I want you to turn with me to two texts, both from Corinthians - the first from 1 Corinthians, and the second from the 2nd epistle. First of all, 1 Corinthians 2, just one text, verse 2 - the apostle Paul, who is writing this epistle to the believers in Corinth, says: "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified". Then turn with me to 2 Corinthians chapter 11, and again one verse - writing to the same group of people at the same church, under somewhat different circumstances, verse 3 of chapter 11: "But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ". It would do you well to keep, perhaps, a marker in both of those texts.
Hanging in a Berlin Gallery is a most unusual art piece by the artist Menzies, it is called 'The Unfinished Painting'. The artist, as is quite clear, was portraying the King and his generals, but it took him such a long time getting the painting under way that he actually died in the midst of creating this piece of art. All that he has really achieved is the detail of the generals round the King, but there's a great void, a great gap in the centre of the picture right where the King should be - the central character. All there is is a blank!
Now I think many of us as Christians have done the same thing. From the moment of our conversion we have intended making Jesus Christ our Lord, and to a certain extent I'm sure we have done that, and we often intend that some day in our Christian experience we will give Christ the throne in every area of our lives. It's the same with our churches, we've all got great intentions that we'll give the Lord of the churches, the Head of the church the reins of the decision-making and the aims, and goals and objectives, the direction of our fellowship - but the great question is: do we ever leave a blank where Christ should be? Taken up so much with the details of the generals, the peripheral issues and secondary issues, that we leave the central character out of our individual existence and the life of our churches?
Now we often use language that we intend to 'go through with God', we intend 'giving Christ His rightful place as Head of the church and as Lord of our lives', but somewhere along the way, sometimes very early in our experience and in the life of individual fellowships, we become occupied with lesser details, trivialities, in comparison to the grandeur of Christ and His centrality in our lives. Now both of our texts have this thesis to them, the centrality of Christ, Christ alone. It was one of the clarion cries of the Reformation along with 'sola scriptura' and 'sola fide' - that is 'Scripture alone' and 'faith alone'. There were several others, but one very central one was 'Sola Christos', which is 'Christ alone' - rediscovering the centrality of Jesus Christ in our lives as Christians and in the life of the church. For after all, to the church, we read in the New Testament, He is our one and only Head; to the Christian, He is our one and only Lord. What our two texts this morning affirm to us is that Christ ought to have His rightful place, He should always be the focal point of our lives and pre-eminent in our church. The inference of that is, in the negative sense, therefore we should never let anything or anyone take Christ's place - and to do that is tantamount to transgressing the first commandment, to have no other gods before Him.
Now we need to ask the question: what is the relevance of this affirmation in both of our texts to the Corinthians who Paul was writing to? Well, if you look at our first text in 1 Corinthians 2:2, you'll see that Corinth was rife with the problem of disunity and sectarianism. In chapter 1 verse 11 we read: 'For it hath been declared unto me', Paul says, 'of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?'. Simply what had happened was, these Corinthian believers had taken their eyes off Christ and had fastened them upon men.
Some of them, verse 12 says, were followers of Paul, they loved the apostle to the Gentiles. Perhaps it was his forensic detail as he analysed the Old Testament Scriptures and interpreted them into the new covenant. Perhaps it was his legal mind, his weight of argument. Then there were others who followed Apollos - we know from the New Testament that he was a very gifted orator, and we know that good preachers often sway people and have great following, and perhaps this is why some said, 'We'll follow this man Apollos'. Then there was Cephas, which is just another name for the apostle Peter. We know, of course, that Peter was a man of the people. He was a blunt man, a rough man, but a man who the people, I'm sure, heard gladly - a passionate man of the people. Naturally people would have loved this apostle. Then there were those, the fourth group, they said: 'We are of Christ'. They were the exclusives, they believed they were the Lord's true people, they didn't fall into the trap of following mere men, they followed the Son of God. But here was their problem: they looked down at others to their exclusion.
But from our second text we find out not only did these Corinthians take their eyes of Christ and fasten them upon men, but Corinth was also rife with Greek philosophy and human wisdom - that was a problem in first and second Corinthians. We see here that Greek philosophy and human wisdom took the place of Christ, and they effectively took their eyes off Him and fastened them upon the intellect and speculation. I should have said this is more characteristic of first Corinthians - if you turn back with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 1 this time again, and verses 23 and 24, we see this: 'But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men'.
So in 1 Corinthians, people were taking their eyes off Christ and putting them upon men, taking their eyes off Christ, putting their eyes upon Greek philosophy and human wisdom. Then when we come to 2 Corinthians now, your second text, chapter 11 and verse 3, we find that there were false apostles who were infiltrating the church. They were saying: 'Don't follow Paul, follow us'. We'll not go into the detail of all that, but that's the context. Paul explains to them that he is jealous, in verse 2, over the Corinthians with a godly jealousy: for he had espoused them to one husband, that is, as virgins to Christ - 'But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ'.
Now although Paul here fears that these false apostles should lead believers astray with false doctrine, as the serpent did Eve, his great fear is that their minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ; that they should take their eyes off Christ and get them fixed on anything or anyone else. Now what is the relevance of this to us? Well, many of us as Christians in the Christian life have varied struggles from the beginning of our faith to the end - and they are one after the other, when we get to grips with one particular struggle, we find another in the waiting room for us. Before our conversion Satan battles to blind our minds to the Gospel, and then once that battle is won, after conversion there is a battle between the world, the flesh and the devil, and the things of God. We could call it the battle between the carnal and the spiritual. If you ever get the victory in those things - and you'll never have complete victory until you get to glory - but if you ever get to grapple with the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil; often then comes, I feel, one of the greatest struggles in all of the Christian life, and that is the tension that there is between spiritual things and Christ. The battle, the struggle between spiritual things and Christ.
Let me outline this for you in three points - it's a question: what is central to your spiritual life? I could ask it like this: is the centre of your spiritual life a Him or an it? Well, an 'it', to explain further, could be an experience that you have had since you first believed. It could be a particular doctrine that you love, and we find that people in relation to salvation often have a particular understanding of it that they love. Some are called Arminian, some are called Calvinists. Then in prophecy there are those who are pre-millennial, a-millennial, post-millennial, and them that don't know. Some people, their 'it' is a particular church denomination: Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Brethren, Baptist, or an independent like the Iron Hall - and that's their 'it'. It may be a work that they are involved in: the pastorate, a preacher, an elder, a deacon, a missionary, an evangelist, it may be a Sunday School teacher, a youth leader, it could be anything - and your particular work is your 'it'. It could be a scheme of Bible interpretation, the way you believe the Bible ought to be interpreted - figuratively, literally, in this scheme, that scheme, or the other. It may even be a Bible version or a Bible reference - it could be anything, but here's the point: it is an 'it'. No matter how good and legitimate those things may be - and some of them are important, and I have views on several of them - we must beware in the Christian life that we never replace Him with an 'it'.
What is central to your Christian life? The tempter, the devil is conscious that good men and women who perhaps have grappled with the world, the flesh and the devil, they're never going to be deflected by outright evil. So he comes along and here is his ploy: he seeks to get them obsessed with secondary or peripheral truths, in order that they should give preeminence to those things, and the centrality of Christ is taken away. He has been displaced by an 'it'! Oh, this so easily can happen. It has been observed by some who have studied church history that almost every organisation which began in the Spirit with Christ as central, has sooner or later been gradually drawn from devotion to Jesus Christ. I quote one: 'Almost every sect or denomination existing took a detour from the highway of Christ to byways of lesser importance: vegetarianism, abstaining from tea or coffee, holy days, which Sabbath day on which to worship - the traditions that build up around some simple statements of our Lord until they have become divisive doctrines of men that have nothing in them to feed the soul'.
What is true of organisations down Christian history is also true of individuals. We can so easily be distracted from Christ alone - are you? A. B. Simpson, the founder of the Missionary Alliance, wrote these words of his own experience: 'I wish to speak to you about Jesus, and Jesus only'. He goes on, 'I often hear people say, 'I wish I could get hold of Divine Healing, but I cannot'. Sometimes they say, 'I have got it'. If I ask them, 'What have you got?', the answer is sometimes, 'I have got the blessing', sometimes it is, 'I have got the theory'; sometimes it is, 'I have got the healing'; sometimes, 'I have got the sanctification'. But I thank God we have been taught that it is not the blessing, it is not the healing, it is not the sanctification, it is not the thing, it is not the it that you want, but it is something better. It is 'the Christ'; it is Himself. Plenty of people get the idea and do not get anything out of it'.
Have you got the theory? Have you got the doctrine? What do you get out of it? 'They get it into their head, they get it into their conscience, they get it into their will; but somehow they do not get Him into their life and spirit, because they have only that which is the outward expression and symbol of the spiritual reality'. Is that a struggle in your life? Is it one you're even aware of? That you could have at the centre of your spiritual experience an 'it', rather than a 'Him', Jesus, Christ alone? Out of that experience in A.B. Simpson's life came a hymn that you'll find in your Redemption Hymnbook, that goes like this:
'Once it was the blessing,
Now it is the Lord;
Once it was the feeling,
Now it is His Word.
Once His gifts I wanted,
Now the Giver own;
Once I sought for healing,
Now Himself alone.
Once 'twas painful trying,
Now 'tis perfect trust;
Once a half salvation,
Now the uttermost.
Once 'twas ceaseless holding,
Now He holds me fast;
Once 'twas constant drifting,
Now my anchor's cast'.
The chorus goes:
'All in all forever
Jesus will I sing
Everything in Jesus
And Jesus everything'.
Is your interest this morning in a church? I love Iron Hall, but is that the central thing in your spiritual life? I love the holy Scriptures, but even that should never be the central thing in our spiritual experience. I love certain doctrines, but our love for these things, these 'its', must always be motivated by our love for Christ. A. B. Simpson again described on one occasion seeing a picture of the Constitution of the United States, and it was very skilfully engraved in copperplate. He said that when you looked at it closely it was nothing more than a piece of writing, but when you look at it from a distance it actually formed a portrait of George Washington. He said these words: 'I saw the person, not the words, nor the ideas; and I thought, 'That is the way to look at the Scriptures and understand the thoughts of God, to see in them the face of love, shining through and through; not ideas, nor doctrines, but Jesus Himself as the Life and Source and sustaining Presence of all our life''. As the hymn says: 'That through the sacred page, I would see Thee, Lord'. That's our goal, what is central to your spiritual life?
Samuel Rutherford died around the middle of the 17th century, and his letters were printed in 1664 in Holland, and in another edition in 1668. You can still buy them, I have a copy of them at home. Rutherford's letters are not valued today because of their descriptions of 17th-century Aberdeen, or delightful studies of people he had met, or his prison experience as he was exiled for his faith in Christ. They are valued for one reason and one reason alone, he was a man who was completely enamoured with Jesus Christ. Whilst Rutherford was deeply and passionately involved in the political and religious conflicts of his time, he made sure not to allow anything that he was involved with, anything going on in his environment, to dim his love for Christ or distract him from the central passion of his life.
This is graphically illustrated in one experience when Rutherford was preaching in the open air in Edinburgh. He happened to be dwelling at that moment on some of the controversies of his day; and he was talking, perhaps, about the political realm which was strongly married to the religious. All of a sudden he broke through that into these words: 'Woe is unto us for these sad divisions that make us lose the fair scent of the Rose of Sharon!'. Then the story goes that he went on commending Jesus Christ for about a quarter of an hour: His precious attributes, His title. All of a sudden, from the crowd, the Laird of Clanderston called out these words, and mark them please: 'Aye, now you're right! Hold you there!'. Aye, now you're right! Hold you there! Oh, we can rant and rave over a lot of things, can't we? Preachers are more guilty of that than any I suppose, but we need to get Christ central to our spiritual experience, and we need to fix on Him and Him alone.
What is central to your spiritual life? Here's a second question that relates to both of our texts: what was central to Paul's spiritual life? Paul, you remember, was a Pharisee of the Pharisees before his conversion. In other words, he spent his whole life painting the generals, and the central figure of spiritual existence was missing, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He knew all the doctrines, the traditions, the philosophies, but all of a sudden an instant took place in his life on the road to Damascus that caused him to rethink all his values, and from that time on he placed Christ and Him crucified at the centre of all his picture. Did Paul take a detour on his way to glory after that event? Did he all of a sudden take on a ministry that was particularly dedicated to one doctrinal feature? No, he didn't, what we find about him is read in Philippians chapter 3:8, where he says: 'Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ'. The end of verse 13 as well: 'This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus'. Christ! To win Christ, he counted everything loss, everything else as secondary, everything else was peripheral! Christ was his focus!
Oh, I wish I had time to go through all of his works and his epistles, but when you read his works one thing is very evident as you look at them as a whole: he doesn't speak of a lot of things. Now there are certain biographical details that are obvious, he shares some things concerning the religious life that he had before he was converted, he also tells us about some sufferings that he experienced for the name of the Lord Jesus - but that's about it. Isn't it remarkable? He doesn't tell us if he was married, so it's been speculated about - if you think that was important enough, maybe that was one of his sufferings in amongst the great list! He doesn't tell us much about his early childhood, he never mentions his father or his mother. He was an extremely educated man, yet he never mentioned anything concerning his academic achievements. All of the space that he gives us in the New Testament is there to extol Jesus Christ alone! Even when he's in prison we don't know the number of the bars on the window, if there were any. We don't know how damp the walls were, we don't know how hard the floor was to sleep on, we don't know what the meals were like or the jailers - all is of Christ! It's all about Jesus alone!
There was a lot of politics going on. In fact, when he was writing from Rome we don't hear anything about the political situation, nothing of the edicts of Nero. There's no mention of the attempted assassination upon the Emperor's life, there's no mention of a slave uprising - all we find as Christ, the Chief Cornerstone, the Head of the body, who is far above all principalities and powers, who fills all in all. That is why he said to the Corinthians: 'I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified' - Christ alone was central to Paul's life! Christ alone.
Then thirdly - I've asked you what's central to your spiritual life, what was central to Paul's spiritual life - but maybe, and I hope, you're sitting there asking: how can I make Christ the centre of my life? I'm hoping members of this fellowship and those in leadership are asking the question: how can we make Christ the centre of our church life? It's very simple. If something or somebody has taken his place, we need to depose it and enthrone Him again. Nothing can be more simple to state, but more difficult to accomplish. It may be a sin that is our 'it', it may be one of those many things I've already mentioned, or it may simply be the self-life, that we are living for number one and our existence and our gratification.
I heard recently about a church in the United States and they had their motto hanging outside the church building, and it was 'Jesus only'. It had been hanging out there for so long, and had got so tattered, that the sign was just left 'us only' - 'Jes' had been torn away. 'Us only', that's often the way it is, isn't it? 'We' are the biggest problem, 'I' am the biggest problem. Whatever the 'it' may be in place of Him, what we need to do is get 'it' out of the road, even if we are 'it' - get ourselves out of the picture! The problem is often 'I' am central to 'my' portrait. We need to give Christ His preeminent place again in our lives and in our church. As John the Baptist said: 'He must increase, and I must decrease'. It's the hardest thing in the world, but is the most necessary thing if we're going to know God's blessing!
I heard a wonderful story that illustrates this well, about a man and a wife who had taken a little daughter with them to stay at the home of a friend. On the bedroom wall of the little girl's bedroom, just over the head of the bed was a portrait of the Lord Jesus. Just opposite the bed was a dresser with a mirror upon it, and the phenomenon was like this: when the girl woke up in the morning, the very first morning she cried for her mother and father to 'Come in quickly, quickly! I can see the reflection of Jesus in the mirror'. While lying on the bed, what was happening was, the picture was reflecting in the mirror and she was seeing it. Then all of a sudden she got up to see it clearly, and as she quickly rose up to get a better look, she brought her body in between the picture and the mirror and she couldn't see Him any more. So she lay down again and she saw the picture, got up again and it was blocked. Up and down several times, she fixed her eyes upon the mirror, and then she said to her parents - and this is profound, listen: 'Mummy, when I can't see myself I can see Jesus; but every time I see myself I don't see Him!'.
That's it, isn't it? When I see this doctrine, or this practice, or this person, or this church, or this denomination, this hobby horse, that 'it', that thing - I don't see Jesus! Not that those are unimportant, but they're less important. Oh, if we could get ourselves and our 'its' out of the way, we could see Him. As I conclude my message this morning, it's very simple: Christ should be central and alone in that preeminent position in our lives and here in this church. Augustine said: 'Christ is not valued at all unless He is valued above all'. Is He central?
In our Christian lives we may be on the road for a while - how many years? 10, 20, 30, 40, 50? Down those years, I'm sure, we have progressed somewhat in knowledge, gifts, abilities, experiences that we've had with the Lord, wisdom that we've gleaned from others and through our experiences. Even in the church, in this church, thank God we have a lot of things going for us - Bible-based ministry, outreach in the Gospel, a good welcome at the door, good singing, children and youth activities, beautiful buildings, tremendous resources - but here's a sobering thought: all of those things are distractions if Christ is not central. All of them!
A distinguished British scholar called Henry Jowett, on one occasion was invited to the coronation of Edward VII in Westminster Abbey at the turn of last century. He observed, sitting there as a guest, with great interest those who were assembling around - princes and princesses of regal houses in Europe being seated, Duchesses, Dukes, other lesser nobility. Homage was being paid to each of them as they were being brought to their seat in that great Abbey - 'But then the king arrived', Jowett said, 'and all eyes turned away from those of lower rank and were fixed upon him'. 'So', Jowett continues, 'literature, music, art, and the sciences are worthy of our respectful attention, but when Jesus Christ comes into the heart He must be King, and all lesser subjects take their lesser place'.
That's the only way to have Him central to your experience: replace your 'it' for Him, or your other person for Christ, and let Him be your all. I read a beautiful poem with which I will finish this morning, it's very simple. It's called 'Christ My All':
'Christ for sickness, Christ for health,
Christ for poverty, Christ for wealth,
Christ for joy, Christ for sorrow,
Christ today and Christ tomorrow;
Christ my Life, and Christ my Light,
Christ for morning, noon and night,
Christ when all around gives way
Christ my everlasting Stay;
Christ my Rest, and Christ my Food
Christ above my highest good,
Christ my Well-beloved Friend
Christ my Pleasure without end;
Christ my Saviour, Christ my Lord
Christ my Portion, Christ my God,
Christ my Shepherd, I His sheep
Christ Himself my soul to keep;
Christ my Leader, Christ my Peace
Christ hath wrought my soul's release,
Christ my Righteousness divine
Christ for me, for He is mine;
Christ my Wisdom, Christ my Meat,
Christ restores my wandering feet,
Christ my Advocate and Priest
Christ who ne'er forgets the least;
Christ my Teacher, Christ my Guide,
Christ my Rock, in Christ I hide,
Christ the Ever-living Bread,
Christ His precious Blood hath shed;
Christ hath brought me near to God,
Christ the everlasting Word
Christ my Master, Christ my Head,
Christ who for my sins hath bled;
Christ my Glory, Christ my Crown,
Christ the Plant of great renown,
Christ my Comforter on high,
Christ my Hope, draws ever nigh'.
'I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified'. 'I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ and Christ alone'.
'Oh, teach us Lord, to look through all to Thee, to rest not even in Scripture, faith or prayers; but rest in Thee, in Thee Thyself, and then to love Thee back with love that clings and dares'. May we know nothing else in our lives, and in our church, except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Deliver us, we pray, from being distracted from Him to anything or anyone else. We thank You that we are saved through Christ alone, may we live for Him alone from this day forth. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording titled "Christ Alone" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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