Corinth was a prominent Graeco-Roman city in the Peloponnesus region, southeast of Rome. Paul spent 18 months there on his second missionary journey. Due to its geographic region, the city had a high profile and a booming population. It was economically prosperous, famous for its bronze, shrines, Olympic games, and especially its philosophers. It was culturally diverse, thoroughly idolatrous, and was a central hub for travel throughout the Mediterranean world. Because of this, it was frequently visited by itinerating Greek philosophers who travelled from city to city giving speeches for profit and fame. The Corinthian culture placed supreme value on learning and rhetoric, esteeming worldly wisdom as perhaps the highest attainment of life.
But Paul refuses to conform to their world. He was a man of profound learning and superb oratorical powers. The temptation would have been to bedazzle his hearers with eloquence and learning as he taught them the gospel. But he chose to resort to the simple style of plain speech as the best method suited to declare a crucified Lord. He wanted to make sure that the converts from Corinth wouldn’t be drawn to Christianity because they admired men, but because they believed the gospel. Paul knew that God uses the simple, pure preaching of the Word to bring people to faith. So he came not vaunted up in pride over his natural gifts, not making a show of his eloquence, but in humility, “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling,” with the fear of the Lord being his dominating influence. He wanted their faith to be not in Paul’s abilities, but in God’s gospel, that their faith would not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. So he says in verse 2, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Let’s unpack these words under three headings.
I. Determination Resolved
The apostle says, “For I determined…,” “I determined….” Now Paul was a man of iron will with a heart of burning zeal. Whatever he set his resolve to do in the service of God, he mobilized all his capacities to do it with all his might. He told the Galatians about his zeal when he was still the unconverted Saul: “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:13–14). Even as an unbeliever, his zeal burned with white-hot heat. “But when it pleased God, who separated [him] from [his] mother’s womb and called [him] through His grace, to reveal His Son in [him],” immediately Paul` began to “preach [Christ] among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15–16). So when he was converted to Christ, he became even more zealous for the truth than he had formerly been against it. He brought all the faculties of his to soul into alignment with the pursuit of this one thing: to know Christ and to make Him known.
“For I determined…,” he says. This speaks of purposeful resolution, and conscientious discipline of his mind, his mouth, his heart, his will, and his resolve, to focus on this one thing above any other thing. This determination involved the wholehearted subjection of his entire being to Christ, so that all is oriented toward Jesus Christ as the most excellent object worth knowing. “For I determined,” literally means in the Greek, “I judged”;[i] “I passed a judgment in this matter as a definitive verdict,” an ultimate determination. He judged it necessary to know nothing but Christ, and not only necessary, but beneficial, virtuous, and supremely excellent. “I resolved,” “I purposed,” “I set out to do this one thing” as my ultimate ambition: to press hard after the knowledge of Christ and to effuse and spread the fragrance of this knowledge to the whole wide world.
Therefore, he’s saying, “I will focus on Christ; I will contemplate Christ; I will set my mind on Christ, bend my will to Christ, and speak often of Christ. I will preach and teach of Christ; and I will make Christ the foundation of all my learning; Christ is the core of my theology, my ideology, and my worldview; and I will make Christ the glorious diadem that crowns all my teaching.” Christ is the sum and substance of the apostle’s doctrine, and Christ is the center of the Bible. He is the key that unlocks both Testaments. He shines the light of His fullness upon every doctrine of the Word and illuminates it into its fullest revelation and disclosure. Hence He is the lens through which we make sense of the world and He supplies to us the best and most meaningful answers to the ultimate issues of life.
Oh! The knowledge of Christ is more precious than life itself. He is the reason we exist, and He furnishes us with the purpose for living. Adorning and magnifying the doctrine of Christ must be our chief pursuit in life. And even on the brink of death, the well-lived life will be able to look back and say, “I determined not to know anything…except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He was the invigorating impulse that made my heart thrive, he was the electrifying vitality that animated my actions; He has been my profoundest satisfaction in life, and pursuing Him has been my chief aim that trumped every other goal and every other pursuit in life. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
The supremacy and infinite sufficiency of Christ was everything to Paul. And here’s what I want us to catch: if the apostle determined to give such priority to communicating the knowledge of Christ to the churches, then it must be God’s will for His people to know Christ above all. Thus our determination should echo Paul’s, since we understand that his determination as an inspired apostle is in fact a revelation of the will of God for us. So, dear friends, I exhort you to make that determination as well. Determine to receive the revelation of Christ that Paul so determined to know and communicate. Be as solicitous to receive it as Paul was to give it!
And we know that Paul didn’t only teach the knowledge of Christ; he first of all pursued it. He taught it out of the fullness of his personal, intimate, experiential knowledge of the Savior. His teaching was the overflow of his personal communion with the Son of God. Remember what he said in Philippians 3? “I…count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (Phil. 3:8–10).
John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” 1 John 5:20: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” Isaiah 53:11 says, “By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.”[ii] And God says in Jeremiah 9, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the LORD” (Jer. 9:23–24). There, the Scripture uses the personal, intimate name for God, saying “I AM YHWH.” We must know the name of God, the nature of God, the attributes of God, the will of God, and especially the personal saving knowledge of God—His redeeming love, His blazing holiness, His sublime beauty. And in 1 Corinthians 1:30–31 (leading up to our text), Paul applies God’s declaration in Jeremiah 9 directly to Christ. To know Christ is to know the living God, for the Father and the Son, though distinguished in Person, are identical in essence, and share the same divine Name.
So do you know Him, dear friend? I’m not asking if you know about Him. You can read your Bible, you can memorize the catechism, you accumulate all kinds of biblical knowledge in your head, and yet still be a stranger to the personal knowledge of God in your soul. So do you know God in Christ as your Savior, Redeemer, Shepherd, Counselor, and Friend? As your wisdom, your righteousness, your sanctification, and your redemption?[iii] I’m not asking if you serve Him, but if you know Him. You can serve the church and serve people and you can do it all quite commendably, but serving Him doesn’t necessarily mean you know the redeeming love of God in Christ.
I trust that most of us do in fact know Him in a saving way. But we must be careful not to allow the cares, the anxieties, and the entanglements of life to choke out our determination to pursue the knowledge of Christ.[iv] Make Paul’s determination your own. “This one thing I do…,” he said. And renew that resolution every day. Say, “Whatever I do this day, I must get a fuller glimpse of the heart of my precious Savior. Without neglecting my vocation, my family, and my church, I must draw nearer to Christ this day. My soul hungers for a deeper, fuller acquaintance with the goodness of His dying love and the power of His risen glory.”
And of course to do this right you’re going to have to discriminate between duties and pursuits, between good things and the best thing. Which leads to our next point.
II. Discrimination Drawn
This discrimination is drawn in our text particularly in the words, “…not to know anything among you except….” The apostle discriminates between the knowledge of Christ and the knowledge of any and every other thing. The knowledge of Christ is superior to all because the glory of Christ makes all lesser glories fade away in comparison. It’s like Robert Murray McCheyne said, when you look at the sun, all the things of this earth fade out of your vision. And when you behold the glory of the crucified Son of God, all the things of this world grow “strangely dim,” they fade away out of your vision, and they become subsidiary and relatively unimportant in comparison. Christ becomes greater than your ego, greater than the pursuit of self, greater than the satisfaction of the desires of the flesh, and greater than any other end that you could possibly seek in this world.
Paul was speaking to the Corinthians, and in their culture, they highly prized “the wisdom of this world.” That was the ultimate attainment to them. Their greatest respect went out to the worldly wise. But Paul says all that is but dung in comparison with the knowledge of Christ. And there are two things in particular that I think he’s getting at.
First, all human wisdom must be denied when it comes in competition with the doctrine of Christ. The knowledge of Christ is the only saving knowledge, the only knowledge that justifies the ungodly, the only knowledge that breaks the bars of sin and sets the captives free. No other knowledge can renew and remake us, transform us in the inner man, and make our souls on this earth to feast on heavenly delight. There were itinerating sophists in Paul’s day who would travel from city to city and give eloquent speeches; the most knowledgeable and articulate could gain the riches and fame of this world. But only the knowledge of Christ will make you rich in the world to come; and not famous among men, but owned and acknowledged by God before His holy angels.
Second, all human wisdom must yield when it comes in comparison with the doctrine of Christ. The knowledge of Christ is superlative; it’s the best of all knowledge. When Christ speaks, all other wisdom and knowledge must bow down and do homage to the Son of God. In Christ are contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge—more wisdom than in the world’s greatest philosophers, and more knowledge than in the world’s greatest scholars (Col. 2:3). To know Christ is to be truly wise, and truly learned, even if you never received the reputed education that this world has to offer. Knowing Christ makes you wise unto salvation, and equips your mind with truth that transcends and surpasses all natural, human learning. Dear brother, dear sister, your wisdom in Christ is greater than all the wisdom of this world combined, because, it’s like Paul said, even “the foolishness of God”—epitomized in the cross—is wiser than the wisdom of men.
Look back at 1 Corinthians 1, vv. 18ff.:
“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: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where 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. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but 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. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
So he says, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Does this mean that Christ was literally the only thing Paul ever talked about? I don’t think so. He had to often make travel arrangements, sell tents, purchase goods, deal with church problems. So it’s important to understand his words here in their proper light. He’s not saying this with naiveté about all the complexities of daily life. His words are somewhat hyperbolic, meaning he’s using intentional exaggeration to stress his point. But his declaration is not simplistic nor is it reductionistic. Let’s think about this.
First, it’s not simplistic. I say this because of the way Paul deals with the problems in the Church of Corinth. There was pride and boasting in men, sectarianism, divisions, immorality, marital problems, idolatry, misuse of spiritual gifts. And he doesn’t feign to address the problems by repeating a simplistic gospel formula over and over until they get it. But he doesn’t avoid the gospel either. He rather addresses the problems with what he calls “the wisdom of God,” which is epitomized in Christ and Him crucified. He he gets at the roots of the problems and addresses them with the theology and grace of the gospel and the doctrine of Christ. And as he does, he draws out specific truths about the gospel and its implications and he brings them to bear on the issues. Yet all his dealings are grounded in the gospel, and his counsel to them is profound and gospel-centered at the same time.
And his declaration in verse five is not reductionistic either. He deals with the problems thoroughly and comprehensively. He doesn’t just reductionistically pretend that the doctrine of the atonement stated in propositional form is the solution to all their complexities. He doesn’t downplay the problems and the issues they raise and say that those issues are really not issues to reckon with. But he doesn’t address the problems with no regard for the doctrine of Christ either. His instruction to them is neither simplistic nor reductionistic. It is a full-orbed, thorough gospel theology applied experientially to the Corinthians personally, ecclesiastically, and societally.
This is instructive for us, because it shows us how in Christ there is a fullness of truth with which we can address all the problems that we face. Every problem that gives occasion for some temptation, or some sin to become manifest—whether it be sin in itself or sin in its consequences (or both)—all the brokenness of our fallen world meets its ultimate solution in Christ, and only in Christ. The problem of church divisions meets its remedy in Christ; the problem of fornication meets it solution in Christ; the problem of inordinate esteem for worldly wisdom meets its answer in Christ—and this Christocentric remedy is also cruciform, shaped by the cross. And we can expand this principle. The problem of depression, despair, even temptation to suicide meets its solution in Christ. The problem of covetousness meets its solution in Christ. The problem of anxiety meets its ultimate solution only in Christ. And we could go on and on. (And by the way, brethren, this is why biblical counseling is God’s way of helping us through our problems, because the psychology of this world that’s based on mere human learning has no ultimate, redemptive remedy for our problems; it can sometimes help as far as it goes, but it can’t apply a truly redemptive remedy to the root of our problems apart from God’s revelation in the redemptive work of Christ).
If we would see true success and flourish in God’s will for our lives, we must devote our best energies to pursuing the knowledge of Christ—a personal knowledge, that’s not only understood, but embraced by faith and applied experientially and comprehensively to our lives.
III. Devotion Declared
“I determined not to know anything…except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” This is because Christ is the apex of God’s self-revelation to mankind, and His death on the cross is the one and only way to be saved from the guilt, pollution, power, and presence of sin. Paul’s focal point was the Person and work of Christ. His eye was single and fixed on the glories of the Savior. All that the apostle taught was utterly devoted to Christ. Hence Paul is declaring his devotion by lifting the doctrine of Christ on high. So Paul says the name “Jesus” over 220 times in his epistles, and he says “Christ” over 390 times! And that doesn’t include all the personal pronouns referring to Christ or the other titles and descriptions that the apostle attributes to Him. (And this count is excluding the letter to the Hebrews which is probably also written by Paul.) The doctrine of Christ was integrated and interwoven into everything the apostle taught, because he taught out of supreme affection, reckless abandon, and devoted worship to his Savior.
Paul loved to declare the deity and humanity of Christ; the history, teachings, and miraculous works of Christ; the names and titles of Christ; the attributes of Christ; the offices of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King; the humiliation and exaltation of Christ culminating in His crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and session at God’s right hand; the communion and fellowship of the love of Christ; the supernatural strength and joy of the indwelling Spirit of Christ; the infinite merit of the sacrifice of Christ; and the almighty power of the grace of Christ to break the chains of sin and set the captive free. And while Paul preached a full, whole, total Christ, he especially loved to declare what his Lord accomplished at the cross. Notice the last three words of verse five: “and Him crucified.”
Paul can be accurately described as a theologian of the cross. His specialty was the doctrine of the atonement. The apostle in his epistles draws out what was done at the cross with language and concepts that are loaded with significance. He has an uncommon way of using a single word or a single phrase and packing it with so much truth about the meaning of the cross that a lifetime of study couldn’t even begin to exhaust it.
In 1 Corinthians 1:30, Christ is our “redemption.” We were enslaved to sin, Satan, the flesh and the world, and Christ’s death sets us free from sin and death, and makes us willing love-slaves of our gracious God. In Colossians 1:14, Paul portrays Christ as our “atonement” or “expiation,” for He gives us “the forgiveness of sins”—full pardon by free grace. Every sin you’ve ever committed, in thought, word, and deed, sins of commission and omission, are all blotted out in blood if you cling to the crucified Savior in faith. In Romans 3:25, Christ is our “propitiation,” which means a substitutionary sacrifice that bore the penalty for our sin and rendered satisfaction to divine justice. In Romans 5:11, Christ is our “reconciliation.” We were at enmity with God in our rebellion, and God was opposed to us in His judgment, but Christ has ripped the veil in two and brought peace between God and man by the blood of the cross. The cross of Christ has an all-sufficient, manifold fullness that addresses every aspect of our sin and fallenness. The apostle’s theology of the cross gives light and hope to a world filled with darkness, death, and despair. For the death of Christ is the life of the world. Are you making the virtue of His death your own by the ongoing appropriation of personal faith?
So let’s tie things together. I want to commend to you that you make this yours. Make the apostle’s determination, discrimination, and devotion your own. Determine to know Christ above all things, discriminate between all that would compete with the knowledge of Christ in your mind and affections, and devote your whole being to pursuing the knowledge of the Crucified One. Let me offer some practical helps.
First, make sure you’ve made this ‘determination’ itself. Make the determination to seek the knowledge of Christ as your greatest goal in life, and to be growing daily and consistently in the knowledge of Christ. Determine to make growing in the knowledge of Christ your number one, daily, life-long priority. And jealously guard its place of priority in your life against all intrusion. Because intrusions will come—intrusions from unlawful things, like besetting sins; and from lawful things, like activities that are neutral or even good in themselves but become idols when they usurp the supremacy of Christ in your affections. May God spare us from being like Martha in the story, so busy with so many things in serving Christ that she had no time to learn of Christ and look upon Him and contemplate Him and admire Him; we should rather be like Mary, who sat at the feet of Christ and chose “the one thing needful.” To sit at the feet of a Rabbi in those days meant to take the position of a disciple, a learner. Sit at Christ’s feet, learn from Christ’s school, let His teaching pour forth like water upon the thirsty ground of your heart. Make it your determination not to let a single day pass by without conscious effort to pursue the knowledge of Christ and ruthlessly discriminate against all that would compete and intrude.
Second, don’t just make the determination but use the means that God has graciously provided to enable and prosper your growth in that knowledge. Brethren, our Lord has made ample provision for us through the use of His appointed means. Let us not neglect or despise the means, but rather use them with all diligence and zeal.
(1) Pursue the knowledge of Christ through the Scriptures. Jonathan Edwards, now known as one of America’s greatest and most pious theologians, wrote a series of seventy Resolutions in 1723, when he was nineteen years old. They were resolutions that he intended to live by for the rest of his life. And they get at the heart of what it means to live a life of devotion to God. I want to commend to you his 28th resolution; he wrote, “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” You can’t grow in the knowledge of Christ if you’re not growing in your knowledge of the Scriptures. All of God’s revelation is mediated through the Word. So you have to be in the Word daily if you are to know Christ more fully.
(2) Pursue the knowledge of Christ through Prayer. Paul prayed that “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph. 1:17). He was praying for the revelation of divine knowledge, because it’s not only scripturally mediated, but supernaturally imparted. Pray that the Spirit would make the Word come alive to you, or rather, make you come alive and to a place of affinity and reception before the living Word. As you study the Word, pray that God would shine the light of His glory into the depths of your mind. “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Pray for more and more of that! And don’t just pray before you read and study the Word, pray while you’re reading it, intermingling reading with short, fervent prayers, crying out, “Oh, that I may know Him,” “oh, that I may know Him”!
(3) Pursue the knowledge of Christ through the Church and through fellowship with godly believers. In the corporate assembly of the saints, Christ’s revelation of Himself is given in fuller measure by the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. And in fellowship with believers who are in Christ, His love, His gifts, His blessings are imparted in unique ways that can’t be experienced in solitude. Pursue Christ together with the other lambs of His fold, rather than wandering off into dangerous solitude. And let the cross be the center of your fellowship. Let your own interests be crucified to show love and concern for brethren in practical ways. When they offend you, crucify your pride, for Scripture tells us to be of one mind and one accord with the members of His body. Let the love of the cross season your speech, your deeds, and your constant prayers for your brethren. And be like Paul, speak often of Christ, and let your conversations be Christ-saturated and Bible-centered, to help one another grow in Christ together.
Finally, devote yourself to meditating on Christ’s passion daily. Make the determination of our text a reality in the inner life of your mind. His death is the object of our faith. It’s only in his death that we die to our own righteousness and are declared to be righteous in the presence of God. Study the doctrine of His atonement, and pray over it and ponder it and let it transform you and mold your life into a cruciform shape, into the image of the Crucified Savior. Amen.
When we tremble under a sense of our sins, the terrors of the judge and the curses of the law, help us to look upon a crucified Christ as the remedy of all our miseries. His cross has procured a crown, his passion has expiated our transgression. His death has disarmed the law, his blood hath washed a believer’s soul. We thank you that His death is the destruction of our enemies, the spring of our happiness, the eternal testimony of your unfailing love. So inculcate in us this grace, that we may determine with ourselves, along with Paul, ‘to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and especially him crucified.’”[v]
[i] Gr. ἔκρινά.
[ii] Emphasis mine.
[iii] See 1 Cor. 1:30.
[iv] See Matt. 13:22.
[v] Adapted from Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864–1866), 506.