Paul said, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Of course it was the message, the “word of the cross” (v. 18), which the world considered foolish. Surely no reader seriously believes “the cross” refers to a piece of jewelry or talisman; and I hope we are mature enough to recognize the necessity for faith, repentance, and baptism, without thinking this constitutes the “message of the cross.” Nor is “our cross” some arthritic shoulder, inconsiderate boss, or family problem. Jesus said we must “bear our cross” to be His disciple (Lk. 14:27), and that relates the cross to our learning and following the Lord. We must strive to understand the message of the cross.
The obvious basis for this message is the literal cross, and more particularly the meaning of the cross in the redemption of man. Man was created a free agent, but used his freedom to sin against God. We can not appreciate the message of the cross until we realize something of the awfulness of sin and its affront to our Maker. God, in keeping with His nature, made the decree: “the soul that sinneth, shall die.” But early in man’s history, God’s merciful nature was also manifested. Animals were ordered sacrificed as a type substitution - the life of the animal for the life of the sinner. Then, Isaiah said, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon in; and with his stripes we are healed” (53:5f). Philip and other inspired writers apply this to Jesus Christ, the God-given means of man’s redemption. The literal message of the cross is that Christ died in our stead, making salvation a gift of God, freely given to “whosoever” will put his trust in Him.
But the message of the cross goes much further than a literal “blood” payment. He who truly forgives must bear the cost of the wrong, must “take the loss” instead of his “pound of flesh.” This remedy for sin was freely given, at tremendous cost, for totally undeserving mankind. The sinless Son of God prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). He could have called for angelic protection (v. 53), but chose instead to carry out the plan of divine grace. The Hebrew writer says, “yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (5:8). This was learning in the sense of ultimate experience - the divine need over fleshly desires. Clearly, self sacrifice is emphasized as the heart of the message of the cross. “God so loved . . . that he gave” (Jn. 3:16). “He loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4: 10). John said, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (v. 11). Sacrificing love in the message of the cross is an essential for all who would bear their cross (cf. 1 Cor. 13).
The message of the cross is more; it is non-material in its nature. Christ “led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” (Eph. 4:8). But they were not the material gifts men expected. The Jews looked for Messiah, a Davidic king with a wealthy, powerful, material kingdom. Instead, they were offered a suffering Messiah who had no place to lay His head. To make matters worse, from their viewpoint, He asked them to make like sacrifices (Lk. 9:58). Paul coupled “the sure mercies of David” with the crucified and resurrected Jesus, and said the blessings were “the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 13:23,34t). That was no more welcomed by worldly minded people then, than it is today. Jesus Christ was a “stumbling block” to the Jews (Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23). The message of the cross challenges us today: go the second mile, love your enemies, give all (Matt. 5:38-48). Yea, “how hardly shall they that have riches (that “trust in riches”) enter into the kingdom of God” (Mk. 10:23-24).
The message of the cross was offensive then, and is now, because it runs counter to man’s ways of winning. How could the meek inherit the earth? When Jesus first told His disciples He was going to suffer and die, Peter rebuked Him saying, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall never be unto thee” (Matt. 16:22). But Jesus replied, “Thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men” (v. 23). It was then He continued: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (v 24). Jesus triumphed through suffering (Heb. 2:10); and taught that greatness is achieved in humble service (Matt. 20:26f). Our weapons are not carnal (2 Cor. 10:4f), and the spirit of “burn ‘em up” is rebuked (Lk. 9:54f). We can not “glory in the cross” while we glory in the flesh (Gal. 6:12-14). Those who rejected the cross persecuted those who tried to live by its message (Gal. 5:11).
The message of the cross does not depend upon man’s wisdom; and that irritates those who flaunt their degrees. But the gospel does not discourage learning; it only insists that God’s wisdom is greater. “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and . . . the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:27). The message of the cross rejects worldly wisdom - when it becomes our God (Col. 2:3f). The things of the Spirit are received by humble men, whose faith stands in the power of God rather than in human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1-5, 14). In the final analysis, salvation is by faith in the cross, not by faith in ourselves. How desperately we need to learn this basic principle of the message of the cross.
Paul gloried in the cross of Christ, “by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:1-14). The power of the world over Paul, and his carnal love for the world, were done away in his acceptance of the message of the cross. Paul realized the awfulness of his sins, and welcomed the mercy of the cross. He was ready for its message of forgiveness, for he was made to see himself clearly - as “chief of sinners.” But he also welcomed the opportunity to sacrifice himself for Christ’s sake. He accepted stripes and imprisonment for the cause of Christ, and bore on his body the marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17). He was determined to preach the gospel, regardless of support (1 Cor. 9:15-16); and tender love shown even as he upbraided erring brethren (Gal. 4:19-20). He was “crucified with Christ” and Christ lived in him (2:20). Paul had learned well the “message of the cross.”
But do not expect the world to flock to the cross. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Cor. 4:4), and they will not see beyond its empty glitter. The confinements of the cross are too much for them, the cost too great. The challenge of preaching is to seek and find the few who recognize the transient nature of this world, the value of the soul; and who will understand and be thankful for the message of the cross. These will find peace with God and self, become new creatures, and live with God here, and hereafter.