The faith of Christ crucified
The apostle Paul takes us to the heart of the Christian gospel when he writes, ‘We preach Christ crucified’. Nothing could be more central and fundamental to the Christian faith than ‘Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2).
But the expression contains an astonishing paradox – a paradox readily understood in the first century, but perhaps less so today – for the expression ‘Christ crucified’ contains at the same time both something gloriously wonderful and something indescribably horrible.
The Christ of Calvary
‘We preach Christ crucified’. The title ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ was one which warmed the hearts of Jewish people. The Old Testament is replete with promises that one day God would send his Special Agent into the world to save his people and put its wrongs to right.
‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ both mean ‘God’s anointed’. It has a wide area of meaning and connotation. It speaks of a longed-for deliverer and redeemer. It speaks of God’s own prophet, priest and king. It speaks of the ever-blessed Son of the ever-blessed God. It speaks of God’s suffering Servant – ‘Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’ (Isaiah 42:1).
Jesus’ title of ‘the Christ’ thus speaks of all that is wonderful – the fulfilment of the promises of God; the satisfaction of deep human longing; the deliverance from sin that we so desperately need; God’s own special envoy, sent from heaven to earth on a mission of divine mercy; God’s incarnate Word.
‘Christ’ is a word and a reality of indescribable wonder.
The cross of Calvary
In our verse, though, the apostle also declares, ‘We preach Christ crucified’. Crucifixion – simultaneously and paradoxically – speaks of all that is horrific and horrendous, for crucifixion was a barbaric and ghastly form of capital punishment invented by the Romans.
It would not have been talked about openly in polite circles. Crucifixion entailed the victim being stripped naked, nailed to a plank of wood, and losing control of bodily functions – of being hung up to die a slow, degrading, agonising death by asphyxiation.
So while Christ is a wonderful word, crucified is a horrible word. It evokes visions of pain and agony; abject misery; screams of horror. It evokes shed blood and broken bodies; public humiliation, scorn and ridicule.
For the Jew, though, crucifixion meant something even worse than the horrors to which we’ve just alluded. It spoke of the very curse of God. The law of Moses was clear: ‘If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God’ (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
‘We preach Christ crucified’. Here, then, is the paradox which lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Little wonder that, according to Paul, this gospel of ‘Christ crucified’ was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles’. Knowing what we know about crucifixion, we can understand why this was so.
The comfort of Calvary
Why then are Christians so enamored with both the cross of Christ and the Christ of the cross? Why is this the overarching theme of Christian preaching and Christian praise? Paul’s very next verse – 1 Corinthians 1:24 – tells us why.
Having said ‘We preach Christ crucified’ and stated that this message is a stumbling block (a scandal) to Jews and folly to Gentiles, Paul continues, ‘But to those who are called [that is, enlightened by God’s Holy Spirit] both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God’.
In the crucified Christ, then, we experience the power of God. The blood of Christ shed at Calvary is potent enough to cleanse us from all our sins and make us fit for heaven. Through the divine condemnation of Christ at Calvary we actually escape from divine condemnation, for he has ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us … that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’ (Galatians 3:13-14).
Christ’s suffering has wrought our salvation; his agony has bought our atonement; his blood has brought our blessing; and his death has secured for us eternal life.
In the crucified Christ we also see the wisdom of God. God has to punish sin, for he is infinitely just. He is incapable of overlooking the slightest infraction of his law. Yet if God condemned all sinners to hell, where would be the mercy and love which is also integral to his nature?
In his wisdom, God solved this dilemma at the cross of Christ. At Calvary, God both condemned sin and pardoned the believing sinner. At Calvary, God’s love and justice met. Calvary then is the supreme manifestation of the divine wisdom – ‘to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26).
The centrality of Calvary
‘We preach Christ crucified’. Here, then, is a statement of both wonder and horror. Humanly speaking, the cross of Christ was and remains repulsive. Yet to an enlightened Christian, the cross of Christ is the most attractive of all sights.
Every Christian has experienced the attraction of Calvary and been drawn personally by God to the foot of the cross – enabled by grace to trust the crucified Christ for full and eternal salvation. Jesus actually prophesied that this would be so, for he said, ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ (John 12:32).
‘Christ crucified’. Christ’s person and work are inextricably bound. His worth affects his work. His divinity secures the vitality of his cross – ‘for by one offering he has perfected for ever’ those he has set apart for himself (Hebrews 10:14).
None but the eternal Son could offer his life as an atoning sacrifice to save sinners. The Bible says there is no other Saviour – ‘There is salvation in no one else’ (Acts 4:12). Nor can there be any salvation that bypasses the cross of Christ. With Thomas Kelly we are constrained to say:
We sing the praise of him who died,
Of him who died upon the cross.
The sinner’s hope let men deride,
For this we count the world but loss.
Inscribed upon the cross we see
In shining letters ‘God is love’.
He bears our sins upon the tree,
He brings us mercy from above.