Saint Paul had an obstacle to gospel proclamation almost unknown to preachers today: the revulsion of the cross itself. Today, the cross is adorned with art and jewels and decorates our homes. In Paul’s day, it was strewn with mutilated bodies. That is one of the reasons why the mystery of the Gospel is a mystery and the revelation of it as the means of salvation requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit — nobody would ever think of looking there for the secret to life, the fulcrum on which the universe turns, the visibility and knowability of God, His love, and the victory over death. It takes the Holy Spirit to use the Law and Gospel to bring us into the way of truth and light. As Luther said in his Small Catechism in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed: “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Paul admits in chapter 2 that not only were the Corinthian Christians themselves for the most part neither wise, powerful nor aristocratic, but also he himself, when he announced the proclamation of Christ crucified to them, found himself doing so, as he says in v.3, “…in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” Paul was letting them know he was getting a little existential with himself. He was reflecting on his own absurdity. He was a man with the equivalent of multiple doctorates, heralding such an utterly unthinkable assertion as: “We executed the world’s rightful King—God our Creator—and stuffed the Divine Being into a grave and guess what, that is how Jesus of Nazareth conquered the Caesar, the Empire, the evil powers of this world and even death itself.” “Holy mackerel,” says Paul, “I can’t believe I just said that.” It must have been the work of the Holy Spirit of God. It could have only been the Holy Spirit of God. Therefore, every bit of our salvation is the work of God. By grace alone are we saved, by grace alone do we receive faith.
Paul could not believe he was proclaiming this as the glory and victory of the God of Israel, and yet he was compelled to say it for three simple reasons. First, it was the stone-cold truth. He met, saw and repeatedly encountered the resurrected Jesus and had that encounter objectified by, arguably, more than a thousand others of his countrymen. Second, the same King Jesus commanded him to herald the declaration of His rule, His Kingdom. Third, there was power in this proclamation, revealed in Paul’s somewhat cryptic words about his preaching of the Gospel: “…brought in the demonstration of the Spirit and power” (v.4). Perhaps such preaching was accompanied by miracles. Perhaps he was reflecting on the astonishing reality that people were converted to, of all things, a crucified Jew as king of the world. Perhaps it was equally miraculous that the object of loathing and death was now engendering love and life. What is clear, Paul says in verses 1-5. He used no gimmicks, no rhetorical tricks, no argumentative sleight-of-hand, and the cosmopolitan Corinthians still embraced the truth concerning the reality of Jesus’ expanding kingdom of grace. The truth of the Gospel carried its own power. It needed no window dressing or a coffee bar in the narthex. Paul was happy to keep it that way, even though he looked like a fool while he was announcing it as if he had just stepped out from having an audience before Caesar’s throne.
At the heart of the appropriate response to the Gospel of God’s victory through His Son’s crucifixion was faith: a present trust and future confidence that God’s King would make good on His Word, based on His past performance in and through Messiah Jesus. This faith, Paul says, is antithetical to incredulity; the narrative of Israel provides all the antecedent that we need. The narrative holds true. This faith is the sole true mark of Christian identity, of the good kingdom citizen. The citizen of God’s kingdom says, “Yes. Amen.” God has kept His word, exploding any doubt because He took down the greatest abiding power and law in the universe — death. Therefore, I can now and throughout my lifetime trust the Promise-Making, Promise-Keeping God. This story makes sense and God has, in fact, kept all His promises but He has done so supremely and climatically in and through the body of Jesus upon the Holy Cross. To believe this, or, put differently, to trust and have “faith” is the opposite of incredulity; it is a recognition of God’s credibility established and confirmed in Christ, and Christ crucified to be specific.
God has kept His word, exploding any doubt because He took down the greatest abiding power and law in the universe — death.
This belief requires illumination by the Holy Spirit of God because we have been convinced, since time immemorial, death has the last word. The Cross says, “No, Christ has the last word on death and that word is life.” “I am the way, the truth and the Life… No one takes my life from me. I lay it down and I have the power to take it up again” (John 10:18). This is Jesus, the Crucified King. And no one, says Paul, no one confesses the truth concerning the reality of Jesus as the abiding, reigning King of the world but by the power, the illumination of the Holy Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3).
This has been such a universally recognized truth that Luther put it in the plainest possible words in his Small Catechism, again in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed: “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it in with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” This faith, this confession, the Holy Spirit puts in us through the hearing of the Gospel and in the waters of Holy Baptism.
In Romans 10:9, Paul says Christian faith means confessing Jesus is Lord, beginning at the Cross, and owning the historical fact that God raised Him from the dead. That confession is not a one-off. It is our continual confession. The mystery for us has been revealed: The Crucified One has been vindicated through the resurrection. This ties in closely with his summary of the gospel message itself, the message they in Corinth and all Christians before and after have believed: Their confession that Jesus being in charge of the World is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, if the resurrection is so important, why does Paul say he would know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified in v.2?
Paul does not mean he only spoke of Jesus’ cross and never mentioned His resurrection. Thousands of people, after all, were crucified in Paul’s day. What made Jesus different was God raising Him, and no one else, from the dead and transforming Him through the Resurrection so death has no power over Him. But, by placing proper emphasis on the crucifixion, Paul ensured nobody could mistake this message for a kind of crowd-pleasing rhetorical stunt, convincing at the time but making no lasting impression. This would be akin to the kind of stuff we hear from the likes of name-it and claim-it prosperity gospel pundits or theological liberals who reduce Christianity to a mere ethical system or moral vignettes. Crucifixion was regarded in the ancient world as so horrible, so revolting, so degrading you did not mention it publicly. It was obscene language about what happened to the filth of the world; subhuman behavior fit only for subhumans. No self-respecting sophist or rhetorician would dream of it. But Paul knew and was bearing witness to the truth and had a direct commissioning from the King to declare it.
Let us, then, not recoil at the sight and sound of the crucifixion. It is the battlefield of victory. It is the throne of the King. It is the symbol of salvation. Remember, the empty cross is not the symbol of the resurrection, the empty tomb is. The crucifix is the symbol of atonement, victory, completion, and the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 2:1-10 (13-16).
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 2:1-10 (13-16).