There is something curious about boasting. Despite the fact that nobody like a braggart, everybody brags anyway. People boast about anything and everything — their grandchildren, their bank accounts, their waistlines, their bowling averages, their travel plans, their accomplishments, sometimes even their indiscretions.
Recently a most outlandish boast appeared on television. Commercials involve a fair amount of bragging anyway, but this one reached a new low in advertising. An automobile company proudly announced its “most impressive safety advance ever...a car that can save your soul.”
The apostle Paul never would have boasted about an automobile. Or anything else for that matter. "May I never boast," he wrote to the Galatians (Galatians 6:14). "Far be it from me to make a boast." Or more literally. "God forbid that I should ever boast!"
Since Paul was a scholar of the Old Testament, he knew that the Bible forbids boasting. "This is what the Lord says," according to the prophet Jeremiah: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches" (Jeremiah 9:23). If a man cannot boast about his brainpower, his muscle power, or his buying power, what can he boast about? Nothing at all. King Solomon wisely gave this warning: "Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips" (Proverbs 27:2). In other words, let someone else blow your horn.
Boasting is never attractive. The worst kind of all is bragging about one's religious accomplishments. Yet that is exactly what some people were doing in the days of Paul. Many of the first Christians were Jews by birth, so they had been circumcised in their infancy. Circumcision was the Old Testament sign of belonging to God's people. If a Gentile wanted to join the Jewish community, he had to be circumcised. Some early Christians thought that circumcision was still a recruitment for salvation. Anyone who wants to become a true follower of Jesus Christ, they said, also has to get circumcised in the Old Testament fashion.
It seems strange to modern ears, but the pro-circumcision people were so proud of begin circumcised that they started bragging about it. The more Gentiles they could persuade to get circumcised, the more they bragged. This is what the Bible says about them: “They want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh" (Galatians 6:13). Talk about being holier than thou!
Religious people do not brag about circumcision the way they once did, but they still find plenty of things to boast about, they brag about their church attendance. Or their converts. Or their style of worship. Or their devotional habits. Or their political commitments. Or their particular brand of theology. In one way or another they find subtle ways to call attention to how spiritual they are. One of the main reasons some people are so hostile toward the church is that Christians can be so smug.
Paul himself had plenty of religious things to boast about. On one occasion he listed the highlights of his spiritual resume: "Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless" (Philippians 3:5-6). What more could anyone ask for? Paul had all the right connections. He came from a good family, attended the best schools, and believed the most orthodox theology.
The man had as much to boast about as anyone else, if he had wanted to. But when Paul came to know Jesus Christ, he realized that he had nothing to boast about. All his religious accomplishments were a load of rubbish (Philippians 3:8). God forbid that he should boast about any of them.
A Most Unusual Obsession
There is only one thing in all the universe worth boasting about. The Bible allows for a single exception: "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 6:14).
The surprising thing about this boast is that in the ancient world crucifixion was nothing to boast about. In an earlier chapter we noted that the cross was an offense to the Romans and a curse to the Jews. The New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce concludes that the object of Paul’s present boast was, by all ordinary standards of his day, the most ignoble of all objects — a matter of unrelieved shame, not boasting. It is difficult, after sixteen centuries and more during which the cross has been a sacred symbol, to realize the unspeakable horror and loathing which the very mention or thought of the cross provoked in Paul’s day. The word crux was unmentionable in polite Roman society (Cicero, Pro Rabirio 16); even when one was being condemned to death by crucifixion the sentence used an archaic formula which served as a sort of euphemism: arbori infelici suspendito, “Hang him on the unlucky tree” (Cicero, ibid. 13). In the eastern provinces of the empire the Greek word stauros (“cross”) must have inspired comparable dread and disgust to its Latin equivalent. 1
Thus it was shocking for Paul even to mention the cross, let alone boast about it. If anything, one would expect the first Christians to deny that Jesus died on the cross. Or at most, if they were honest, to admit this fact only with the greatest reluctance.
Far from being reluctant, however, Paul was eager to boast about the cross. As John Stott explains, “That which the average Roman citizen regarded as an object of shame, disgrace and even disgust was for Paul his pride, boasting and glory.” 2 Indeed, the English word “boast” is not strong enough to express his attitude about the cross. “There is no exact equivalent in the English language to kauchaomai. It means to boast in, to glory in, trust in, rejoice in, revel in, live for. The object of our boast or ‘glory’ fills our horizons, engrosses our attention, and absorbs our time and energy. In a word, our ‘glory’ is our obsession.” 3
Dead to Sin, Alive to God’s Love
Why are Christians so obsessed with the cross? Why do they revel in it? What makes it something to boast about?
First, the cross means the death of sin. Paul’s full statement runs as follows: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (v.14). By “the world” is meant the world without God, in all its vanity. The world represents the tyranny of sin over humanity. Every human being is born in sin and continues to sin. Even Paul himself was in bondage to sin. He was enslaved to the world, with all its wicked ways.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, however, struck a mortal blow to sin's worldly power. It was as if sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus (Colossians 2:13-15). He died on the cross not only to atone for sin, but ultimately to bring it to an end.
Christians boast in the cross because it means the beginning of the end of their sin. Sin no longer holds them in its death-grip. More and more, they are becoming dead to the temptations and enticements of sin. One day, when Christ returns, they will be done with it once and for all.
Another reason to boast about the cross of Christ is because it is the greatest demonstration of God's love. It shows the love of God the Father, who gave up His only Son as a sacrifice to save His people. Therefore, to glory in the cross is to glory in God's love. A father's love is always something to boast about. This is true at the human level. A father once put a note in his son's lunch box. It was just a simple note saying, "Hope you have a nice day at school. See you when I get home. Love, Dad."
When the boy returned home from school, his mother noticed that the note was still tucked into his lunch box, unopened. Apparently the boy hadn't noticed it, so she pulled it out and handed it to him. He took the note, read it, and began to cry. When his mother hugged him and asked what was the matter, he said, “I didn't realize Dad loved me that much.” 4 Such is the power of a father's love.
A father's love is all the more powerful when it is divine. The cross of Christ shows the children of God how deeply they are loved by their Father in heaven. Boasting about that cross is a way of saving. "See, my Heavenly Daddy loves me!"
Incidentally, the boast of the cross is not an exclusive boast. Usually what makes boasting so unpleasant is that the boaster has something to boast about and you don't. But the boast of the cross is not intended to keep people on the outside. Anyone may come to the cross. Jesus invites everyone to come to Him, to have sins forgiven, and to receive His eternal love. Boasting in His cross is open to anyone who will receive Him.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast.
Save in the death of Christ, my God:
All the vain things that charm me most —
I sacrifice them to his blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e 'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o 'er His body on the tree;
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all. 5
1. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982),p. 271.
2. John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 349.
3. Ibid., p. 349.
4. Recounted in Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, Growing Kids God’s Way: Biblical Ethics for Parenting (Chatsworth, Calif.: Growing Families International, 1993), pp. 95-96.
5. Words: Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707. Music: Hamburg, Lowell Mason, 1824; first appeared in The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music, third edition, 1825.Revised 2007, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. All rights reserved.
Adapted from Ryken, Philip Graham and James Montgomery Boice. “The Boast of the Cross.” The Heart of the Cross. Copyright 1999 by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books). Chapter 20, pages 169-176.
All Scripture is taken from the New International Version unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved
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