This article is about the foolishness of preaching and the message of preaching.

Source: Clarion, 1999. 3 pages.

Pressures on Preaching

Thankfully, we may say that preaching is generally accepted in this world. Every Sunday ministers stand in front of congregations speaking about God and our relationship to him. People listen and consider what it means for them. Preaching is a focal point in the weekly work of the minister. Congregations see it as the centre of the service and ask, “Who is preaching today?” But even something as generally accepted as the sermon is not without problems.

Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 1, where he used an unexpected expression. He spoke of the foolishness of the preaching. That raises the question whether preaching is foolishness. How can God require preaching (in the missionary commandment in Matthew 28:19f for example) if it does not make sense? How can Paul himself preach in synagogues (Acts 13:5) and in cities (Acts 14:21) if it is a foolish thing to do?

It is not the preaching itself, however, that Paul calls foolish. It is the message that is foolish. The NIV brings that out in its circumscriptive translation: “the foolishness of what was preached.” This translation makes it clear that the word “preaching” does not refer to the act of preaching, but to the content of the preaching. That is correct, for Paul wrote here in v. 23 about “Christ crucified” (see also 2:2). Speaking about the main Christian message that Christ is crucified, Paul says that it is foolish. 1 Why is this message foolish?

First, there is the fact that this gospel speaks about a “cross.” For Christians today, the cross has a glorified meaning because Jesus Christ died on a cross. In reality, however, it is a horrifying way to die. There is nothing graceful or elevated about dying on a cross, for it meant excruciating and extended pain. It was, therefore, not a normal way of dying, but an execution as a warning for others. Crucifixion calls to mind the execution of a criminal. It is not particularly attractive to preach about a criminal who died on the cross.

To this must be added that Jesus Christ did not deserve this execution. He had to undergo this punishment for us – in our place. We are guilty of many sins. As early as Paradise, God had told Adam that the punishment for sin would be death. Ever since the first people committed the first sin mankind has continued to sin and to die. Christ’s crucifixion and his death on the cross remind us that we deserve this death, with its connotations of a criminal caught, condemned, and painfully punished. This is not a gospel to make people particularly happy and joyous. It must be the most unattractive message of all. “Foolishness” is a fitting characteristic for that message. It is no wonder that few want to hear this preaching. People are not waiting for such a let down.

Better Messages?🔗

People would rather turn to alternative messages. There are many possibilities for more attractive messages. One is the gospel of prosperity. The proclamation concentrates, not on the cross, but on the blessing. To give an example, another special blessing seems to be available: gold fillings. It seems to have started in Toronto. During a prayer meeting, people received gold fillings or even gold teeth. Pictures are published of people showing off their sparkling new gold teeth. Some received teeth in which the sign of a dove or of a cross was stamped. Something similar is reported in South America. Poor people whose teeth were in bad shape miraculously received healthy teeth that looked new. And the best news comes from Chile, where people can show gold fillings with small diamonds.2

The most important issue is not whether we can explain or disprove these reports. It is much more important to consider the content of the gospel that is proclaimed here. This is an attractive gospel that God will bless people with good health, and good teeth, if they believe in Him. It is an optimistic gospel promising blessings of wellbeing, health and prosperity. That is an uplifting gospel at a time when people are very much concerned about their health and their good looks. This is obviously an extreme example. There are also less far reaching “improvements” on the gospel of the cross. Another example is the gospel of sorrow and support. Stories are told about people in situations of poverty and illness who need our money. Pictures and stories impress people with their plight. The listeners are called upon to help the poor and displaced of this world. Doing nothing makes one feel cheap. Being able to do something, however, makes the giver feel good. A gospel in which people are told that they can do something about the sorrow in this world is much more attractive than a gospel about Christ crucified.

Another threat for the gospel comes from our entertainment culture. Those who hear the sermon are the same people who listen to radio broadcasts and watch programs on TV. Professionals present these in an interesting way, intending to grab and hold the attention of the public. They frequently change the topics because today’s audience does not have a long attention span. And they include the audience by asking them to write or to phone in. They know that they will be “zapped” away for another program if they are not able to bind the audience.

Ministers feel the pressure to become popular presenters of the Christian message. They may indicate the problematic points in society. They may come with their criticisms here and there. But harping on personal sin does not go over very well. And focusing on a crucified Christ is nothing new. Church people today have no patience with that. They look for a different minister in the vicinity, someone who is a better communicator of a more optimistic view. People change churches just as easily as they switch to another channel if the one they are watching is boring.

The Cross of Christ🔗

What can the preachers do when they work in a situation where people do not appreciate the sermons? It is always good, of course, to consider the criticism. It is possible that the communication is not as it should be, and that the preacher could do better. He should reach out to the listeners. Presentation is important. The packaging should be good.

It will have to be the packaging of the true gospel, however. The gospel does not say that the listeners are great people who deserve a break, or who can be expected to contribute richly for a good cause. The gospel, in its core, is always the preaching of the crucified Christ. This means that it is a gospel emphasizing sin and punishment. The cross symbolizes how terrible our sins are: so terrible that this severe punishment is required. The gospel is not a soft story about help we give or benefit we receive, but a hard story of the punishment we deserve and the cross as the only way of salvation.

It is not without reason that Jews rather saw the preacher perform miraculous signs. They would be impressed and have good reason to follow him. The Greeks rather heard wisdom – deep spiritual truth – to help them understand the world. Both messages are more attractive than the preaching of the cross, which always throws our sins in our face. The gospel is foolishness, if we look at it from a human perspective. As a message, it is a disaster.

It is, however, the gospel of the cross of Christ. He took that cross upon himself. He walked with it in shame, was nailed to it in pain, and died on it. The message of the cross speaks of more than just an awful death, it also speaks of someone who suffered the death of rejection for his people. Life is in Jesus Christ. Our whole life is determined by this.

In the preaching, this message can be worked out in many ways. There is a great variety of texts in Scripture showing various aspects of our life before God. A preacher can continue from one text to another, continually discovering new aspects. All those aspects find their origin in Christ. More than that, they find their origin in the cross of Christ. Our whole relationship with God is anchored in the fact that Jesus Christ died for us.

It is therefore impossible to turn the gospel into a superficial story of financial security or emotional wellbeing. Christ’s cross must be central in the preaching. This does not mean that the preacher must mention the cross on every page, or even in every sermon, but it must be in the back of our minds and must determine the direction in which we understand the Word of God.

In the end, it comes down to God’s decision. Paul writes,

God was pleased through the foolishness of what is preached to save those who believe.1 Corinthians 1:21b

God determined that the cross of Christ is the way of salvation. That is what must be preached and that is what we must believe. Communication specialists may cry that we are out of touch with reality and that people no longer want to hear this message. They may be right. And yet, this ugly gospel of the cross is the only solid basis of the Christian life.


  1. ^ It would have been better for the NIV not to use the past tense: “what was preached.” Since Paul is speaking in general about the content of the preaching, it should be rendered as: “what is preached.”
  2. ^ See the report in Nederlands Dagblad, May 1, 1999.

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