The Message of the Cross

The essence of preaching, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Paul had spent considerable time condemning a “partisan spirit” that existed within the Corinthian church in the preceding group of verses.  This “partisan spirit” had caused some divisions in the church as members of the different parties claimed loyalty to different leaders within the church.  Some followed Peter, others Apollos , and still others were fiercely loyal to Paul.  On this, the great apostle taught that there was no place for this kind of false loyalty, that the Cross of Jesus Christ made unity the normal state in the Church.  Regardless of who what preaching, they were preaching the same message:  the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this group of verses, Paul contrasts that which is foolishness to the world (the preaching of the Cross) to what is foolishness to God (the philosophies of man).

1.  Foolishness of Unbelievers:  Preaching, 1:18-23

These verses flow naturally from what Paul mentioned in verse 17:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Verse 18 may be summarized like this:  The preaching of the Cross, or the Gospel message, has a two-fold consequence.  To those who are lost it is foolishness.  To those who know God, it is the power of God.

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.

To the unsaved–those who are even now in the process of dying–the “message of the cross is foolishness.”  The Greek word translated “foolishness” is moria, and can refer to anything that is irrational, stupid or worthless.  For the Gentiles of Paul’s day, surely those words described the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  To be hung up on a tree or cross and left to die was the worst punishment reserved for the vilest of criminals.  So Paul’s message of the cross was absolute nonsense to the educated Greeks.

On the other hand, that precise message becomes the “power,” dynamis, of God to those who are “being saved.”  Before we discuss this “dynamis,” let’s consider the phrase “being saved.”  This phrase helps us understand the nature of salvation because there is dimensionality to our salvation that looks to the past, the present and to the future.

Past:    “For in this hope we were saved”  Romans 8:24; “By grace you have been saved”  Ephesians 2:5, 8; “By his mercy he saved us”  Titus 3:5

Present:  “Through which [the Gospel] you are being saved”  1 Corinthians 15:2; “Those who are being saved”  2 Corinthians 2:15

Future:      “How much more shall we be saved?”  Romans 5:9; “Thus all Israel shall be saved”  Romans 11:26

Believers are saved during their life on earth in principle and as they live they continually grow in this salvation with the realization that it will be consummated completely when they leave this earth and enter into the presence of God.

To people like that, Paul writes, this message of the Cross is God’s power, it is not simply a nice story or good advice, it is God’s own Word which fills them with His power.  To illustrate that God’s wisdom, the message of the Cross, is a power that operates in human affairs, Paul gives four illustrations drawn from both history and contemporary life.

(A)  The first illustration is taken from Isaiah 29:24, which Paul quotes in verse 19:

For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Understanding the context of this verse is key to understanding Paul’s point.  Isaiah is referring to a political alliance Israel had made with Egypt which was considered at the time it was entered into a masterpiece of  human wisdom and diplomacy.  However, in God’s sight, what His people had done was utterly foolish for it resulted in Judah being reduced to poverty and a state of helplessness.  Israel sought to deliverance from their enemies, not from God as they should have, but from their own wisdom.  Godet makes the point that it was God’s responsibility to deliver His people, not the responsibility of able politicians.

Gordon Fee observes:

Yet it is the folly of our human machinations that we think we can outwit God, or that lets us think that ought to be as smart as we are.

(B)  The second illustration is verse 20, and, like the first, is taken from Hebrew history, and also taken from the writings of the prophet Isaiah, where Paul lifts the prophet’s questions and makes them his own.

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

The general reference in Isaiah’s questions is to the Assyrian conquerers (Isa. 36, 37) who came and besieged Jerusalem with great military power and overwhelmed the Jews, carrying off the spoils of conquest.   The “wise” was probably the Greek sophist, who could argue any topic and arrogant sincerity.  The “scholar” would refer to the stubborn and equally arrogant interpreter of Jewish law and the “philosopher of this age” comes from the Greek meaning to argue or dispute.  Paul probably has in mind both the self-confident Greek philosopher and the self-satisfied Jew, both of whom relied on human wisdom and tradition for salvation (Metz).

Paul summarizes his questions with a fourth question that serves to show that God is not indifferent to the proud pretensions of man.  As man displays his wisdom, God makes it all look foolish in two ways:  (1) by exhibiting its intrinsic worthlessness and corrupt results, and (2) by the power of the Cross set in opposition to it and triumphing over it (Lightfoot).

(C)  The third illustration of the failure of human wisdom is Paul’s sweeping indictment of all mankind in verse 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.

Paul is saying that for all his vaunted wisdom and philosophies, man has not been able to know God.  Of course, Paul does indicate that man can know about God in the world around him, Romans 1:18-20, but knowing about God is not knowing God.  Man is not incapable of knowing God personally using only his own wisdom.

Man not having recognized God…by the healthy use of his understanding, God manifests Himself to him in another revelation which has the appearance of folly (Godet).

Because man’s intelligence and wisdom cannot create a personal relationship with God, God resolved to show man how foolish he is to even attempt it by means of preaching.  In other words, how foolish is a person to spend years and years and countless dollars attempting to grasp the infinite Almighty when all he had to do was sit and listen to the Word of God being preached?

(D)  Verses 22-23 contrasts the attitude of Jews and Greeks during Paul’s time to God’s wisdom and power.  The Jews, said Paul, demanded signs and evidences in ceremonial observances according the dictates of the law.  The Greeks wanted rational explanations and sought to understand the workings of God through scientific methods of observations and deductions.  Both the Jews and the Greeks, though their methods differing, were in fact approaching God in exactly the same way; insisting that God reveal Himself to them according to their ideas.

Paul briefly mentions four qualities of God in these two verses:

  • the Power of God, which is Christ.  In this connection, Paul is referring to Christ’s work of re-creation.  Christ is God’s power in the redemption of mankind.  God’s power was revealed in His resurrection, which is the greatest miracle of all times.  This would more than satisfy the Jewish need for a sign.
  • the Wisdom of God.  Christ is God’s answer to the Greek need for wisdom, who consider the message of the Cross foolishness.
  • the Foolishness of God…is wiser than men.  In the eyes of man, some of God’s acts seem foolish, yet those so-called foolish acts are infinitely wiser than the wisdom of any man.
  • the Weakness of God…is stronger than men.  God appears to do things that are simple and foolish and weak in the opinion of man to show His wisdom and strength in the work of salvation.  The classic example of this is how God dealt with Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  In answer to Paul’s repeated request to have the thorn removed, which He believed God capable of doing, the Lord said, “My grace is adequate for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The essence of the Gospel, writes Metz, is the proclamation of a message from God, not the accommodation of God to man’s preconceived ideas.  What is the message of God?

Christ crucified

“Crucified” is written as a present participle, which is significant according to Morris:

Not only was Christ once crucified, but He continues in the character of the crucified one.  The crucifixion is permanent in its efficacy and its effects.

And that foolish notion was a stumbling block to Jews and craziness to Greeks.

2.  God’s way of saving:  Preaching, 1:26-31

Brothers, 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. 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. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 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. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Paul is now finished with contrasting God’s strength and man’s weakness and now he wants to draw attention to themselves and the circumstances under which God has called his people.  None of them were highly educated, politically powerful or wealthy.

Instead, God for His own purposes, has chosen people who seem to be foolish and weak and  helpless so that He might shame the wise and the powerful.  Why?  Because the things that impress human beings–intelligence, wealth, beauty, influence–are all fleeting and subjective.  Paul continues this thought in verse 28, where he mentions the “low born” ones and the ones who were “despised,” or frowned upon.  This would have been a powerful statement to the Corinthians since there were so many slaves in that city and so many of the “lower class” in the very large congregation there.  God has chosen people like that, says Paul, to show those who seem to be important that they are in reality incapable of accomplishing anything in regards to their salvation because their wisdom, power and influence are weak.

The very composition of the congregation at Corinth, a mixture of all classes of people, showed that nobody could glory in God’s presence; in other words, because rich and poor, smart and dull, slave and free, Jew and Greek, all worshiped together and shared a common salvation experience, nobody could say it was their standing in the community or any of their own merits that secured their salvation.  Salvation is all about Christ, not about us.  Each one of us, as we come to Christ in faith, exchange our filthy righteousness for His; we are placed in Christ and therefore we take on His likeness.

This brings us back to “the message of the Cross.”  The Object of all preaching must be Jesus Christ, not the preachers grand ideas and philosophies.  That is why no preacher has a right to “boast” in his education or accomplishments or abilities.  The problem that plagued the Corinthian church was the constant exaltation of the preacher; Peter, Paul or whomever.  The more the people looked to the man, the more divisions appeared in the church.  It’s a terrible sin to put the name of a man alongside that of his Lord.  Vine wrote:

The knowledge that we are indebted to the Lord for every good thing should keep us from glorying in self or anyone else.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, born in 1844 despised the Christian faith.  He viewed Jesus as a weakling who died a failure.  He hated Jesus and all who followed Him.  As far as Nietzsche was concerned, God was dead and Jesus was a fool.  It’s hard to imagine he was born into a family of preachers!

Modern progressives hold very similar views.  They say Christ’s teachings, the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of Scripture in general are out of date and irrelevant.  In fact, they believe the Bible and the Church are dangerous to man’s own pursuits and strip man of his freedoms.

And yet, God chooses the foolish and the weak things of the world to shame people like Nietzsche and the secularists, the humanists, and the agnostics.  In truth, God hates their arrogance and their arbitrary, man-made standards and He brings those belief systems to ruin as time goes on.  Those who reject God and His ways don’t face anything but moral bankruptcy and a host of physical and emotional ills.  All the while God chooses what they would view as the weak and lowly people to advance His kingdom on earth.  God honors the work of those who are so weak they must depend on Him totally and without reservation.   And He delights in people whose lives are wholly dedicated to Him and who set their lives in harmony with God will and His Word and who glory in Jesus Christ, their Lord.


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