By Simon ManchesterSunday 29 Nov 2015Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterChristian LivingReading Time: 0 minutes
Well if you have 1 Corinthians chapter 1 opened – our Scripture is this passage this morning, that’s what we are focusing on. And we are thinking especially about the church in its weakness. As we are thinking about the local church, we have seen some quite mind boggling things and we have seen many of the privileges of being God’s people and many of the responsibilities. However we must be honest that the church is weak. It’s not only weak across the country and the city that we are part of but it has a sense of weakness even as we gather.
The message is weak – the members are pretty weak – the messengers are weak. And it is very unusual for the world to sit up and be impressed by the church. There are not many places where the world is being struck by the church. And the question that we want to ask is we know the future of the church will be good but what about the present? That famous little poem says:
To live above with saints we love, that will be grace and glory,
To live below with saints we know, is quite another story.
And it is true, it is true – what are we going to make of the present with the church? What hope is there?
Well we will see in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 that things are not what they seem. That there is more power in the message of the church than the world could ever really, not only imagine, but produce.
I once was travelling to a Conference to give a talk and I was late and I decided to hitch-hike and I was picked up by a guy who was actually going to the International Conference on Nuclear Energy. And it struck me as we said our goodbyes and I told him where I was going and he told me where he was going – it struck me as we said our goodbyes that I was going to a Conference which would look to the world incredibly tame but it was actually dealing with the Word of God which would make the Nuclear Energy of the world look like a $1 rocket. There is incredible power in the Word of God.
We will also see in this section this morning that the weak members of the church are exactly as God has planned it and the weak messengers are exactly as God has planned it. This is a deliberate policy on his part to shame worldly arrogance and to promote his own worthy honour so he is very clever. He knows what he is doing and is it not true (I think we would agree with this) that there is more power in the Gospel which when a person hears it and they are transformed by it and they move from darkness to light and from the broad road to the narrow road and from a destination of hell to a destination of heaven – that is an incredible piece of power in the Gospel.
I think we would agree that there is more power and there more blessing that often takes place in the gathering of the local church where God searches us and rattles us and shakes us or comforts us or challenges us, often more in the gathering of a handful of people where God speaks to us than going to the New Year’s Eve fireworks where we are left completely unaffected.
So the Apostle Paul is going to do this in our section this morning -1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5 and there are 3 points. The first he is going to talk about the Weakness of the Message and then the Weakness of the Members and then the Weakness of the Messengers. And let’s think about this together.
Look at chapter 1 verse 18 The Weakness of the Message. Our message, he says, is The Cross – the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. What we do on Sundays, believe it or not, is we concentrate somehow on the message of the Cross. That is we don’t want to say the same things every week till we get to the point of familiarity that breeds contempt. But we want to undergird everything we say with the wonderful message of the Cross which is the past is dealt with, the present is dealt with and the future is dealt with. That God through the Cross shows himself to be wise, powerful, loving and holy. The Cross is the absolute bullseye of our ministry.
But this means that we are not telling the world to do wonderful things and achieve wonderful things and be wonderful people and therefore it doesn’t sit well with the world. Because the world likes to be told ‘you are wonderful, you can do anything, you can be anything’. But the message of the cross doesn’t say that. The message of the cross says ‘you have fallen short of the glory of God, Christ has come and died, there’s your bridge, there’s your solution’. So we tell what Jesus has achieved. We tell people that the only sinless man the world has ever seen was being punished for the sinful things that we have done when he hung on the cross at Calvary that we might escape and go free. That’s our message – but it does seem foolish to many people, doesn’t it?
I don’t imagine there would be many people that we know even in the Boardrooms of work or the staff rooms or home neighbourhoods – I don’t imagine there would be many people who would mock at the Cross – I don’t imagine there would be many who would laugh at the Cross or who would scoff at the Cross but it would be a very unusual CEO, Professor, Headmaster, Headmistress or Leader, Political or whatever level who will say: “Yes we are doing a big job, we’ve got a big business, yes we are making a lot of money but actually the message of the Cross of Christ is the key to the world”.
That would take a very discerning person. There are Presidents like that, there are Prime Ministers, there are CEO’s, there are Professors, there are Headmasters and Headmistresses who will talk like that but mostly the world applauds its own powers. And therefore the message of the Cross seems feeble. And you can imagine people saying to us – ‘why do you get so excited about the Cross? How can you make such a big deal of Jesus’ death? Lots of people have died very cruelly? We respect your great interest in Christ’s death, yes that’s nice for you but it just doesn’t seem to me to be as big as you make it out to be and I cannot see the relevance frankly for myself. Because look if he died for all people, that’s great, it’s a free pass into heaven but if he didn’t die for all people (which I suspect says your unbelieving friend) my sins are not all that serious anyway. So no big deal – why get so excited about the Cross?
And I think you can imagine people thinking or speaking like that. What are we going to say to them? Well you may at this point think to yourself – well I’m not sure how I am going to sell the message of the Cross and make it seem and appear to be as great as I think it is. Paul’s argument is very different in chapter 1:18. He says “if you have got a friend who doesn’t think much of the Cross, if you, my friend, don’t think much of the Cross it’s not because the Cross is unimpressive, it’s probably because you are perishing”.
It’s a punchy thing to say, isn’t it? If you don’t think highly of the Cross, it’s probably because you are blind; it’s probably because you have not come to see. Find out what someone makes of the Cross of Christ and you will be able to work out, says the Apostle Paul, whether they are being saved, because they will say, that’s the key and that’s the secret, or whether they are perishing because they will say ‘moderate interest’.
I remember meeting a lady once and I asked her how she had become a Christian and she said that John Stott had asked her in some polite company – what do you make of the Cross? And she said she stumbled and she bumbled and she didn’t know what to say and he was absolutely clear and it was obvious to him that she didn’t understand Christianity at all. And so he explained to her the Cross and that’s where she came to be transformed.
So to the perishing, says the Apostle Paul, it seems foolish, silly, dull and unimpressive.
To the people who are being saved and you expect Paul to say ‘it’s wise’ but he doesn’t. He says ‘it’s powerful’ because when you get the message of the Cross, you don’t just look at it and say ‘wow that’s clever’ you say ‘that has hit me over the head with a piece of 4 x 2, my brain is changed, my heart is changed and I’ve now moved from a hopeless position to an absolutely certain position – the Cross is powerful and the Cross is a powerful message’.
So it’s God’s deliberate policy (verses 19-21) to destroy the cleverness of the world so that it cannot in its own power reach up to God and congratulate itself – you see in verse 20 – when the Professor gets together and the Philosopher gets together and the genius gets together or the journalist or the writer or the commentator or the shock jock, they all get together and they begin to discuss the subject of God and they put down their cleverest ideas, Paul says they have not even come close – they don’t understand him and they certainly have not connected. He laughs at their thoughts.
It’s like 3 blind men trying to describe a painting. They must guess.
But in verse 21 God was pleased to send to us the news of Christ which clever people may scoff at or clever people may rejoice to listen to. And when people listen to the message of the Cross, they will get the facts of God and they will find fellowship with God is possible and there are millions around the world every year who receive the message of the Cross and are transformed for eternity. So we cannot ascend, says Paul, but wonderfully He has descended.
Well you will see in verse 22 that in his day people were demanding evidence and they do today. There are people occasionally who will say – ‘what’s the proof, what’s the evidence?’ And that’s a pretty good question because the Lord never expected people to make dumb decisions. He never expected people to leap into the dark. He would always say –
“I am the Bread of Life” – feed a crowd
“I am the Light of the World” – heal a blind man
“I am the Resurrection” – bring Lazarus out of the tomb
It was word proof – word proof – he expected people to take in his words and his proofs. So there is nothing wrong with asking for evidence – that is sensible. The $64,000 question is the attitude. If the attitude is ‘all this evidence is not good enough for me’, it’s unlikely anything will persuade you and you remember in Jesus’ day he would raise Lazarus from the dead and those who were opposed to Jesus would try and get rid of Lazarus which just reminds us that those people who say ‘if I see I will believe’ are making a mistake because there are many people who did see but didn’t believe and there are many people today who might see but don’t believe.
So it’s absolutely essential to have the right attitude. When we read the words and the works of Christ and the attitude is good, we’ve got all that we need.
Don Carson says “how can idolatrous attempts to domesticate God be rewarded with deepening knowledge of the Almighty?”
And then in verse 23 therefore we stick with the message of Christ crucified because believe it or not when people understand the Cross they understand the door of the Kingdom, the door of God’s family. That there is a hope of forgiveness and there is a way to the Father, there is a future which is secure.
When we used to put talks on cassette (do any of you remember cassettes?) They are funny little weird things – we have hundreds of them sitting in the office somewhere gathering dust, never to be revealing up their secrets. When we used to have cassettes at St Thomas, someone very cleverly worked out a design for the cover which was a little hill like Calvary and the 3 T’s of Saint Thomas Tapes were the 3 crosses on the hill – it’s clever! And underneath it said: “We preach Christ crucified – 1 Corinthians 1:23” – that was the text, that’s the essence.
And friends, the message of the Cross is not decided by the response. You mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we should change the message to get a better response.
I remember the story of the Official Tour Guide of the Louvre standing beside the Mona Lisa and a bunch of schoolboys came up and stood in front of this painting and were laughing at how little it was and how ordinary it was and they were making fun of this painting until finally the Tour Guide could take it no longer and he stepped forward and he said: “Young men the value of this painting is not on trial, the value of your discernment is on trial”.
And that’s what the Cross says to the world. It is objectively wonderful.
It may seem to be foolish but that’s the problem of the listener.
It may seem to be wonderful and that’s the privilege of the listener.
Now the second point that Paul talks about is Weakness of Members in chapter 1 verse 25. He says in verse 26 “brothers, think of what you were when you were called, not many famous, not many film stars, we are not the A List of Sydney”. It would be funny if we were wouldn’t it? It would be funny sort of The Hollywood Superstar Church – everybody collecting autographs over morning tea from one another – glancing around, thinking of ourselves as the cream of the cream – it would be very weird, wouldn’t it? But it is the genius of God, you see, to make salvation something that does not lie in our greatness where we would then spend the rest of our believing days patting ourselves on the back and this dreadful thought of going to heaven one day and it being a self-congratulation for eternity – just unbearable. But he has caused salvation to be based on grace – that is his kindness, and choosing his people for his own loving reasons. And that’s why Paul says in chapter 1 verse 26 ‘not many of you were noble, not many royalty, not many superstars, not many Oscar winners’.
But he doesn’t say “not any” because praise God he brings people out of every type and tribe and everybody who knows this verse and has ever read a Commentary on this verse knows the famous story of the very godly Countess of Huntington who lived in the days of Wesley and Whitfield and she was from the aristocracy – very wealthy and very noble – and she put all her money at the disposal of the Gospel and she brought the wealthy and the royalty into her home to listen to Wesley and Whitfield preach the Gospel.
And she said she owed her salvation to the Letter “M” because Paul said not many. But if he had said not any she felt she might have been excluded – but he said not many.
So God in his wisdom brings people from every tribe and type – the whole spectrum of people. We have people in the church around the world from every nation, every class, every social strata, every spectrum on the IQ range etc. etc.
A man in the 2nd Century called Celsius who was a critic of the church wrote this:
“Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near but as for anyone ignorant, stupid, anyone who is a child – let him come boldly”
This was Celsius’ way of saying the church is a joke. But actually he was quite wrong and one of the great Australian Historians, a Christian Historian, Edwin Judge has shown that the church from the very beginning cut right across all the sociological lines and drew people from every strata. But the church is still a little bit embarrassing nevertheless, isn’t it? It may be you have got used to the funny ways at St Thomas.
I wonder how uneasy you actually feel bringing somebody in to this building? Because we have all got some very tough non-Christian friends and may be family and a gathering like this just may be too much. I wonder whether we realise too that many people who long to see their friends saved who are way, way, way from the church are looking for gatherings that are less embarrassing than the ones that we put on. But is that the way?
Well one young writer has written about his search for the perfect church and he says this (I will just read you a few sentences). He says:
“In the 1980’s we became disillusioned with organs, pews and little old ladies so we built churches with stadium seating that looked like small arenas. We put together praise bands that looked like Barbie and Ken. We made Christian superstars out of people who claimed to be able to do it better.
In the early 2000’s the offspring of the 1980’s generation got disillusioned with their dad’s arenas – let’s meet on a beach, let’s meet in an empty warehouse with exposed brick and duct work, let’s start a movement that won’t have any leaders because non movements are the new movements”.
This guy said –
“I was done with conventional church and done with what I perceived as a bunch of middle class Christian whites who just wanted health, wealth and prosperity. I think in general it’s easier to be against something than stand for something. For years I knew I was against evangelical cheesiness. I was the first guy to rant about Christian music, shallow books and mega churches but I didn’t know what I was for.
During my churchy shallow phase I was approached by a great guy with a plan – what if we did church differently? So we ended up taking lunch meetings in a greasy spoon pizza place. There were discussions about how church shouldn’t be – about the building and how worship should take place in people’s homes, coffee shops and pubs.
And then a funny thing happened. The church didn’t work at all. Starting a movement that would take people away from the faithful churches seemed less and less plausible”.
He goes on to say –
“I wasn’t looking for the guys with the biggest projection screens anymore or the coolest gathering place or the best film discussions. I was now looking for theology and a body that I could give my life to and entrust my children to. The reason I love Christianity and the Bible is I think they are really the only things in this world that don’t need to be periodically re-painted or re-framed. A place where truth is spoken and where people pray. My church is a small church, flies under the radar most of the time but good things are happening. I think my church in the broader sense helps people find the Father – A Father who is loving and kind, demanding and true”.
So this guy has done the complete circle. He has wandered away and wandered back.
Now Paul says, if you look at chapter 1 verse 27 – God chose the foolish to shame the wise. He works through what the world considers foolish and weak and lowly and the nobody to put down human pride and exalt his own grace and glory. And so there is really no human explanation for the work of God and if we find there is a human explanation for why a church is impressive, it’s probably that we have missed the point and we may be looking in the wrong place.
Paul says – our boast (verse 30) is that we are in Christ Jesus, that’s our boast. That’s what we boast about, we belong to him and why do we belong to him (verse 30)? Because of him, we belong because he is great, because he is kind, because he is generous and because he is loving. And this is what we rejoice in, says Paul, we rejoice that we have become his wisdom.
So friends, how clever are you? Let me ask you that this morning. How clever am I? I tell you how clever I am – I need a Saviour, that’s how clever I am and Christ to save me, that’s my cleverness, that’s the greatest wisdom that he has shown to me.
And because he has done that to me (verse 30) – those of us who belong to Christ by grace
We have his righteous, we stand forgiven and accepted and
We have his holiness, we stand forgiven and accepted and
We have his redemption, we stand forgiven and accepted
And so we boast about him.
And when someone comes and says “what’s great about this, look at the building, look at the people? We want to say, the buildings are OK and it keeps the rain off us. The people are OK, you should find out about Christ – that’s what’s worth finding out about.
I love the way the Apostle Paul (because he knew the Corinthians were immature and he knew they loved to boast about foolish things) – I love the way he gives a list in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 of all his humiliations. It’s kind of like he is turning the whole boasting conversation upside down and he says “I want to boast about this trouble and this failure and this difficulty and this dead end in my life because Christ has come and has taken over”.
And he comes to the climax at the end of 2 Corinthians 11 where he says “I tell you how great I am” says Paul “I was once let down in a basket through the wall of Damascus”.
We scratch our heads at that point and we think – what is he talking about? Well actually the background to this is that if you have to climb over a wall and get into a city you got a medal because you were the first in for the takeover of the city. The Apostle Paul says “I tell you how great I am, I got let out of the city, over the wall in a basket through a hole in the wall”. So he is putting all the boasting upside down so that he might boast in the Lord.
Well God chose his power through the message; he shows his glory through the membership and the last point Weakness of the Messenger chapter 2:1-5. He says in chapter 2 verse 1 – this is the third area of weakness – it’s the Messenger, the Preacher who has absolutely Nil…Zilch….No power to change anybody.
What am I doing this morning? There is some breath coming out of my mouth and I am trying to form some words – but that’s all I can do. I can’t change anybody – it’s a great, great weakness.
Now the Apostle Paul was not a feeble preacher. He had (and we know) a brilliant mind. He was very persuasive man we are told in Acts 14 that when he was preaching in the main square of a pagan city that they decided to call him “Hermes” or “Mercury” the messenger of the gods.
But what the Apostle Paul did was he put away his trust in cleverness and he put away his trust in eloquence and he put away his trust in anything human and put his trust in the message of Christ crucified. And that I think is why he says in chapter 2:3 he was trembling with fear because he had come into a fairly sophisticated city and there was therefore going to be some mocking and there was or possibly he was afraid because of the size of the task which he knew he couldn’t achieve.
But the end result in putting his trust in God was that God was pleased to use him and the Corinthians experience the power of God even as they watched somebody unimpressive, and heard of an impressive God.
Now this doesn’t mean that we despise our gifts or put away our gifts or we do dumb things or do things badly. Spurgeon was a brilliant preacher. He had oratory that would leave all of us for dead but he would climb the stairs of the pulpit in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Church in London and as he put his foot on every step it is recorded that he would climb the steps saying
“I believe in the Holy Spirit,
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
I believe in the Holy Spirit”
which is a nice way of saying “I am completely dependent”. That’s the point, I think Paul is making.
A more recent example would be John Stott who came out and did a Sydney University Mission in 1958 at Sydney University and he conducted the last meeting in the Great Hall and it was a huge occasion but he completely and totally lost his voice. So he could only whisper into the microphone turned up loud. And he said – humanly it was a joke. He couldn’t modulate his voice, he couldn’t speak up, he couldn’t speak down, he couldn’t emphasize but he just whispered into the microphone.
He said – “I’ve come back to Sydney 10 times and every time I have come back people have come up to me and said – do you remember that evening at the Great Hall 1958 where you lost your voice and whispered into the microphone? – I came to Christ! 10 times, 10 visits and people are still coming up to him to say that in the middle of that great weakness, God had shown his power.
So I say again – it’s not an excuse to do things badly. We ought to explain the message as carefully as we can. We ought to be as loving as members as we can and we ought to prepare our sermons as well as we can but in the end our confidence is in Him – that’s why we pray and that’s why we pray privately and collectively.
So I hope this morning, friends, you might see from this passage a little look again at the church. You might have fresh confidence in our message, you might see a new appreciation for the members and you might also have a proper estimate of the messenger because if we ever think at St Thomas North Sydney that we have power of our own as if we built our building or have more cleverness, God will humble us and we have fallen into a delusion – we are beginning to patronize him and not praise him. But while we do kneel before him privately and collectively and we give him the glory for the message and the members and the messengers, we are thinking clearly and showing signs of spiritual wisdom.
Let’s pray –
Father we give you great thanks for sending your Son to the Cross on behalf of sinful people. We pray that the message of the Cross would be understood by everybody here this morning. Please in your kindness keep people from a blindness or a deafness to the news of your love in Christ.
We also pray Father with great thanks for giving us a message of power for membership which is a privilege and for messengers who tell the truth and we pray that in the midst of our great weakness, sinfulness and unworthiness you would continue to work for your great praise, for the spreading of the truth and the love of Christ.
We ask it in his name – Amen.