Paul explains the preaching of the cross as it was given to him by Christ:
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” – 1 Cor 1:17-18
Although we now know that the redemptive work of Christ’s death and resurrection is the crux of our message of salvation for today, we must be careful not to read into Jesus’ ministry what is not there.
We would search in vain for a clear presentation of the preaching of the cross in the ministry of Jesus and the disciples in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
Gospel of the kingdom
Jesus did not preach his redemptive work on the cross for salvation during his ministry on earth. Instead, Jesus taught the gospel of the coming kingdom (Mark 1:14-15).
This gospel consisted of repentance from sin, doing the commandments, and seeking first the kingdom (Matt 5:19; Matt 6:33). Although these ideas are commonly recognized as good and Biblical ideas, none of them include faith in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross.
It was the specific message of the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus limited his ministry:
“And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. “ – Matthew 4:23
Jesus even taught the disciples the same gospel of the kingdom and told them to tell others to prepare for its coming. As a sign of its imminence, he gave them power to heal the sick:
“Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick. “ – Luke 9:1-2
The first mention of the cross
When Peter revealed Jesus as the Christ, Jesus told how he would give him the keys of the kingdom. Having spent months teaching and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, Peter would be one of the most qualified for this leadership position.
However, it was not until that day that Jesus first spoke about his death, and it was a private teaching.
“From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. “ – Matthew 16:21
Even more interesting, the same Peter to whom God revealed that Jesus was the Christ was kept from the meaning of the cross. Jesus reprimanded Peter for his rebuke with the famous exclamation, ‘Get thee behind me Satan’ (Matthew 16:23).
It is evident that if Christ did not first mention his death and resurrection until more than half-way through his ministry, and even then his chief disciples were ignorant about it, that Jesus was not preaching the redemptive work of the cross for salvation.
Eternal life according to Jesus
It may be supposed that although Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom, that he still taught faith in his death on the cross for justification unto life. However, again, the Scriptures show us otherwise.
When asked how to get eternal life, Jesus responded that commandment keeping would gain righteousness worthy of life eternal in the kingdom.
“Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. “ – Matthew 19:17
In another instance John records Jesus’ words about attaining favor with God:
“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” – John 14:21
During his popularly quoted Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught a conditional forgiveness whereby men could receive God’s forgiveness.
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15
Instead of free justification based upon the redemptive shed blood of Christ at the cross, Jesus seems to be preaching a different message than what was revealed to Paul.
Jesus’ exclusive ministry
Instead of coming to preach the cross of Christ as Paul was sent to do (1 Cor 1:17), Paul said that Jesus came for a specific purpose – to confirm the OT promises.
“Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers” – Romans 15:8
Jesus came to a specific people, to preach a specific message, and to die a specific death. What can not be found in his exclusive ministry is salvation from the preaching of the cross.
Where Jesus sent his disciples preaching the kingdom and baptizing for admittance, Paul was sent not to baptize but to preach the cross (John 4:1, Matt 28:19, 1 Cor 1:17). Where Jesus went to a specific people, the circumcision, Paul’s ministry included every man despite their nationality or status with God.
Although we have further information about the cross of Christ, and free justification through the blood of Jesus, we must be careful not to read doctrine into Jesus earthly ministry that was not clearly revealed until later.
Even though Paul presents the gospel of Christ as the ‘power of God unto salvation’, we must remember that the gospel that Paul preached was given by revelation of Jesus after Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom 1:16, Gal 1:11-12).