1 Corinthians, Part 3

This is what man's wisdom looks like to God:  Foolishness.

This is what man’s wisdom looks like to God: Foolishness.

That the Corinthians were in trouble is clear near the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to them –

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Corinthians 1:10 NIV)

It’s not that Paul expected the congregation at Corinth to be in 100% agreement all the time about everything, but on the essentials of the faith they needed to be for the sake of their testimony in an unbelieving world.

The apostle was upset with the various cliques and schisms that had developed in the Corinthian church. There were groups that were fans and followers of Peter, others of Paul, and still others of Apollos. But that kind of thing was out of place in the church. Their loyalty shouldn’t have been to people but to Jesus Christ. No man died for them save the Son of God and Man, Jesus Christ. The Cross of Christ was what should have been uniting them, and that Cross is what unites all believers, from all time, from all over the world. In fact, the most effective way of dealing with just about any problem in the church is to do what Paul did: Deal with them in light of the Cross and Christ’s great love.

The power of the Cross

Human beings tend to be attracted to educated and eloquent humans. We exalt the latest popular preacher or teacher because we are impressed with their words and ideas. That’s what was happening in Corinth. There were these divisions in the church caused by loyalty to men, rather than loyalty to God. As far as Paul was concerned, he was sent by the Lord to preach, not his own ideas or philosophy but the word of the Cross.

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17 NIV)

In truth, Paul baptized only a few people, not because he thought baptism was unimportant but because he had foreseen this very situation at Corinth. The last thing he wanted was having his converts identify themselves with him. His mission – his whole reason for existence – was simply to preach the Gospel of Christ. His ministry was free from any kind of outer ritual or ceremony.

The power to save a soul doesn’t lie in man’s wisdom but in the preaching of the Cross. God designed it like that so that no man (like Paul or Peter or Apollos) could boast about “the souls he’s saved” in his preaching. It’s never “his preaching” that saves a soul, it’s the Cross – which is the wisdom and 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. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 19 NIV)

It’s strange, this power of the Cross. Its message saves some and causes others to reject its message. That’s what happens when people hear the salvation message of the Gospel – either the listener accepts it or rejects it. In verse 19, Paul introduces a quotation from Isaiah 29:14 to show how much God deplores and dismisses the wisdom of man as a means of salvation. The whole context of the Isaiah quote is interesting –

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” (Isaiah 29:13, 14 NIV)

This is what Paul saw happening at Corinth. The lines were being drawn; there were supporters of this preacher or that yet their salvation was the result no preacher but rather the word of the Cross.

That message of the Cross, by the way, sounds like nonsense to “those who are perishing.” In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Robert Hughes asks a pertinent question:

How could something that seemed so foolish to most people be salvation to a few?

The answer is very simple and goes back to the Isaiah quote. In terms of what was happening in Corinth, it’s not exactly what was going on in Isaiah’s day, but their worldview was essentially the same as that of the ancient Israelites. They exalted man’s wisdom. In the Isaiah passage, the prophet showed how temporary man’s wisdom is – it vanishes with time, and sometimes it’s God Himself who causes it to vanish. It doesn’t matter how clever or well-spoken a man may be, that man and his teachings will eventually come to an end.

In a rather triumphant tone, Paul asks a question designed to answer itself –

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? (1 Corinthians 1:20 NIV)

While no longer quoting Isaiah directly, he is alluding to things the prophet wrote. Things like this…

In your thoughts you will ponder the former terror: “Where is that chief officer? Where is the one who took the revenue? Where is the officer in charge of the towers?” (Isaiah 33:18 NIV)

In this verse, the prophet is describing the peace that would follow when the terrors of the Assyrian danger had passed. People would be astonished; what they thought would never end or change, did. Here’s another quote –

Where are your wise men now? Let them show you and make known
what the Lord Almighty has planned against Egypt. (Isaiah 19:12 NIV)

We all remember what became of Pharaoh’s wise men and magicians – they were made fools of by the power of God.

The pattern of history proves Paul’s case: God disposes of man’s so-called wisdom one way or another. The Corinthians were obsessing over something temporary and of no consequence. The only wisdom that stands the test of time is God’s wisdom.

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. (1 Corinthians 1:21 NIV)

And here’s why man’s wisdom is useless in knowing God: It’s God’s purpose that man’s philosophies will always come up short. There is just no way to know spiritual truths in a non-spiritual way. Now, it is true that some aspects of God’s character may be discerned through natural creation, but salvation can only happen as a result of the preaching of that which some think is foolish: the Cross of Christ.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18 – 20 NIV)

Two groups of people

Paul has been contrasting human and divine wisdom (or power). He introduces another contrast with verses 22 and 23 –

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles… (1 Corinthians 1:22, 23
TNIV)

These were the members of the Corinthian church, converted Jews and Greeks who should have been glorying in the Cross, yet both groups clung to their cultural notions of what wisdom looked like. For the Jews, they were a superstitious lot always looking for signs and the Greeks insisted upon rational explanations for all things. Both groups were trying to squeeze God into their particular world view. Paul would have none of that though; all he would do is preach Christ crucified. In other words, he stuck only to the simple truth of the simple Gospel.

To the nationalistic Jews, whose idea of a Messiah was a political leader, the very idea of a crucified Messiah was, well, a stumbling block many could not get over. The Greeks were looking for a world of peace and harmony and beauty, so the Cross with its violence and ugliness just didn’t fit in with their ideas either.

but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:24, 25 TNIV)

And here’s the rub. Those who had responded to the call of God also discovered what Paul knew: Christ is the “power” of God and the “wisdom” of God. The order of that is not insignificant. We discover the redeeming “power” in salvation from sin before we discover the “wisdom” from God. That’s precisely why the unsaved (the Jew or the Gentile) make no sense of the Cross of Christ. They need to experience it first before they can hope to understand it.

Preaching: God’s means of deliverance

To help drive home his point, Paul asked his readers to remember where they came from. They weren’t the smartest or most educated when God called them. Intelligence had nothing to do with their salvation. Of course, this doesn’t mean God only calls ignorant people; He calls all people to repentance. In fact, Barclay makes some interesting points on this:

There was Dionysius at Athens (Acts 17:34); Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Crete (Acts 13:6 – 12); the noble ladies at Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17:4, 12); Erastus, the chamberlain, probably from Corinth (Romans 16:23). In the time of Nero, Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Plautius, the conqueror of Britian, was martyred for her Christianity. Flavius Clemens, the cousin of the Emperor himself, was martyred as a Christian. Toward the end of the second century, Pliny, the governor or Bithynia, wrote to Trajan the Roman Emperor, saying that the Christians came from ever rank in society.

And, of course, let’s add Constantine who, in 312 AD, formally accepted Christianity as his religion.

But the great mass of Christians was made up the rank and file of society – slaves and freedmen, simple and humble people. And in Corinth, Paul pointed this out. And he pointed out, brilliantly so, that God often chooses to use the simple things (people) to get the job done.

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. God 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. (1 Corinthians 1:27 – 29 TNIV)

So we’ve come full circle. God uses the very people we’d least expect Him to use for His glory so that nobody can boast about their great talents or station in life. Wise and educated, wealthy and influential may be able to steal God’s glory (though certainly not all of them do). In contrast, though, Christians – especially of the type Paul is writing to here – may glory in Christ because in Him they have experienced true wisdom and true power. By the world’s standards, they may be nonentities, but through their choice of the Cross they have demonstrated the highest wisdom and experienced the greatest wisdom and power the universe has ever known.

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. (1 Corinthians 1:30 TNIV)

This is a powerful verse that shows how truly blessed believers are. Christ is wisdom to us because He reveals and imparts wisdom, counsel, and the purposes of God to us through prayer and the Word. Through our ongoing relationship with Christ, God manifests more and more of His expansive character, allowing us glimpses of His splendor and mind, giving us a deeper and more profound appreciation for what He did for us. W. Grosheide, in his commentary of 1 Corinthians, put it like this:

What we are and have, we are and have received from God through Christ. United to Christ we are righteous and holy, since all those blessings are founded in His work. Redemption, often used of the liberation of slaves through the payment of a ransom, indicates the way Christ delivers us…by His sacrifice, His death on the cross. In surrendering Himself, He brings us knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.

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