• Isa 50:4-9 | • Ps 40:1-10 | • 1 Cor 1:18-35 | • Luke 23:1-49
INTRODUCTIONPreaching on “The cross through the eyes of Paul” might call for an exposition of his big theological ideas, ransom, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, and so on.
But this isn’t how he ministers to the tangible disunity, immorality, social division, super spirituality and bad theology of the church in Corinth. Instead he emphasises the character of the cross of Jesus as the place where the true nature of the wisdom and power of God can be fully found (1 Cor 1:24).
Even though when he initially preached in Corinth Paul he came not “with lofty speech or wisdom…. lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 2:1-2; 1:17), and even though his testimony was accompanied with a supernatural converting power, the Corinthians had quickly turned from a cross-centred spirituality to one dominated by the trendy know how of the day (cf. Gal 1:6).
As their father in the gospel (1 Cor 4:15) Paul knew the answer to the crises in any Church lay in the Church receiving revelation of the power of the cross to do for it what it had done for him; rest to the conscience, release and liberation from evil powers, and peace and reconciliation with God.
The centre of gravity of Paul’s theology was the death and resurrection of Jesus because the cross was a present power in his life!
A life as outlined in the Acts of the Apostles which is a profoundly intimate expression of the life of Jesus himself.
A CRUCIFORM AND EMPOWERED LIFE
Luke opens Acts by saying, “In the first book… I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1). Jesus didn’t stop doing and teaching things when he went back to heaven; he kept speaking and acting through his Spirit in the lives of the apostles including Paul.
This began dramatically with a light and voice from heaven overpowering the rabbi Saul (later Paul) on the road to Damascus.
When Saul inquired about the identity of the person speaking to him, “vs.5 “Who are you, Lord?”, he received a reply that would completely shape his future life and ministry “vs.5‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. vs.16 …I have appeared …to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me”” and spoke to Saul about great suffering for the sake of his name (Acts 9:5, 16; Acts 26:15-16).
As an expert in the Hebrew scriptures Saul knew his commission to be a servant-witness came from God’s call to Israel in Isaiah 43:10, and that the Christians he persecuted claimed that Jesus was the Messiah who had ultimately fulfilled this vocation through death and resurrection (Acts 8:32-33).
As he was bathed in the divine light and heard the heavenly voice God revealed that Jesus was his Son (cf. Gal 1:15-16) and he had been called to share Messiah’s glorious mission in bringing the light of the good news of salvation to the nations (Isa 42:6; Acts 9:15; Acts -13:47).
The most stunning dimension of this revelation, one which stood in complete opposition to all human reason and his own religious tradition, was the testimony (1 Cor 2:1) that Messiah was a crucified man.
The messianic Son of God had humbled himself from the splendours of heaven to “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
In identifying with a “cursed Messiah” (Gal 3:13 cf. Deut 21:23) the shape of Jesus’ life would be recapitulated through Paul’s own.
This was the peculiar glory of what it meant for Paul to see the cross (e.g. Eph 3:13) and so the shape of Paul’s life radically conforms to that of Jesus (cf. Rom 8:29).
The preaching of the gospel through both men produced blindness and hardening in their hearers (Isa 6:9-10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26-27).
So as Jesus was rejected, especially by own countrymen, so was Paul (Acts 9:29; Acts 13:50; Acts 14:19; Acts 17:13; Acts 22:17-21). As Christ was opposed because he sought to win sinners (Matt 11:19), Paul was opposed because he sought to win Gentile-sinners (Acts 21:28).
As Jesus directed his journey to Jerusalem against the protests of his friends (Luke 9:51; Luke 13:22; Luke 18:31), so Paul was exhorted not to go there by fellow Christians (Luke 13:31; Acts 21:10-14).
In Jerusalem both Jesus and Paul were exposed to false witness, hounded by a mob, tried by the governor (Luke 23:1; Acts 25:1-2). Jesus went to death in Jerusalem and Paul was sent on to death in Rome.
Because in humility Christ came down from heaven he ministered with extraordinary power, when Paul’s life came down from mixing with the Jerusalem elite to mixing with the lowly (1 Cor 1:26ff.; Phil 3:5-8) he ministered with “signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor 12:12; Phil 3:10).
This, to normal understanding, paradoxical mix of weakness and power is well summed up in a self-description from 2 Corinthians 4, vs.8 “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; vs.9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; vs.10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. vs.11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. vs.12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Cor 4:8-12).
Resurrection power was continuously operative in Paul’s life because he was always suffering in his union with Jesus (Col 1:24). As the cross defined the character of Jesus it defined the character of Paul.
His life motivation is crystal clear; vs.14 “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; vs.15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor 5:14-15).
Captured by the love revealed in the cross (Rom 5:8) Paul embodies the message of reconciliation; “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us [lit: put within us] the message of reconciliation” (5:19).
In his whole hearted willingness to sacrifice everything for the salvation of others Paul imaged a wounded injured God actively seeking reconciliation with rebels. This was the secret of the power that worked through his life. What exactly did Paul see in the cross that grasped his heart?
As a pious Jew he was familiar with blood sacrifice where the life of a beast was offered up in the place of a sinner to turn away God’s judgement on guilt bringing forgiveness and reconciliation (Lev 1:3-4).
But when he had a revelation that God had sacrificed himself, for the sins of humanity (Acts 20:28) all his religious preconceptions were undone.
That a perfectly righteous man should sacrifice himself for the unrighteous (i.e. us) was an unthinkable reversal of the moral universe as he understood it (Rom 4:25; 5:6-8; cf. 1 Pet 3:18). No one expects victims to die for their victimisers!
This is the power of the cross that turns every common sense way of thinking about life on its head. Moved by this great revelation he exclaims, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14).
The unconquerable suffering love of God in Jesus has annihilated the power of sin and evil over humanity in its selfish possessiveness.
In Paul’s eyes the cross was transformed from the most shameful of deaths to a place where the evil powers which originate shame are defeated (Gal 3:13).
So he exults in testifying; God “disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.” (Col 2:15).
We need to grasp with Paul that the death of Jesus is not a spectacle to admire or a fine sentiment to imitate but something we are called to share in (Gal 2:20).
Christ died in our place so we could share in the wisdom and power of his death. This is what being a Christian is all about; vs.1 “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? vs.2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? vs.3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? vs.4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:1-4)
It is at this point that it becomes horribly plain that most of the contemporary Western Church, sharing as it does all the problems of the church in Corinth, doesn’t see what Paul sees about the cross. Which is to say we don’t understand the power of the gospel (Rom 1:16).
THE CHURCH OF OUR DAY
The Church in Australia is abounds in the false gospels of legalism, rationalism, social activism, success, prosperity and influence (Gal 1:6-7 cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25; 2 Cor 12:1-10; Gal 6:12-15).
Outwardly these look so different to each another but inwardly they are all manifestations of a radically self-centred ego that has not been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20).
Paul’s remedy for alternative gospels is blunt and embarrassing; “3.vs.1 It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified…. 6.vs.17 I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal 3:1; 6:17).
As a servant and witness sharing the sufferings of Jesus (Phil 3:10) those exposed to Paul’s ministry saw in him something of Christ’s own agonies for their salvation.
This is central to what it means to be a Christian, e.g. “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12; cf. Rom 8:17-18; Phil 1:29; 1 Thes 2:14-15).
But with the affliction of the cross comes a powerful rescue; beaten, stoned, imprisoned, cold, hungry, thirsty, shipwrecked… but delivered by the power of God (2 Cor 11:23-28) at the end of his life the apostle testifies, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18).
We urgently, desperately need to recover Paul’s great cross-formed desire; “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1:20).
His presence could never be dismissed, but our Christianity is reckoned as impotent and irrelevant. Not because Western culture understands wisdom and influence in a fundamentally different way from the paganism of Paul’s time, but because his greatest fear for the Church has become true amongst us; the cross has been “emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).
The Christ of the cross tests the character of your life every day. Someone who has never been broken, misunderstood, rejected and despised in making Christ known has likely never known the power of the cross.
If you have never been thought to be slightly on the crazy side (2 Cor 5:13) for making sacrifices of time, money, energy and emotions for others, in Jesus’ name, then you have never seen the cross through the eyes of Paul.
The way of the cross always looks weak from the outside but if we are living its message its power transforms our own lives and through us the lives of others, forever.
Serving the crucified Christ marked Paul out as Christ’s apostle; does your relationship with the cross identify you as a Christian?
If you ignore the cross you will in the end die alone, and that’s that, the end. Identify with Jesus in his death, and you will share in the power of his glorious resurrection from the dead (Rom 6:5; Easter).
We are at the end of our series: “The cross through the eyes of Isaiah, Jesus, Hebrews, Peter, John, Paul.”
How about “The cross through the eyes of (own name)?”
Others can really see something of the Jesus through you if you are willing to suffer with him as a servant and a witness?
Just as surely as the crucified Lord called Paul to this commitment on the road to Damascus he is calling us to make this same commitment now. Let us pray.
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 25th March, 2018 | St Mark’s
Author: Dr. John Yates
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