David Alves, one of our members, will be presenting a series of reflections on sermons given at Grace Church to aid us in considering and obeying God’s Word. Following is a reflection on the message recently preached by Erik Johansen, Sunday morning, September 20, 2015.
The center and apex of the entire storyline of Scripture is the cross. Everything before it leads up to it, and everything after it flows from it. While the goal of human history is the reunification of heaven with earth first in the millennium and then in the fullness of the new earth, the pathway to that goal is the cross. And certainly, the goodness, glory, and greatness of the incarnate God was most spectacularly displayed at the cross. For even in His return He will come as the glorified God-man, not the God-man who was still in the days of His humbling. Yes, the cross was the apex of the glory of God in His incarnation, and the focal point of history as it purchase full redemption for sinners and matchlessly demonstrated the character of God as nowhere else.
Paul writes his first letter as an emissary of Jesus Christ to the Corinthian church, which was beset by scandal and disunity. Rooted in their willing acceptance of human wisdom (which is from Hell; James 3:14-16), and exhibited by their tolerance of even gross sexual and social sins, the Corinthians needed to have some strongholds detonated. And Paul knew that the best way to do this was by a long, faith-driven look at Christ crucified. For only there does God in flesh triumph over human wisdom, render the devil’s days unauthoritative and numbered, and exalt the heart, wisdom and program of God as infinitely powerful and glorious compared to the selfish and prideful ways of humanity. The humble God towers above the strongest of ungodly men.
In this text, Paul discusses two responses of human wisdom to the cross and one of divinely-granted heavenly wisdom, which alone can see things as they truly are. Paul’s first tack is to deal with the Jewish objections to the cross.
- The cross causes you to stumble (vv. 22a, 23a)
The Jews were supernaturally-driven. Their Old Testament worldview was steeped in the understanding that there was a thoroughly spiritual world beyond the visible, physical one and that this spiritual world was intimately and deeply connected to the physical. They were used to stories of God veiling Himself in flesh and visiting Abraham, or as the Angel of Yahweh; of dead souls being called back from the veil of death by a prophet’s cry; of Balaam’s curses reverberating onto the heads of his own people; of fallen angels leaving their own place and cohabiting with human women, in a frenzied demonic attempt to pollute the bloodline of the Messiah. So it was only natural that they would want some kind of supernatural evidence that Jesus was indeed who He claimed to be.
But their persistent unbelief—which sees all the proof in the world but it is never good enough—blinded them to all of the evidence that the Messiah had come as both King and Savior. Matthew 12 is a microcosm of the His credentials. Jesus declares Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath (v. 8), heals the man with the withered hand (v. 13), and heals another deaf and blind man (v. 22). In between He speaks authoritatively and biblically, and even implies He is the end-times Judge to whom all men will be accountable (vv. 36-37; cf. Matthew 7:21-23, John 5:22-24, 12:44-50). But the Jewish people of His day retained their legalistic, self-righteous, human-tradition veneer that they willfully encrusted over the text of Scripture (cf. Matthew 15:1-9). Jesus’ message was a call to humble and decisive surrender to His Lordship, which had at its heart a complete refusal to justify oneself before God or place any hope in one’s own merit before Him. That was why the Jews of His day rejected the message He brought. It cut at the heart of their desire to justify themselves (Luke 18:9; Romans 10:3). So His miraculous works and authoritative words simply could not be those of the promised Messiah; surely He would only be impressed with their pedigree and self-atonement. Instead, they had to be demonic in origin. O how damning is the desire to be righteous on one’s own terms and strength before God! For that is exactly what the Jewish leadership determined – Jesus was demon-possessed and acting on satanic initiative. Their impenitent refusal to repent of this hardened their hearts irreversibly and damned them forever in an unforgivable sin (Matthew 12:22-32).
Paul responds to the same Jewish objection. Surely, the Jews reasoned, the Messiah would break into the world in fire and glory, slaughtering ungodly and sexually-unrestrained Romans and rewarding the fastidious Jewish believers. Surely He would be impressed with their devotion to the most insignificant minutiae of religious protocol. Surely He would be awed by their determination to make themselves righteous before God! But who was the Christ Paul preached—a man hated by the most religious, best Jews! A man who opposed legalistic, self-righteous merit and externalism! A man who broke with Jewish tradition! A man who ate with sinners! A man who was hung on a cross, under a divine curse (Deuteronomy 21:23). Where is the sign the leaders of Jesus’ day cried out for Matthew 12:38)? This was the glorious, sovereign Messiah? No indeed!
That Jesus was coming to fulfill the Suffering Servant prophecies which would pave the way to His Kingship did not seem to broach itself to them (indeed, these two Old Testament themes were seen as so irreconcilable that a significant Jewish tradition held there would be two messianic figures, not one). The forsaken carpenter on the cross was the epitome of human weakness. He simply did not flash with the supernatural power the Jews craved. And so they saw the cross, and their unbelief made them trip over it into eternal hell. Do you stumble at the cross because it does not match with your human, autonomous thinking? Or do you accept God’s viewpoint and perspective, however it conflicts with yours?
- The cross causes you to find it absurd (vv. 22b, 23b)
If the Jews were the supernaturalists, the Greeks were the philosophers and the rationalists. They were the richly cultured ones, the athletes and the intellectuals and the students of literature. Moreover, like the Jews, they were proud. Instead of trusting in their own righteousness, they simply trusted in their own intellectual ability to figure things out, to reason their way to what truly mattered. As such, the Cross’s message of humbling, self-denying faith—admitting precisely that one did not and could not reason their way to God but that He had to reveal Himself and even become a man Himself to redeem sinful men—slapped their pride and intellects in the face. The Gnosticism that many Greeks favored also made the cross look absurd. God became a man? God died? God was executed as a hated criminal? What was this? God was spirit, and spirit could not touch the disgustingness that was matter. Matter was evil, created by an evil, rival god. A message preached by uneducated, uncouth, vulgar fishermen—who were Jews, by the way, and there were few if any people the Greeks hated more than Jews—was simply too ghastly to be deserving of attention, let alone faith. To Greeks, the Christian sect was just one more little irrelevant squabble amongst those pernicious, culturally-awkward Jews. Not only was it ghastly, but it was so Other, so outside their erudite and pagan worldview that it was utterly dismissible. All of these factors made the cross so laughable that only foolish simpletons would give it any credibility.
Many are like this in our day. Their pristine and culturally-acceptable permutation of rebellious human thinking makes the cross and its followers the fools of the century. Believing the death of a Jewish carpenter can take away sin?! Believing people are sinners and that there’s a hell and a judging, angry God to whom we are accountable? What foolish inanity. Educated, bright people do not believe in things like sin or righteousness or a need for spiritual salvation. Have you allowed your human intellect and pride to overrule the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through His Word? Is the cross the epitome of foolishness to your prideful heart, or is it the locus of the saving power of the holy God?
- Yet some believe (v. 24)
In contrast to the rebellion of the Jews and Gentiles, those sovereignly and graciously called by God see the cross for what it is. The call here is the effectual call—as it is always so designated when “call” is used in the epistles. It refers to the sovereign, authoritative, and overcoming work of God in the heart to effectually draw the sinner to repentance and faith. Specifically, God overcomes your self-righteous stumbling and your unbelieving derision at the foolishness of the cross. This is not merely the general call made to all men irrespective of whether or not they respond. No, within that call is the effective and binding voice of God Himself, crying out through the preacher in such a way that it actually and infallibly secures the very thing it sets out to do. While some look at the cross as a deadly threat to their self-righteousness, and others view it as a shameful, foolish fantasy, and reject, those who have been called by God view fellowship with God and rescue from their sin and the destruction of Hell to be worth more than holding on to their precious human thinking which would have sent them to Hell anyway. Christ Himself is no longer threatening or silly but gloriously powerful and wise. The loving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross in the place of wretched sinners is viewed as the most glorious, most powerful, and most grand event ever. It is loved, treasured, and desired. And these humbled souls, Jews and Gentiles alike, fall on their faces before the crucified God and pledge themselves to Him forever. And He looks down on them in love, seeing the travail of His soul, and is satisfied.
These are the responses of men’s hearts to the apex of human history and the highest display of the glory of God. It is the clearest exaltation of the incarnate Lord Jesus there will ever be. It purchased your salvation from sin, your restoration to God, and every blessing you will experience in time and eternity. The cross is everything. Will you come by faith, and walk by faith, in the glorious cross of the Lord Jesus Christ?