Jesus was crucified in a public way, and His death necessarily has public ramifications. There is no way to be fully faithful to the message of His death and resurrection in private. Private faith in this public event cannot, in the very nature of the case, remain private.
“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified . . . Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory . . . “
(1 Cor. 2:1-10).
In this text, we have many glorious things stated, and a number of other (surpassingly glorious) things only hinted at. When St. Paul came to the Corinthians, he did not come as a showboating preacherman (v. 1). He resolved to know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified (v. 2). But this does not mean what individualistic moderns assume. Paul says that he was among them in a real state of inadequacy, as men would measure it (v. 3). He recalled his messages as being the same way (v. 4), not with man’s wisdom, but with God’s power. He did not want them to have faith in the wrong thing—in pretty boy preachers instead of God’s power (v. 5). We do speak wisdom, but it is not the wisdom of this world’s princes, who are coming to nothing (v. 6). We speak a hidden wisdom, now revealed (on the cross, remember), which God ordained before the world for our glory (v. 7). If the princes of this world had known what was up, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (v. 8). In doing this, they arranged for a spectacular blessing for those who love God (v. 9). And what this consists of is revealed to us by the Spirit (v. 10).
Nothing But Christ and Him Crucified?
You have many times heard us warning against the dangers of radical individualism. That danger can be clearly seen in this phrase from verse 2, “not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Now if this truth is all about getting individual souls into heaven after they die, then application of this will create private clubs (perhaps called churches) where people will think about this saving datum, to the saving of their private individual souls, by and by. I grew up in a church which thought it was the responsibility of the church to preach the gospel every Sunday, with an invitation every Sunday. And why? Because of an assumption about the gospel. Preaching Christ and Him crucified was taken in a truncated way, limiting it to the salvation of invisible souls after they depart from this world. But note how St. Paul approaches this. This message is a message that topples the princes of this world, and every thing that previously had been under their jurisdiction—and this means arts, politics, economics, exploration, scientific investigation, cooking, and anything else that men might do. Rightly understood, preaching Christ and Him crucified is as broad as the world.
Theories of the Atonement:
In the history of the Church, three basic theories of the atonement have developed. They have frequently been articulated in opposition to each other, but this is not necessary at all. They all have a scriptural basis, and we have to learn how to see them together. If we do, instead of opposing them to each other, we will start to see something of what Paul is addressing here. And when we take one view in isolation from the others, we start to drift toward a rejection of what Paul is describing in our passage.
Anselm—this is the view that has been emphasized in the Protestant Reformed world. First systematically developed by Anselm of Canterbury, this is the idea that Christ died as a “penal substitute.” We are familiar with the language of the substitionary atonement, and it is right and proper that we are. It is very common in the New Testament. For example, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18).
Abelard—this is the vew that Christ died in order to set an example for us to follow. The idea is that by sacrificing Himself in this way He provides a pattern of moral influence. We see immediately that this is pitifully inadequate in isolation, but it is in the Bible. “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).
Christus Victor—in this view, the death of Jesus is seen as Him triumphing over the devil and his angels. This too is biblical, but not in isolation. “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” Col. 2:13-15).
All His Offices:
Notice that when we see this all these together as parts of a whole, we can see that Christ is exercising all His offices—prophet (Abelardian), priest (Anselmian), and king (Christus Victor).
The New Humanity and the Old Princes:
Jesus was not murdered in private by thugs, only to come back from the dead in secret, with a select band of initiates being told to whisper the news to another handful: “Pssst! Pass it on.” No, He was executed publicly by the authorities, and He rose from the dead in such a way as to declare His absolute authority over all the kingdoms of men, and over everything that they contain. We have to learn how to see the cross in these terms, which is what St. Paul is insisting on in our text.
When we preach Christ and Him crucified, we are preaching the hope and glory of the world. What God has prepared for us (who love Him) here, on this earth, has not begun to enter the heart of man. What is God preparing to pour out over this whole planet? What is He planning to give to us? What is His saving intent for this world? He is going to inundate our sorry and sinful world with the “deep things of God.” When the earth is finally as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, those seas will be infinitely deep. In thinking about the greatness of the Great Commission, you do not have to worry about overdoing it.