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The Excellency of the Subject (A Display of Christ – Part I) by John Flavel

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Christology

For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified‘ – 1 Cor. 2:2.

THE former verse contains an apology for the plain and familiar manner of the apostle’s preaching, which was ‘not with excellency of speech, or of wisdom:’ he studied not to gratify their curiosity with rhetorical strains, or philosophical niceties; for he says, ‘I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’

I determined not to know.‘ The meaning is not, that he despised or contemned all other knowledge; but so far only as it might stand in competition with, or opposition to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. As if he had said, ‘It is my stated, settled judgment; not a hasty, inconsiderate censure, but the result of my most serious inquiries. After I have well weighed the case, viewed it exactly on every side, balanced all advantages and. disadvantages, pondered all things that are fit to come into consideration about it; this is the issue and final determination, that all other knowledge, how profitable, how pleasant soever, is not worthy to be named in comparison with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. This, therefore, I resolve to make the scope and end of my ministry, and the end regulates the means; such pedantic toys and airy notions as injudicious ears affect, would rather obstruct than promote my grand design among you; therefore, wholly waving that way, I applied myself to a plain, popular, unaffected dialect, fitted rather to pierce the heart and convince the conscience, than to please the fancy.

‘I determined not to know any thing,’-to study nothing myself, to teach nothing to you, but ‘Jesus Christ.’ Christ shall be the center to which all the lines of my ministry shall be drawn. I have spoken and written of many other subjects in my sermons and epistles, but it is all as consequent upon preaching and making known Jesus Christ: of all the subjects in the world, this is the sweetest; if there be any thing, on this side of heaven, worthy our time and studies, this is it.’ Thus he magnifies his doctrine, from the excellency of its subject, accounting all other doctrines but airy things, compared with this.

‘Jesus Christ and him crucified.‘ This topic he singled out from all the rest of the excellent truths of Christ, on which to spend the main strength of his ministry: Christ as crucified: and the rather, because hereby he would obviate the vulgar prejudice raised against him upon the account of his cross; for Christ crucified was ‘to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.’ 1 Cor. 1: 23. This also best suited his end, to draw them on to Christ; as Christ above all other subjects, so Christ crucified above all things in Christ.

The manner in which he discoursed on this transcendent subject to them, is also remarkable; he not only preached Christ crucified, but be preached him assiduously and plainly. He preached Christ frequently; ‘and whenever he preached of Christ crucified, he preached him in a crucified style.’ This is the sum of the words; to let them know that his spirit was intent upon this subject, as if be neither knew nor cared to speak of any other. All his sermons were so full of Christ, that his hearers might have thought he was acquainted with no other doctrine. Hence,

No doctrine is more excellent, or necessary to be preached and studied, than Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

All other knowledge, how much soever it be magnified in the world, is, and ought to be, esteemed but dross, in comparison with the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Phil. 3: 8. ‘In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ Col. 2:3. Eudoxus was so affected with the glory of the sun, that he thought he was born only to behold it: much more should a Christian judge himself born only to behold and delight in the glory of the Lord Jesus.

I. Consider the excellency of the knowledge of Christ in itself.

  1. It is tile very marrow and kernel of all The Scriptures; the scope and center of all divine revelations, The ceremonial law is full of Christ, and all the Gospel is full of Christ: the blessed lines of both Testaments meet in him; and how they both harmonize, and sweetly concenter in Jesus Christ, it is the chief scope of the excellent epistle to the Hebrews to unfold; for we may call that epistle the sweet harmony of both Testaments. This argues the unspeakable excellency of this doctrine, the knowledge whereof must needs, therefore, be a key to unlock the greatest part of the sacred Scriptures. For it is in the understanding of Scripture, much as in the knowledge of logic and philosophy: if a scholar once come to understand the foundation-principle, upon which, as upon its hinge, the controversy turns, the true knowledge of that principle shall carry him through the whole controversy, and furnish him with a solution to every argument. Even so the right knowledge of Jesus Christ, like a clue, leads you through the whole labyrinth of the Scriptures.
  2. The knowledge of Jesus Christ is a fundamental knowledge; and foundations are most useful, though least seen.

    It is fundamental to all graces; they all begin in knowledge. ‘The new man is renewed in knowledge.’ Col. 3: 10. As the old, so the new creation begins in light; the opening of the eyes is the first work of the Spirit: and as the beginnings of grace, so all its growth depends upon this increasing knowledge; ‘But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.’ 2 Pet. 3: 18. See how these two, grace and knowledge, keep equal pace in the soul of a Christian; in what degree the one increases, the other increases also.

    It is fundamental to all duties. The duties, as well as the graces of all Christians, are all founded in the knowledge of Christ. Must a Christian believe? that he can never do without the knowledge of Christ: faith is so much dependent on his knowledge, that it is denominated by it, ‘By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many,’ Isa. 53:11; and hence, John, 6 :40, seeing and believing are made the, same thing. Would a man exercise hope in God? that he can never do without the knowledge of Christ, for he is the author of that hope, I Pet. 1:3; he is also its object, Heb. 6: 19, its groundwork and support. Col 1 :27. And as you cannot believe or hope, so neither can you pray acceptably without a competent degree of this knowledge. The very heathen could say, ‘Men must not speak of God without light.’ The true way of conversing with, and enjoying God in prayer, is by acting faith on him through a Mediator. Oh, then, how indispensable is the knowledge of Christ to all who address themselves to God in any duty!

    It is fundamental to all comforts: all the comforts of believers are streams from this fountain. Jesus Christ is the very object of a believer’s joy; ‘We rejoice in Christ Jesus.’ Phil. 3:3. Take away the knowledge of Christ, and Christians would be the most sad and melancholy beings in the world: again, let Christ but manifest himself, and dart the beams of his light into their souls, it will make them kiss the stake, sing in the flames, and shout in the pangs of death, as men that divide the spoil.

    This knowledge is fundamental to the eternal happiness of souls: as we can perform no duty, enjoy no comfort, so neither can we be saved without it, ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.’ John, 17:3. And if it be life eternal to know Christ, then it is eternal damnation to be ignorant of Christ: as Christ is the door that opens heaven, so knowledge is the key that opens Christ. The excellent gifts and renowned parts of the moral heathen, though they purchased to them great esteem and honor among men, yet left them in a state of perdition, because of this great defect, that they were ignorant of Christ. 1 Cor. 1: 21.

  3. The knowledge of Christ is profound and large: all other sciences are but shadows; this is a boundless bottomless ocean; no creature hath a line long enough to fathom the depth of it; there is height, length, depth. and breadth ascribed to it, Eph. 3:18; yea, it passeth knowledge. There is a manifold wisdom of God in Christ. Eph. 3:10. It is indeed simple, pure, and unmixed with any thing but itself, yet it is manifold in degrees, kinds, and administrations.. Though something of Christ be unfolded in one age, and something in another, yet eternity itself cannot fully unfold him. I see something, said Luther, which blessed Augustine saw not; and those that come after me, will see that which I see not. It is in the studying of Christ, as in the planting of a new-discovered country; at first men sit down by the sea-side, upon the skirts and borders of the land, and there they dwell; but by degrees they search further and further into the heart of the country. Ah, the best of us are yet but upon the borders of this vast continent!
  4. The study of Jesus Christ is the most noble subject that ever a soul spent itself upon. The angels study this doctrine, and stoop down to look into this deep abyss. What are the truths discovered in Christ, but the very secrets that from eternity lay ‘hid in the bosom of God? Eph. 3:8, 9. God’s heart is opened to men in Christ, John, 1:18; this makes the Gospel such a glorious dispensation, because Christ is so gloriously revealed therein, 2 Cor. 3:9; and the studying of Christ in the Gospel, stamps such a heavenly glory upon the contemplating soul. Verse 18.
  5. It is the most sweet and comfortable knowledge. To be studying Jesus Christ, what is it but to be digging among all the veins and springs of comfort? and the deeper you dig, the more do these springs flow upon you. How are hearts enraptured with the discoveries of Christ in the Gospel! what ecstasies, meltings, transports, do gracious souls meet there!

II. Let us compare this knowledge with all other knowledge.

  1. All other knowledge is natural, but this wholly supernatural, ‘No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.’ Matt. 11:27. The wisest heathen could never make a discovery of Christ by their deepest searches into nature; the most eagle-eyed philosophers were but children in knowledge, compared with the most illiterate Christians. Other knowledge is unattainable by many. All helps and means in the world would never enable some Christians to attain the learned arts and languages; the brightest parts are most excellent in these; but here is the mystery and excellency of the knowledge of Christ, that men of most blunt, dull, and contemptible parts attain, through the teaching of the Spirit, to this knowledge, in which the more acute and ingenious are utterly blind: ‘I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.’ Matt 11:25. ‘Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the, wise.’ I Cor. 1:26,27.
  2. Other knowledge, though you should attain the highest degree of it, would never bring you to heaven, the principal thing, namely Christ, being wanting. Other knowledge is also defective, in the purity of its nature: the learned heathens grew vain in their imaginations, Rom. 1:21; and in its efficacy and influence on the heart and life: they held the truth in unrighteousness: their lusts were stronger than their light, Rom. 1:18. But this knowledge has most powerful influences, changing souls into its own image, 2 Cor. 3: 18, and so proves a saving knowledge unto men. 1 Tim. 2: 4.


  1. The sufficiency of the doctrine of Christ, to make men wise unto salvation. Paul desired to know nothing else; and, indeed, nothing else is of absolute necessity to be known. A little of this knowledge, if saving and effectual upon thy heart, will do the soul more service than all the vain speculation and profound parts in which others so much glory. Poor Christian, be not dejected, because thou seest thyself outstript and excelled by so many in other parts of knowledge; if thou know Jesus Christ, thou knowest enough to comfort and save thy soul. Many learned philosophers are now in hell, and many illiterate Christians in heaven.
  2. If there be such excellency in the knowledge of Christ, let it humble all, both saints and sinners, that we have no more of this clear and effectual knowledge in us, notwithstanding the excellent advantages we have had for it. Sinners, concerning you I may sigh, and say with the apostle, ‘Some have not the knowledge of Christ; I speak this to your shame.’ 1 Cor. 15: 34. This, oh! this is the condemnation. And even for you that are enlightened in this knowledge, how little do you know of Jesus Christ, in comparison of what you might have known of him! What a shame is it, that you should need to be taught the very first truths, ‘when for the time you might have been teachers of others!’ Heb. 5:12-14. ‘That your ministers cannot speak unto you as spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.’ 1 Cor. 3:1, 2. Oh, how much time is spent in other studies, in frivolous reading, vain discourse, worldly employments! how little in the search and study of Jesus Christ!
  3. How sad is their condition that have a knowledge of Christ, and yet as to themselves it had been better they had never had it! Many there be that content themselves with a merely speculative, ineffectual, knowledge of him: of such the apostle says, ‘It had been better for them not to have known.’ 2 Pet. 2:21. It serves only to aggravate their sin and misery; for though it be not enough to save them, yet it puts some weak restraints upon sin, which their impetuous lusts breaking down, they are thereby exposed to a greater damnation.
  4. This may inform us by what rule to judge both ministers and doctrine. Certainly that is the highest commendation of a minister, to be ‘an able minister of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit.’ 2 Cor. 3:6. He is the best preacher, that can in the most lively and powerful manner display Jesus Christ before the people, evidently setting him forth as crucified among them; and that is the best sermon which is most full of Christ, not of rhetorical art. I know that a holy dialect well becometh Christ’s ministers; they should not be rude and careless in language or method; but surely the excellency of a sermon lies not in that, but in the plainest exhibition and liveliest application of Jesus Christ.
  5. Let all that mind the honor of religion, or the peace and comfort of their own souls, wholly apply themselves to the study of Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Wherefore spend we ourselves upon other studies, when all excellency, sweetness, and desirableness is centered in this one? Jesus Christ is fairer than the children of men, the chiefest among ten thousands, ‘as the apple-tree among the trees of the wood.’ Cant. 2:3. Those things which singly most delight the souls of men, are all found conjoined in Christ. Oh what a blessed Christ is this! whom to know is eternal life. From the knowledge of Jesus Christ do bud forth all the fruits of comfort, and that for all seasons and conditions. Hence he is represented by ‘the tree of life, which bears twelve manner of fruits, and yields its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ Rev. 22:2. In him souls have all necessaries for food and medicine; and all varieties of fruits,-twelve manner of fruits; a distinct sweetness in each and every attribute, promise, ordinance. In him are these fruits at all times, fruits every month; winter fruits as well, as summer fruits. Oh then study Christ, study to know him more extensively. There are many excellent things in Christ, which the most eagle-eyed believer has not yet seen: ah! it is a pity that any thing of Christ should lie hid from his people. Study to know Christ more intensely, to get the experimental taste and lively power of his knowledge upon your heart and affections: this is the knowledge that carries all the sweetness and comfort in it. Christian, I dare appeal to thy experience, whether the enjoyment of Jesus Christ, in ordinances and duties, has not a higher and sweeter relish than any created enjoyment thou didst ever taste in this world? Oh then separate, devote, and wholly give thyself, thy time, thy strength to this most sweet, transcendent study.
  6. Let me close the whole with a double caution: one to ourselves, who by our calling and profession are the ministers of Christ; another to those that sit under the doctrine of Christ daily.

As to ministers: if this doctrine be the most excellent, necessary, fundamental, profound, noble, and comfortable doctrine, let us then take heed lest, while we study to be exact in other things, we be found ignorant in this. Ye know it is ignominious, by the common suffrage of the civilized world, for any man to be unacquainted with his own calling, or not attend to the proper business of it: it is our calling, as the Bridegroom’s friends, to woo and win souls to Christ, to set him forth to the people as crucified among them, Gal. 3:1; to present him in all his attractive excellencies, that all hearts may be ravished with his beauty, and charmed into his arms by love: we must also be able to defend the truths of Christ against undermining heretics, to instill his knowledge into the ignorant, to answer the cases and scruples of poor doubting Christians. How many intricate knots have we to untie! What pains, what skill is requisite for such as are employed about our work! And shall we spend our precious time in frivolous controversies, philosophical niceties, dry and barren scholastic notions? Shall we study every thing but Christ? revolve all volumes but the sacred one? What is observed even of Bellarmine, that he turned with loathing from school because it wanted the sweet savor of piety, a reproof to many among us, who are often too much in love with worse employment than what he was said to loathe. Oh let the knowledge of Christ dwell in us richly.

Let us see that our knowledge of Christ is not a powerless, barren, ineffectual knowledge. Oh, that, in its passage from our understanding to our lips, it might powerfully melt, sweeten, and relish our hearts! Remember, brethren, a holy calling never saved any man, without a holy heart; if our tongues only be sanctified, our whole man must be condemned. Oh let the keepers of the vineyard look to, and keep their own vineyard! we have a heaven to win or lose, as well as others.

Let us take heed that we withhold not our knowledge of Christ in unrighteousness from the people. Oh that our lips may disperse knowledge and feed many. Remember, I beseech you, the relations wherein you stand, and the obligations resulting thence: remember the great Shepherd gave himself for, and gave you to the flock. Your time, your gifts, are not yours, but God’s. Remember the pinching wants of souls who are perishing for want of Christ! Did Christ not think it too much to sweat blood, yea, to die for them? and shall we think it much to watch, study, preach, pray, and do what we can for their salvation? Oh let the same mind be in you which was also in Christ.

As to the people that sit under the doctrine of Christ daily, and have the light of his knowledge shining round about them: take heed ye do not reject and despise this light. This may be done by neglecting the means of knowledge. Surely, if you thus reject knowledge, God will reject you. Hos. 4:6. It is a despising of the richest gift that ever Christ gave to the church; and however it be a contempt and slight that begins low, and seems only to vent itself upon foibles, such as the artificial tones and gestures of speakers, yet, believe it, it is a daring sin, that flies higher than you are aware:

‘He that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth Him that sent me.’ Luke, 10:16. You despise the knowledge of Christ when you despise the directions and loving constraints of that knowledge; when you refuse to be guided by your knowledge. Your light and your lusts contest and struggle within you; oh it is sad when your lusts master your light! You sin not as the heathen sin, who know not God; but when you sin, you wound your own consciences and offer violence to your own convictions. And what sad work will this make in your souls! How soon will it lay your consciences waste!

Take heed also that you rest not satisfied with that knowledge of Christ you have attained, but go on to perfection. It is the pride and ignorance of many professors, when they have got a few raw and indigested notions, to swell with self-conceit of their excellent attainments. And it is the sin, even of the best of saints, when they see how deep the knowledge of Christ lies, and what pains they must take to dig for it, to throw by the shovel of duty, and cry, Dig we cannot. To your work, Christians, to your work. Let not your candle go out: devote yourselves to this study; cherish the blessed communications of light and grace from on high; and count all things but dross in comparison with that excellency which is in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.