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Christ Crucified: Our Only Theme, pt. 1
by Fred G. Zaspel
In our previous two posts we explored the apostle Paul’s model for Christian ministry in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, and we noted his emphasis that it is the gospel alone that God uses to claim his people for himself. It alone is the power of God to salvation, and so we dare not attempt to “help” it in any humanly ingenious ways - it is the simple proclamation of the gospel that saves.
In the midst of all this Paul makes a broad, sweeping statement that characterizes his own preaching and is intended to shape all Christian preaching after him: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). If this is intended as the shaping consideration of Christian ministry, and it surely is, then it is important that we notice the implications carefully. What does the inspired apostle intend to convey when he claims that he preached nothing other than Christ crucified?
Clearly, Paul not saying that in his preaching he relayed only scenes of cross. He very evidently did do that. He said to the Galatians, for example, that he “set forth Christ as it were crucified before their eyes” (Gal. 3:1). But clearly he did more than just that. Nor is the apostle claiming that he preached exclusively “evangelistic” messages, as though he assumed his church audience were lost. Nor is he saying that he spoke of nothing other than Jesus specifically - never addressing “other” subjects such as the attributes of God, the Holy Spirit, Christian holiness, family responsibilities, church order, faithfulness under persecution, and such. Paul obviously did address a wide array of Christian themes.
But we must take his language seriously. He is every exclusive. He claims in emphatic terms that he put everything other than Christ crucified not only out of his preaching but out of his thinking! With studied determination, he says, he preached only Christ crucified.
One easy answer, perhaps, is that Paul is speaking in shorthand. That is, the expression “Jesus Christ and him crucified” refers more broadly to all that Scripture teaches regarding the person and work of our Lord, or, more simply, the gospel. Just as in the previous chapter (1 Cor. 1:18) “the preaching of the cross” is certainly to be understood in terms of the gospel message, so here Paul may be understood as speaking in brief terms of this larger subject. I’m sure this explanation is right as far as it goes, but I doubt it goes far enough. It just doesn’t seem to do justice to Paul’s exclusive terminology - “nothing else but Christ crucified.”
And so we might take a next step and understand the apostle’s claim as referring to the central focus of his preaching, his primary emphasis. Once again, I’m pretty certain that Paul is saying at least this. At the very least he is telling us here that no preaching is distinctively Christian that does not focus on Christ crucified as its center and primary point of reference.
But still, Paul’s language goes further. For him, he says, Christ crucified is more than his primary subject, more than the centerpiece of his message. Christ crucified, he says, is his only subject. This, he claims, is all he preaches - Christ crucified. That’s it. That’s all.
Once we grasp the exclusiveness of the apostle’s claim here, we are driven by it to a clearer understanding of his own thinking in regard to Scripture, theology, and Christian ministry. This is the same apostle who elsewhere claimed in his ministry to preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Yet, we learn here, in preaching all the Scriptures he preached Christ crucified. That is to say, for the apostle Paul, Scripture is, simply, a book about Christ - Christ crucified, to be exact.
Too easily we forget this basic truth. The Bible is a book about Jesus, and we should not be content in our study or in our preaching until we see him there.
This is the mistake, if I may say so, of much of the “give us application” cries today. I for one am happy to say that all preaching must have application, or it is not preaching. But it seems to me that much that passes for “practical Christian living” in preaching today amounts to little more than life tips or warm fuzzies. And in effort to be practical the preacher often misses the point - the hero of the story! Simply put, the Bible is not about you! It’s about Jesus!
This is a common mistake in much of what is called “expository” preaching today also. Somehow preachers can skim over passage after passage, sequentially, and seemingly never speak of Christ crucified. There is much moralizing, much exhortation, and so on, but little of Jesus. Popular treatments of the Gospels are notorious for this in their endless analogies to our faithfulness or our needs, all the while forgetting that these books were written not about us but about Christ.
So much of children’s Sunday School literature also is little more than isolated stories and moralism. Few publishers attempt to give a consistent, coherent presentation of Christ in all the Scriptures.
The apostle is laying down his practice as a model for Christian ministry everywhere. Any decent Rabbi can spend an hour moralizing. Any New Age teacher or entertainer can speak so as to make you feel good or warm. But the distinctive of Christian preaching is “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Just why this is so important is the subject we will take up in our next post.