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The theme for this evening is “The Cross at the Center.” I’ll be presenting this theme in two sessions. The theme originates in a conversation that I had with a Christian friend about two or three years ago. It wasn’t a planned conversation, we weren’t trying to be spiritual. I don’t know exactly what we were talking about except some of the problems that had arisen in the church, the church at large. My friend said the church has so many items in its shop window today that people have lost sight of the cross. Let me say that again. The church has so many items in its shop window today that people have lost sight of the cross. And as I meditated on that it just gripped me. I thought about so much that’s being presented today to the church like teaching on healing, deliverance, prosperity, how to be a father, how to be a husband, how to do all sorts of things. I’m not in any sense criticizing such teaching because, as a matter of fact, I’ve taught myself on nearly all those themes. But you see, none of it works without the cross. The cross is the only source of grace and power to make all the other teaching work. If we don’t keep the cross in the center, then we have a lot of fine principles and ethics and rules which we can’t live up to. The usual result in the church has been when we find we can’t live up to them then we gradually bring them down to our own standards. But they’re not the standards of the New Testament.
In order to introduce this subject I would like to read some words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5. I particularly enjoy the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians because in them essentially Paul is dealing with the difference between the wisdom of this world and the message of the cross. When he speaks about wisdom he had primarily in mind the philosophy of his day which was Greek philosophy. Before I became a committed Christian for seven years I was involved in the study of Greek philosophy at Cambridge University. So I feel I am particularly in a position to understand how true and appropriate Paul’s words are about Greek philosophy. And then, philosophy and human wisdom in general.
But I have to testify that it’s very clear from Paul’s writings that he had a very thorough understanding of Greek philosophy. He was, in fact, a highly educated man because he was also extremely well educated in the teachings of Judaism in his day.
And yet here in these verses that I’m going to read he makes a most astonishing statement. He says, “I determined to know nothing.” That’s an unusual statement for any kind of person. But I’d have to say for Jewish people it’s astonishing. Because if there’s one thing that the Jews have prized historically through the centuries, it’s knowledge. And to find a highly educated Jew saying I’m determined to know nothing, you have to ask yourself whatever could have made such a man make such a decision.
Let me read the words now. 1 Corinthians 2:1–5.
“And I, brethren, when I came to you [it’s the church at Corinth], did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom, dictating to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”
We need to give this a historical setting. If we were to turn to the book of Acts we’d find that Paul’s ministry in Corinth is described in Acts 18. But in the previous chapter, chapter 17, we have the record of Paul’s ministry in Athens. Now, Athens was the university city of the world in that time. It was the center of philosophy and human wisdom, the source of what we have come to call humanism. Paul, rather surprisingly I think, adjusted himself to his audience. He spoke to the upper level of the intellectual and social life of Athens and he talked in terms of philosophy. He even quoted a Greek poet. At the end the results were pretty meager. It says a few people believed.
I don’t know whether Paul was right or wrong about his message but then he went on from Athens to Corinth which was a large port city, and a typical port city full of all sorts of vice, prostitution, homosexuality, immorality and extortion of every kind. In the meanwhile somewhere between Athens and Corinth he made this decision. “When I get to Corinth I’m going to forget everything I knew except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”
The results in Corinth were tremendous, the whole city was stirred. The whole city was impacted by the news of the gospel and historians estimate that quite early on there were probably 25,000 believers in the city of Corinth. Totally different from the response and the result in Athens. What made the difference? The message. Jesus Christ crucified.
Going back for a moment to 1 Corinthians 1, I want to read some verses there because they are my personal testimony. As I’ve already said, I spent seven years studying Greek philosophy and other forms of philosophy—modern philosophy—what was fashionable in those days which was about 50 years ago which was called linguistic philosophy, logical positivism and all that if you’ve ever been involved in philosophy. I was a pupil of ?Levichtenstein? at Cambridge for two years and he was known as the father of linguistic philosophy. A very brilliant man but definitely not a Christian. So, this is my personal testimony, 1 Corinthians 1:18 and following.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written [and this is quoted from the Old Testament], ‘I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND BRING TO NOTHING THE UNDERSTANDING OF THE PRUDENT.’ Where then is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”
That’s my testimony. In the wisdom of God through wisdom I never came to know God. But when I heard the foolishness of the message preached and responded to it, I was saved. Believe me, for a Cambridge don to go to a Pentecostal church and hear a taxi driver preach and in the middle of his message he was standing on a bench on the platform demonstrating something, the bench collapsed and he fell to the platform with a thud, if you could go much further in foolishness than that I don’t know where you would go! But, it saved me. Not immediately but it was the lever that opened my heart to the message of salvation.
I want to give you a number of different reasons why we need the cross at the center, why nothing else must ever be allowed to take the place of the cross in the church in general, and in our own lives in particular. I’m going to present to you six aspects of the cross, three in this session and three in the session to follow.
First of all, let me explain for the benefit of possibly some people who are confused, what I mean by the cross. I realize for people with certain backgrounds the cross is a piece of wood or metal that they hang around their necks or that they put on the wall of the church. I want to say I’m in no sense criticizing that, I can perfectly accept it. In fact, in some of the circles in which I move in strongly anti-Christian social environments I always am glad to see somebody with the cross around their neck because it has a lot to say in that environment. But when I talk about the cross that’s not what I’m talking about. When I talk about the cross I’m talking about the sacrifice that Jesus made of Himself upon the cross, His sacrificial death and all that it accomplished for us. But rather than use all those phrases again and again I condense it to the phrase “the cross.”
The first aspect of the cross that I want to present to you is that it represents one perfect all sufficient sacrifice. This is stated in Hebrews 10:14.
“For by one sacrifice he [that is Jesus or God] has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”
What the writer is saying is by His sacrificial death on the cross Jesus made total, perfect, all sufficient provision for every need of every human being at any time and in any place forever. He never would have to do it again. If you read the preceding verses the writer is contrasting the priests of the Old Covenant with Jesus as the priest who offered Himself as a sacrifice. And he says about the Old Testament priests they never sat down. They always remained standing because their job was never finished. They could offer any number of sacrifices but always another sacrifice was going to be needed. But then he says about Jesus:
“But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sin forever, sat down at the right hand of God.”
Why did He sit down? Because He was never going to have to do it again. By one sacrifice He had made total perfect provision for every need of every human being.
The nature of the sacrifice is prophetically described 700 years before it took place in the prophet Isaiah, chapter 53, this great preview of the atonement of Jesus. Although Jesus is not named, He is the only one that answers this description. In verse 6 Isaiah says:
“All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him [that is on Jesus] the iniquity of us all.”
That’s the problem of the whole human race. It’s one thing we all have in common. We may be Europeans or Americans, Russians or Asians or Africans, it doesn’t make any difference. This statement applies to all of us, all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way. We have turned our back on God and His requirements and gone our own way. The Bible here calls that iniquity. That is a very strong word. I think the best most helpful modern translation would be rebellion. God has made to meet on Jesus the rebellion of the whole human race.
But that word that’s translated rebellion also means the evil consequences and the punishment for rebellion. And that’s why it is a perfect sacrifice. Because, God visited upon Jesus the rebellion of all of us, all its evil consequences and all the judgment that was due to it. In very simple language the truth is this: All the evil due by justice to us came upon Jesus that all the good due to the sinless obedience of the Son of God might be made available to us. Very, very simply, all the evil came upon Jesus that all the good might be made available to us. That’s all that Jesus needed to do. He did it all by that one sacrifice.
In Isaiah 53:10 the prophet takes this picture one step further and says:
“Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise [or crush] him; he has put him to grief; when you make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”
There, incidentally, is a clear prediction of the resurrection of Jesus. Because in the previous verses it has stated that His life was taken from Him. So when it says “he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days”, that could not be without His resurrection. But it says there that God made the soul of Jesus the sin offering or the guilt offering for the entire human race. This is something that our human, finite minds cannot really comprehend. That when Jesus was on the cross, I believe personally, our sicknesses and our pains were visited upon His body. But our sin came upon His soul. And His perfectly righteous holy soul was made sin with our sinfulness. And by that sacrifice He carried away our sin.
See, the whole Bible has one consistent message. There’s only one remedy for sin—it’s a sacrifice. And every sacrifice of the Old Testament looks forward prophetically to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But by that one sacrifice He removed sin forever. Really, it’s important in this context to study the epistle to the Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews says about the sacrifices of the Old Testament in those sacrifices there was a reminder again made every year of sins. But they could not take away sins. Take, for instance, the chief sacrifice of Israel, the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. It was only valid for one year. It did not take away sin, it covered sin. It covered sin for the year till the sacrifice was due again. In a sense, it was a reminder of sin. Every year they were reminded you’ve got to deal with the sin issue. They could only deal with it for one year.
But then the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Consequently, no more sacrifice is needed for sin. Paul interprets this in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Many Christians reading that verse in the New Testament would not immediately understand that Paul is quoting Isaiah 53:10. You only understand that when you realize that according to the law of the Old Testament sacrifices the animal sacrificed was identified with the sin of the person who sacrificed it. So when Jesus was sacrificed on the cross He was identified with our sin. And Paul expresses it like this in 2 Corinthians 5:21:
“For God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
You see the very simple exchange but very profound. God made Jesus to be sin with our sinfulness that in return we might be made righteous with His righteousness. That’s God’s remedy for sin, there is no other.
I think it would bless us and help us all if we were to say that. If you’re a believer in the Bible, a believer in Jesus, then whether you’ve ever realized it or not before, these words are true. I’ll say them phrase by phrase, you say them afterwards. Are you ready?
“God made Jesus to be sin with our sinfulness that we might be made righteous with His righteousness.”
All right. Now just thank God quietly for that. Thank you, Lord.
Now let’s look at one other statement by Paul in Romans 8:31 and following. Again, Paul emphasizes the all sufficiency of the sacrifice of Jesus. Romans 8:31 and following.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”
So that’s what’s provided through the sacrifice of Jesus. God, having given Jesus, will not withhold anything but also with Him freely give us all things. I’m going to say that again because it’s a staggering thought. Also with Him freely give us all things. So the one sacrifice of Jesus releases the total abundance of God’s mercy and provision. We do not need any other basis. In fact, there is no other basis. This is the one and only and all sufficient basis for the release of God’s mercy and grace. It’s very important to understand this because if you come to God for mercy and grace on any other basis but the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, God will not meet with you because it’s a false basis, it’s not true. And God is a God of truth. We can’t come to Him on the basis of our good works or our religiosity or our family background or our nationality or our talents because God is not impressed by those. They do not release the mercy and grace of God. The only thing that releases God’s mercy and grace is the fact that Jesus was made sin with our sinfulness, died in our place and rose again from the dead. I want to urge you never to pass a day without meditating on that. Never to displace this truth from the center of your thoughts and your words and you life. Because as soon as the cross become displaced you’ll find that you’re not any longer enjoying the abundance of God’s grace. You’ll find yourself struggling, you’ll find yourself perplexed, confused. And very often you’ll find yourself feeling guilty. You won’t understand what’s happened in my life, why have things gone wrong. The answer is what has happened in your life is that the cross has been displaced from the center.
The second aspect of the cross that I want to speak about is that it’s through the cross that God’s supernatural grace is released in our lives. You see, Christianity is not a set of rules. I remember saying this to quite a large audience somewhere, I think it was in the United States but I forget. I wasn’t really expecting to astonish people but I said to them casually, “Of course, Christianity is not a set of rules.” They looked at me in astonishment. I think they would have been less shocked if I had said there is no God. To me this is something that’s become obvious over the years. Christianity is not a set of rules. It’s not a set of laws. Israel had had a set of laws for 14 centuries given by Moses. Paul tells us that the law is perfect, it’s righteous, it’s holy, it’s good. We can never improve on the law of Moses if it comes to a law. If that would do it there would have been no need for Jesus to come. I smile sometimes because it seems to me Christians who talk the most about grace sometimes know the least about it. I think of the people who say we’re not under the law and then they construct their own set of religious rules, which is sometimes quite complicated. Let me tell you, dear brothers and sisters, if the law of Moses wouldn’t do it, Baptist law won’t do it, Pentecostal law won’t do it, Catholic law won’t do it. We can never improve on the law of Moses.
But the law of Moses failed. Not because there was anything wrong with the law but because there was a problem in us. We were unable to keep the law because of the weakness of our fleshly nature. I’d like to read some words of Paul on this theme in Galatians 3:11–12.
“But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evidence; the, ‘THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.’ Yet the law is not of faith; but, ‘THE MAN WHO DOES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.’”
So Paul says no one can ever achieve righteousness with God by the law. Actually, the translators have put in the word “the,” the law. Which is legitimate because he has primarily in mind the law of Moses. But if you leave out the word the it’s still true. No one can achieve righteousness with God by keeping any law. There is no law that can enable us to achieve righteousness with God. It’s not the way we can ever become righteous with God.
I can see some of you looking puzzled. I’m not surprised. I think this is one of the most frequently made statements in the New Testament which is the most persistently ignored by Christians. There must be at least a dozen placed in the New Testament where it says it in one way or another you can never achieve righteousness with God by keeping a set of rules. And yet the majority of Christians that I move amongst have somehow got the idea that if I keep the right rules I’m all right. It doesn’t work, God doesn’t accept it. It doesn’t produce the results that God wants.
As a matter of fact, it tends to produce the exact opposite. Because people who focus on keeping laws become what we call legalistic. And then whatever particular section of the church they belong to, they say, “Our laws are right and we’re righteous because we keep them. Those people over there in that section of the church don’t keep our laws so they’re not righteous.” So actually, legalism tends to split the church up into a lot of different groups according to the particular set of laws which one group is keeping.
Then what is the purpose of the cross, how can we avail ourselves of it? I want to say something that’s very easy to say but not always easy to live, which is the purpose of the cross is to bring us to the end of all our wisdom and all our strength and to show us that they are totally of no avail whatever. And we can only begin to enter into the grace of God when we’ve come to the end of ourselves. A lot of you at the present time are going through problems and pressures in your lives and you’re saying, “What’s God doing?” The answer is God is gently but firmly bringing you to the end of yourself where the best you can do doesn’t even begin to be good enough. And you’ve got to come to the end of all that and release something that’s totally from God which is good enough.
Again, I go back to 1 Corinthians because, as I’ve said, I particularly love these chapters. 1 Corinthians 1. I daresay God, in a way, prepared me to teach this kind of truth by letting me wallow in philosophy for a long while. 1 Corinthians 1:22–25.
“For the Jews require [or demand] a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom...”
That’s just as true today as it was when Paul wrote it. And I will offer this comment, I don’t believe we really have a right to offer the Jews a gospel which is not supernaturally attested. I won’t go into that but I don’t think there’s any New Testament basis for it.
“For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified...”
What do we preach? Christ crucified. Not just Christ. It’s easy to preach Christ as the great teacher the wonderful healer but it doesn’t get the job done. We have to preach Christ crucified.
“...to the Jews a stumbling block [it still is today], and to the Greeks foolishness [it still is today], but [thank God for the but] to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
When do we find Christ as the power of God and the wisdom of God? Only when we’ve come to the end of our own power and our own wisdom.
And then Paul makes this marvelous statement:
“The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
In one word, what is the foolishness of God and what is the weakness of God? The cross, that’s right. It’s the ultimate in weakness. You can’t think of anything more totally weak than a man dying in agony on a cross, breathing his last. And it’s totally foolish that God should send His Son, the one perfect man, into the world and then allow Him to die a criminal’s death. So it’s totally weak and totally foolish. But when we come to the right point in our lives, when we come to the end of all our cleverness and all our wisdom and all our strength and all our righteousness, then we make this wonderful discovery that it’s stronger than man’s strength and wiser than man’s wisdom. And again I have to say because of my background in Greek philosophy, I find these words totally true. They’re not an exaggeration, they’re exactly correct. This is the way it is. In the cross God’s weakness is stronger than our strength and God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. But it’s hard for most of us, or is it, to let go our strength and to let go our wisdom. We want to cling onto it.
We saw a very beautiful little religious skit here where the young woman was offered the beautiful new garment in place of her shabby old coat. She was willing to get the garment but she was very unwilling to let go of her own shabby old coat. That’s how it is with many of us. I want God’s wisdom, I want God’s strength but I still want to hold on to my own, too. God does not deal on that basis. It has to come to the end of your own wisdom and your own strength before God will release His grace into your life.
Paul makes some amazing statements along this line. Have you ever noticed that a lot of people today are busy with 1 Corinthians because it’s got all the gifts of the Spirit, et cetera; but not many people spend much time in 2 Corinthians. Do you know why? Because its theme is weakness and suffering. And that’s not a popular theme. 2 Corinthians 12, beginning at verse 7, Paul is speaking from personal experience.
“Lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelation...”
He’s speaking about all the revelations God has given him. And do you know what revelations tend to do? Then tend to make us proud. And God loved Paul so much that He guarded against pride in a very unusual way. By releasing an angel of Satan to follow him around from place to place and stir up trouble and persecution and keep him humble. How many of you want to be humble? Well, praise God, I’m glad you do but you may be surprised at the means God will use! This is what he says:
“Lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelation, a thorn in the flesh was given to me...”
This is a metaphor taken from the Old Testament where Joshua warned the children of Israel that if they didn’t eliminate the Canaanites that had occupied the land but if they let them co-exist, they would be thorns in their flesh. You see, a lot of us have got thorns in our flesh of our own making because we’ve come into the Promised Land but we’ve let a lot of Canaanites hang around. One of the things that God is teaching Ruth and me is we have to eliminate the Canaanites. But this was not something that Paul was himself responsible for, this was something God did in his life. He says a messenger but the word is angel. You know, the same word in Greek means angel and messenger.
“...a thorn in the flesh was given me, an angel of Satan to buffet me [to keep beating me]—lest I be exalted above measure.”
You see, if you study the career of Paul, he was unlike any of the other apostles. They all were persecuted, they all had trouble but Paul’s troubles were in a category by themselves. I mean, there was a hardly a city he went to where there wasn’t a riot. I mean, the most ridiculous things would provoke a riot. In Philippi, all he did was cast a demon out of a fortune telling slave girl and the whole city was in an uproar. Within a few hours he and Silas were in the maximum security jail. That’s not logical. You can’t explain that on any process of reasoning. But there was that angel stirring things up against Paul. And basically, wherever he went things got stirred up. With Paul it was usually a riot or a revival—or both!
I have to say I think the church needs more riots in order to have some more revivals. Anyhow, we’ll not go into that.
Then Paul says everybody knows God answers the prayers of apostles, doesn’t He? I mean, surely. But Paul says:
“Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.”
And God wouldn’t. I tell people sometimes when they say God doesn’t answer my prayers, remember no is also an answer.
“And God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’”
That’s really true. Because when we have our own strength, how can people identify God’s strength? They can’t see it. But when we’ve come to the end of our own strength and then we have strength, then we know it’s God. God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness. Would you like to say that?
“God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness.”
From now on you’ll be happy to be weak, is that right? I tell you, God heard you saying that. Six months from now you may be sorry you ever listened to me!
I talk a lot about confession, you’ve heard me talk about it. I never ask people to make this confession. It took me years to come to the place where I was willing to make it myself. Listen to what Paul says.
“Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities [my weaknesses], that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, [listen to these words] I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I would not ask anybody here to make that confession because once you’ve made it you’ve committed yourself to something. I have come to the place where on my good days I’m prepared to make that confession. But just think, I take pleasure. Not I tolerate, not I endure, not I suffer with grace but I take pleasure in infirmities, in weaknesses, in distresses, in persecution, in needs. Why? Because he has learned this secret. When we come to the end of our own strength, our own wisdom, our own resources, then God releases His grace.
I have a phrase which I use which is “Grace begins where human ability ends.” You don’t qualify for the grace of God as long as you can do it yourself. Why should God release His grace? But when you’ve come to the place where you can’t do it and yet it has to be done, then you qualify for the release of God’s grace.
Let’s look at Galatians 2:20. This is another confession of Paul. It’s interesting to notice how many times Paul himself confessed his faith and his stand. I challenge you to search the New Testament and find any negative confession ever made by any of the apostles. I don’t believe you can find it. What a pattern! And then you walk through the contemporary church, including its ministers, and you hear almost nothing but negative confessions. I can’t do this, I don’t feel like this, I wish, I couldn’t, I can’t. That’s not the way the apostles talked. Not because they were self confident but because they’d come to the end of their own strength. So Paul says in Galatians 2:20:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Paul says as a result of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross I’ve come to the end of my life. When I came to the cross Paul died and now it’s not Paul who is living but Christ who’s living in me.
I could challenge you to make that confession. If you’re willing, don’t blame me, don’t say it if you don’t want. But, let those folks who are ready to say that, let’s say it.
“I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, and yet not I but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
And you see, you notice I changed from the New King James to the Old King James which is the literal translation. By the faith “of” the Son of God. So it’s not my faith I’m relying on because when Jesus comes in He comes in with His faith.
I believe this is the key to New Testament holiness which is, I think you’ll agree, in the contemporary church very little is said about holiness. But the Bible says without holiness no one will see the Lord. You see, in the Old Testament holiness consisted in keeping a set of very complicated rules. At the end of one of the chapters of Numbers God says, “Be holy for I am holy.” In the first epistle of Peter, the first chapter, Peter quotes that statement and says, “Be holy for I am holy,” speaking in the person of God. But there’s a total difference. New Testament holiness is not keeping a set of rules. Did I communicate that? New Testament holiness is not achieved by keeping a set of rules. New Testament holiness is achieved by dying and letting Christ live out His life through you. So it’s not I but Christ. I say it this way, it’s not struggling but yielding. It’s not effort but union—union with Christ.
I always think of a little story about a godly lady somewhere who is admired for her holy life. And one day some other Christian said to her, “Sister so and so, how do you deal with temptation?” And she said, “When the devil knocks at the door I just let Jesus answer.” That says it in a nutshell. Not I but Christ. Not what I can do, not my best effort, not flexing all my spiritual muscle but yielding. Letting Christ do it in me and through me and for me.
There’s that picture in John 15 of the vine and the branches which illustrates this so perfectly. John 15:1 and then verses 4–5. Jesus said:
“I am the true vine, my Father is the vinedresser.”
Let me pause there a moment and offer an observation. Don’t let human beings prune you. Okay? There’s only one person who’s got the skill and the sensitivity to do the pruning, that’s the Father, let Him do it. Okay? There are some fellowships where the leaders want to prune you. Do not submit to human pruning because it will be painful and they’ll probably cut off the wrong thing. I mean, I’ve learned this from experience, I’m not sharing theory. God the Father is the vinedresser. He’s the one who knows how to prune. And our business as ministers and leaders of God’s people is not to do the pruning, it’s to help people to submit to God’s pruning and share the process with them.
Going on, Jesus says in verses 4–5 of John 15:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing.”
Notice the picture. Have you ever seen a vine branch really struggling to bring forth fruit, making good resolution? It doesn’t happen, does it? Why does it bring forth fruit? Because the life of the vine is flowing into the branch. In that little parable you have all three persons of the Godhead. The Father is the vinedresser, Jesus is the vine, and the Holy Spirit is the sap. As He flows through the vine into the branches, you bring forth the fruit of the Spirit.
See, the very word fruit tells us it’s not by efforts. No tree has ever brought forth fruit by a lot of effort. And no Christian can bring forth fruit by effort. We have to come to the place where we cease from our struggling. And, in a certain sense, cease from all our good works. Not just our sins but the things we think we can do come to an end and yield to Jesus.
Then we can say what Paul says. This is one of my favorite scriptures. As a matter of fact, I’ve been saying this to myself all day because I didn’t feel qualified to teach this message. For me, teaching the cross is the most challenging of all subjects. But in Philippians 4:13, after Paul has been through all these processes I’m describing, please note he says:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Now there’s a better text which we won’t go into which leaves our Christ. And this is the Prince version:
“I can do all things through the One who empowers me within.”
I can’t go into the reason for that translation but I believe it’s good. Maybe it would be good for us if we just took a deep breath, relaxed and said:
“I can do all things through the One who empowers me within.”
Let’s say it again.
“I can do all things through the One who empowers me within.”
So that’s why we need the cross. The second reason, because only the cross releases the grace of God. You can have all the rules and all the principals and all the teaching but you can’t do it unless the grace of God is released through the cross. In fact, the more rules you get, if you don’t know how to release the grace of God the worse your problems will become. And in the end you’re likely to throw it all overboard and say it’s no good, I just can’t do it. You’re perfectly right, you can’t do it, I can’t do it. There’s only one person who can do it and His name is Jesus. But when He is allowed to live in His live in us. When we’ve submitted to the cross and come to the end of ourselves then He’s abundantly able to do it.
And if we don’t do it perfectly right the first time, He doesn’t reject us. He says you made a good try, this is where you went wrong, now let’s do it again. And He’s so patient. I’ve been a Christian 48 years now. When I think of all the mistakes I’ve made and all the ways I’ve gone wrong, I’m just amazed that God still keeps His hand on me. I want to tell you if you’ve not been a Christian as long as I have, don’t despair. He may deal with you severely, He may correct you, He may do things in your life that you just don’t understand. But He’ll never give up on you. Some of you have probably got rather bitter memories of your childhood and of parents who didn’t understand you or weren’t loving. Just bear in mind you’ve got another Father now and His name is God. He is very patient and very understanding and very gentle. But at the same time He means everything He says.
One more reason, this is the third reason why we need the cross. It’s through the cross that the supernatural confirmation of God is released for the message we preach. Let’s go back to 1 Corinthians 2 for a moment. 1 Corinthians 2:4–5. We’ve read them already.
“My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom...”
Somewhere else Paul quotes one of his critics—and he had his critics—and the critic says his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible. So Paul was not a great orator. Actually, if there was an orator among the apostles I think it was Peter. Peter really had a flow of language. You read his two epistles and the language is tremendous. But Paul, generally speaking, is believed to be rather short and he had bowed legs and he was very unimpressive. He didn’t rely on his eloquence or his wisdom; he relied on one thing above all others: the supernatural confirmation of the Holy Spirit to the message that he brought. You see that?
And again, brothers and sisters, it usually doesn’t work till we’ve come to the end of all our efforts. When we’ve come to the end and we’ve got no more cards to play and we still maintain our confession, God begins to release the supernatural.
I never finished the verse so let me go on.
“My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power...”
Notice that the Holy Spirit can be demonstrated. He Himself is invisible but He’s demonstrated by what He does. You can’t see Him but you can see the signs and the miracles that He performs. And that’s God’s own attestation of the message preached.
And then Paul says:
“...that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”
Again, because of my background I appreciate that verse. The philosophy that I studied which was very fashionable 50 years ago is right out of date today. If I had built my life on that I would have a crumbling foundation today. But when I met Jesus I had an experience of the supernatural power of God in my own life that has seen me through till now.
I’d like to read the words of Paul in Romans 15:18–19.
“For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ has not accomplished through me, in word and deed to make the Gentiles obedient...”
He said I’m only interested in what Christ has done through me. I’m not interested in what I’ve done on my own.
“...to make the Gentiles obedient in might signs and wonders by the power of the Spirit of God; so that from Jerusalem round about to Illyricum I have preached fully the gospel of Christ.”
Without the signs and wonders we have not fully preached. We’ve preached but we have not fully preached.
I’ll just take a few moments to illustrate this. In the late 1950s I was principal of a college for training teachers in Kenya, in East Africa. At that time the Africans were striving for education so they were willing to go to a college and they were willing to obey all the rules and do everything we said. If we said get baptized, they would be baptized. If we said sing hymns, they would sing hymns. Because their future lay in that. But after I’d been about a year or so I realized that most of it was external conformity for the sake of education. There was very little of real heart obedience.
So one day I summoned the student body together, about 120, and I said, “I want to thank you for the way you cooperate with us and the way you do what we tell you to do. I realize you do it because your education depends on it. I’m grateful. But,” I said, “in the minds of most of you there’s a big unanswered question. And the unanswered question is is the Bible really a message from God or is it a white man’s book that doesn’t apply to Africans?” And they sat up because that’s exactly what they were thinking. Then I said something that shocked them. I said, what’s more, I can’t answer that question. There’s only one way you can find out the answer for yourself. That is if you have an experience of the supernatural power of God in your life then you’ll know it didn’t come from America and it didn’t come from Britain; it came from heaven.
I left them. I put the word of God before them in every way I could because I has the authority and I went away and prayed for about six months. Then God poured out His Spirit on those students and we couldn’t get them to sleep at night in the dormitories, they were so busy praying. In the next six months we had all the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit in operation amongst those young Africans.
And you see, the attitude of the missionaries at that time—let me be careful what I say—was you can’t lift Africans very high, they’ll just go so high and that’s just as high as you can get them. If you’re dealing in the natural that’s probably true. But in the supernatural, thank God, everybody has the same rights and qualifications. I would have to say that their lives were radically changed when they experienced God’s supernatural power.
During that period we saw two persons raised from the dead, two of my students. One was a young man, the other was a young woman. I think I can briefly relate the story of the young woman. She became extremely sick and did what all Africans do when they’re sick, went home to her village. Then her brother came on a bicycle one day and said Teresa is very, very sick, she’s dying. So my first wife Lydia and I got in the car, put the bicycle on the roof of the car, took a long journey, had to wade a stream, arrived at the village and there she was in a little clinic, apparently dead. It was just like a scene in the New Testament, the family was all outside moaning and weeping. Lydia and I walked in, we didn’t have any plans but we just knelt down on either side of the bed and prayed. After a moment she sat up—more than a moment, quite a while. And she said, “Has anyone got a Bible?” I said yes. She said read Psalm 41. I did. We didn’t know why but when she died, her spirit left her body. It went to a place she said was full of beautiful bright lights and there was a man reading the Bible and he was reading Psalm 41. So she wanted to know what was in Psalm 41! Believe me, that creates obedience from the heart.