Great Texts of the Bible
The Power and the Wisdom of God
Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.—1 Corinthians 1:22-24.
This chapter is full of the tragic pathos of the Apostle’s life. We can read, as it were between the lines, the emotions, the hopes, the despairs, the fears, the loves, amid which he preached in Corinth, confronted by the hate of the Jew and the scorn of the Greek, and beset by the jealousies, the divisions, the misunderstandings, of his heathen and Hebrew converts.
St. Paul when he arrived in Corinth was not new to the work and the troubles of the missionary. Behind him were years of labour and sorrow. The man of Macedonia who appeared in a vision had cried, “Come over and help us”; and to St. Paul to hear was to obey. He landed at Philippi, bringing westward and into Europe the gospel of Christ. But love did not leap to answer his love, or faith rise to salute his coming. Instead, he was beaten, smitten with stripes, set in the stocks, made fast in the inner prison, till the virtue of his Roman citizenship opened the door of his prison, and he passed on to Thessalonica. There “lewd fellows of the baser sort” set the city in an uproar, and he was forced to depart for Berœa. In Berœa he found men nobler than those of Thessalonica; for they searched the Scriptures to discover whether his words were true. But enmity followed and drove him to Athens, where he felt the wondrous charm of the city and the wondrous indifference of the men. Images of gods were everywhere, but nowhere was the living God or godly peace of soul. The men wanted news, not of the kind he preached, but of the sort that was curious rather than true. So they set him on Mars’ hill, and as he unrolled his burden—told of their blind quest after God, and God’s ceaseless quest after them—they listened till he came to speak of resurrection and judgment. And then, offended rather than amused, they broke in and said, “We will hear thee again of this matter.” And so he had to forsake cultured Athens, and make for busy Corinth.
And now, as he writes, the antagonisms and the victories of those early days in Corinth come back to him. His mingled feelings are represented by a series of contrasts. First, he contrasts the hearers who were hostile to his preaching (the Jews and the Greeks) with those who accepted it (the “called”). Next, he contrasts the message he had to deliver (a crucified Christ) with the expectations of those hearers who asked for signs and sought after wisdom. Then he contrasts the estimates formed of that same message—a “stumblingblock” and “foolishness” to those who were asking for signs of power and wisdom; the “power and wisdom of God” to those who believed. The subject accordingly is St. Paul’s preaching, and we have three natural divisions.
III. The Reception of the Message.
What the city of Corinth was we know; it was rich, luxurious, commercial, lascivious. East and West met in it, and mingled their vices and their faiths. Thither had come the Jew, and built his synagogue, opened his bazaar, made a place for himself on the exchange, and used his knowledge of the Eastern men and markets to bring their wares and their ways to the men of the West. There, too, was found the Greek, subtle, full of the pride of race and intellect and achievement, speculative, argumentative in his very commerce, and beating out in the manner of the Schools the questions connected with the principles and profits of trade. There, too, was the Roman, with the spirit of the soldier who had become sovereign, scornful of the poor civilian and the mean merchant, thinking the world had been made to be conquered, and he to be its conqueror. And in the face of this mixed and divided community St. Paul preached. You can imagine him, after a day’s hard toil at his handicraft, in the evening stealing along the quay, watched by few, cared for by fewer, a man who could not be conquered, and who had in him vaster ambitions for the good of men than could find room in the mind of imperial Cæsar. And if you had followed him you might have seen him climb by a mean stair to a meaner upper room, where the slave, set free for an hour by his master, or the wharfinger escaping from loading or unloading his ship, or the porter seeking release from the burden he had carried throughout the day, met to hear this preacher, mean in appearance, but great in dignity and in power.
The education of the human race has been an affair of unconscious co-operation. One department of it has been put out to one race, another to another. For illustration look at Athens and then at Jerusalem. In Greece we find the first-class minds of the ancient world. Thales, Pythagoras, Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pheidias, Praxiteles, Archimedes, Thucydides are, in their several ways, prophets of the intellect. They stand for philosophy, physics, mathematics, art, music, politics, the whole sphere of things with which the mind can busy itself. They are the pioneers of research, openers of the ways in which truth-seekers have been travelling ever since. When you pass from Greece to Palestine you find yourself in another world. Open on Isaiah or Micah, read the New Testament from cover to cover, and you will find scarce a word about mentality. There is nothing about philosophy, or geometry, or music, or painting, or the science of history, or the science of politics. If you kept to the Bible, you would learn nothing worth knowing about the physical universe; no hint of the methods by which its secrets are to be disclosed. Summing the two up, you may say: Greece is all for knowledge; Palestine is all for character. We are learning to-day the immeasurable debt we owe to both. When you ask, “Which is the mightier; which the more important?” Huxley’s statement (“clever men are as common as blackberries; the rare thing is to find a good one”), remembering what he stood for, may well set us thinking.1 [Note: 1 J. Brierley, Life and the Ideal, 57.]
The Apostle divides the ancient world into two classes of men: those whom God has taken under His direction and enlightened by a special revelation, the Jews; the others whom He “has left to walk in their own ways,” the Gentiles, designated here by the name of their most distinguished representatives, the Greeks. Each of these groups has its demands, and the demands are different.
“Jews ask for signs.”
As proof that God was in their midst and as a revelation of God’s nature, the Jews required a sign, a demonstration of physical power. It was one of Christ’s temptations to leap from a pinnacle of the Temple, for thus He would have won acceptance as the Christ. The people never ceased to clamour for a sign. They wished Him to bid a mountain be removed and cast into the sea; they wished Him to bid the sun stand still or the Jordan retire to its source. They wished Him to make some demonstration of superhuman power, and so put it beyond a doubt that God was present.
1. Signs were suggested to the Jewish mind whenever that people thought of the past history of their nation. Almost every page of their sacred books spoke of signs either past or to come. Their faith had signs for its surest proof. Their greatest men had exhibited most startling signs. Those epochs to which they looked back with most pride were marked by a greater display of signs. And so it was no wonder that with the advent of the Messiah they expected signs in greater number and of more surpassing brilliancy than ever before.
2. Indeed they had signs in exceeding plenty, and of a character such as, from the past history of their nation, they might have expected. Jesus Christ of Nazareth confined His miracles to no one district, to no one section of the Jewish race above another. Everywhere, before all the people, He did wonders, which in number, power, and beneficence surpassed anything of the kind that had ever occurred in their history. These miracles, indeed, were so many signs from heaven to them, but they were not signs to their mind. They really did not know what they would be at. They wanted signs, and yet more signs! For it is of the nature of this desire to rise higher and higher in proportion as it is satisfied. On the morrow after the multiplication of the loaves the multitudes ask: What signs doest thou then? Every stroke of power must be surpassed by a following one yet more marvellous.
There is in the farther course of some Christians that which is the counterpart of the Slough of Despond at the commencement of it. There were cartloads of Gospel encouragements cast into the Slough of Despond, and yet it was the Slough of Despond still; and so into this there are carted distinctions and marks of saving grace, yet it remains the counterpart of the Slough of Despond still. There is no dealing with such persons; for if you give them signs of grace, they will ask for signs of the signs.1 [Note: “Rabbi” Duncan, in Brown’s Memoir of John Duncan, 426.]
3. The Gospel, now as then, has to encounter the demand of those who ask for signs. Do we not see the craving for the sign—for the display, that is, of supernatural power to crush and silence all doubt resulting in the superstitious corruptions of Christianity? For what is superstition but an appeal from wisdom to power, an effort to silence the reason by the terrors of the senses? The demand for a religion which shall dispense with the exercise of reason and the discipline of thought is ever punished by belief in a religion which outrages all reason and, at last, silences all thought. Superstition is still the Nemesis, not of faith, but of unbelief. And every such superstition necessarily grows always grosser and darker as it grows older. For the desire of the teacher for power, combining with the desire of the taught for certainty, must tend always to efforts at making the sign, which is to secure both, still more awful and convincing, by still greater and more awful attestations. A fresh miracle must be provided to silence each fresh heresy, a new prodigy to confirm each new dogma.
When Carlyle said of God, the God in whom Christians believe, “He does nothing,” he gave expression to precisely this mental temper. It is the temper of all to whom it is a religious difficulty that there is a constitution and course of nature and of human life in which things go on according to general laws, and in which there is much that is baffling, mysterious, and unjust. If we are to believe in God, they say, let Him do something.2 [Note: J. Denney, The Way Everlasting, 14.]
The Jews asked for signs, a request which is not necessarily indicative of a thirst; it may be an asking behind which there is no parched and aching spirit. That is the bane and peril of all externalism. It may gratify a feverish curiosity without awakening the energies of a holy life. The Jews asked for signs. “Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad,” for he hoped to see a sign. It was a restless curiosity, itching for the sensation of some novel entertainment; it is not the pang of a faint and weary heart hungering for bread.—“He answered him nothing.” The Jews asked for signs, a request which is frequently indicative of a life of moral alienation. Externalism abounds in moral gifts, and in externalisms men often discover drugs by which they can benumb the painful sense of their own excesses. “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign.” They try to resolve into merely physical sensations and sensationalisms what can be apprehended only by the delicate, tender tendrils of a penitent and aspiring heart.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
F. W. Robertson in his diary makes the following resolution: To endeavour to get over the adulterous-generation-habit of seeking a sign. I want a loud voice from Heaven to tell me a thing is wrong, whereas a little experience of its results is enough to prove that God is against it. It does not cohere with the everlasting laws of the universe.2 [Note: Stopford Brooke’s Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 73.]
And not for signs in heaven above
Or earth below they look,
Who know with John His smile of love,
With Peter His rebuke.
In joy of inward peace, or sense
Of sorrow over sin,
He is His own best evidence,
His witness is within.3 [Note: Whittier.]
“Greeks seek after wisdom.”
The wisdom of which St. Paul speaks appears to have been of two kinds—speculative philosophy and wisdom of words, i.e. eloquence. The Greeks had deified wisdom. They wanted the Divine intellectualized in a system eloquently giving account of the nature of the gods, the origin, course, and end of the universe. This people, with their inquisitive and subtle mind, would get at the essence of things. The man who will satisfy Greek expectation will be, not a miracle-worker, but a Pythagoras or a Socrates of double power,
1. Next to the Jews there was no people in the world that St. Paul knew better than the Greeks. He had in his lifetime come much in contact with them. He had, like all other men, wondered at their genius. There was no feature more distinctive of the whole people than their intellectual aptitudes, which they never lost. Everywhere they kept strong hold of their national traditions. Their language remained through ages uncorrupt and unmutilated. Much of their theology and culture was gathered from the Homeric poems, which were the heirloom of the whole race. They excelled in all the fine arts. They were masters in every branch of literature. “The Greeks,” above every other people, “sought after wisdom.” There could be nothing equal to that description in perspicuity and appreciation of national character. For the Greeks from hoar antiquity had been seekers after wisdom.
2. The Greek asked for no sign; he cared nothing for the supernatural, he had ceased to believe in it. He believed only in nature; he sought only for wisdom to understand himself and the world in which he lived; he asked from Christ only light on those problems in external nature, or in himself, on which his subtle mind was ever working. He wanted a perfect philosophy, or, at least, a perfect morality, which could justify itself to his intellect by solving all those difficulties which beset all other philosophies and all other systems of morals. Could Christianity do this? Could it tell him what was mind, and how it differed from matter? Could it tell him whether he was governed by fate or by free-will? Could it tell him whence came evil? If it could, he was willing to listen to it and to believe all that it could prove. But then for such teaching there was no need of miracles any more than there was for the teaching of geometry. All that was true in it he would receive on its own evidence, and he would receive nothing that did not so prove itself to be true.
3. From the earliest days of Christianity to our own, there have been those who, like the Greeks, demand a demonstration of religions truths not to the senses, but to the intellect, who ever seek to divest Christianity of all that is mysterious or supernatural and to reduce it, as much as possible, to a purely natural religion, to something that can be weighed and measured by the understanding, or that approves itself to the feelings; to something, in short, that is self-evident to the natural man.
There is, in our day, a marvellous idolatry of talent; it is a strange and a grievous thing to see how men bow down before genius and success. Draw the distinction sharp and firm between these two things—goodness is one thing, talent is another. It is an instructive fact that the Son of Man came not as a scribe, but as a poor working man. He was a teacher, but not a Rabbi. When once the idolatry of talent enters the Church, then farewell to spirituality; when men ask their teachers, not for that which will make them more humble and God-like, but for the excitement of an intellectual banquet, then farewell to Christian progress.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson.]
Artists have united with authors to strengthen this idolatry of intellect. One of the great pictures in the French Academy of Design assembles the immortals of all ages. Having erected a tribunal in the centre of the scene, Delaroche places Intellect upon the throne. And when the sons of genius are assembled about that glowing centre, all are seen to be great thinkers. There stand Democritus, a thinker about invisible atoms; Euclid, a thinker about invisible lines and angles; Newton, a thinker about an invisible force named gravity; La Place, a thinker about the invisible law that sweeps suns and stars forward towards an unseen goal. The artist also remembers the inventors whose useful thoughts blossom into engines and ships; statesmen whose wise thoughts blossom into codes and constitutions; speakers whose true thoughts blossom into orations; and artists whose beautiful thoughts appear as pictures. At this assembly of the immortals great thinkers touch and jostle. But if the great minds are remembered, no chair is made ready for the great hearts. He who lingers long before this painting will believe that brain is king of the world; that great thinkers are the sole architects of civilization; that science is the only providence for the future; that God Himself is simply an infinite brain, an eternal logic engine, cold as steel, weaving endless ideas about life and art, about nature and man. But the throne of the universe is mercy and not marble; the name of the world-ruler is Great Heart, rather than Crystalline Mind, and God is the Eternal Friend who pulsates out through His world those forms of love called reforms, philanthropies, social bounties and benefactions, even as the ocean pulsates its life-giving tides into every bay and creek and river. The springs of civilization are not in the mind. For the individual and the State “out of the heart are the issues of life.”1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, The Investment of Influence, 133.]
A dour old Scot upon his deathbed was informed by his wife that the minister was coming to pray with him. “I dinna want onybody tae pray wi’ me,” said he. “Well, then, he’ll speak words of comfort tae ye.” “I don’t want to hear words o’ comfort,” said the intractable Northcountryman. “What do ye want, then?” asked his wife. “I want,” was the characteristic reply, “I want tae argue.”2 [Note: Arch. Alexander.]
iii. Them that are Called
St. Paul places this class of hearers in sharp contrast to all others. He forcibly separates the “called” Jews and Gentiles from the mass of their fellow-countrymen; to the called themselves, he says, as opposed to all others. The term “called” here includes the notion of believers. Sometimes “calling” is put in contrast to the acceptance of faith, as in Matthew 22:14, “Many called, few chosen.” But often also the description “called” implies that of acceptor, as it certainly does here.
1. The Apostle exalts the Divine act in salvation; he sees God’s arm laying hold of certain individuals, drawing them from the midst of those nationalities, Jewish and Gentile, by the call of preaching. St. Paul thinks of the constituent elements of which the church of Corinth was actually composed. These Corinthian Christians were of no account, poor, insignificant, outcasts, and slaves, friendless while alive and when dead not missed in any household; but God called them and gave them a new and hopeful life in Christ Jesus. It is plain that it is not by human wisdom, nor by power, nor by anything generally esteemed among men that we hold our place in the Church. The fact is that “not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” If human wisdom or power held the gates of the Kingdom, we ourselves would not be in it. To be esteemed, and influential, and wise is no passport to this new kingdom. It is not men who by their wisdom find out God and by their nobility of character commend themselves to Him; it is God who chooses and calls men, and the very absence of wisdom and possessions makes men readier to listen to His call.
2. The people that are called are those who have heard the voice of God and responded to it. The old theologians distinguished between a general and an effectual calling. So far they were correct enough, but they erred in laying the cause of the distinction on God. There is no difference in the call. The difference lies in this, that in one case the heart responds to it, and in the other it does not. God never fails in anything He does, so far as His part of the work is concerned. God’s call comes forth clear and strong, a great shout of power to the wide world, but only some respond and are raised to the power of God, and to the enjoyment of His life.
3. In St. Paul’s day this argument from the general poverty and insignificance of the members of the Christian Church was readily drawn. Things are changed now; and the Church is filled with the wise, the powerful, the noble. But St. Paul’s main proposition remains: whoever is in Christ Jesus is so, not through any wisdom or power of his own, but because God has chosen and called him. The sweetness and humble friendliness of St. Paul sprang from his constant sense that whatever he was he was by God’s grace. He was drawn with compassion towards the most unbelieving because he was ever saying within himself, There, but for the grace of God, goes Paul.
I owned a little boat a while ago,
And sailed a morning sea without a fear,
And whither any breeze might fairly blow
I’d steer the little craft afar or near.
Mine was the boat,
And mine the air,
And mine the sea,
Not mine a care.
My boat became my place of nightly toil;
I sailed at sunset to the fishing ground;
At morn the boat was freighted with the spoil
That my all-conquering work and skill had found.
Mine was the boat,
And mine the net,
And mine the skill,
And power to get.
One day there passed along the silent shore,
While I my net was casting in the sea,
A Man, who spoke as never man before;
I followed Him—new life began in me.
Mine was the boat,
But His the voice,
And His the call,
Yet mine the choice.
Ah! ’twas a fearful night out on the lake,
And all my skill availed not at the helm,
Till Him asleep I wakened, crying, “Take,
Take Thou command, lest waters overwhelm!”
His was the boat,
And His the sea,
And His the peace,
O’er all and me.
Once from His boat He taught the curious throng,
Then bade me let down nets into the sea;
I murmured, but obeyed, nor was it long,
Before the catch amazed and humbled me.
His was the boat,
And His the skill,
And His the catch,
And His my will.1 [Note: Joseph Richards.]
1. Preaching.—The clear, creative imagination of St. Paul could penetrate into the brain of the Roman and look through his eyes; into the intellect of the Greek and judge with his cynicism; into the spirit of the Hebrew and feel with his heart, or dream with his fancy. And as he looked at the men he could read their thoughts without the help of words, translating the scowl on the Hebrew’s face into bitter speech, the scorn on the Greek’s lip into eloquent reproach. But though he knew the thoughts of the men he did not dare be silent in their presence. For God sent him to preach the Gospel, and he preached it possessed with the passion for souls that is the image in man of grace in God.
(1) “But we preach.” St. Paul refused to make any compromise. He was very clearly conscious of the two great streams of expectation and wish which he deliberately thwarted and set at naught. “The Jews ask for signs”—but we preach Christ crucified. “The Greeks seek after wisdom”—but again, we preach Christ crucified. To all their subtleties, whether of outward sign or of inward wisdom he opposed the simple fact of his preaching.
(2) “We preach.” The word “preach “is emphatic; it means in its full signification “to proclaim as a herald does.” St. Paul proclaimed his Gospel simply as a fact. The Jew required a sign; he wanted a man who would do something. The Greek sought after wisdom; he wanted a man who would perorate and argue and dissertate. St. Paul says, “No!” “We have nothing to do. We do not come to philosophize and to argue. We come with a message of fact that has occurred, of a Person that has lived.”
Preaching is an institute peculiar to the Gospel. Nothing can be preached but the Gospel, so nothing can be done with the Gospel but preach it. It is not a mere law to be enjoined, or a philosophy to be developed by human thought, or a series of articles to be taught. In its naked essence, it is a fact of God’s doing, a Divine datum, a salvation provided, stored, and offered in the person of a Saviour. As such, it is to be asserted, declared, published, heralded.1 [Note: J. O. Dykes.]
2. Preaching Christ.—St. Paul proclaimed a Person, not a system of philosophy. We can adore a person, but we cannot adore principles. It is not merely Purity, but the Pure One; not merely Goodness, but the Good One, that we worship. Some of the Greek teachers were also teaching Purity, Goodness, Truth; they were striving to lead men’s minds to the First Good, the First Fair. The Jewish Rabbis were endeavouring to do the same; but it is only in Christ that it is possible to do this effectually, it is only in Christ that we find our ideal realized.
Preaching Christ is not preaching about Christ. There is a well-known passage in the tenth chapter of Romans which gives a balanced account of the reason for the failure of so much preaching to produce any adequate or satisfactory results. The first part of the passage points to causes of failure in the preachers; the second half to causes of failure in the hearers. The great cause of failure in preachers is indicated in one of these opening interrogations as it is translated in the Revised Version. The old version, smoothing over a difficulty of translation, and giving not the actual sense of the words but what it was imagined St. Paul ought to have said and meant to say, reads thus, “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” Now the Revisers give us what St. Paul actually did write. “How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?” You see there is a whole world of difference in the two phrases. According to the first one the difficulty of belief is that they have not heard about Christ; but according to the second it is that they have not heard Christ. According to the first the function of the preacher is to talk about Christ; but according to the second his function is to be a mouthpiece through whom Christ can speak about Himself. “They are not likely to believe,” St. Paul says, “unless they hear Christ.” If it was true when he wrote, it is abundantly true to-day. There are few indeed to-day who have not heard about Christ; but there are multitudes who have never heard Christ.1 [Note: C. Silvester Horne, Relationships of Life, 139.]
3. Preaching Christ crucified.—St. Paul’s subject was “Christ crucified.” He would not preach Christ the Conqueror, or Christ the Philosopher (by preaching which he might have won both Jews and Greeks), but Christ the crucified, Christ the humble. There is a distinction between preaching Christ crucified and preaching the Crucifixion of Christ. It is said by some that the Gospel is not preached unless the Crucifixion be named. But the Apostle did not preach that; he preached Christ—Christ the Example—Christ the Life—Christ the Son of Man—Christ the Son of God—Christ risen—Christ the King of Glory. And ever and unfailingly he preached that Christ as a humble Christ crucified through weakness, yet living by the power of God.
“Reason cries, ‘if God were good, He could not look upon the sin and misery of man and live; His heart would break.’ The Church points to the Crucifixion and says, ‘God’s heart did break.’ Reason cries, ‘Born and reared in sin and pain as we are, how can we keep from sin? It is the Creator who is responsible; it is God who deserves to be punished.’ The Church kneels by the cross and whispers, ‘God accepts the responsibility and bears the punishment.’ Reason cries, ‘Who is God? What is God? The name stands for the unknown. It is blasphemy to say we know Him.’ The Church kisses the feet of the dying Christ and says, ‘We must worship the majesty we see.’ ”
O that Thy Name may be sounded
Afar over earth and sea,
Till the dead awaken and praise Thee,
And the dumb lips sing to Thee!
Sound forth as a song of triumph
Wherever man’s foot has trod,
The despised, the derided message,
The foolishness of God.
Jesus, dishonoured and dying,
A felon on either side—
Jesus, the song of the drunkards,
Jesus the Crucified!
Name of God’s tender comfort,
Name of His glorious power,
Name that is song and sweetness,
The strong everlasting tower,
Jesus the Lamb accepted,
Jesus the Priest on His throne—
Jesus the King who is coming—
Jesus Thy Name alone!
The Reception of the Message
No two races, no two types of the human mind, could have been more widely different, more directly the opposite of each other, than the Jew and the Greek. The very fact that the Gospel was displeasing to the one might therefore have led us to expect that it would be sure to please the other. And yet Jews and Greeks, who agreed in nothing else, agreed in rejecting Christ.
Widely different as the demands of the Jew and the Greek seemed at first, they were really asking one and the same thing; they were asking for an unspiritual religion; a revelation that should not deal with the heart at all in the way of trial or discipline, that would spare them the great trial of being called on to trust and to love, in spite of doubt and difficulty. What they sought for, in one word, was knowledge without belief. The Jew demanded a demonstration of God to his senses; the Greek demanded a demonstration of God to his intellect. The Jew required a revelation that should compel assent; the Greek required one that should give no occasion for doubt. Both demanded a religion without faith, both asked to see, both refused to believe in an invisible God, and, therefore, both rejected a crucified Christ.1 [Note: W. C. Magee.]
1. To the Jews, the death upon the Cross was a stumbling-block, i.e. it was something which they could not get over, because it was so utterly contrary and so entirely repugnant to their religious ideas. It was a “stumblingblock”; literally a trap, something that arrests the foot suddenly in walking and causes a fall. Here, in the very forefront of the Gospel, was the stumbling-block, which they could not get over, and which prevented them from making any effort to weigh the evidences and the claims of Christianity.
(1) To the Jew, the Cross meant failure of the most evident and pitiful kind; it meant impotence and weakness; it meant a life of great apparent promise, a career of great and wide-felt influence, ending in the most disastrous, the most humiliating acknowledgment of helplessness.
It was not only incredible, it was disgusting and abominable, this “word of the Cross.” That men should dare to speak of One crucified, of One hung upon a tree, of One who had suffered the death of the accursed as the Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of the world, the chosen Servant of Jehovah—their faces reddened with shame or gathered blackness with rage when they heard of it. In the Jewish writings of those ages our Lord is never directly spoken of. His name was to them a thing of nameless horror; He was a thing of darkness so fearful, so shocking, that to speak or write of Him was by tacit consent forbidden. Only in far-fetched figures and suggestions was that object of loathing dimly alluded to as the arch enemy of Israel.2 [Note: R. Winterbotham.]
(2) There are multitudes of Christians who worship success; and these would reject and repudiate Christ as emphatically as the Jews if it were open to them, if they were really free to be consistent. Christ represents failure, weakness, humiliation; and they admire only what is successful in this world, what is strong in mere physical might, what is glorified by itself.
They tell us that there are men of science who stumble at the Cross. There are young men and middle-aged men, and old men, so we are told, who follow us sympathetically until we come to the proclamation of the sacrifice of Christ as the atonement for sin, and there they stumble. Shall we remove the cross that these people may not stumble? If we do we remove the world’s redemption at the same time. Even though it be a stumbling-block to some, we must preach Christ crucified.1 [Note: J. Thomas.]
2. To the Greek-speaking heathens the doctrine was foolishness. The Greeks had been trained to speculation. Everything in their esteem ought to assume the shape of a theory, or a system, or a well-arranged argument, and ought to invite them with subtlety of discussion. The Apostle reduced them to what was in their eyes foolishness; he reduced them to a fact—Christ crucified.
(1) Men who sought for wisdom had to find it in other quarters than these. Wisdom is of two kinds: theoretical and practical. Theoretical wisdom gives an account and an explanation of all things that are: of the state of the world, of the puzzles and trials of human life, of the nature and character of God and of man. Practical wisdom, again, teaches men how to live so as to make the best of life, to avoid most evil, and to attain most good. Now the doctrine of the Cross failed in every way (as they thought, and not unreasonably) to commend itself to wisdom. To see a man, who is said to be the best, and the prime favourite of heaven, dying a horrible death amidst general detestation does not explain anything; it only makes things very much more dark, and perplexed, and confused than before. Moreover, to point to a man who ended his days in such a wretched way can be no help in the way of practical guidance. No one but an absolute lunatic could desire such a fate, or regard it with anything but horror. Have we not a human nature? Are we not made of flesh and blood? Do we not rightly shrink from suffering, cold, hunger, pain, and all their kindred ills? Do we not instinctively desire to be warm, to be full, to be at ease, to be wrapped in comfort and in peace? The doctrine of the Cross, which is of its very nature opposed to all this, is not wisdom but foolishness; it does not deserve a hearing from sensible people.
(2) The opposition which the Gospel met with in St. Paul’s day was not of that day alone. The Jew and the Greek, the seeker after the sign and the seeker after wisdom, exist always. Still, wherever the Gospel is preached, must the preacher expect to hear from each of these the same demand that St. Paul heard; still must be found, with St. Paul, Christ crucified a stumbling-block to the one and foolishness to the other. For these two—the seeker after the sign and the seeker after wisdom; the man who would rest all religion, all philosophy, all social polity, upon authority alone, and the man who would rest them all upon reason alone—this Jew, with his reverence for power, his love of custom and tradition—which are the power of the past—his tendency to rest always in outward law and form—the power of the present—his distaste for all philosophical speculation, his impatience of novelty, his dread of change—leaning always to the side of despotism in religion—and, on the other hand this Greek, with his subtle and restless intellect, his taste for speculation, his want of reverence for the past, his desire of change, his love of novelty, his leaning towards licence in society and scepticism in religion; what are they—these two—but the representatives of those two opposite types of mind which divide, and always have divided, all mankind?
3. Those who listened to the call of God found in this preaching of the Apostle exactly what both Jew and Gentile were looking for. It was both a sign and a philosophy. The sign, the proof, which comes closest to us all is a change of heart, an emancipated will, a risen self, a new life. The mind humbled and exalted at once before the Cross of Christ, accepting the message of peace and love, found itself acted on by a new power. All things became new; old habits and corruptions fell off from the believers; they began to walk in newness of life. The great proof of moral regeneration was being exhibited in every Christian Church, and was to every one that felt it a philosophy. The nature of the soul, the character of God, the destiny and hopes of man, were now realized truths. They did not depend on the capacity to follow a well-reasoned system of philosophy, but on the power to lead a new and a holier life.
In the life of David Hill, the Chinese missionary, it is recorded that as time went on Mr. Hill was increasingly impressed by the conviction that something further should be done to reach the literati of the province, the proud Confucian scholars, in their strong antipathy to Christian truth. Frequently meeting these men he could not but be struck by their contemptuous attitude towards the Gospel, their hatred of foreigners, and their prejudice against missionary work. His whole heart went out to them in genuine sympathy.
By offering prizes for essays on subjects taken from the Christian classics—the Scriptures—he got into touch with Hsi, a Confucian scholar, who carried off three out of four of the prizes. A little later he invited Hsi to be his teacher in studying the Chinese classics. Thus Hsi came to live with Mr. Hill, and became acquainted with the New Testament. Gradually, as he read, the life of Jesus seemed to grow more real and full of interest and wonder, and he began to understand that this mighty Saviour was no mere man, as he once imagined, but God, the very God, taking upon Him mortal flesh. Doubts and difficulties were lost sight of. The old, unquenchable desire for better things, for deliverance from sin, self, and the fear of death, for light upon the dim, mysterious future, came back upon him as in earlier years. And yet the burden of his guilt, the torment of an accusing conscience and bondage to the opium-habit he loathed but could not conquer, grew more and more intolerable. At last, the consciousness of his unworthiness became so over-whelming that he could bear it no longer, and placing the book reverently before him, he fell upon his knees on the ground, and so with many tears followed the sacred story. It was beginning then to dawn upon his soul that this wonderful, Divine, yet human sufferer, in all the anguish of His bitter cross and shame, had something personally to do with him, with his sin and sorrow and need. And so, upon his knees, the once proud, self-satisfied Confucianist read on, until he came to “the place called Gethsemane,” and the God-man, alone, in that hour of His supreme agony at midnight in the garden. Then the fountains of his long-sealed heart were broken up. The very presence of God overshadowed him. In the silence he seemed to hear the Saviour’s cry, “My soul is exceeding sorrrowful, even unto death”; and into his heart there came the wonderful realisation, “He loved me, and gave himself for me.” Then, suddenly, as he himself records, the Holy Spirit influenced his soul, and “with tears that flowed and would not cease,” he bowed and yielded himself unreservedly to the world’s Redeemer, as his Saviour and his God.1 [Note: Life of David Hill, 118, 132.]
4. Christ the Power of God.—The power of God is the force from above, manifested in those spiritual wonders which transform the heart of the believer; expiation which restores God to him, the renewal of will which restores him to God. We know now—by experience of many ages—how much more powerful that defeat, humiliation, overthrow, of Christ upon the Cross is than any victory which God could have given Him. It would have been a very small and commonplace exercise of power if God had interfered to set Christ free from the Cross. Had He come in darkness and flame; had He fallen upon the murderers of our Lord with sudden destruction; had He slain them as one man with the breath of His mouth, it had been a very poor display of the Divine power. Anybody could have done that (we may say with reverence) if only he possessed the necessary physical power. But to let Christ die, without a sign, without a struggle; to let Him suffer all things; to let Him taste of defeat, disgrace, and death; that was an exercise of power which was, indeed, worthy of God.
(1) Christ crucified is the power of God in self-sacrifice. There is no power among men so great as that which conquers evil by enduring evil. It takes the rage of its enemy and lets him break his malignity across the enduring meekness of its violated love. Just here it is that evil becomes insupportable to itself. It can argue against everything but suffering patience; this disarms it. Looking in the face of suffering patience it sinks exhausted. All its fire is spent. In this view it is that Christ crucified is the power of God. It is because He shows God in self-sacrifice, because He brings out and makes historical in the world God’s passive virtue, which is, in fact, the culminating head of power in His character.
(2) Christ is, in His sacrifice, the mighty power of God for the salvation of men. This is the power that has new-created and sent home, as trophies, in all the past ages, its uncounted myriads of believing, new-created, glorified souls. It can do for us all that we want done. It can regenerate our habits, settle our disorders, glorify our baseness, and assimilate us perfectly to God. There never yet was a human being delivered from the power of sin, except by the power of God; and the Divine power never was exerted upon any human being with that view, except through the Cross of Christ, that is, in consequence of what Christ has done and suffered in our room and stead.
Christ can take the man at his worst and the woman at her basest, and out of them make saints that can love God and that God has loved; make saints that can cause the very breath of the world to grow fragrant and the very heart of the world to grow tender.1 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn.]
(3) The power of Christ crucified is permanent and universal. Christ addresses Himself to the world; and His influence transcends all external accidents that serve very well for pomps and shows, because He addresses the hearts of men. The power of “Christ crucified” is this, He works personally in every believer, and is present to strengthen every faithful heart. The power which would have gratified the Jews would have been the demonstration of a moment—a sign, a wonder, a triumph; but the power which is to save a world must know no decay; it must exist at this moment in the same fulness in men’s hearts as it did of old on the day of Pentecost. The Jew would have degraded and confined the power of the Messiah; the Jew and not St. Paul would have put the stumbling-block in the way of man’s salvation; the truth, the simple truth, which was so obnoxious was after all the most complete manifestation of the power of God.
5. The Wisdom of God.—While the Cross of Christ, viewed in its bearing upon the condition and character of men, is a most striking manifestation of Divine power, it is no less striking a manifestation of Divine wisdom. Wisdom is shown in the adaptation of means to an end, so as most effectually to accomplish the object intended. The wisdom of God is the light which breaks on the believer’s inward eye, when in the Person of Christ he beholds the Divine plan which unites as in a single work of love, creation, incarnation, redemption, the gathering together of all things under one head, the final glorification of the universe.
(1) The Cross of Christ affords us a knowledge of the Divine character, which is complete in all its aspects, which shows us at once the just God and the Justifier of the ungodly—a knowledge which, as it stands revealed in His own word, and when it is not perverted by the ungodliness of the human heart, brings before our minds the Divine character, in the manner best fitted to mould or transform us into the full resemblance of the moral perfection of God.
(2) Christ crucified is to the Christian the wisdom of God because the Cross explains (so far as they can be explained in this world) the dark mysteries of life and death, and because it is the practical guide to truth and happiness. All the wisdom man needs to take him safely through the perils and perplexities of life is to be learned from the Cross.
St. Buonaventura (wise and strong himself) used to say that all the learning in the world had never taught him so much as the sight of Christ upon the cross.
(3) The Divine wisdom is such that it comes within the reach of all. The wisdom of man would be offered to the select few. Not everybody can read Plato and understand him. Very few can read Hegel and understand him. There are great thinkers concerning whom we take it for granted that they are great thinkers, but can only say that the little we understand is good, and that we assume that the rest is quite as good. But God’s wisdom comes to all. What if the world were to be saved by the wisdom of man? How many could thus be saved? What if we had to depend for redemption on the utterances of some wise philosopher? Thousands of the poor sons and daughters of men possessing little intellect and less learning would not be able to lay hold of it. But this is a wisdom coming into the hearts of all, and first of all by preference into the hearts of the simple and untutored and childlike.
Away, haunt thou not me
Thou vain Philosophy!
Little hast thou bestead,
Save to perplex the head,
And leave the spirit dead.
Unto thy broken cisterns wherefore go,
While from the secret treasure-depths below,
Fed by the skiey shower,
And clouds that sink and rest on hill-tops high,
Wisdom at once, and Power,
Are welling, bubbling forth, unseen, incessantly?
Why labour at the dull mechanic oar,
When the fresh breeze is blowing,
And the strong current flowing,
Right onward to the Eternal Shore?1 [Note: Clough, Poems, 24.]
The Power and the Wisdom of God
Alford (H.), Sermons on Christian Doctrine, 210.
Burrell (D. J.), Christ and Progress, 111.
Bushnell (H.), The New Life, 239.
Candlish (J.), The Gospel of Forgiveness, 301.
Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, iii. 101.
Conn (J.), The Fulness of Time, 71.
Cunningham (W.), Sermons, 120, 134.
Denney (J.), The Way Everlasting, 13.
Dykes (J. O.), Sermons, 34.
Edger (S.), Sermons preached at Auckland, N.Z., ii. 40.
Fairbairn (A. M.), Christ in the Centuries, 23.
Foster (J. E.), Pain, 102.
Holland (H. S.), Creed and Character, 191.
Hopkins (E. H.), The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, 141.
Ingram (A. F. W.), The Gospel in Action, 54.
Jowett (J. H.), Apostolic Optimism, 68.
Macleod (A.), A Man’s Gift, 23.
Macleod (D.), The Sunday Home Service, 262.
Magee (W.), The Gospel and the Age, 3.
Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, ii. 174.
Mills (B. R. V.), The Marks of the Church, 94.
Potts (A. W.), School Sermons, 117.
Sclater (J. R. P.), The Enterprise of Life, 244.
Stubbs (W.), in The Anglican Pulpit of To-day, 49.
Taylor (W. M.), Contrary Winds, 116.
Thomas (J.), Sermons: Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 99.
Watt (L. M.), The Communion Table, 322.
Winterbotham (R.), Sermons, 156.
British Weekly, Feb. 22, 1912 (Berry).
Christian World Pulpit, xiii. 92 (Beecher); xviii. 246 (Stevenson); xxxiv. 219 (Spurgeon); xxxix. 369 (Fairbairn); xlii. 146 (Snell); lvii. 273 (Jowett); lxii. 151 (Pickett); lxxix. 312 (Fox); lxxx. 296 (Brown).
Church of England Pulpit, xxx. 13 (Panter); lxii. 381 (Payne), 662 (Straton); xliii. 230 (Maturin).
Contemporary Pulpit, ii. 144 (Scott).