Bible Study

Paradox of the Cross

"The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God ” (1 Corinthians 1:18, NLT). by Captain Catherine Fitzgerald

My teenage daughter is an unashamedly enthusiastic fan of musicals, one of her favorites being “Les Misérables.” During the second half of the story, an idealistic and determined group of young men unite to fight against the tyrannical French government, hoping through their uprising to get enough clout to demand social and legal reforms. Though their uprising is timed strategically in a public way, the uprising doesn’t gain momentum and they end up cornered in a small alley behind a barricade and—spoiler alert—in the end, the French military wipes them out [almost] completely. Their attempt at change failed. They looked at their small but committed group and thought they could make a difference against the mighty French government, but they failed. What began as youthful idealism turned out to be a foolish venture. 

When Paul entered Corinth on his travels just a few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, it would have been just as impossible for him to think that he could make a difference to such a large and cosmopolitan city. He probably should have changed direction and gone to a city that might be more fertile ground for a new church. Who among these hard working, wealthy, idol-worshipping Romans would want to follow a crucified, Jewish, street preacher? It doesn’t make sense. It looks like foolishness. But unlike the young Frenchmen in Victor Hugo’s story, Paul had much more than hopeful idealism. He knew there is actual power in the cross of Christ. Paul had this transforming power at work in his heart when he entered Corinth and thanks to his commitment to them, they left a legacy for us in the books of 1 and 2 Corinthians.

Corinth was considered the largest city of the Roman Empire. With a booming economy and a growing wealthy class, Corinth attracted hard-working and fiercely independent workers, looking to get their piece of the wealth. They all came from various pagan backgrounds and had at least 26 options for idols to worship in the city. With two seaports and an important crossroads for overland travel, there were always people coming through the city and bringing the vices that come with that.

But none of this frightened Paul away. Paul made his home in Corinth for a year and a half, found some friends and recruited several converts after actively preaching in the synagogue (see Acts 18 for more of the story). Many people, some Jewish, but many from pagan backgrounds, believed in Jesus. Paul faithfully taught them the word of God. A few years later, after he had left, he began to hear about problems in the church in Corinth. This is no surprise as the message of Jesus that Paul preached was counter to everything they had ever known before. But Paul was not scared away. Paul knew that the Gospel was exactly for times like this. If the Gospel wasn’t powerful enough for the people of Corinth, then it wasn’t the Gospel at all.

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul draws our attention to radical obedience to Jesus Christ as the norm of Christian existence. It is always easy for people to fall back into their old ways of doing things. Paul continually called the Corinthian Christians away from their former life to their new life in Christ. This working out of the practical implications of the gospel is still our calling today. This is a pursuit that never ends. As culture changes, so does our application of the gospel. Often, we are blinded by our own cultural norms, just as the Corinthians were. But don’t be discouraged. Paul wasn’t. Looking at the ways that Paul applies the gospel for the Corinthian believers can also help us today. One of the themes throughout Corinthians is just how counter-cultural the gospel is. In fact, the cross itself appears as foolishness to those headed for destruction, but it is the very power of God to those being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18, paraphrased).

The cross is such a ubiquitous Christian symbol today that it no longer has the same effect of foolishness that it would have to those in Corinth. To people living in the first century, the cross was a symbol of torture and punishment. It was reserved for the worst criminals and only for people who were too unimportant to be protected by things like a fair trial. How can someone who died on a cross be powerful? The cross was, by definition, a defeat of the person and a victory for Rome. The cross was something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by and certainly not something to be proud of and preach about.

But Paul points out that what appears to be foolishness was God’s way of salvation. The cross is the means by which God has saved us. Through His death, Jesus has offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice and defeated death by resurrecting on the third day. Through His death He has taken our place as sinners, taking what we deserve so that we don’t have to. Because of the cross we can find forgiveness for ourselves and forgive others. Because of the cross we can have peace in hearts as we face death, knowing what our future holds. Because of the cross we can be new creations.

Additionally, through His death He has made it possible for the Holy Spirit to come. Through the Holy Spirit we have a source of direction for our lives. We have a source of comfort and power. All these benefits of the cross are inward benefits. Others can’t see them. They may be able to see the effects of them, but since no one can truly see our hearts, it is hard for others to really understand and know the transformation that happens inside each of us when we accept the cross as God’s source of salvation.

Therefore, the power of the cross is often hidden, reserved only for those who are being saved. To everyone else, it appears foolishness. It may even appear as weakness in our culture, as it may have to the ancient Corinthians. Forgiving someone who wronged us? Being generous to someone poor and outcast? Loving an enemy? Taking time each week to rest? These actions look weak to those who don’t know the transformational power of the cross.

Everyone else is described as “those who are headed for destruction.” There is no middle ground here. Everyone is either being saved or headed for destruction. There is no neutral zone. Many people fail to realize that and miss out on years of experiencing the transformational benefits of the cross until they have already experienced the pain of destruction and living according to human wisdom instead of God’s wisdom.

Perhaps like the Corinthians we may be tempted to move away from the centrality of the cross. Maybe we are tempted to depend on our own ingenuity, resources, and strength for our daily life and we forget the power of the cross. Jesus uses the cross as a symbol of our submission to God. He encourages all who are his followers that they must “give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). This is a reminder that the Christian life is not promised to be an easy one. Just like those who are perishing we will face difficulties—maybe a bad diagnosis, the loss of employment, or broken relationships. But the one who embraces the cross embraces the power of God working in the brokenness of our lives to make all things new. 

Do you embrace the foolishness of the cross? Like the young Frenchmen from “Les Misérables,” we can often get caught up in foolish pursuits with no eternal outcome. Or we can submit to the foolishness of the cross and experience its power. I can describe everything I have experienced in being transformed by the cross, but you can’t experience it for yourself until you commit to following Jesus. I know it appears foolish. It has looked foolish since all the way back in Paul’s day. But countless Christians over the last 2000 years can testify that it only looks that way on the outside. It is the power of God.

Questions for Reflection:

  • If you have made a commitment to follow Christ, in what way is your lifestyle counter-cultural to the culture around you? 
  • How have you experienced the power of the cross in your life? How have you witnessed the power of the cross working in others?
  • Is there any area of your life that needs to experience the power of God? Have you taken that to God today? 

Captain Catherine Fitzgerald serves as Corps Officer in New Albany, IN.