The Gospel – A Contradiction to Wisdom
Last week we saw Paul point out the absurdity of the church’s division regarding which pastor they liked best and we heard him plead with them to be unite around the gospel. He explained that if they continued to focus on their worldly desires they would empty the cross of its power. This week he continues this argument, by pointing out the foolishness of the worldly wisdom they were seeking in comparison to the power of the gospel.
He makes this argument by looking at three things that seem foolish by human standards, but actually prove the wisdom and power of God. We will see Paul refer to the seeming foolishness of a crucified Messiah, the recipients of God’s favor, and his own preaching. In essence we will hear Paul refer to the foolishness of the gospel by saying,
-“Look at its message; it’s based on the story of a crucified Messiah. Who in the name of wisdom would’ve dreamed that up? Only God is so wise as to be so foolish” (1:18-25)
-“Furthermore look at its Yourselves! Who in the name of wisdom would’ve chosen you to be the new people of God?”(1:26-31)
-“Finally, remember my own Who in the name of wisdom would’ve come in such weakness? Yet look at its results”(2:1-5).
Let’s look at each aspect of Paul’s argument as he challenges the church’s desire for worldly wisdom.
The Foolishness of a Crucified Messiah (1:18-25)
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. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Paul was writing to a church whose thinking had become more worldly than biblical. The obsession of their culture was philosophy and wisdom on the one hand, and miraculous displays of power on the other. As the Corinthians thought about the gospel message that Paul had taught them, it’s likely that they would’ve sensed the humiliation of the message of Jesus’ crucifixion and tried to move on to “higher” things. Rather than focusing on the gospel message of the cross, which felt embarrassing to talk about in their culture, they wanted to sound wise and sophisticated. But Paul recognized that to move beyond the cross was not to move on at all.
So he confronted both Greek and Jewish people in the church by asking three questions.“Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher?”For Greeks, the wise person or philosopher was the most looked up to type of person. For the Jews, the teacher of the law was most respected. So Paul is asking, “In light of what God has done on the cross, what has the philosopher or the teacher of the law added to the salvation of humanity?” The answer is an obvious, “Nothing!” To which Paul concludes in verse 20,“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
This reminds me of an article by Eric Metaxas that was printed in the Wall Street Journal in December of 2014. In this article Mr. Metaxas explains an example from the world of science that affirms the existence of God. He tells the story of how astronomer Carl Sagan announced in 1966 that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: the right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given roughly octillion – that is 1 followed by 27 zeros – planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion – that is 1 followed by 24 zeros – planets capable of supporting life.
With such great odds of finding another inhabitable planet a large and expensive group of projects was launched in hopes of turning something up soon. But as years passed, the silence from the universe was deafening. This research began in the 1960’s and Congress defunded it in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. Yet, as of Mr. Metaxas’ article in 2014, researchers had discovered nothing they had hoped for.
As research continued from Carl Sagan’s hypothesis in 1966 researchers found that there are not simply 2 criteria necessary for a planet to support life, there are now thought to be more than 200. And every single one of these 200 parameters must be met perfectly, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit the Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.
Yet, here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those parameters have been met perfectly by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces?
But there’s more! The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. Astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces – gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces – were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction – by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000 – then no stars could have ever formed at all.
Now multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row.
When I read things like this, I understand what Paul means in verse 20 when he asks, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Here we have had some of the smartest men and women on planet earth studying this for the last 50 years and what is the result of their work? Nothing. They can’t explain it. That’s ultimately where human wisdom leads us…nowhere. And that’s what Paul establishes in verse 21 when he explains that the world hasn’t come to know God through its wisdom, rather, God was pleased to reveal Himself through the seemingly foolish message of the cross. How did He do this? God took humanity’s two basic idolatries – power and wisdom – and turned them on their head so as to outsmart and overpower humanity.
It’s hard for us in the Christianize West, where the cross for almost 19 centuries has been the primary symbol of the faith, to appreciate how crazy the message of a God who got himself crucified by his enemies must’ve seemed to the first century Greek or Jew. To the Jew the message of crucified Messiah was the ultimate scandal. Paul refers to this in Galatians 3:13 when he says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” To the Gentiles the message of a Savior who was crucified was foolishness. In the cross God “outsmarted” his human creatures and thereby nullified their wisdom. And in the same cross God also “overpowered” his enemies, with lavish grace and forgiveness, and thereby stripped them of their strength. Such “weakness” in God is scandalous to those who think of themselves as righteous and able to earn their own salvation; but to those who recognize themselves as in need of mercy this is the good news that sets us free to follow him.
This is the most important truth of Scripture and it’s the most difficult as well. It’s difficult to accept in the 21st century for the same reason it was difficult to accept in the 1st century – humanity finds it very hard to overcome the idea of God doing things His way, without our help. We all want to earn it. We all want to understand it. But the mystery and grace and power of the cross is a gift that we must simply accept in humility and gratitude. A crucified Messiah appears to be foolishness, but it is the only way to find salvation.
The Foolishness of the Recipients of God’s Grace (1:26-31)
The second reason the message of the cross seems foolish, Paul claims, is because of its recipients. Paul says to these arrogant and prideful people, “…think about what you were when you were called.” He reminds them that God’s calling on their lives didn’t come to them because they were smart or influential or noble, rather, God chose the foolish and the weak and the lowly things of the world to reveal His wisdom and power so that no one could boast.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
The irony of their present situation was that they were judging Paul and his gospel from a point-of-view, which, if they were to apply it to themselves, would serve to show how insignificant they were. Like Paul, the Corinthians didn’t stumble onto a great thing in hearing the gospel, rather, God initiated a relationship with them by sending Paul to preach to them. As Paul says in verse 30-31, “It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus…therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ ” Once again Paul has helped them to recognize that they needed to humble themselves and submit to the gospel. But lest they think he was coming down too hard on them, he includes himself as well.
The Foolishness of Paul’s Preaching (2:1-5)
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Paul now completes his argument of the foolishness of the gospel by implicating his own contribution as well. A crucified Messiah didn’t make sense according the human wisdom. The choice of the ordinary Corinthians as recipients of the gospel didn’t make sense if one was choosing an elite force to spread this message. And Paul recognizes and reminds the church that they certainly didn’t accept the message of the gospel because of his preaching. Rather, he recalls, his preaching was not eloquent or abnormally wise in human terms, so they didn’t respond because of the amazing delivery of his message. Nor did they respond because Paul was so dynamic – he came in fear in trembling. So what was so compelling about this foolish message of a crucified Messiah? It came through the power of the Holy Spirit so that their faith wouldn’t rest on human wisdom (which is what they were currently focused on) but rather, on God’s power.
IDOLS OF THE 21st CENTURY
The culture we live in has boundaries that keep it from receiving the gospel as well. Two of the biggest boundaries we see are the same two that have existed for all time – self-righteousness and pride. We see the same self-righteousness and pride today that has always existed in mankind. People never want to admit that they’re sinful or that they need help. Just about anyone you ask will tell you that they are a “good person.” But who are we comparing ourselves to when we say this? The problem of course, is that God doesn’t accept “good people,” he only accepts perfect people because He is perfect. Since none of those exist, He also accepts forgiven people, but forgiveness can only be found in recognizing our sin, confessing it to God, and turning away from it through submission to Jesus.
In addition to self-righteousness and pride, another huge factor that prevents our culture from receiving the gospel is the idea of tolerance. Tolerance, rightly understood, can be a good thing, but when tolerance is valued more than truth it leads to foolishness. (That would make a good tweet, by the way) We should always love one another and show grace and mercy and the kindness of God in our interactions with others, but that doesn’t mean that we accept everyone else’s beliefs as true. Our culture has valued acceptance and tolerance over and above truth in hopes of creating peace, but that doesn’t solve any problems, it actually creates more because it leads to a lack of conviction on one hand, and the unwillingness to discuss differences on the other.
But our culture isn’t alone in having barriers to the gospel. The church continues to struggle just like it did in the first century. Today’s church sometimes puts other values before the gospel such as: size, professionalism, fame, excellence, or autonomy. It’s easy to lose focus and begin to take on the idea of success from the world’s point of view. But nothing has changed in God’s eyes. The power of God is still found in one place: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As Paul said in verse 31, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” What does that look like? I believe it means that we live like Jesus by place counter-cultural values as the highest values in our lives. Rather than self-promotion, we take on humility. Rather than being served, we serve. Rather than rugged individualism, we submit to community. Rather than tolerance and political correctness we “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). And when those around us ask why we’re so different, we must be prepared to answer in a way that points to the gospel. We are not to give a false-humility, aww shucks answer, we are to represent Christ. We must “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have. But [we must] do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15). That’s how we boast in the Lord – we tell others that we are the way we are because God has taken over our lives and changed us from the inside out so we are living for eternal things rather than the things of this world.
The gospel must reshape our lives. And if it doesn’t we need to spend some more time thinking about it, because it is not just a transaction that allows us to go to heaven when we die, it is a complete reorientation of your life. It is death to yourself and life in Christ. It is finding a treasure in field and selling all you have to purchase it because there is nothing more worthy. Your life in Christ is more valuable than anything else on this side of heaven, but have you given it that priority in your life?
The gospel seems like foolishness to a world that has upside-down values, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God. So I plead with you today to make the gospel the center of your life. Live in light of this great news. Break free from the foolish values of this temporary world and live according to what you know to be true in Christ.