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preaching Christ and Christ crucified – mark keown

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2 that when he came to Corinth, he preached Christ and Christ crucified. For a long time I read this as meaning that the central content of Paul’s preaching is Christ and particularly his death and its consequences. After spending a number of months working through Philippians 2:5–11 while simultaneously teaching 1 Corinthians at Laidlaw College, I realise that Paul is saying a lot more than this in this passage.

The problem in Corinth he is addressing is a church fragmenting over their favoured preachers – Paul, Peter, and Apollos. The essential issue is stylistic. We can’t be sure of the exact styles these preachers used, but from what we know of Apollos from Acts 18, he likely preached with great rhetoric skill and flair as he preached the gospel. He was more like the Sophists and other traveling preachers who frequented Corinth. Peter perhaps appealed to the Jews, and Paul to those from the early days who remembered him with fondness. Their essential problem was cultural – they were enculturated into a proneness to judge speakers on the quality of their delivery and style. They were drawn to flamboyance and charisma. Sound familiar?

Paul argues from 1:12 on that the Corinthians need to pull their heads in and realise that there is no such thing as ‘I follow Paul … Cephas … Apollos,’ but ‘I follow Christ’ and their unity is bound up in Christ and Christ crucified. When he says he preached Christ and Christ crucified he means two things.

On the one hand, it is about content. Christ and him crucified is the basis for our unity. Whether we are rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male, female, strong, or weak (etc.) we are bound together in the one indivisible Christ. Christ did form the centre of his content, particularly his death and resurrection. The spin off for us is that, whatever our style, whatever our context, to Christ and Christ crucified we return again and again. The crucified Christ, nonsense to the world, is our salvation. The crucified Christ is also our life-example – we call people to cruciformity. Both Christ as our salvation and example must be stressed again and again and again.

The second thing he is saying is that Christ is not only his content, but he shaped his approach to preaching in emulation of Christ and Christ crucified – it is about carefully thought through delivery. Recognising that Corinthians were obsessed with rhetorical flair, he was concerned that to come at his preaching there by the style they were familiar with, many would not hear the message clearly. They would be drawn to Christ not through Christ, but through Paul and his superb rhetoric. So, he chose to do something quite extraordinary. Rather than use the approaches found in rhetorical handbooks, emulate the Sophists and traveling philosophers, he disrupted their expectations by preaching differently. While he did speak with full conviction (1 Thess 1:5), he spoke humbly, out of fear and much trembling, not seeking to persuade with dynamic words of wisdom (philosophical brilliance), but portraying publically Christ crucified clearly and without the kind of flair they were associated with. In this way, the gospel could be clearly heard uncluttered. He trusted the gospel to do the work. He was not going to let his delivery get in the way. Then, their faith will not rest on glorious rhetoric (human wisdom), but on the power of God – the power of the gospel of a crucified Christ to convert even the Corinthians. That it had is a pillar of his argument – remember the simple message that converted you!

These Corinthians had yet to grow up into Christ. They were still stuck in their pre-Christ worlds, judging the Christian preachers, instead of coming together in Christ with the attitude of Christ – humility, selflessness, sacrifice, service, and love.

There is so much for us to think of here. Of particular note is that we need to be sensitive to our context and adapt our delivery carefully to ensure that the message is being heard and that people are being drawn by Christ to Christ and not to the preacher because of his/her skill. I am profoundly challenged by this every time I get up to preach. I have always been concerned for dynamic delivery. I am rethinking this, as I want the message to be heard not the medium to be admired. Something to work toward.

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