Paul's big mistake

The Lamb of God uplifted at Calvary-herein is the source of both wisdom and power.

Martin Weber is an associate editor of Ministry.

As we rejoice this month with fellow Christians in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us beware of repeating Paul's mistake at Athens. With unmatched eloquence he pro claimed there the glory of the risen Christ, but something was missing in his mes sage. Let's visit Mars Hill and listen carefully.

Never before (and seldom since) has such an exclusive intelligentsia gathered to hear the gospel. Paul, squinting in the warm Mediterranean sun, surveys the furrowed faces of those pagan dignitaries. His heart thrills with eagerness to win their worship for the true God, and his lofty rhetoric rises to meet the challenge:

"Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to the unknown God. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:22, 23).*

After that introduction of tact and wisdom, Paul smoothly shifts into his homily. He first identifies the God of heaven. Then, artfully weaving in quotations from local poets, he explains how Yahweh created all humanity of one blood for the sake of fellowship with Him. Finally, Paul moves beyond merely communicating information and makes an urgent appeal for repentance: "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all, by raising Him from the dead" (verses 30, 31).

Paul's message was a model of magnificence. With style and substance he had spoken of God, creation, resurrection, repentance, and judgment. Every thing was contextualized in the culture of his hearers, climaxed by a call to commitment. Only one element was missing, and it was a big one: Paul omitted the crucified Christ. He mentioned His resurrection from the dead, but didn't say how or why He died. He consciously avoided Calvary's cross. Why? The apostle didn't want to offend his sophisticated audience. His strategy backfired, however. Few were converted.

Paul left Athens disappointed. Heading for Corinth, he pondered what happened and reached a firm conviction. Let's hear it in his own words to the Corinthian church: "And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1,2).

No fancy rhetoric anymore, Paul said. Just Christ and Him crucified. Ellen White comments: "In preaching the gospel in Corinth, the apostle followed a course different from that which had marked his labors at Athens. . . . [He] determined to avoid elaborate arguments and discussions, and 'not to know any thing' among the Corinthians 'save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.''1

Not that Paul became irrelevant, drab, or lax in his logic. But now he put the spotlight on the Saviour—and not just Jesus in general, but Jesus on the cross. He realized such an emphasis would be disparaged: "We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:23, 24).

Liberals want a Christ who stimulates their intellect, while others want a Christ who empowers them to become worthy through keeping the law. Paul did present the wisdom and overcoming power of Jesus, but the primary theme was His death to forgive sin. The Lamb of God uplifted at Calvary—herein is the source of both wisdom and power. Unless we continually look up at the cross, we sink into legalism or liberalism.

So let's present the truth as it is in Jesus. Not just the Sabbath, but Christ the Lord of the Sabbath. Not just the sanctuary, but Christ our High Priest. Not just the "state of the dead," but Christ the Lifegiver. Not just the Spirit of prophecy, but the testimony of Jesus in that gift. Moreover, not just Christ in these doctrines, but Christ crucified. This is the lesson from Paul at Athens.

May God save us from becoming too sophisticated for the cross of our salvation. Without Christ crucified, we would have no message, no ministry, no reason to exist. Our churches might as well be kingdom halls. Our colleges would be sand castles of worldly wisdom. Our health system would be a withered right arm. Every institution, every policy, and every program in the church needs to magnify Christ and Him crucified, or we have forfeited God's purpose.

When Christ crucified becomes the consistent theme of our songs, sermons, and Sabbath school lessons, the long-awaited revival and reformation will follow. God's remnant will blossom out of the lukewarm mud of Laodicea with something to offer refugees from Babylon.

* All Scripture texts are from The New King
James Version.

1 Ellen White, The Acts of the Apostles (Moun
tain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911),
p. 244.

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Martin Weber is an associate editor of Ministry.

April 1993

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