The Message of the Cross (1 Corinthians 1)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from 1 Corinthians:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2013)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study



        The phrase "the word of the cross" (NASB), or "the preaching of the cross" (KJV), or "the message of the cross" (TCNT) appears in 1 Corinthians 1:18, and it sets the tone for the doctrinal section (1:18 to perhaps 3:5) on which all the rest of this epistle is built.  You can find appeals to the "preaching of the cross" and all of its implications in almost every section of the epistle.  Right doctrine is the basis of right living and right practice.



        In the closing verses of chapter 1 and in the early verses of chapter 2 are several expressions that help explain this crucial expression that occurs in 1 Corinthians 1:18.

  • 1:17 shows that the manner of presenting the message is involved:  "Not in cleverness of speech."  The same ideas appear in 2:1-5, where we learn that human wisdom – superiority of speech, persuasive words of wisdom, wisdom of men – was avoided deliberately.1
  • 1:17 also shows the message ("the cross of Christ") brings together man's guilt and God's love at their highest degree and closest connection. 
  • 1:18 shows that power is involved.  God exerts the same power to save a man that He used to raise Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19ff).  2:5 speaks of "power" again, and may have reference to God's credentialing of the apostolic preaching by miracle.  (See 2:4). 
  • 1:23 shows that Christ "crucified" is emphasized.  Not a warrior Messiah, flashing His signs from the sky, breaking the heathen yoke, but a crucified Messiah – hanged on a cross – is what the apostles preach for their good news!  The kingdom is spiritual, not political. 
  • 1:24 and other verses show that God's wisdom is involved in the message of the cross.  God's ways of doing things are marvelous.  1:30 shows that this "wisdom" includes righteousness (justification), sanctification (growth in the Christian life), and redemption (the ultimate glorification of the body).  God's wise plan was not a new innovation; it was part of His eternal plan (2:7).  It was revealed ever so dimly in the Old Testament (a "mystery," 2:7), and now through the apostles it was clearly explicated (2:7). "Our glory" at the resurrection and consummation is included (2:7).
  • The message of the cross also includes a "call" (invitation, 1:26). 

        The message of the cross was not flashy, sensational, new; instead, it was different from what the world expected (1:20).  It was not understood by wise men, nor can unaided men discover the truths of God (2:9).  By revelation, inspiration, and illumination, God has gotten His message from His mind to the minds of men (2:10ff).



        All the questions asked by the Corinthians in their letter to Paul and all the matters that were learned from Chloe's people are answered in the light of the "message of the Cross" (i.e., the Christ-event – His death, burial, resurrection). 

Party spirit – versus Christ (only) crucified for you.  1:23, 2:2, 4:5 

Moral problems – You are a part of the body of Christ.  Christ our Passover was sacrificed for you.  The body must be disciplined so the soul is saved, or Christ's work was vain. 

Legal problems – What happened when you became a Christian precludes any litigation, selfishness, etc.  Bodily members care for each other, even the judged ones.  6:11 

Avoid prostitutes – If you do not, you void the reason for Christ's death.  Your body, all of it, is bought with a price.  Individual parts of it cannot live their own lives.  The God who raised Christ will raise us. 

Concerning marriage – Paul's advice is based on the Lord's teaching.  7:23 

Christian liberty – Don't hurt the brother for whom Christ died!  The Lord's Table v. the table of demons has a bearing on liberty.  Proper use of liberty can be seen in Paul's own example of forbearance as he follows the example of Christ.  Let love be the guiding principle.  10:16 

Women in worship – Subordination of women, as Christ voluntarily submitted to the Father. 

Love feast and Lord's Supper – Observance is to be just as Christ taught it at the time He was being betrayed, 11:23.  Observed correctly, you proclaim that the Lord has died for you, 11:26.  Improper partaking of the elements involves sin against the body and blood of the Lord, 11:27. 

Spiritual gifts – Christians are all part of the same body, and the body of Christ needs all its members.  Self-discipline and edification of others is the important thing.  Substitute "Jesus" for "love" in chapter 13.  Follow Christ's example of "love." 

Resurrection – Ours is tied to Christ's, 15:48-49.  "Resurrection" is part of the original gospel message, 15:11.  It is the heart of our message, 15:12.  It is part of the final victory which was won for us by Christ, 15:50-58. 

Offering – One part of the body helps another.



        It reaches those who otherwise would have been neglected or overlooked. 

The Foolish – the inferior of mind. 

        We tend to dismiss them as useless.  Adam Clarke in grammar school was the dunce.  He seemed unutterably stupid, hopelessly dull.  One teacher told him, "You'll never learn anything!"  A kindly superintendent of school laid a hand on him, one day, and said, "My boy, some day you'll be a great man!”  That word of praise transformed him.  Adam Clarke lived to master half-a-dozen languages, and became an outstanding scholar.  His commentary on the Bible, printed first in the 18th century, has been reprinted and is still used.  God often picks those who appear to be "foolish." 

The Weak – the inferior in body. 

        Fanny Crosby has been given as a modern example.  She was blind, rather frail of body.  She was the writer of 6000 hymns, among them, "Saved by Grace."  She did a tremendous job; and once again, God used a "weak" one. 

The Base – the inferior of birth. 

        Merrill Tenney told about a Japanese man he met, a man who worked in a rural fishing community.  He had won many of the community to Christ.  He lived there practically on nothing.  He wasn't of outstanding ability.  As a baby, he had been cast out.  His mother was a prostitute.  His uncle took him home, but abused and hated him because he had to take care of him.  This man had absolutely no start in life whatever.  No money.  No reputation.  Not particularly good health.  But he allowed God to use him, and he had a tremendous ministry there.  God does that!  He uses the base! 

Those Who Are Not – inferior in everything. 

        Men of no repute.  God works with rejected material.  Michelangelo and his students were passing the city dump.  He spied a discarded marble piece there in the dump.  He had his students carry it home.  He said, "I must release the angel in it!"  When he finished it, it was The David, one of his most beautiful works.  God, too, takes rejected material and does beautiful work with it!




1 The idea that our scientific age demands certain modifications of the gospel message captivates many today, and they do not decide as Paul did.  And the ultimate result of the modern presentation is to void the cross – the very thing Paul was pleading that his readers should not let happen.
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