Emptying the Cross of Its Power

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Berry Kercheville

Imagine being transported back to the hill of Golgotha, sitting at the foot of a cross, and watching a man die. The scene is not a somber one. The crowd is shouting at the condemned, mocking, even laughing. You and I sit and watch in horror at an incident that in our time is unimaginable. For hours we watch the man on the cross writhing in agony. It seems that it will never end. Who could deserve such a death? Certainly not Jesus of Nazareth. Do not turn your eyes away! Do not pretend it is a sweet feel-good moment that you can idolize on a gold chain or on top of a religious building. That man on the cross is not just dying for our sins; he is sending a message. It is the message of the cross.

Have you considered that Jesus could have chosen other ways to die? Why not drinking poison like Socrates? How about stoning? That was commanded in the Law. Stoning would make sense. No, God chose the cross because the message is more than, “Jesus died for you.” The message must be adopted by every disciple. Listen to the words: “The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…” (1 Cor. 1:18). In Matthew 16:21-24, when Jesus announced his upcoming death, Peter rebuked him. Jesus in turn rebuked Peter and then announced, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The message is not simply the cross of Jesus. The message is, we cannot be his disciple if we do not also live the life of the cross.

Teaching the Message of the Cross

Teaching the gospel message is a fearful task. We either teach a message that will save a soul or a message that results in condemnation. Here is Paul’s warning: “Christ sent me to preach the gospel, not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17) What does that mean? How could preaching the gospel with eloquent wisdom cause the cross to be emptied of its power?

Consider Paul’s descriptions of the Corinthian preachers:

  • Their speeches were “with words of eloquent wisdom” (1:17).
  • In 2:1, Paul proclaims his teaching was not with “lofty speech.”
  • In 2:4, Paul again proclaimed that his teaching was not with “plausible words of wisdom.” NIV translates, “with wise and persuasive words.”
  • In 2:13, Paul states that his preaching was “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit.”
  • In 2 Cor. 10:10, Paul addressed the Corinthian complaint: “His letters are weighty and his speech of no account.” The Greek word for “weighty” means, “heavy, burdensome, difficult, strict, stern, severe.” Further, Paul’s delivery was “of no account,” or other versions, “contemptible, despised.” How about that? Here are people who thought Paul’s preaching was of “no account,” just plain “despised.” Why? Because the message did not entertain them, appealing to their fleshly emotions. Instead, it was a cross-filled message.

In 1 Cor. 1:18-19, Paul quoted Isaiah 29:14 to illustrate how the preaching of the cross is folly to some but the wisdom and power of God to others. God had poured out a spirit of deep sleep on Israel, closing their eyes by the prophets and the seers. Isaiah 29:11 explains how their eyes were closed. When the vision is spoken, they are like a person who is given a sealed scroll and told to read it. But he says, “I cannot because it is sealed.” When the scroll is given to a person who cannot read, he excuses himself because he cannot read. Israel wasn’t interested in the challenges of God’s message. It doesn’t take any strength to break a seal, and even if you cannot read, you can find someone to read it to you. Do these words not convict us when we neglect major portions of scripture by claiming it is too hard? Is it not a failure when we repeatedly preach the same well-known parts of the Bible while neglecting those more challenging? Indeed, we empty the message of its power.

How foolish when we soften the message with words like, “Being a Christian isn’t difficult. You don’t have to give up very much. A person like you wouldn’t have to make many changes. You are already a good person. It will make you a better husband/wife and you will be happier.” These are not the Spirit’s words. In fact, these words are the very opposite of the message of the cross. For the message to keep its power, we must be drenched with the blood of the cross. We do not gather in our assemblies for “show-time.” We gather to learn to die with our Savior.

Living the Message of the Cross

There is a thread that goes through 1 & 2 Corinthians in which Paul demonstrates how the message of the cross is lived so that it is not emptied of its power. Paul illustrates living the message in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13:

“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

Be careful! Do not read this text as if Paul were simply explaining his hardships. That misconception is taken away in verse 16: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” These words become the theme of 2 Corinthians as Paul repeatedly described a servant of Christ as giving himself over to death that others may live.

To carry the cross is to live the message. Only by living the message does the power of the message have its effect. We cannot “live as kings” like the Corinthians and expect people to follow the cross. It is only by dying that others will live. It is only by carrying in our body the death of Jesus that his life is made visible (2 Cor. 4:10, 12). The message of the cross is that his disciples give themselves over to death for the same reason he did – to save a lost world.

How about telling your friend this: “You cannot become a Christian unless you lose your life. If you try to live life for your own happiness, you will not be a disciple of Christ. You cannot be a Christian unless you give up all you have, unless you deny yourself, and unless you hate your father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, wife, and your own life.” In other words, “Following Christ will ruin your life.” Now prove it by dying so your friend will live!