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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:For a united church, focus on Christ crucified
Text:1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (View)
Occasion:Easter (Good Friday)
Topic:Communion of Saints
 
Preached:2021
Added:2021-07-18
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 23:1-3

Psalm 51:1-3 (after the law)

Hymn 26

Psalm 133 & Hymn 52

Hymn 27

Scripture readings: Luke 23:26-49, 1 Corinthians 1:10-31

Text: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Betrayal is one of the most effective ways to create division.  The Soviet Union knew this back in the day.  The Soviets actively encouraged betrayal in order to cause division and class struggle.  In 1931, a 15 year old in Western Siberia accused his father of being anti-communist.  Pavlik Morozov’s father was put on trial and later shot in a labour camp.  After his father’s trial, Pavlik and his 9 year old brother Fyodor started reporting their neighbours for anti-communist activities.  You can imagine how that didn’t make them very popular in their village or with their family.  The two boys were found stabbed in a nearby forest in September of 1932.  Without any evidence, several family members pointed the finger at Pavlik’s grandfather and other family members.  Four of them were executed by a firing squad.  And Pavlik Morozov was immortalized as a communist martyr, a hero of the revolution, an example for Soviet children everywhere.  The communist Soviets valued division as a necessary means to an end.  According to the communists, division was good because it furthered the cause of class struggle or revolution. 

As Christians, we view things differently.  We don’t cherish division and certainly not in our families or in the church.  Instead, God’s Word teaches us to desire peace and harmony in all our relationships, and especially as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Now that doesn’t mean peace at all costs, or that we sacrifice truth for unity.  But it does mean we value unity in the truth and do whatever we can to promote it.  So what does God’s Word say about how to do this?  Particularly, what does the Bible say about fostering and promoting unity in the church?

Disunity was a huge issue in the church at Corinth.  According to chapter 1, there were factions in this young church.  Some were followers of this preacher, others of that preacher.  There was quarreling, arguing.  People were at each other’s throats.  In chapter 6 we learn that some of the people in this church were having lawsuits against one another.  They were defrauding one another.  This was a church divided.  Dysfunctional and unhealthy. 

All of that is the crucial background to our text for this Good Friday morning.  Verse 2 is at the heart of this passage.  Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  We may be tempted to look at that in an isolated way.  We might be inclined to see it just as a passage for preachers.  So the message would be:  preachers need to keep their attention on Christ and the cross.  And certainly they do; I do.  But we have to look at this passage in its context.  This isn’t just the Apostle Paul telling us how or what he preached.  He didn’t write these words so they could be put into a meme or used as a proof-text in a preaching handbook.  No, what we have here is an essential part of how Paul is addressing the huge issue in disunity in the Corinthian church.  What we have here also teaches you, all of us, how to foster and promote unity in this church.  And it all has to do with Jesus Christ and him crucified.  So the theme of my sermon is this:  For a united church, focus on Christ crucified

We’ll consider:

  1. How gospel distraction divides the church
  2. How gospel focus unites the church                  

Unlike some of the other early New Testament churches, Paul had a history with the church at Corinth.  That history is recorded in the Bible in Acts 18.  In Acts 18, we read of how Paul ended up preaching the gospel in Corinth.  He faced opposition from the Jews there and then turned his attention to the Gentiles of the city.  Many of them heard the gospel and believed.  Paul ended up spending a year and a half in Corinth teaching the Word of God to the new believers.  He invested time in helping them have a solid foundation under their feet. 

Paul points back to those days in verse 1 of our passage.  In the first chapter he was already speaking about the problem of their divided church.  He wrote about their calling, how many of them didn’t come from impressive backgrounds.  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…” – that was in 1:27.  It was because of God’s grace that they’re united to Christ, so that all boasting would only be in the Lord:  “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 

Now Paul says in verse 1, “Remember when I came to you.  Remember that I came in a way consistent with what I’ve just been writing.  Remember how I came in a way that didn’t put the focus on me, but on Christ.  I never distracted you away from him, even with the manner of my ministry.”   

And then Paul draws that out by explaining what he didn’t do.  Look with me at verse 1.  It says that he “did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.”  And then skip ahead with me to verse 4.  Look there.  Paul writes, “and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power…”  So there are two things here that Paul didn’t do.  He didn’t use “lofty speech” and he didn’t use wisdom or “plausible words of wisdom.” 

Corinth was in ancient Greece.  In ancient Greece, they placed much value on lofty speech.  That culture put a lot of emphasis on being able to speak impressively.  If you could give a speech in a beautiful way, with carefully chosen words, with just the right tone and volume, with the right gestures and facial expressions, you were highly respected.  People would admire you.  Even if everyone didn’t understand what you were saying, even if everyone didn’t agree with what you were saying, your speaking ability would earn you people’s esteem.  What mattered above all was style.  Substance was secondary.

But when it came to substance, it was a matter of wisdom, plausible words of wisdom.  Amongst the Greeks, wisdom was philosophy.  Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom.  The wisdom the Greeks loved was worldly.  The wisdom the Greeks loved was humanistic, man-centered.  Their wisdom was plausible, which is to say it was easily believed.  People could easily be persuaded by it.  That could happen because it appealed to the human heart in its natural state.  It appealed to our natural tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we should. 

Paul decided he wasn’t going to follow the culture around him.  So he wasn’t going to proclaim the worldly wisdom of the Greeks.  And he wasn’t going to use their style either.  He wasn’t going to use their lofty, impressive speech.  This was an intentional choice. 

He intentionally chose to forsake lofty speech and worldly wisdom because it would distract from the message of the gospel.  It would take people’s attention away from Jesus Christ and him crucified.  How would it do that?  Because the world’s style puts the attention on the style.  The style draws attention to itself.  It’s style for style’s sake, to make people impressed with the one who’s styling. 

And the world’s wisdom is by its very nature opposed to Christ.  The world’s wisdom denies people are sinners who need a Saviour.  The world’s wisdom denies the holiness of God and his just wrath against sinners.  The world’s wisdom denies there’s any ultimate judgment at all.  None of that fits with Christ crucified. 

I’ll summarize it all for you with one word.  For Paul to bring the world’s style and wisdom into the church would distract from the gospel because it comes down to pride.  Pride.  It puts man in the center and puts God at the margins at best.  Pride is the problem with the world’s lofty speech and “plausible words of wisdom.”  Human beings want the glory for themselves.   They want God off the throne and replaced with themselves.

Can you see how this kind of gospel distraction could divide the church?  Let’s say Paul had come to Corinth with lofty speech.  Let’s say he had come with a style of preaching that matched the culture he was living in.  Imagine Paul was placing all the attention on himself as a cultured and trendy speaker.  Imagine he gathered a following.  Paul’s got fans.  He leads these fans by his example.  His example says it’s all about you.  His example says that you have to have all the attention on your flair.  If people are following his example, they’re going to think and act the same way.  They’re going to think and act with selfish pride.

Imagine if Paul had come to Corinth with “plausible words of wisdom.”  Imagine that he’d come with a message that tickled people’s ears and made them feel good about themselves.  Imagine if his “gospel” was about helping good people become better.  Again, such a message would have taught the Corinthians to think of themselves in a way that’s far different than how God thinks of them.  Such a message would have taught them to be prideful.

Now the question you need to think about is this:  does pride build up unity in a church or does pride promote division?  I think we all know the answer.  If people are thinking highly of themselves, if people are selfish and self-centered, they don’t care about the people around them much, if at all.  If the proud do care about other people, it’s often for what they can get out of them.  How they can use them.  No, pride is destructive.  Pride promotes division.  Pride breaks down communities, including church communities.

That’s what the Holy Spirit is trying to get across to us here in 1 Corinthians 2.  Paul deliberately decided not to be distracted from the gospel.  He did that because he knows how gospel distraction divides the church.  He points it out to people who are experiencing division.  They’re not divided because of Paul and his ministry.  They’re divided because they’ve been distracted from the gospel.  They’re divided because they haven’t been killing their pride and focussing on what’s most important.  Because they’re not killing their pride, their pride is killing them.  It’s killing them as a church community. 

Loved ones, these truths apply equally to us today.  Pride is a common way for Christians to get distracted from the gospel of Christ crucified.  Pride can express itself in so many different ways – it doesn’t have to be lofty speech or plausible words of wisdom.  Pride can tempt us when it comes to our families – we can be proud that our family is this way, and not that other way, not like those other families.  Pride can tempt us when it comes to our success in our education or business – we can be proud that our skill and hard-work have earned us the success we enjoy.  Pride can tempt us when it comes to people from other ethnic backgrounds – we can be proud that we’re not lazy good-for-nothings, drunks and drug addicts like those people.  Ironically, pride can even tempt us when it comes to how we think ourselves to be quite humble – we can be proud of our humility, proud that we’re not like those arrogant so-and-so’s.  In each and every instance, pride has us looking inward, turned in on ourselves.  Not looking outward to Christ as needy sinners, but looking to ourselves as righteous and possessing everything we need in ourselves.  When we do that, it has the effect of dividing the church.  Proud people put up walls between themselves and others, and that includes inside the church.           

Pride is gospel distraction which divides the church.  Therefore, it’s something of which we need to repent.  We need to hate it with all our heart.  When we see pride in ourselves, we can’t coddle it.  We can’t foster it or encourage it within ourselves.  We have to pray to God and confess it to him.  We need to ask his forgiveness for it through Christ crucified.  And the good news promises that those who hate their sin and turn to God with a sorry heart will find forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  They will find that God will work with his Holy Spirit to create more humility in their hearts.  More humility will not only change us as individuals, it will strengthen the bonds we have together as a church family.

That was Paul’s intent for the Corinthians.  He wanted them to be united.  God wanted that for them.  And Paul knew that the way to foster unity in a church is to focus on Christ crucified.  Focus on the gospel of what Christ has done on the cross. 

Look with me back at verse 1.  Paul tells us what he proclaimed.  He tells us what he was preaching when he was with the Corinthians.  In verse 1, he says it was “the testimony of God.”  This was the witness that had been entrusted to the apostle Paul by God.  This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. 

That’s what brings him to write what he does in verse 2:  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Let’s look closer at those words for a moment.  Paul isn’t saying that every sermon he preached in Corinth sounded exactly the same.  From the book of Acts, we know Paul had variety in his preaching.  He isn’t saying his preaching in Corinth was literally every time just “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as if those were the only words he ever spoke.  He doesn’t even mean that his preaching was every time “Jesus Christ and him crucified” in slightly different words.  He doesn’t mean that he never spoke about other biblical teachings like creation, or the fall, or regeneration, or the end of the age.

So what did Paul mean when he wrote that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”?  This is first about the focus of the content of his preaching.  If there was anything Paul was known for preaching, it was Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Everything centered on Jesus and on the cross.  Even if he was preaching about creation, he preached it in relation to Christ crucified.  If he was preaching on regeneration, he preached it in relation to Christ crucified.  Anything he preached in Corinth or anywhere else anytime, he always brought it back to Christ.  Paul always connected everything to the gospel.  The gospel was the focus of his content.    

But this gospel focus also impacted the style of his preaching.  His preaching style reflected Christ crucified as well.  Look with me at verse 3.  Paul says he was with the Corinthian believers “in weakness and in fear and much trembling.”  To put it bluntly, his presence among them was rather pathetic.  We think of the apostle Paul, and I don’t know about you, but I think of a great theologian and probably a great preacher.  But he says he wasn’t a great preacher in terms of his pulpit presence.  His presence was cross-shaped. 

Paul had a cross-shaped pulpit presence.  What I mean by that is that it involved weakness, fear, and trembling.  Christ crucified on the cross is a picture of weakness, at least in natural human eyes.  Crucifixion was not rare in those days.  Many people were crucified by the Romans.  Romans and Greeks considered the cross as a method of execution to be pathetic.  It was distasteful.  Good etiquette meant you wouldn’t talk about crucifixion in polite company – in our day it would be like attending some black tie event all dressed up and then talking about the roadkill you saw splattered on the road.  That’d just be uncouth.  Well, the cross was looked at the same way in the days of Paul.  For Christians to worship a crucified man was just considered to be not just odd, not just weird, but repulsive, disgusting.  You’re worshipping a weak pathetic man who died a criminal’s death?  Paul’s weak pulpit presence reflected Christ crucified.  Paul was weak and unimpressive.  He had his fears, perhaps he was nervous.  The apostle Paul was the picture of a meek and timid preacher.  His presence was cross-shaped.

Nonetheless, this approach to ministry among the Corinthians demonstrated the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what it says at the end of verse 4.  The Holy Spirit worked through the message of Christ crucified, a message ridiculous to Greeks and Romans, and offensive to Jews.  That message, that Christ hung on the cross to make the payment for our sins that we couldn’t make – that people believed that message which appears so unbelievable, that could only be because of the power of the Holy Spirit.  That could only be because the Holy Spirit, he works in hearts so the ridiculous and offensive cross makes sense and becomes your salvation.

And the fact that people believed through a man like Paul, through preaching like Paul’s, is also evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit.  He worked through the weakness, the fear and trembling of Paul as he preached.  The world looks on and says, “How you can believe a message preached by someone who isn’t impressive in his speaking and presence?”  But people in Corinth did believe it.  That too could only be because of the power of the Holy Spirit.  That could only be because the Spirit works through weak and trembling preachers so people see the value of Christ crucified and believe in him.

This humble cross-focussed message and this humble cross-shaped approach has an aim.  The aim is in verse 5:  “…so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”  When the gospel is the focus, people don’t put their trust in human wisdom.  They don’t put their trust in human thinking or abilities.  Instead, when the gospel is the focus, faith is directed towards the power of God.  What is the power of God?  If you look back at chapter 1:18, the word of the cross is the power of God.  If you look a little further in chapter 1, at verse 24, you read that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Put those two together and you have Christ on the cross.  The power of God is Jesus Christ and him crucified.  This is the power of God to smash Satan’s skull, to gain the long-promised victory over the seed of the serpent.  This is the gospel which Paul elsewhere says is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  This is how the Almighty God shows his might:  he powerfully saves sinners through the gospel of Christ crucified.  This is where our faith has to rest, this is where our faith has to land. 

When it does, when God’s people have the same gospel focus that Paul did, it has a unifying power.  It brings believers together.  If the Corinthian believers would stop boasting in men, if the Corinthian believers would stop it with their pride, if the Corinthian believers would instead focus on Christ crucified, they’d be a more united church.  Their divisions would fall to the wayside and they’d experience more fully the communion of saints.

Focussing on the gospel of Christ crucified brings God’s people closer together – it always has and it always will.  It will for us too.  If you think about it, it makes sense.  When we focus on the gospel of Christ crucified, we’re reminded of why he chose to go to the cross.  It was to endure our hell, to take our place.  Why do we deserve hell?  If we focus on the gospel of Christ crucified, we have to acknowledge that we deserve what Christ endured on the cross because of all our sinful rebellion against God.  This gospel brings us to humility.  The cross forces us to own up to the fact that we nailed Christ to it.  We put Christ on the cross with our sins.  The cross announces that we’re sinful people who need saving.  As we recognize that, we don’t look at others in the same way.  We esteem others more highly than ourselves.  We don’t get our backs up when people speak to us about our sins and weaknesses.  We certainly don’t look to get some kind of revenge against those who do that.  It was Charles Spurgeon who once said, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him. For you are worse than he thinks you to be.”  That’s humble.  That’s where the gospel takes us.  And then it takes us to more harmony in our relationships with others, including in the church.  Sinful pride turns us inward and drives us apart.  The gospel always turns us outward and brings us together. 

Each Good Friday we focus our attention on Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.  This is all well and good.  But do you think the apostle Paul decided to know nothing amongst the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified only on Good Friday?  Do you think he was encouraging the Corinthians to focus on Christ crucified just once a year?  No, it’s clear how this was a year-round emphasis for Paul.  It was meant to be a year-round focus for the Corinthians.  Loved ones, the same is true for us.  The gospel of Christ crucified ALWAYS has to be our focus, whether it’s in the preaching or in our personal lives.  We have to always keep the main thing the main thing.  Distraction from the gospel of Christ crucified leads to dysfunction and disunity in our personal lives and in the church.  Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus is the way to enjoy growing communion with God and with one another.  AMEN.             

PRAYER

Heavenly Father,

We thank you again for the cross – it’s the only ground for our salvation, our only hope for eternal life.  We praise you for the love you demonstrated in sending your Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  We worship you for the reconciliation we have in the blood of Jesus shed for us on Golgotha.  Thank you for every blessing which has come to us through the suffering and death of our Saviour.  We pray that this gospel message would be our focus not only today, but every day.  Father, please help us not to be distracted from the gospel of Christ crucified.  Our sinful pride threatens to distract us so often.  Help us to put that pride to death.  Help us to hate it.  With your Holy Spirit, help us to make progress in our battle with our pride.  Please forgive us for the times when our pride has caused division.  Please forgive us for every time our pride has sown discord and disunity.  Please forgive us through Christ crucified.  We pray that as we look to Christ in faith, you would give us more humility with your Holy Spirit.  Make us more humble before you, more humble with one another.  We pray that you would help us as individuals and as a church to be focussed on the gospel, that we would always keep it as the main thing.  And we pray that you would work through that to help us have deeper communion with you, and more fellowship with one another.  Please make our church stronger and more united through the gospel of Christ crucified.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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