12 August 2013

An "Aha Moment", 1 Cor 1:17

by Dr Mark Keown

What a privilege I have to be paid to study the Scriptures, digging in each day to the text in its original language, seeing things, learning things, being shaped – what a joy. Thanks Laidlaw. Thanks God. In this short blog, I want to share a little thing I really saw the other day.

Now, to understand this, you need first to grasp the cruciform or kenotic nature of Paul’s theology. This is brought out well by scholars like Michael Gorman. That is, undergirding Paul’s understanding is the crucifixion. The crucifixion for Paul not only saves us, but provides the shape of Christian life. His ethics is based on living out of the cross. I call it “the pattern of the cross” and say more about this in my forthcoming commentary on Philippians. The thing is, that Christian life is cross-shaped, cross-eyed, so to speak. Words which define this are things like humility, selflessness, servanthood, sacrifice, suffering, i.e. love. It is self-emptying for the world. The opposite of things like selfish ambition, pride, seeking self-glory, etc. The place we see it best is in Phil 2:1–11 where Paul appeals to the Philippians to live out of the cross and gives Christ as the example par excellence. Jesus “emptied himself” for the world, as a slave, as a human, fully obedient, even to death. Jesus did not empty himself of anything, like some element of his divinity – he emptied himself! That is, he poured himself out for the world. That is what God looks like when he comes to earth.

When you look around Paul’s letters knowing this, you find the language and ideas of cruciformity everywhere. For example, “give your bodies as a living sacrifice” in Rom 12. The idea of “treasure in jars of clay” in 2 Cor 4. I could list many others. 1 Corinthians 1–2 too is an appeal to live out of the Christ pattern. The Corinthians know that the cross has saved them, but are more focussed on the glory of the resurrection life. They are still infected by concern for rhetoric and glorious rationalism. They are neglecting the cruciform life. They are not living out of kenosis, self-emptying. Because of their imbalanced theology, they have inadvertently failed to live out the Christ-life well.

So, here is the fresh insight. In 1 Cor 1:17 Paul writes, “Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied (kenoÅ).” He goes on in the next verse to say, ""the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” The word “emptied” is kenoÅ which is the same Greek word used in Phil 2:7, “but he emptied (kenoÅ) himself.” Paul is beginning his challenge to the Corinthians by reminding them that it is all about Jesus, and that the crucifixion lies at the heart of the gospel. The cross doesn’t just save us (hallelujah for that!), it is the matrix for Christian life – a kenotic, cruciform life. They know they are saved, but they are not living “out of the cross,” or better, not living “with crosses strapped to their backs,” with cross-eyed living, etc.

So, there is a deep irony here in his use of kenoÅ. He is saying, that we don’t resort to human methodologies of proclamation like glorious rhetoric, which is an invasion from the world, but present Christ crucified (2:2) “lest, the self-emptying of Christ is emptied.” See the play on ideas. It is a double negative. Basing the gospel around our own glory, rhetoric, wisdom, etc, leads to emptying the self-emptying of Jesus and the cross loses its power. That is so cool, emptying the self-emptying! Love it. If we do, the cross loses the power that those who are being truly saved recognise. The real power is not miracles, but found in (apparent) powerlessness, i.e. there is a deeper power, the power of selflessness, simplicity, humility, sacrifice, suffering, servanthood, apparent weakness, i.e. love! I love Paul’s irony. No wonder the letter climaxes in 1 Cor 13 with the wonderful “hymn” on love. The second climax is 1 Cor 15, where Paul hammers home the bodily resurrection – we live the kenotic life in the present by the power of the Spirit flowing through our beings.

The message for us is to relentlessly live as cross-eyed people. We are to take up our crosses and walk in “the way.” We are to renounce worldly patterns that move the focus from the crucified Christ to glorious rhetoric, brilliant thought, performance over substance, charisma over character, leading from above over leading from below and among, etc. We are to live the Christ life in its fullness. The real power is found in God’s Spirit working in broken vessels bringing transformation at the very deepest level. The Corinthians have forgotten this. Many churches have. We are to live the “in Christ” life fully – walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ our Lord, shaped by his death, and empowered by his resurrection. God strengthen you as you do.

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