by Spiros Zodhiates
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (1 Cor. 1:17).
A woman who went to hear a well-educated preacher took her Bible so that she could refer to any passages he mentioned. Coming away from the worship service she said to a friend, “I should have left my Bible home and brought my dictionary.”
When preachers depend on philosophy, or the wisdom of reason, to lead souls to Christ—which is what the term “evangelizing” means—they are in danger of robbing the cross of Christ of its power. That is what the expression, “lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect,” means.
It is noteworthy that Paul begins this verse using the first person singular and ends it by using the third person. He says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to evangelize; not in the wisdom of words.” Now observe how he continues. He does not say, “lest I render the cross of Christ ineffective,” because he would never do that purposely. No true Christian preacher would intentionally weaken the content of the cross of Christ, or relegate it to an inferior position. It is unthinkable that one should ever use human wisdom, reason, and expression intentionally to obscure the simple message of the cross—that Christ died for our sins.
Paul reverts from the direct first person (implied in the infinitives baptízein and euangelízesthai) to the indirect form—“lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect”—to indicate that obscuring the message can happen without our volition. It can happen so easily that people praise our oratory instead of being saved—even as we faithfully preach the gospel, and even to the best and most faithful of us.
I knew a preacher who used to stay up all night memorizing and practicing the delivery of his sermons and prayers. I wondered if it was to show off, to dress the gospel in the wisdom of words? Paul was conscious of how easy it was to cause those who listened to him to say, “What a preacher!” instead of “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The temptation to show off our human wisdom through words, especially in the pulpit, is a subtle thing. Let us be on our guard against it!
A man who continued to lead an immoral life, despite the fact that he went to church, urged his sister to go with him to hear his minister. She looked at him and tartly asked, “Brother, what good has his preaching ever done you?” Preaching is empty of the message of the cross if those who hear it regularly continue in their sin, because the cross of Christ has power to cleanse from sin.
“Lest the cross of Christ be emptied out” is the literal translation of this phrase. This implies a fullness in the cross. The content of the cross meets a need in man and is a fountain full to overflowing. What is this content? It is neither the piece of wood on which men nailed the Son of God, nor the idea of sacrifice, but Christ Himself hung on that cross, His blood shed for the remission of our sins. You can wear a cross on a chain around your neck, fasten one to your lapel, or place a lighted one on your church building, but they will mean absolutely nothing to your soul unless by faith you appropriate the blood that Christ shed on the cross for the cleansing of your sinful soul.
There are many today, as there undoubtedly were in Paul’s day, who object to using the words “death” and “blood.” One should not think of death, they say. Think of the pleasant things of life. Such is the advice of much modern psychology. Paul knew that only Christ’s death offers real, abundant life, as we avail ourselves of its benefits for pardon and cleansing and consequent resurrection to newness of life.
Notice that Paul does not say the death of Jesus, but the death of Christ—the appointed One, the Anointed of God, the One who existed before He became man, and who became man for the express purpose of dying. Christ is the only person who ever died to accomplish His life’s purpose. Those who object to hearing about the blood of the cross, as though the thought were too repugnant for our modern sensibilities, entirely miss the point of Scripture, which teaches that “the life . . . is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). We do not find it repugnant to accept a blood transfusion to save our lives; why should we find it distasteful to contemplate that Christ shed His blood to save us eternally?
A preacher who announced that he was going to deliver a series of sermons on the blood of Christ was approached by a committee and asked to change his topic to “the death of Christ,” because “the word ‘blood’ is not very popular with many of the people in this university town.” The preacher replied, “Jesus might have died in bed without shedding His blood, but ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission’ (Heb. 9:22). I expect to keep the blood as my theme.” Indeed, Paul does not speak here merely of “the death of Christ” but of “the cross of Christ” because the cross involves the shedding of the blood of the Son of God for the forgiveness of our sins.
A minister was preaching from the text, “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), when suddenly he was interrupted by an atheist who asked, “How can blood cleanse sin?” For a moment the preacher was silent; then he continued, “How can water quench thirst?” “I don’t know,” replied the infidel, “but I know it does.” “Neither do I know how the blood of Jesus cleanses sin,” answered the preacher, “but I know that it does.”
Paul knew this from personal experience. Had you asked him to explain it, I doubt whether he could. Nor can I, but I have experienced it. Have you? The only way to quench your thirst is to drink water. If you waited for an explanation of how this happens, you could die of thirst. You accept so many mysteries of life because you find that they work. How about giving the blood of Christ, which is shed on the cross for you, a chance to cleanse your soul? Faith in His atoning sacrifice can work this miracle in your life, as it has done for countless multitudes down through the ages to this very day and hour. For “Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
From A Richer Life for You in Christ (an Exegetical Commentary on First Corinthians One), published by AMG Publishers