1 Corinthians 1:18-31
by William Klock
I want to dive right into First Corinthians this morning. If you’ve got your Bibles, open them to 1 Corinthians 1:18. If you were here last week, you’ll remember that we looked at St. Paul’s call to these people to stay united. They were culturally Greek and the Greeks were really into philosophers and great orators and the study of “wisdom.” They were deep thinkers. Their problem was that they were thinking deeply about worldly wisdom instead of God’s wisdom. And the Corinthian church was being torn apart because they started confusing worldly wisdom with God’s wisdom and the Gospel. One group liked Paul because of his style and another group liked Apollos because of his. And so Paul steps in and stops them, and he calls them to be united. He reminds them that the Gospel isn’t about the preacher, it’s about the message of the cross of Christ. The Gospel message, he said, isn’t about eloquent words of wisdom, like the Greek philosophies are – it’s about the power is the cross.
The problem today is that we’ve made the cross commonplace. It’s virtually meaningless. Anyone can wear a cross today. In fact it’s cool to wear a cross – it’s just “bling” now. And yet consider that in the First Century there was absolutely nothing “cool” about the cross. Nobody would have dreamed of turning it into jewellery, let alone putting a large one like we have here in their churches. In fact it was a couple of hundred years before the cross even became commonplace in churches. In that world it was a symbol of shame. It was the means of death for the lowliest of the low. Roman citizens could never be crucified. It was reserved for slaves and barbarians. Think about that as we look at verses 18 and 19:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, [and here he quotes from Isaiah 29:14]
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
There are two kinds of people in the world: there are those who are perishing because of their sins and those who are being saved. Those are the only two options. There’s nothing in between. And the difference between them is the “word” or the “message” of the cross.
One of the greatest gifts God has given to men and women is the gift of intellect. We can think like no other species in all of creation. Other animals, like a monkey or a dog, can take in information. They can learn. But only man can fully process knowledge and information and experience. Wisdom – the ability to apply what we learn – is God’s gift to men and women. And yet because of the fall, our wisdom is coloured by sin. It’s not just that we act unrighteously – that we act in ways that are unholy and contrary to God’s ways. We thinkunrighteously too. We don’t think the way God created us to think. We reject him and consider his ways to be foolish.
That’s why people scoffed at St. Paul when he preached. He wasn’t a train orator. He wasn’t a distinguished philosopher. He was just some Jew, schooled in the Law of the Old Testament (and to the Greeks that was crazy, stupid stuff right there). He didn’t come with some great new philosophy and what he taught he didn’t even teach well by their standards. But that’s all worldly men and women cared about. To them it was all in the delivery. Consider that in ancient Rome, juries were persuaded less by the facts of a case, than by the defender’s or prosecutor’s skill as an orator. And into that world came Paul. He couldn’t see well, couldn’t speak well, and tradition says he may have even had a speech impediment. And because of that the world thought his message of the cross was foolish.
And yet even when the world gets past the preacher, even when they hear the message of the cross, they take offense. You see, the cross tells us that we’re sinners, and not just sinners, but such sinful sinners that the only possible way to find redemption is for God himself to pay the penalty on our behalf. The world’s wisdom might let us admit to our sin, but it tells us that we’re not really that bad. “If God weighs my good deeds against my bad, surely the good will tip the scale!” Why does every other religion or philosophical system in the world teach salvation by works? Think about it. Islam: works. Judaism: works. Buddhism: works. Hinduism: works – but at least you get an infinite number of lifetimes to get it right! The list is endless. Why? Because fallen man is too proud to admit to the real sinfulness of his sin, and for that reason every man-made religion teaches that we can save ourselves if we’re only good enough.
To take the message of the cross to those who are still perishing in their sins, whose hearts have not yet been moved by the Holy Spirit, is to take a message that that tells them that all they have achieved is worthless in the sight of God – that it makes them not one degree more acceptable than anyone else. Those Greeks who heard St. Paul scoffed at him and at the cross, because the cross told them that all their knowledge and philosophy and “wisdom” were worthless.
Of course the other reaction is that the cross is the power of God to those who are being saved. To those whose hearts have been given understanding by the Spirit, the cross is seen for what it is: the way to restored fellowship with God and through that the power to put off the old self and put on the new, it’s the power to live the holy life for which God created us.
Those are the two reactions. There’s nothing in between. To illustrate the point, Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Isaiah spoke those words when Judah was on the verge of invasion by the army of Assyria. This huge army was making its way over the northern borders of Judah. The Jews could have gone out to fight, but they had no chance. And so the leaders of the nation, even King Hezekiah, were in a panic. They were weighing every humanly possible option – asking, “How can we save ourselves? – and their conclusion was that they needed to make an alliance with Egypt, the other great power in the world. Egypt could protect them. And yet God had already told them that they were not to make alliances like that with pagan nations and empires – to do so would be to compromise their being set apart. But in their panic, it seemed like the only option. And into that situation God spoke to them through Isaiah, saying he would deliver his people without any help from the politicians. He said, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
The Assyrians did come and the closer they got, the more I’m sure Hezekiah’s “wise” men and advisors fell into a panic. Pretty soon an army of a couple hundred thousand surrounded the city, mocking and taunting the Jews. The commander, a general named Sennacherib, sent a letter to Hezekiah demanding surrender. And that’s when Hezekiah decided to do the “foolish” thing – but it was the godly thing. He prayed over the letter. You can imagine his advisors in conniptions! But God did what he said he would. That night he sent an angel and slew 185,000 of the Assyrian soldiers. History confirms that a plague broke out in the camp and killed almost the entire army overnight. When the Jews woke up the next morning, the Assyrians were all dead. God did exactly what he said he would do. He didn’t ask for any human help. God allowed them to be put in a situation where they couldn’t save themselves, but he did that to teach them a lesson: you can’t do it yourself; you have to trust God and let him do it for you. And God did do it, and his people were delivered.
Real wisdom trusts in God. Think back to Adam and Eve. He asked them to trust him. He didn’t create us knowing everything. We’re not omniscient. There are things we don’t know – just like Hezekiah didn’t know what was going to happen with the army. We can only see so far and so much – most of the time we can’t see past our own noses! And so God says, “I love you. I’ll take care of you. I can see farther than you can. I know things you don’t know. Just trust me – and be prepared for surprises sometimes!” And yet Adam and Eve chose not to trust him – the devil convinced them that God’s wisdom was foolishness and that they could be smarter than God. And we’ve been doing the same thing ever since.
Think back to the Jews and even Jesus’ disciples. For three years people followed him around. They accepted him as the Messiah, but they couldn’t get past their pre-conceived ideas of the Messiah as an earthy conquering hero. It didn’t make any sense to them when he allowed himself to be crucified. Look at verses 20-21:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
Where is worldly wisdom getting us? Has the scribe been able to save himself by his study of the Law and all the rabbinic commentaries. No. Has the Greek philosopher managed to save himself with all his “wisdom”? No. Human “wisdom” isn’t going to get us anywhere. And so God has stepped in with what looks like us to be foolishness and has brought salvation – just like he did for the Jews when they were surrounded by the Assyrians.
He goes on in verse 23:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
How many people do you know who say that they’ll believe or trust God when they get some kind of a sign? How many people do you know who reject the Gospel because it doesn’t square with human wisdom? St. Paul says, “Humanity is so fallen, so unable to perceive the truth, so backwards thinking, that the gospel is a stumbling block to worldly wisdom. People want a sign or they want “wisdom” that can’t see past its own nose, but you won’t find salvation in those things. Salvation is found only in the message of the cross.” Yes, it’s a message that doesn’t make any worldly sense. Worldly wisdom would never tell you to put your faith in a dead messiahs. What good is a messiah if he’s dead on a cross? And yet for those whom God has called – for those in whom God has begun working by his Spirit to give understanding, well, they’ve been able to move beyond signs and worldly wisdom and by trusting in God have come to see his “foolishness” as the only real place to find life.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.
How does God work? Paul points to the church at Corinth – and he could just as easily point to our church – and says, “Look at yourselves. How many of you are big shots by the world’s standards?” He’s sort of telling them, “Look, most of you are losers – at best just regular ‘Joe’s’ – by the standards of Corinth. But look at what God has done through you!”
It really shouldn’t be that hard to see. God gave us a whole book of (real and historical) storied in the Old Testament that describe how he works – how over and over he has shown his people that his strength is found in our weakness. He chose to build a nation out of one simple man. His chosen people weren’t a great nation or empire, but a lowly group of oppressed slaves whom he redeemed with great signs and wonders. God’s pattern over and over is to work with little people and losers. Think of Gideon. He raised an army of 32,000, but God had him pare it down to a mere 300 men to take into battle against the Midianites. Even when he does use the mighty, he uses them only when they’ve learned that their usefulness to God isn’t the result of their worldly status, but is the result of his presence in their lives. Jesus said at one point, “That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15 AV).
We need to keep this in mind as a church. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “We Christians often quote ‘not by might nor by power, but by my spirit saith the Lord,’ and yet in practice we seem to rely upon the mighty dollar and the power of the press and advertising. We seem to think that our influence will depend on our technique and the program we can put forward and that it would be the numbers, the largeness, the bigness that would prove effective. We seem to have forgotten that God has done most of his deeds in the church throughout its history through remnants.” We need to remember that our mission is all about the cross. It’s not about money or crowds or anything like that. Worldly wisdom is not God’s wisdom.
One of the great awakenings of the 19th Century began at Cambridge when D.L. Moody visited the university there. There were plenty of students and professors who were upset at the idea of some backwoods hick from America coming to tell them anything about “divinity.” He’d just butcher the King’s English. One group of students went just to jeer him off the platform. And they were ready when he stepped to the front of the platform and said, “Young gentlemen, don’t ever think God don’t love you, for he do!” That little group of students was dumbfounded. A few minutes later Moody said those words again, “Young gentlemen, don’t ever think God don’t love you, for he do!” Yes, he butchered the King’s English, but something in those words captured them and as they listened they began to see beyond the superficial outward things of the backwoods hick from America and heard the message of the cross. The man who tells the story arranged to see Moody afterward and was led to the cross and to Christ.
Moody was very much a modern St. Paul. Over and over this is how we see God working and Paul tells us why in verse 29:
…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Every one of us walks around this world like a giant bubble full of pride. We won’t admit we’re sinners and if we do admit it, we won’t admit our sins are bad enough to condemn us. But you see, so long as we’re full of our pride and the idea that we’re good, there’s no room for the Gospel – why does a good man need a Saviour? But God’s a realist. God knows our real condition even though we’re too bloated with pride to see it. And so God consistently works in such a way that he bursts our bubble. He rips away our pride, our prestige, and our illusions of self-sufficiency and he does it with those things that world considers weak and foolish – like he did with that young Cambridge student by speaking to him through the uneducated, backwoods, hick. Like he did when he told King Hezekiah to stay in the city, when he told him not to do the worldly thing and run to Egypt for protection, and when he destroyed that giant army in one night without the king’s help.
Real wisdom is the ability to recognise that though you may have little of what the world esteems, if you have Jesus and have learned to lean on him in every situation, you have real strength, real power. The problem is that most Christians understand that in their heads, but don’t put it into action when the time comes – they act like anybody else, relying on worldly wisdom. Think about Hezekiah again. After God destroyed the Assyrian army, did he have any business strutting around boasting about what he had done? No! After what God had done for him, did he have any reason not to trust God and to go on following worldly wisdom? No! And yet that’s exactly what we often do. We strut around as if God loves us because of something we’ve done. We live our lives trusting in worldly wisdom, even though after what God has done for us, we ought to be leaning on him. Dear friends, the whole purpose of Scripture is to teach us to walk in a different way, to live by a different power, and to do so in respect to everything we do. The simplest tasks are done in the power of Jesus Christ. Look at what St. Paul says in verses 30-31:
He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (RSV)
God doesn’t burst our bubble and tear us down to leave us there. He’s not sadistic. He does it only so that we can see that he is the way to life and so that we’ll come to him, through the Lord Jesus, to find that life. God has opened our eyes to his wisdom so that we will have the sense to come to Jesus Christ and receive the new life he offers. Jesus Christ is the righteousness that we can never have on our own. He is the source of our sanctification – the one who makes us holy – because it is as we are redeemed – grafted into him to find new life – that our lives are changed and begin to bear new fruit – the fruit of the Spirit.
But that new life is for a purpose. As the Westminster Confessions teaches, the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. God bursts our bubble and drains our pride, but he doesn’t leave us deflated. He fills us back up with that new life and he does it so that we can “boast” in him, as St. Paul puts it. So that we can share that new life with others. He wants us to give him glory before a watching world. But you see, men and women who redeem themselves don’t go around boasting about what God has done for them.
In conclusion, think back to Gideon again. When he and his little band of 300 men routed the Midianite army there was no question in his mind but that God did it. Do you think he went back to Israel boasting about what he had done? No, he went back boasting about the amazing thing God had done – how God had saved his people in his own way, not in any way that human thinking would have thought of. And that’s a picture of what God has done for us spiritually, and he’s done it so that we can give him the glory, not just as we give him our thanks and praise and loyal service, but that we will announce to the world the great thing he has done for us.
Please pray with me: Almighty Father, strong to save, we ask that you would take away the pride that puffs us up and that drives us to trust in ourselves and in our wisdom. Remind us that we were never created to trust in ourselves, but that we were created to trust in you. Let us trust in you for our redemption, holding to the message of the cross, that we might leave behind the foolishness of the world’s wisdom and be witnesses of your greatness to all those around us. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.