I am reading 1 Corinthians at the moment. Yesterday I thought I might take a look at Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s Thinking Through Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), expecting that they would provide me with a good overview of the letter. I was not disappointed, for I came across some succinct and insightful comments about 1 Corinthians.
Longnecker and Still think that the centre of the letter’s vision is “nothing but Christ crucified,” which I wholeheartedly concur.
A good passage to cite here would be 1 Cor 2:1–5.
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (NIV; emphasis added)
I do wonder how often preaching today is characterised by eloquent speech, human wisdom and power, rather than weakness, fear and trembling?
I do believe that well-prepared sermons and thoughtful biblical reflections are very important. But that’s very different from eloquent motivational talks that say little about the crucified Christ and primarily appeal to the emotion.
This is what Longnecker and Still say regarding the crucified Christ.
As Paul unpacks the phrase “Jesus Christ crucified,” he shows that it involves a radical redefinition of life and a sweeping reconfiguration of lifestyle. If “Jesus Christ crucified” is something of a slogan for Paul, it is a slogan that informs the repatterning of whole sectors of life—individual and collective, ethical and ecclesial . . . (Page 116; emphasis added)
These words from [1 Cor] 2:1–5 exemplify what Paul does throughout much of this letter. That is, he highlights a strand of the gospel that subverts the Corinthians’ cultural norms and expectations and applies it to their situation in ways that reorient them along the path of the gospel’s outworking. (Pages 116–7; emphasis added)
The cross is not only for our benefit. The grace of God through Christ also calls for a radical reorientation of every sphere of life.
Longnecker and Still continue to say,
At the heart of all this is what Paul calls “the message of the cross.” As he readily recognizes, that message is “foolishness” when analysed in reference to the quest for honor that enraptured the Corinthian ethos. Paul calls the Corinthians to look beyond that perception of foolishness in order that they might be empowered with “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18; also 2:4–5), enabling them to be reoriented to the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. (Page 117; emphasis added)
The challenge for us, then, is to abandon using our human wisdom to achieve the mission and purposes that God has given the church. Instead of asking how “successful” we are, and measure “success” in terms of the value system of the world, we should ask whether our message is “foolish” from the perspective of the world.
This does not mean that we don’t use wisdom or that we should abandon learning. Neither should we present the gospel in ways that are not thoughtful. But we should always be careful that we don’t deviate from the message of the crucified Christ and a (corporate and individual) life that embodies the cross, which will always appear to be foolish in the eyes of the world.
Longnecker and Still make the following comments regarding Paul’s own life.
The apostolic pattern of Paul’s ministry itself demonstrates that God’s wisdom runs against the grain of cultural constructed systems of honor. So Paul characterizes his ministry as, among other things, foolish, weak, and dishonorable by cultural standards (4:9–13), concluding that he has “become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.” (Page 120)
Here is something that every Christian leader needs to take heed of. Our celebrity culture today is fertile ground to foster leadership patterns that seek honour and glory in front of the world. Personality cult in the Christian circle is all too common. Paul would have nothing to do with it.