Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Power of the Cross

Paul says that the cross is "the power of God", in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Typically, the phrase "the power of God" does not invoke in me an image of Jesus on the cross, but something related to His almightiness, the amazing miracles He has done or can do, or His power in creating the world. What a strange concept that Paul would consider the crowning glory of God's power to be the cross.

Paul also states that he didn't preach to the Corinthians "with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power". So here we have God's most powerful initiative in human history, and the potential of us "emptying it of its power" through eloquence and man's wisdom.

Why is the cross of Christ considered THE power of God?

I envision the traditional response to this question being, "the cross is powerful because it brings salvation to the lost". True, the cross of Christ stands as the foundation of salvation, through which no one can come to God. However, I believe there is something more, and something more personal.

The Jews' Expectation of Messiah
It seems that the typical view for the Jews of Jesus' day was that the Messiah would come in glory and power. He would set up His kingdom on the earth, and rid the Jews of all political oppression for good. Then the world would know that they were God's chosen people.

Their understanding of Messiah included no concept of a Suffering Savior. Their king and leader would be accursed by being hanged on a tree, dying a scoundrel's death? This very idea was ridiculous to them. That's why Paul says that "Christ crucified" is a stumbling block to the Jews.

Foolishness to the Greeks
The cross of Christ was foolishness to the Greeks. They prided themselves on wisdom. Remember Aristotle, Plato, Socrates? The Greeks tried to arrive at an understanding of God through their reasoning and wisdom. But in their understanding, God could not suffer, God could not experience emotions, God could not be impacted by the choices of people, God could not change.

Their rationale went something like this: God is perfect. Any change in perfection would be a change from the perfect to the imperfect. Any impact of creatures on the Creator would be a change (such as people bringing joy or grief to God), and a change would be from perfect to imperfect. This perfect God is all-powerful and must be in ultimate control of everything that happens.

Thus the idea of God becoming human, interacting with mankind, and then suffering on a cross was quite ludicrous to the Greeks of Paul's day.

Paul's Words in Context

1Co 1:19-24 ESV For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The Cross, The Power of God
God is almighty. Easily, God could demonstrate His power in the world by Force and Fatalism. He could use force to overthrow all kingdoms and people opposed to Him. He could use a type of fatalism and be in control of every single event that goes on in the earth.

But we consider people who have to be in control of everything as insecure. Managers who micro-manage are not secure in their job, nor in the people that work for them, and they can in no way inspire trust in their employees. God does not reveal Himself in His word as a controlling, micro-managing God. His authority is not the kind that has to rule and control everything that goes on in His creation. Sure the Bible shows that He sets certain parameters, but even within those parameters there is much latitude.

What if God created a world where true love could exist? What if God created a world where people could determine their own courses of action? What if God created a world where creatures could reject their creator?

True Love, Free Will and Rejection
If true love could exist, it could not be forced. If it is true love, it can be rejected. In other words, if God created a world where true love existed, then He must place Himself in certain respects as vulnerable to His creation. Imagine any meaningful relationship without vulnerability.

Isaiah records this: "All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way..." (Isa. 53:6). He also records God as saying, "I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts...” (Isa. 65:2).

In Genesis, God "saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart" (Gen. 6:5,6).

How Does One Win Over Rejection?
God could have responded in different ways to the problem of man's rejection. He could have totally destroyed the human race. He certainly has the right over His creation to do with it what He wants.

God could have forced people into compliance with His will. After all, people have just been hurting themselves and others from the very beginning. But God wanted more than compliance.

God wanted to win people's love, and no one wins true love by brute force.

So what does God do? His creation rejected Him. And He has striven with people for thousands of years. His children have been rebellious and erred and sinned. He could simply allow them to go off into the consequences of their sin: death (Romans 6:23). But His heart doesn’t want to give up on them: “How can I give you up...?” (Hosea 11:8).

How does He change their heart? How does He win their heart?

Isaiah prophesied several things about the coming Messiah. In chapter 53 he writes, "Who has believed our message?" Jesus would be "despised and forsaken", just as God had been for the previous thousand years. He would bear "our griefs and our sorrows", be "wounded for our transgressions" and "crushed for our iniquities". Upon Him would be laid "the iniquity of us all". Finally in verse 11 it says, "As a result of the anguish of His soul, [God] will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities."

God's Initial Approach is Mercy
God’s "Plan A" is mercy, mercy, mercy. But then there comes a point where He can offer mercy no more. He ALWAYS offers mercy as long as it is wisely possible.

David wrote "Your gentleness makes me great" (Psalm 18:35) -- His meekness, His humility, His vulnerability. There is a power that comes with mercy, with meekness and vulnerability. There is power in forgiveness. Mercy implies giving up justice that was rightly due to you. Forgiveness entails giving up the claims you have against another person for the wrong(s) they have have done to you -- a willingness to forbear, to suffer.

Joseph did not hold the wrongs His brothers had committed against them. He did not pay them back for his 13 years of suffering. He had the right and the power to punish them all. He did, however, put one in jail to see if the brothers’ hearts had changed, but not out of vindictiveness. It was an elaborate plan to get his youngest brother Benjamin there to Egypt. When they were all there at once, he revealed his identity to them, extending forgiveness and mercy. What effect would this have had on them, after they had wanted to kill him, sold him as a slave, and stole 13 years away from his dad and closest brother?

The cross was God’s attempt at changing our hardened hearts. We are a people who deserve to perish because of rejecting God, rejecting the Life-Giver. But God was not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). His plan was to try to win us through vulnerability, through taking our place -- the power of voluntarily suffering in another person’s place.

This is the power of the Cross.


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