May 12, 2010
Most false gospels highlight man’s achievements and man’s abilities. In contrast, Paul reminded the Corinthian church that when they were called to salvation, they weren’t exceptionally wise, influential, or noble. In this message, Alistair Begg reminds us that the pastor’s faith and message are not based upon personality but on the proclamation of the cross of Jesus Christ. Our greatest need is to understand our insignificance and Christ’s preeminence.
Sermon Transcript: Print
First Corinthians 1:26:
“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 … 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.’
“[And I,] when I came to you, brothers, … 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. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 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.”
So Paul says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” And then he says, “If you want to think about this,” or, “I want you to think about it, and you can think about it from two perspectives.” And it is to these two perspectives that we’re going to give our attention. I recognize that there is more than one study in this section, and we will do our best, and then we will stop within the time frame, and if we haven’t finished, then so be it.
We can see that within a relatively short time, the Corinthians had begun to drift from the cross and from the resurrection. It’s a lesson to us that our church congregations are only a stone’s throw away from the kind of spiritual and theological degeneration that we’ve seen in reading church history and in looking around the world. And therefore, we want always to be careful and prayerful about these things. Paul is essentially—and I’m not reaching in saying this—but Paul is essentially calling the Corinthians back to the basics.
My background is such—and you will feel sorry for me when I tell you this, and some of you I’ve told before—that I had never seen a game of American football until I was seventeen years of age. I know that many of you cannot imagine what it would be like to live in such an impoverished environment, but that is exactly what was true. The first game I ever saw was in England in Hertfordshire, when an American air force team were giving an incredible trouncing to some other team that was attempting to play American football. The game got completely out of control, as if Scotland was giving England a hammering in Murrayfield—which, of course, is more of a mythology than a reality. But anyway, in this case that was exactly what was happening.
But the thing that I remember most were the cheerleaders. And that’s not because I was a seventeen-year-old boy, because I don’t remember the personnel at all. I only remember their pronouncement. And I had never encountered such a thing as this, but they had cheers, they had uniforms, they had things that they shook in their hands while they were making these cheers. And the only cheer that I remember, that they repeated again and again, was, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can! You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” The problem was, they couldn’t. And when it got to about forty-seven–nothing, somebody should have silenced these individuals! But that was how they’d prepared, and that was all they’d prepared, and so they kept it going.
I’ve really grown weary of attending conferences like this and being confronted by the equivalent of those cheering girls, and being sent out with the exhortations that we remember from graduation at high school or college or university or whatever it was, where some well-meaning individual came in and told us the world is at our feet: “And everyone is just waiting to see how terrific you are. And I want you to know, as you head for the train and so on, you can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” Well, you’re not going to get that encouragement from me. Not this morning. So some of you might want to slip off right now.
You see, he has already established the fact that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, it should be obvious why it was that God called together such a strange, unlikely, and unpromising crew as had been assembled in Corinth. And what Paul is saying here—and the principle that he is enforcing and reinforcing—is, as we know, in keeping with God’s pattern throughout all of history: that the great and striking thing, as we read the story of God’s dealings with individuals and companies, is just how unlikely and unpromising so many of them have been.
And if we had time—which we don’t, and therefore I will set this as part of your homework assignment—we would go back and spend some time in Judges chapter 7, and we would remind ourselves of the peculiar way in which God worked in relationship to the story of Gideon, and what it must have meant for him as he, along with his friends, looked out on the vast army that was approaching them. It was so vast, the writer tells us, that it was impossible for them to count not only the individuals but also the camels that were represented. And on that occasion, Gideon must have thought that his assembled company was in grave danger. He could never have imagined that when the instruction was given to him to ask anybody who wanted to go home because they were a little fearful—“anyone who trembles with fear” could go home—and twenty-two thousand of them went home.
You can imagine their wives saying, “Man, you’re home early. What happened?”
“Oh, he gave us the afternoon off.”
“Are you sure you’re not afraid?”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no. He didn’t need us. He said we could go.”
And then, of course, they had the ten thousand left, all looking around at one another, saying, “We should have gone as well.” And then there’s the story of the lapping dogs, which you’ve all preached on—horrible sermons that had nothing to do with what you were talking about. And God says, “We’ve still got too many at ten thousand,” and we get it down to three hundred. And then, of course, the average sermon goes into “What God was doing was he was reducing it to the only people that were really worthwhile—you know, the commandos, the special troops, the forces! He needed to get it down to the crack fellows, the three hundred that could really do.” And of course, he wasn’t doing that at all.
What he was doing, as we know, is that he was reducing the company to the point that it was so unbelievably insignificant that when the victory came, it would be apparent to everybody—not least of all, Gideon—that this was as a result of God’s intention. And indeed, the key is really where the writer says that God did this—Judges 7:2—“in order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her.” So it’s very purposeful.
You compare this with 1 Corinthians 1:29, and you find the exact same thing: “so that no one may boast before him.” David Prior observes, “All the noblemen, all the philosophers, all the business executives and landed gentry, all the people walking the corridors of power—all these were notable by their virtual absence from the church in Corinth.” And we remind ourselves what John said to us the other evening about the importance of a consonant. Everyone who plays Scrabble understands this; one letter can finally make the difference in the end. And that consonant there, n, is, of course, crucial.
But having reminded them that the message of the cross is viewed as folly, he now follows up by reminding them of the fact of their insignificance. The power of God is demonstrated in the gospel, which is regarded as folly; and the power of God is demonstrated in the members of the church, in Corinth here, who are frankly unimpressive. I remember, I think, Derek, Eric—no, the other one—Dick Lucas, he was preaching on this somewhere, and he said, “And brothers,” he said, “you look out, and you see Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their spotty-faced children. And you say to yourself, ‘My, my, what are we going to do with them?’” What he was trying to say was, “It’s no different in London than it is in Corinth. By and large, it’s an unimpressive assembly.”
And when you look at this, you might be tempted to say, “Surely it would be a better strategy to fight like with like.” If you’re going to make an impact on the sophisticated culture of Corinth, with all of its expectations, then shouldn’t you put together a team that can obviously handle it? If you’ve got these people who are interested in rhetoric, let’s put the rhetoricians up there. If you’ve got the people who are involved in magic and engaged in all kinds of subjective notions, why don’t we take them on at their own level and treat them in their own way? And I think that’s a fair comment, because if we’re honest, we must admit to have feelings along those lines.
I don’t want to be unkind, but if you think of the strategy, for example, in reaching business personnel, and the way that you reach business personnel is you try and find somebody who is a really successful businessman, who is a graduate of Harvard Business School and so on, so that you can assemble the people from the business community and let them know that here you have Mr. So-and-So, who’s really fantastic at business and a real genius and graduated so well from Harvard.
Have you ever been to a businessmen’s event? Did you ever receive a card, and it said, “We invite you to come. The breakfast is at seven o’clock in the Holiday Inn, and the outreach features Gilbert from the customer service department”? Or, “Gilbert from the mailroom is going to be speaking at the businessmen’s event.” No, we couldn’t possibly do that. Why not? Well, of course, you have to make sure that if you’re gonna be dealing with these people, you have to deal with them on their own level. I mean, what would Gilbert possibly have to say? I mean, what would he say? That he once was lost and then he was found? That he was blind and now he can see? That he was a once a wretch, and God had turned him the right way up, and he was a remarkable new creature in Christ? I mean, you wouldn’t want him saying that kind of thing, would you? No, you wouldn’t want him just setting forward the gospel out of the ignominy of his life! No, you’ve gotta get the boys in! You gotta get the team in!
Well, that’s not what’s happening in Corinth. I think that James 2… When we studied James here as a church, we sucked air for a few weeks. I certainly did. Because the challenge of it is a real challenge, isn’t it? “When the people come into your church,” he says, “make sure that you don’t show favoritism. Don’t set your establishment up in such a way that if somebody comes in who’s well-heeled and has a position and so on, you say to him, ‘Well, we have a nice seat for you here,’ but if somebody comes who doesn’t fit that bill, you tell him, you say, ‘Why don’t you sit on the floor or stand there at the back?’” Evangelicalism is not free from this nonsense. “But brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you fitted that bill.”
Now it’s not that they are regarded by society as being foolish and weak. They are foolish and weak. That’s what he’s saying.
Peggy Noonan, in an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of months ago now, made this interesting observation. She said, “the self-esteem movement” has worked hard for a quarter of a century to tell children “they’re perfect in every way.” This has resulted in producing “an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.” “An entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.” Because they ride round in minivans that bear testimony to their genius on the back. You come up behind them at the traffic lights, and they say, “I have a genius in my minivan!” And you look in, there’s a little boy picking his nose and fiddling around. You say, “I don’t think so! I don’t think so. I don’t know how you determine this.” But thirty years ago, that was regarded as rude. That was crass. That’s bizarre. You get them out of the minivan, and you say to them, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can! Of course you’re not inadequate!” No, we couldn’t possibly deal with a congregation that was full of inadequacy, could we? Well, we don’t need to look any further than the mirror to deal with inadequacy.
Now, I think when the Corinthians looked around the room as the letter was being read, it must have been fairly depressing: “Well, that’s true, Paul, but you didn’t have to write it down for all of time, you know. Now everybody’s going to know. They’ll find out in Cleveland. They’ll find out everywhere what we were like.”
But look at what he tells us: this is not happenstance. This is by God’s initiative. I mean, the group is not assembled because these are the only people that were interested—you know, they went out and tried for a few of the top-line boys, and they determined that they weren’t coming, and so they said, “Well, we’ll just have to stick with the poor souls, with the riff-raff, with the depressed people.” No! Look at God’s electing love that runs through the entire text: “Consider your calling, brethren. Think about what you were when you were called.” Three times: “God chose,” “God chose,” God “chose.” Verse 30: “It is because of him that you are in Christ.” No, the unimpressive company is not there because the only people that would show any interest were these folks. They are in Christ as a result of God’s design. He turns the standards of the world on its head. As Bruce says, “He annuls all conventional canons of wisdom, power, reputation and value.”
And Paul is going to go on and exhort the believers later on. “Who made you different from anybody else?” he says in chapter 4. “And what do you have that you did not receive? Well, if you received it,” he said, “then why would you glory as if you did not receive it?” Of all pride, the worst must surely be spiritual pride. For all that we have is as a result of God’s beneficence.
No, what becomes apparent when you read it is that God is not in need of our status. He’s not in need of our wisdom. He’s not in need of our strength to build the kingdom. Paul applies this to himself when you go into chapter 3: he asks in the neuter, verse 5, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe.” Verse 7: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.” “Is anything”! You go home and tell your wife, “You know, I learned something at that conference. I’m nothin’! We went out on a great high. It was terrific. We found out what we’re not.” But we can only come to this because we’ve been so gloriously reminded of what we are in Christ.
And that’s what he’s about to do in this section too. He’s about to tell these people of the wonder of God’s grace, insofar as they have in Jesus righteousness and holiness and redemption and wisdom; that God has taken that which in and of itself possesses none of this—or, at its best, in limited quantities—in order that it may be apparent to those individuals, to the church as an entity, to the watching world, that this must surely be something that God is doing. So I think it’s easy for him to write what he writes: “He chose the lowly things of [the] world … the despised things … the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.” He chose things that are not to bring to nothing things that are. I’ll resist the temptation to make another sortie into the Old Testament to illustrate this.
But Paul not only tells the Corinthians of the fact of their insignificance—or reminds them of it—and of the fact of God’s initiative in assembling them as he does. He tells them not only what God has done, but he reminds them of why God has done this. So if you want another I, because there is loosely a line running through this: the insignificance of the group, the initiative of God, and then, if you like, in thinking of God’s purpose, if your brain works that way, you could simply make a note and say that here he tells us of God’s intention. Of God’s intention. And his intention is clear. God has done this—verse 29—“so that no one may boast before him.” “So that no one may boast before him.”
I’m told—I haven’t verified it—that in funeral homes here in the United States, the second most requested song in the average pagan funeral is the song made famous by “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” “My Way.” So here these poor folks come, confronted by the reality of death, presumably with no mechanism at all to deal with all of the emptiness and sadness of it. But instead of crying out to God, they send the coffin down the aisle with the refrain,
To think I did all that,
And may I say, not in a shy way,
Oh no, oh no, not me,
I did it my way.
Does anybody see the bizarre nature of that? “‘All flesh is like grass and the glory of man like the flower of the field; the grass withers and the flower falls, and the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this,” says Peter, “is the word of the gospel which was preached to you.” Contrast:
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the voice of one who yields.
Oh no, the record shows I took the blows.
I did it my way.
It would be one thing if we could somehow, in all integrity and in honesty, say, “Thank God that there’s none of that within the framework of pastoral ministry. There’s none of that within the realm of evangelicalism. There’s none of that has filtered into our churches. There’s no man-centeredness in it. There’s no focus on the heroes. There’s no preoccupation with us and our gifts and our graces. Oh no, there’s none of that here.” Well, we know better than to say that.
The characteristics of those who are perishing in their blindness is to take pride in themselves, to look at things from an entirely worldly point of view. But when Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter, he says, of course, as we saw the other night, if a person is in Christ he’s a new creation, and he looks at everything from a different point of view. And “it is,” verse 30, “because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God.” “Not many of you were wise, but Christ is your wisdom. Some of you came from an unbelievably bad background—sexually immoral, dreadful liars, ungrateful people, disobedient to your parents. But Christ is your righteousness, holiness, and redemption.”
If you don’t have the Works of Flavel and you have any money left and there are any in the bookstore, I commend them to you. You could start at least with one volume and build up from there. But I found just a wonderful little gem in relationship to this from Flavel, and I’ll give it to you; you’ll want to note it and preach it yourself later on. But when I went to this verse—“righteousness, holiness and redemption”—I went to Flavel, and I looked to see if he had done anything on this. And this is what he says: “These four illustrious benefits are conveyed from Christ to us in three different ways and methods; his righteousness is made ours by imputation: his wisdom and sanctification by renovation: [and] his redemption by our glorification.” That redemption, he says, is the “absolute and plenary deliverance from all the sad remains, effects, and consequences of sin, … upon [the] soul.” Verse 31: “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’”
Can I give you just a little more Flavel, because it’s such a wonderful flavor from Flavel. And I have it in front of me, and I see it. And this is a photocopy, and I wrote “Wow” on it, and I’m just noticing my “Wow.” And I’m wondering if it has as much wow as I think it does, so the only way I can know is if I read it, and since you don’t want to wait for me reading it, I’ll just read it out loud:
All our excellencies are borrowed excellencies, [therefore there is] no reason … to be proud of any of them …. What intolerable insolence and vanity would it be for a man that wears the rich and costly robe of Christ’s righteousness, in which there is not one thread of his own spinning, but all made by free-grace, and not by free-will, to jet proudly up and down the world in it, as if himself had made it, and he were beholden to none for it? O man! thine excellencies, whatever they are, are borrowed from Christ, they oblige thee to him, but he can … no more [be] obliged to thee, who wearest them, than the sun is obliged to him that borrows its light, or the fountain to him that draws its water for [its] use and benefit. …
Well then, let the sense of your own emptiness by nature humble and oblige you the more to Christ.
You see what a tyranny it is to constantly be on the receiving end of pseudotheological books that think the future of the church is in pumping ourselves up? “Let the sense of your own emptiness … oblige you … to Christ.”
You see how it all ties in? I think this conference has been fantastic—myself excepted. I could have gone home after the first talk, the second talk, missed the third talk, and come back for the fourth one. Because the whole theme of God’s amazing love and goodness to us and our identity in Christ, wrapped up in Christ alone, has just been impossible to miss. And we’ve recognized that it is possible, then, as we’ve been told, to be absolutely honest about stuff—to be able to say, “Yeah that is a description of my insignificance. That does make me aware of my emptiness—because all that have been given to me in Christ.”
Don’t you think that Paul, since he mentions boasting so much, probably had a problem with this himself? I don’t see how he wouldn’t. Especially… I was thinking about it more after one of our studies the other day, when we thought about the background to where Paul was. Because he’s on about boasting a lot, isn’t he? He says it again and again in Romans. He says it in Ephesians. Do you think he might have had a problem with a big head? I think so. I mean, if you’re gonna come top of your class all the time, it’s gonna be hard when you spend your time with peons. It’s going to be hard, when you come from a nice background and you’ve got the right kind of approach to things, to have to deal with other people. He must have had to take himself in check again and again.
And frankly, God took him in check, didn’t he? “I asked God,” he says, “to remove this thorn in the flesh. But he said, ‘Oh no.’” And Paul actually says, “And I know now why it is that I have this thorn in the flesh; why it was given me, a messenger from Satan.” Do you remember what he says? “To keep me from becoming conceited … there was given me a thorn in [the] flesh.” “To keep me from getting a fat head, God, in his mercy, intervened in this way.” Therefore, there would be no sense in which he would be talking down to the Corinthian believers, saying to them, “Therefore, let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” No. He’d be preaching to himself, wouldn’t he? He’d be saying, “And I’d better pay attention to this too.”
Well, let’s make a stab at the next little part. We’ll have to just hasten through it. Because what he does here is not start a new section, which the chapter divisions make us even feel that he might. And even the NIV doesn’t really quite capture it, because the NIV starts off, “When I came to you, brothers…” The ESV, I think, from looking at it, is, “And I, when I came to you…” Now, if you look at that, you see the progression that runs through. Verses 18–25, with which we started, he has addressed the foolishness of the message. Verses 26–31, he is identifying the insignificance of the congregation. And now he includes himself in the process, and in verses 1–5, he reminds them of the weakness of the preacher. “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than [men].” And so he says, “If you think about it, just think about the congregation in Corinth, and then, frankly, let me remind you of when I came to you.”
I don’t want to be silly in this, but it’s almost as if he was working with his secretary, his secretary says, “You know, you’re pretty hard on the Corinthians, there, you know, Paul—giving them that ‘Not many of you were this, not many of you were that, you’re really an insignificant bunch.’” And maybe the amanuensis says, “You might want to put in a wee bit about yourself, you know, just to, you know, include yourself in the process.” And Paul said, “You know, I think that’s a great idea. Let’s do that. Let’s just think for a moment: ‘And I… Actually, as I think about it, when I came to you, I wasn’t that impressive either.’”
We’d need to go back into Acts 18 and review the context in which he comes. We’d need to review, prior to that, the hammerings and the beatings that he’d received, and all the things that had pressed upon him in such a way as to render him in an awareness of his own finitude and the nature of his own life. And so, he essentially says to them, “I want you to remember how I came. When I came…” He was a walking illustration of the truth that he was expounding.
He was, if you like, a basket case. You say, “Well, that’s a little bizarre.” No, if you go back to Acts chapter 9, you will find that he was literally a basket case. Because, remember, they let him down in a basket down the wall. So he was actually the original basket case in the New Testament. There’s no sense in which he came, you know, he jetted in, he had the entourage in front of him, and they said, “The apostle Paul will be arriving momentarily. If you would just look out. We’re bringing him in now.”
No. They’re like, “How did you get here?”
“Well, they flipped me out through a window. They dropped me down in an old laundry basket, and then I just basically ran for my life from that point.”
“Well, that’s not exactly what we were thinking about for our meeting. We were looking for something just a little different.”
“What can I tell you?”
He didn’t come to impress them with lofty speech. He came not to display human wisdom. Neither the manner nor the content of his presentation was designed to draw attention to him as the messenger. No, the mission was far too crucial, the message far too important to risk distractions in any form. “I didn’t come with this.” It’s not because he can’t; it’s because he won’t. It’s not because he’s deficient. It’s not because he’s a theological pygmy. It’s not because he never finished school. It’s because he recognizes that the environment is such that that would be an easy play for him. And it may so readily detract from the message that he has come to proclaim. Which is what? “The word of the cross.” Which is what? “Foolishness to those who are perishing.” So he could play the game and let everybody say, “My, he is remarkable. We don’t really like what he has to say about Jesus, but boy is he a terrific speaker, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.”
And most of time when people tell me they enjoy it, I think, “You never heard a thing.” I had a Hindu man here a few weeks ago. He came up to me afterwards, and he said, “Thank you. Very good indeed. I love it very much.” I went away and I said, “He didn’t hear what I said,” because I was speaking about the exclusivity of Christ. If he’d actually heard, he should have been offended by it.
And Paul’s not concerned about that. He’s not there to curry favor. He didn’t come with that, but he did come with something. What did he come with? If you like, he never checked any bags; he just carried them. And what did he carry in with him? Well, he tells us: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and [in] much trembling.” As Phillips paraphrases it, “I was feeling far from strong; I was nervous and rather shaky.” I’m not sure how good that is, but I kinda like it. And I would imagine that when this part was read out in the congregation, somebody put up his hand and says, “If I could just interrupt, please, while you’re reading that, I can reinforce that, because I was the one that picked him up at the donkey station. I’ll never forget that day. He was such a funny-looking little creature. And when I shook hands with him, talk about sweaty paws! Oh, for goodness’ sake! I don’t know whether he was nervous or what was up with him, but I could hardly hold on to him. He slipped away from me immediately. And he seemed to hobble. He was an awful hobbler. In fact, I thought to myself when I saw him, ‘This fellow will never make an impact anywhere. Never a chance! Look at him!’”
Where do we get the idea that God is on the lookout for the quarterbacks? That’s why we gave you Christopher Ash’s book. It’s such a great introduction to that book, you oughta take it out and stick it on your shaving mirror. What does he say? He says, “I went to these conferences where everybody was taller than me, more handsome than me, and brighter than me.” Well, you will notice, we haven’t done that here! At least with one or two exceptions. No, because we want to say to one another, “Under God we can do these things. We don’t look to ourselves to be sufficient in them. We look at ourselves and we say, ‘We understand things like shaky. We understand things like weakness. We understand things like fear.’” We know this.
We might have thought that thirty-four years on from the time when the elders laid their hands on us, when we stood before the congregation in Edinburgh and realized what an awesome thing was happening, we might have thought that thirty-four years on, we would just be able to breeze through these things; we would just be able to treat them as commonplace. But we’re now thirty-four years on, and we still know fear, we still know weakness, we still know trembling. And we ought to!
They asked Campbell Morgan one time, “How do you feel before you preach?” He says, “I get butterflies in my tummy.” They said, “Do you think you’ll ever stop?” He said, “Well, if the butterflies go, I think I will have to stop.”
Now, when you read the events in Acts—all the brutal treatment he’d received, everything that had faced him in the cities before him… In fact, Luke tells us—and you can read this again later on—but Luke tells us that God in his mercy gave him a special word of encouragement. Do you remember? He said to him, “Paul, I know you’ve had a dreadful time of it, but I have much people in this city. I don’t want you to be fearful. I don’t want you to be overwhelmed by the circumstances. I want you to stay where you are.” And Luke records for us: “[And] so Paul stayed.” “So Paul stayed.”
I don’t want to suggest I have a word for you or anything remotely like that, but that may just be a phrase for somebody. I was in Peru earlier in the year, for Wycliffe. And amongst all the profoundly moving things that happened, there was none more significant to me than a man who stood up to give his report prior to his retirement. And he started the report, and he said, “On the nineteenth of November, 1952, I went down the Amazon in a dugout canoe with an outboard motor.” I said to myself, “1952, November. I was six months old.” Therefore, for the last fifty-seven years, this man has buried himself in obscurity, translating the Bible, so that the people in the Amazon basin and up into the Andes mountain range may become the recipients of the good news.
So I wanted to talk to him, and I want to find out about him, and I try and track him down and just find out if he’s got any little nuggets for me. And he had a wonderful one for me, and I wrote it down immediately. He had got it from a fellow called Major Ian Thomas, whom some of you may have heard of. And he said that as a younger man, he met Major Ian Thomas, and Ian Thomas said to him, “I have three things for you: Go where you’re sent, stay where you’re put, and do what you’re asked.” “Go where you’re sent, stay where you’re put, and do what you’re asked.”
There is no ideal place to serve God. If you’re thinking about moving, know this: that all those funny folks—Mr. and Mrs. Jones and the spotty ones—they reincarnate themselves. There is nowhere you can go. It’s a bit like Psalm 139: “If I make my bed in the earth, if I go up to the heavens,” it doesn’t matter, they’ll be there. They’re there. So don’t think you’re going to get away from that. They’re there. And there’ll be more of the ugly crew there as well. “Remember,” he says, “how I came. Remember how I came.”
“Remember what I said.” I’ll just give you these headings, and we’re finished, because it’s the noon hour, isn’t it? “Remember what I said. What did I say?” “I proclaimed to you the testimony about God,” or “the testimony of God,” or in 1:6, “our testimony about Christ.” That was his mandate, because remember God’s word to Ananias? “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” Paul, Saul of Tarsus, was not a volunteer; he was a conscript. His role is the role of a herald. He is testifying to the truth of God. He is testifying of God. He is giving to the people the facts. The facts.
“Remember where I said to you the testimony about God; remember I told you, ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified.’” “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In other words, “I told you about the person and the work of Christ.” There’s no real problem in talking to people about Jesus Christ. They may balk at it a little, but they’re fine as long as you’re talking about Jesus the ethicist, or Jesus the example, or Jesus the guru, or Jesus the mystic, or Jesus who fits somewhere in the pantheon of contemporary New Age gods. No, the rub is when you tell them of Jesus Christ and him crucified, and that in his death there is the only answer for the fact of our guilt and our sin and our lostness.
The message of the cross is rejected in our day by other religions. Islam rejects the notion of a sin-bearing Savior. Hinduism, as our brother Isaac can tell us, rejects the saving significance of Christ’s death. They accept its historicity; they believe it has no saving significance at all. Humanism in all of its forms rejects the story of the cross. Professor Sir Alfred Ayer of Oxford writes, Christianity is the worst of all religions because it rests “on the allied doctrines of original sin and vicarious atonement, which are intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” But the cross, I fear, is trivialized, not only in those realms but also by the approach of much contemporary evangelicalism. And in this let each man examine himself. The rehearsing of clichés and evangelical jargon should not be equated with a central emphasis on Jesus Christ and him crucified, with the proclamation of the cross in such a way that declares its necessity, that establishes its meaning, and that bears its offense. In , Denney said the cross “has less than its proper place in preaching and in theology.” We can only imagine what he might have observed today.
“Remember what I said to you? I told you about the testimony of God, I proclaimed to you Jesus and him crucified, and my message was in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” This is similar to what he says to the Thessalonians. He hasn’t tampered with the message. He hasn’t tinkered with his preaching in order to make it more palatable. No, he’s relying entirely on the power of the Spirit of God to provide evidence of the truth of the message by convicting the hearers of their need of Christ. So therefore, the things that appeared to be defects or inadequacies provided the convincing proof that it was God who was at work.
“Remember how I came.” “Remember what I said.” And finally, “Remember why I took this approach.” Verse 5: “I took this approach so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” If the Corinthians’ faith was to be built upon the flimsy foundation of clever reason, then it would be at the mercy of the next argument to come along. So he labored to ensure that their faith was grounded in the grace of God, so that they might be able to say,
The work which his goodness began,
The arm of his strength will complete;
His promise is [Yes] and Amen,
And never was forfeited yet.
Well, our time has gone, hasn’t it? Let me give you one final quote. I have to give a quote from The Cross of Christ by John Stott, because I was reading it in preparation for this, and I don’t want to have read it and not used it. Here is his quote, and then we will pray and sing and be gone.
“To preach salvation,” says Stotty,
by good works is to flatter people and so avoid opposition. To preach salvation by grace is to offend people and so invite opposition. … All Christian preachers have to face this issue. Either we preach that human beings are rebels against God, under his just judgment and (if left to themselves) lost, and that Christ crucified who bore their sin and their curse is the only available Savior. Or we emphasize human potential and human ability, with Christ brought in only to boost them, and with no necessity for the cross except to exhibit God’s love and [to] inspire us to greater endeavor.
The former is the way to be faithful, the latter is the way to be popular. It is not possible to be faithful and popular simultaneously.
Therefore, because of our identity in Christ by means of our union with Christ, because of the high calling which is ours in pastoral ministry, we’re gonna flee, we’re gonna follow, and we’re gonna fight. And if the whole thing goes south on us, and if they come to us and say to us as they said to Athanasius, “Athanasius, the whole world is against you”—they come to us and say, “You know, the whole drift of evangelicalism is against this notion of penal substitutionary atonement and all of these things you’ve been talking about”—then we’ll just tell them, “Then we are against the whole world.”
Brethren, let us pray:
Father God, we read this passage, and we are seeing our faces in it. We are both humbled and helped by it. And we pray that as we think of this and we think of the cumulative impact of the studying we’ve been doing and the messages we’ve been hearing, that you will make us strong and faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. We look away from ourselves to he who is our all in all and in whose name we pray. Amen.
 1 Corinthians 1:25 (KJV).
 See Judges 7:12.
 Judges 7:3 (NIV 1984).
 See Judges 7:1–25.
 David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1985), 46.
 See 2 Corinthians 5:17.
 James 2:1–4 (paraphrased).
 Peggy Noonan, “A Farewell to Harms,” Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2009, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124716984620819351.
 F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 36.
 1 Corinthians 4:7 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:24–25 (paraphrased).
 Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John Flavel, The Method of Grace, in The Works of John Flavel (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 2:24–25.
 Flavel, 2:26.
 2 Corinthians 12:7–8 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 12:7 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NIV).
 Christopher Ash, The Priority of Preaching (Fearn, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2010), 11–12. Paraphrased.
 Acts 18:9–10 (paraphrased).
 Acts 18:11 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 139:8 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 2:1 (ESV).
 Acts 9:15 (NIV 1984).
 Alfred Ayer, The Guardian, August 30, 1979, quoted in John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 43.
 James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1903), 9.
 Augustus Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771).
 Stott, The Cross of Christ, 347.
 Attributed to Athanasius in, for example, C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 205–206. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.