The commercial capitol of Greece, Corinth was the quintessence of metropolitan sophistication in the region. Athens was the center of academic life, but the practical Corinthians liked to think that they were up on the latest ideas, too. Temple prostitution was big business at the shrine of Aphrodite (goddess of love). Down the street was the shrine of Asclepius, the god of healing. In fact, even decades later, after all of the twelve pagan temples were converted to churches in Corinth, the healing shrine continued to be frequented.
The purpose of Paul's letters to the Corinthian believers was news the apostle had received about divisions in the church (1:11). "Super-apostles," as Paul called them, had gained access to the congregation, bringing confusion in their train, and the apostle's patience was wearing thin:
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those "super-apostles." I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge (2 Cor. 11:4-6).Indeed, Paul did have knowledge: Not only was he a well-educated Pharisee; he demonstrated a remarkable facility with secular literature and philosophy by quoting pagan poets and writers by memory. In fact, when in Athens, Paul addressed his audience with comparisons and contrasts between Christianity and Greek wisdom. Against the Epicureans, he argued God's sovereignty (Acts 17:24-26); but against the fatalistic Stoics, he presented a personal God who took account of people for their actions. Paul quoted from the Cretan poet Epimenides, from the Cilician poet Aratus, and from The Hymn to Zeus, by Cleanthes. This he also does elsewhere, to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:33), and to Titus (1:12). Notice that Paul took the time to become familiar with the culture he was addressing (and quite possibly not simply for evangelistic purposes) and yet he used that familiarity as a bridge for communication, not accommodation:
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:31)The result was not overwhelming, but "a few men became followers of Paul and believed," while others conceded, "We want to hear you again on this subject" (vv. 32-33).
But in Corinth, the simplicity of the gospel was being undermined by those who sought to turn it into the speculative mysticism of Greek philosophy. Combining Christianity, folk religion, and esoteric wisdom, the "super-apostles" attracted the metropolitan upper-classes much as Eastern philosophy has gathered a following among professionals in our time. Silver-tongued speakers would put on seminars and promise the keys to success and happiness. Because they made at least some appeal to Christ, the super-apostles convinced some of the Corinthian believers that they were simply bringing together the best of secular wisdom and Christian belief. The gospel was not enough; to make Christianity relevant in a pagan commercial center like Corinth, in order to really market it well, the church had to promise answers to questions the Bible never answered and solve riddles about which the Bible was not the least bit interested. Where the Scriptures were silent, secular wisdom threw in its two cents-worth.
The sophisticated Corinthian, confident and self-assured, had little time for sin and judgment, guilt and grace. Religion was supposed to supply social glue, give people a philosophy of life and a way of living a happy and meaningful life. In this sort of setting, the gospel was probably viewed as an answer to a question the people were not even asking: How can I, a condemned prisoner of my own depravity, ever have a relationship with a holy and just God?
But Paul's response is clear. Instead of taking a marketing survey of Corinthian attitudes and developing a gospel that would address "felt needs," he told them what the real needs were, whether they felt them or not. In fact, said Paul, if they do not feel within them the need or are not asking the right questions, it is not because the gospel is irrelevant, but because "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Cor. 1:18). "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (2:14). In other words, if people are not asking the question, "How can I be right with God?", it is not because the gospel is dead, but because they are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). Although the gospel is "foolishness to those who are perishing, ...to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1:18).
Thus, Paul launches on his classic defense of the gospel:
God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength (vv. 21-25).The super-apostles were more powerful than Paul in terms of popular appeal. They appeared to be more relevant, offering the recently converted pagans something familiar, and they made it sound so captivating. They could really sell the product, and Paul was being put on the back burner a bit. In fact, their success suggests that the super-apostles spoke more directly to the felt needs of the Corinthians. And what were those felt needs? Probably not much different from those about whom Paul warned Timothy: "People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive,...rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (2 Tim. 3:2-4)--and these are professing Christians!
This is the problem, isn't it? By preaching to "felt needs" we are often preaching to selfish and idolatrous cravings. What will be the "felt needs" of people who love themselves, money, and pleasure? Our job is not to preach to felt needs, but to expose such felt needs as sinful cravings which must be supplanted by Christ. Only in this way can unbelievers see their truest, deepest need for the One whose absence these distractions have sought to soothe.
In the meantime, Paul responds to the problem with the super-apostles by telling the Corinthians they are simply shallow and immature, captive to "the wisdom of this age," which did not even have the sense to recognize the most remarkable triumph of Divine wisdom in history: the satisfaction of God's justice and mercy in the cross of Christ.
But Paul didn't let the Corinthian Jews off, either. While Greek culture-Christianity turned Christian discourse into a combination of magic, self-reflection, and speculation, Jewish sympathies led to a different distraction: the miraculous. In both cases, power was the key. Through understanding esoteric mysteries of life and knowing the secret "laws" which governed the spiritual realm, Greek religion promised Christians power through magic; the Jews promised power through miracle, and Paul says both promise what God considers weak.
The cross was a stumbling block to the Jews also in that accepting its message meant coming to terms with the fact that they could not save themselves, not even with God's help. They were helpless to participate in their own redemption and this public picture of Christ hanging on a cross, carrying the weight of our sins, meant that all of their works had been for nothing. Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, was a scandalous notion to a religion which had become increasingly legalistic by the time of Christ.
Part of the problem is that, as fallen men and women, we want power not only for the advance of the church in a secular culture, but even for ourselves. There is something exalting about being a part of something that is respected by society. If we can build larger buildings, have larger gatherings, create larger enterprises, and compete with other mass-marketed products, we will be a part of something powerful, something relevant and the world will have to sit up and take notice of us for our impressive technological, and financial sophistication.
This is what was driving the Corinthian believers, too, who had forgotten their roots. This is what he points out immediately after he had described the gospel as a stumbling block:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let him who boasts boast in the Lord' (vv. 26-31).The Corinthians believers did not want to win their sophisticated neighbors as much as they wanted to be like them. In a culture which idealized wealth, strength, wisdom, and nobility, Christianity made little sense. In the face of all of this, Paul expects the Corinthians to tell the neighbor next door that their Savior-God was sentenced to death by (a) his own people, (b) the Roman authorities, and (c) God the Father himself. Thus, salvation in this scheme is the result of a shameful death on a cross which, for Romans, had the equivalent criminal associations we would make with the electric chair. No wonder many cultures have found it difficult to understand this core message of Christianity! Nevertheless, at the point Christianity is least saleable, it is the most powerful. The resurrection was such an overwhelming concept that those gathered in Athens to "hear the latest ideas" told Paul, "We'll hear more from you again on these things."
But today, we hardly say enough to provoke the slightest interest. In bending over backwards to be relevant, we have actually become politely irrelevant, mumbling when we get to the bit about judgment, hell, wrath, condemnation, human helplessness and our utter dependence on the grace and righteousness of someone outside of us. "Give us a god who shows us an example of greatness--power, virtue, wisdom; not a god who dies for us, but one who shows us how to live!" That is what the modern Greeks demand, just as others demand miraculous signs. But Paul continues his defense with the following:
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (2:1-5).In addition to what we have already seen about Paul's superior education, he himself adds, "I am not in the least inferior to the 'super-apostles'" (2 Cor. 12:11). And yet, "I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom." There was not going to be a test to see whose gospel was the cleverest, whose gospel was the most relevant, whose gospel could attract more attention. "For I resolved to know nothing...except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
We want to stand out, to be relevant and "in touch," but when we don't talk about Christ, or even sin, judgment, grace and redemption enough for even regular churchgoers to be able to articulate their theology, we couldn't be more irrelevant. I wonder, if we are to judge by the most common themes in evangelical preaching and publishing, whether we are ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps it is not as up-to-date or relevant as we need to be. It presents stumbling blocks to the miracle-seekers and wisdom-seekers of the age. But the gospel is not about our seeking, but God's; not about our ascent, but his descent.
A great many Christians at the end of the twentieth century appear to be interested in everything except Christ. You name it, we've got it! But the one thing we no longer believe in is the gospel. There's no room for irrelevant dogmas about original sin, total depravity, guilt, atonement, propitiation, substitution, justification, the sovereignty of God, regeneration and sanctification, judgment, heaven and hell. Nearly every one of these doctrines in our day is up for grabs; one does not have to hold a narrow position on these issues to wear the evangelical label.
However, an evangelical must be absolutely certain about how to tackle issues like abortion, pornography, socialism, affirmative action, homosexuality, the gifts of the Spirit, and the precise chronology of end-times events. While the Bible does indeed have something to say about our behavior, spiritual gifts, and eschatology, often issues rarely discussed in the Bible have become the standard tests of orthodoxy, while the most obvious biblical motifs are largely unknown.
The evangelical church must leave all of the distractions behind; it must speak less self-confidently and begin declaring its confidence in the person and work of Jesus Christ. There must be a recovery of the riches of mysteries which have been finally revealed in the living and written Word. Until the gospel is clearly known again in our ungodly culture, we must put every other pursuit, every other distraction, every other interest or fascination in abeyance, declaring to the sophisticated foolishness of our age, with St. Paul, "I resolved to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified."
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "Preaching Christ" March/April 1993 Vol. 2 No. 2 Page number(s): 22-24
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