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In 1Cor.1:18 Paul uses an unusual expression: “the word of the cross.” He says that it is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
He has just written, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (v.17) (Note: the words “of its power” are not in the original.) So, the “word of the cross” is the message Paul preached about the cross.
What then is the “power of the cross”?
It is part of the gospel message, which, as the Apostle says in Rom.1:16, is “the power of God for salvation.” (He uses the same word in 1Cor.1:18 – dunamis.) But how does the message of the cross actually function in the proclamation of the message about Jesus?
We have seen that the cross of Christ was not to the forefront in the Apostles’ gospel preaching as summarized by Luke in the Book of Acts (see here.) However, it was clearly an essential aspect of the gospel message: so much so that Paul could write (1Cor.15:1ff) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” (We’ll return to this passage in a future post.)
To answer our question, I believe we need to go back to the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself. What place did the cross have in his instruction to his disciples – to the Apostles, to us?
The word “cross” appears only 16 times in the four gospels. In 11 of them, the reference is to Jesus’ literal cross. In the remaining 5 it has a metaphorical meaning: in these passages, the Lord Jesus uses the image of a cross to describe becoming and being his follower, or disciple. A disciple of Jesus must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt.10:38; 16:24; Mk.8:34; Lk.9:23; 14:27).
In these verses, the Lord uses the word “cross” in calling us to become his disciples. You cannot be his disciple unless you first count the cost (see Lk.14:25-33). The invitation comes with a warning: first count the cost, and the cost is to take the way of death to self – the way of the cross. To follow Jesus means to take the same road that he took: the way of the cross.
Now, to the self-sufficient person, this is indeed folly! Real life to be found in death? Surely not, says the wisdom of the world. Exactly that, says Jesus who is Christ-crucified (1Cor.2:2).
The Apostles followed the instruction of the Lord: they preached Christ as Lord, calling people to turn in trust to him, and to commit themselves to his service. And they issued his warning: following him is going to cost you. And that was the word of the cross that formed an integral part of the message they proclaimed, and which is still an inseparable part of the gospel today. This is the message that powerfully produces the faith that saves.