of the gospel. This is our message. This is what we must preach to the world.
Paul regarded preaching as nothing less than the forceful declaration of the truth of God. True preaching is not sharing. It is not dialogue or discussion. When I stand behind the pulpit, I’m not having a dialogue with the congregation. This isn’t a large-group discussion. If you want to discuss something, we can go out for a Coke and we’ll talk for a while. If you buy me a piece of chocolate pie, I’ll stay an extra 45 minutes. Discussion is good and has its place, but that’s not what preaching is all about. Preaching is not dialogue because God is not negotiating with the human race. He has declared the terms of salvation (they couldn’t be better since he made it free for the asking) on the basis of the death of his Son.
Let us then be gospel-centered in all that we do. We have no other message, and if we substitute anything for the message of the cross, we have taken away the one message the world needs to hear. And when the preacher preaches, let him not labor for applause but for the souls of men. This was Paul’s approach—may it be ours as well.
One final thought before we move on: To give people what they need, sometimes you must not give them what they want. Most parents learn this early on. When your daughter is sick, she may want another cookie, but what she needs is the medicine the doctor prescribed. If you love her, you’ll give her what she needs, not what she wants. The same is true as we speak to others about Christ. They may want to hear other things; we must tell them about Jesus for he alone can save them.
II. His Method v. 3-4
“I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (I Corinthians 2:3-4). Here is Paul’s evangelistic plan. It’s called “fear and trembling.” Paul has in mind the chilly reception he received when he first came to Corinth (Acts 18:1-11). At one point he felt so abandoned and alone that the Lord came to him in a vision with these words, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). Corinth was a hard city to begin with, and Paul’s reception there had discouraged him to the point that preaching was difficult because of the inner doubts and uncertainty he faced. He wasn’t the picture of confident self-assurance that many of us may associate with the Apostle Paul. He responded in a totally human fashion, which I find greatly encouraging. We’ve all had his experience when trying to share Christ with others. Have you ever tried to witness to someone only to find that your “tang” gets all “tongueled” up? Or have you tried to quote John 3:16 to a lost person only to discover that you’ve forgotten everything after “For God"? Certainly all of us have had seemingly disastrous witnessing experiences where everything we said ended up sounding like nonsense to us. It happens. Paul certainly knew what that was like.
Occasionally someone asks me if I get scared or nervous before I preach. The answer is yes, and it happens every single time. No matter how many times I’ve preached or how well prepared I am, there is always a sense of nervousness that comes just before I stand up. I hope I don’t ever lose that, because if I do, I need to get out of the pulpit. If speaking for Christ ever becomes routine, then something has gone wrong inside your heart. We need “holy nervousness” when we witness to others lest we fail the Lord or fail the person to whom we are speaking.
I am comforted by the thought that Paul was a man like I am—a man of like passions, if you will. As I consider his life, I realize that nothing in Paul could explain his success—except God! The New Testament doesn’t give us any descriptions of Paul’s appearance, but Paul himself quoted his opponents who said of him, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (II Corinthians 10:10). We do have this early description of Paul that comes from outside the New Testament: He was “a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were far apart; he had large eyes, and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long.” If that is accurate, then Paul was no first-century Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wasn’t much to look at and he didn’t cut an impressive figure in the pulpit. Imagine two members of the Corinthian church meeting each other in the marketplace: “Hey, who’s preaching this Sunday?” “Paul.” “Paul? Oh, No! I’ve invited my neighbors to church this Sunday. I thought Dr. Smartypants was preaching. Paul is hard to understand. He’s too deep for me. And his sermons are so long.”
So if you feel a bit afraid and unqualified to witness for Christ, if you sometimes get worried about what others will think, join the club. There are plenty of people in that club, and Paul is the president. Remember this: If people are impressed by what you say, they are unlikely to be impressed by Jesus. It’s so easy to manipulate people by telling funny stories or sad stories, and using certain kinds of music to get them stirred up. But manipulation and the power of the Holy Spirit are two different things. What we need can be summed up in one old-fashioned word: unction. We need the unction of the Holy Spirit that will take our feeble human words and fill them with supernatural power. When that happens, lives will be radically changed.
III. His Motive v. 5
“So that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (I Corinthians 2:5). Note the striking contrast—the wisdom of men versus the power of God. If you build on one, you cannot have the other. Ministries built primarily on human personality do not last. Sometimes people talk about “Erwin Lutzer’s church” or “Chuck Swindoll’s church” or “Charles Stanley’s church or “Bill Hybels’ church.” I know what they mean when they say that, but the phrase is unsettling all the same. Calvary is not “Ray Pritchard’s church,” and in the deepest and truest sense, you are not my disciples. You may follow me and listen to me and look to me for guidance, but in the end this church belongs to Jesus Christ.
It’s dangerous to build your faith on men because pastors come and go. This week Don and Caroline Gerig dropped by to check on the renovation project. Don served here as pastor from 1976 to 1986. He has just retired from active pastoring and the big smile on his face told me that he is enjoying life. Not long ago I got an e-mail from Bob Gray who pastored here from 1958-1974. He and his wife June are retired and living in Marco Island, Florida. I know for a fact that he’s enjoying life. And me? I’m 51 years old and in my 15th year as your pastor. Many of you have seen the timeline that hangs in the Dining Room of the church. Among other things, it shows that I am the 12th pastor of this congregation. This much is certain: If Jesus tarries, there will be a 13th and a 14th and a 15th someday. I am destined to retire myself one day, and eventually all the pastors will go the way of all flesh. I say that without any sense of frustration. That’s just the way it is.
Build Your Life on Jesus Christ
So while it is good and even vital to love and respect your spiritual leaders, you must not build your whole spiritual life around them. Build your life on Jesus Christ. He will still be here after all the pastors have come and gone. What this church needs—what every church needs—is a demonstration of God’s power through the preaching of the cross. Listen to the words of Charles Spurgeon: “The power that is in the Gospel does not lie in eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be the converters of souls, nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist of the wisdom of men. We might preach until our tongues rotted, till we would exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless the Holy Spirit be with the Word of God to give it the power to convert a soul.”
This was Paul’s strategy and it ought to be ours as well:
Take the Word of God.
Preach it accurately.
Pray for the power of God to bless the Word of God.
Trust God for changed lives as a result.
The Word of God, preached in the power of God, always results in lives changed by God. This was how the tiny band of believers turned the world upside down in the first century. We must pray for God to do that again in our day. The world has no answer to a life radically changed by Jesus Christ. The world may answer our arguments, but it cannot answer the power of God let loose in the human heart.
Only God can take a person trapped in sin and set him free.
Only God can take a person chained to alcohol and set him free.
Only God can take a person living in the hell of sexual addiction and set him free.
Only God can do it. Only he can take a heart of stone and replace with a heart of flesh. Only he can give life in the place of death. And he does it as his people faithfully preach the message of the cross. So we ask God to do it again in our day—to use us to preach the message of the cross wherever we go, and then to pour out his Spirit so that our preaching results in changed lives. Pray for this. Ask God to do it in your witness to others. Ask God to do it when the congregation gathers for worship.
The Jews said, “Show us a sign.” Paul said, “I give you the sign of the cross.” The Greeks said, “Show us wisdom.” Paul said, “I will show you Jesus, the very wisdom of God.” What the world needs is not reformation but true and lasting deliverance from sin. Such a deliverance can be found only in the cross. Where sin is the problem, the cross is God’s answer—God’s only answer. Only the gospel itself meets the deep needs of the human heart. It is only the gospel of Jesus Christ—Christ and Him crucified—that gives life to sinners who are dead in their transgressions and sins.
You don’t start with the third floor when you construct a building. You start with the foundation, and you make sure that you lay it deep and strong. For the Christian, there is only one foundation—Jesus Christ and him crucified. Build your life on that solid rock. Stand on that rock and it will take you safely home to heaven.
Take me to the Cross
Billy Graham tells the story of a police officer on night duty in a city in northern England. As he walked the streets, he heard a quivering sob. Shining his flashlight into the darkness, he saw a little boy in the shadows sitting on a doorstep with tears running down his cheeks. The child said, “I’m lost. Please take me home.” “I’ll be glad to take you home. Where do you live?” the officer replied. But the little boy was so tired and so scared that he couldn’t remember his address. The policeman began naming street after street, trying to help the boy remember where he lived. He named the shops and the hotels in the area but the little boy could give him no clue. Then he remembered that at the center of the town stood a church with a large white cross that towered high above the rest of the city. The policeman pointed to the cross and said, “Do you live anywhere near that place?” The little boy’s face immediately brightened up. He said, “Yes, sir. Take me to the cross and I can find my way home.” That is the mission of the church. We are to point people to the cross, and the cross will lead them safely home to God.
This is our message to the world today, and it is God’s message to you. The cross is God’s provision for your sin. If you go to the cross, you will find your way home to God. Many people are lost and confused and the cross of Christ beckons you to come, repent of your sin and receive Christ. Come to the cross and you will find your way home to God.
The church stands today with an utterly unique message that is given to us and to no one else. In a world of hurting people, to those who are angry and to those who are in despair, to those who have lost their way, to every man and woman, to every boy and girl, the church of Jesus Christ says to everyone who will listen, “Go to the cross and the cross will lead you home.” May we never be ashamed of the cross but preach it boldly as the only hope of the world. Amen.
Ray Pritchard pastored in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Married to Marlene for 38 years, he enjoys being a husband, a father and a grandfather, riding his bike, and playing with Dudley and Gary, beloved basset hounds.