Christ, the Power and the Wisdom of God

Series: Rewire

Sermon by David Strain on Jan 29, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Do please go ahead and take a copy of the Bible in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the churches in the city of Corinth; 1 Corinthians chapter 1. We’re going to be thinking about the message of verses 18 to 25; 1 Corinthians chapter 1. You’ll find it on page 952, in the church Bibles. Paul, you may remember if you’ve been with us, Paul has been dealing with the problem of division, of schism in the churches in the city of Corinth. And in the course of his argument, he has mentioned the primary focus of his own ministry. The banner that flies over the whole of Paul’s life and labors is the words of verse 17. Look at verse 17. “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent words of wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Notice in verse 17 Paul’s method is here. He will preach. He’s not first a strategist or an apologist or a debater or a counselor or a social worker. He is supremely a preacher. Then verse 17 again, his message is here. What will he say? He preaches “the gospel” that centers on “the cross of Christ.” That’s his constant theme; his singular preoccupation. He’s always talking about the cross. And then finally, his manner is here. His message, his method, his manner is here – “not with words of eloquent wisdom.” There is a studied plainness and directness about his preaching that distinguishes him from the orators and the rhetoricians, the public lecturers, and speakers with which Corinthian culture was already so very familiar.

And beginning in our passage this morning and running all the way through chapter 2, there’s a sort of digression, an excursus, an aside on the nature of Paul’s ministry covering these three themes – his ministry method and message and manner. And then in chapter 3, he’s going to return once again to the subject of divisions in the church. And in our portion of this passage, in 18 to 25, Paul is especially thinking about and reflecting on what he has already said back in verse 17, that he is not going to preach with “eloquent words of wisdom.” And so the question is, “Well why not? Don’t you want people to believe you? Surely you are going to use all the tools of the trade at your disposal to induce your hearers to embrace your message, Paul? Why not use eloquent words of wisdom?” And verses 18 to 25 are answering that question.

Before we go ahead and read it together and sit under its message, would you first of all bow your heads with me as we ask for God’s help in prayer. Let’s pray together!

O Lord our God, we do confess how prone we are to value the wisdom of the world and to see the Word of the cross as foolishness. So now we pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit the foolishness of the cross would be indeed to all of us the power of God and the wisdom of God for the everlasting good of our souls, in Jesus’ name, Amen!

"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, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 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. 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."

The great German reformer, Martin Luther, I think understood the inner logic of our passage when he used the old Latin phrase, “crux probat omnia;” “crux probat omnia” – the cross is the test of everything. The cross is the test of everything. You see for Christians, the cross of Jesus Christ isn’t simply the center and the foundation of our faith and devotion. It becomes the gauge and the standard by which everything that is authentically Christian and soul nourishing and eternally valuable is measured. If God will use it and bless it, it must first be cruciform, cross-shaped. It will not generally be strong and impressive and adorned with the trappings of power and influence and prestige. Rather, it will have about it much of the aroma of the unknown Jewish Rabbi, crucified in shame and ignominy in an often overlooked backwater of the Roman empire. Christian ministry, Paul is going to teach us, like the Christian life, like Christ Himself, must be crucified and cruciform – cross-shaped. And that is Paul’s point as we’ll see in our passage this morning.

And to help us get to that, I want you to notice three themes in the text. First of all, we’ll think about what Paul says the world wants. What the world wants. What is it that the world expects? What does it rate and value and esteem? Both in terms of its message and its methodology. What the world wants. Then secondly, we need to see what Paul tells us the church actually has. What are the resources with which the church is equipped as it is confronted by these expectations of the world? What the world wants, what the church has, and then thirdly, Paul really wants to help us grasp with renewed wonder and gratitude what God will do in the middle of all of that as the church encounters the expectations of the world. What God will do. So that our faith and our confidence might rest neither in men nor in methods but in the power of God at work in the Gospel of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Okay, so there’s our outline – what the world wants, what the church has, and what God will do.

What the World Wants

First of all then, what the world wants. What does the world want? Paul’s answer in our passage is very clear. The world wants wisdom. “Where is the one who is wise?” verse 20, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Or verse 21, “The world did not know God through wisdom.” What the world values, Paul says, is wisdom. He breaks it down a little for us in verse 22 into two general categories. On the one hand, he says, “Jews demand signs.” On the other hand, “Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jews wanted some miraculous attestation to validate the message about Jesus before they were prepared to believe a word of it. The signs they wanted, according to one scholar, were “apocalyptic in tone, triumphalistic in character, and the embodiment of one of the mighty deeds of deliverance that God had worked on Israel’s behalf in rescuing it from slavery.” In other words, they wanted water from a rock, a sea to part, and a plague of frogs to descend before they would believe anything Paul was telling them.

What the Greeks Wanted

But the Greeks, on the other hand, well they wanted a message about Jesus to conform to the identifiable patterns of wisdom with which they were so familiar, but which in Paul’s judgment valued all the wrong things. You see, to be wise at Corinth would ordinarily be expected to result in honor and prestige and influence and power. The wise could sway the crowd. They could navigate politics and advance their own social standing. Commentator David Garland says that wisdom at Corinth, according to Paul, was “tied to the human condition, circumscribed by partial knowledge” – listen to this – “susceptible to self-defeat and twisted by the proclivity to become infatuated with status. It is blinded by its own conceit and pride.” That’s the wisdom of the world.

And take a look around! Things haven’t changed all that terribly much, have they? Don’t we find these two approaches, sometimes in combination, sometimes distinctly, yet generally still embraced as the great model for what it means to be wise in these days? People want evidence. Of course, the only evidence that they will accept is evidence that aligns with their own predetermined prejudices. And people want a message that will fit their judgment about what is politically correct and socially acceptable and culturally fitting. That’s what is true and right and wise in the world’s eyes. “That which aligns with my preferences and squares with my tastes.” Paul’s description of the wisdom of the world is right on target even now, don’t you agree? We see it all the time. Susceptible to self-deceit, twisted by a proclivity to become infatuated with status.

The Methodology of Worldly Wisdom

And notice too that right along with the message the world wants, a message of apparent wisdom, there is an accompanying method, there is a delivery system for worldly wisdom. Paul’s already alluded to it back in verse 17. Do you see it in verse 17? Paul is going to preach the Gospel but not the way the world expects him to with “words of eloquent wisdom.” Wisdom, you see, in order to be recognized by the world as wisdom at all, has to be packaged just right. It must come decked out in eloquence, in impressive oratory, in the tropes and claptraps of the socially acceptable and attractive speech of the culture. Paul makes a similar point again, doesn’t he, in verse 20. Look at verse 20. Paul asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” The wise and the scribe and the debater are the peddlers of this age’s wisdom. Today we might paraphrase Paul by saying, “Where is the life-coach? Where is the journalist? Where are the standup comics and the talk show hosts of this age?” Those are the models of worldly wisdom with which we are all so very familiar and they exert a real social pressure on our speech patterns and on our principles so that we have to sound like them if we are to win a hearing and be taken seriously. What the world wants – a message heavy with the wisdom of this age and the methodology to match.

What the Church Has

But then think with me about what Paul says the church actually has. What the church has. The demands for wisdom are real and pressing and the expectation is that Paul will accommodate both the message and the method to win a hearing for the Gospel among those to whom he has been sent as an apostle and an evangelist. In 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge, the billionaire founder of Selfridge’s Department Store in London, coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.” He used it to drive home the point that customer service comes first at Selfridge’s. And it’s still used today, we know it well don’t we, to say that if you want to flourish and prosper in business, we’ll you’ve got to find out what people want, what their preferences are, what they need, what they think they need, and you’ve got to give it to them. And that probably works well in the retail business. But as a philosophy of ministry, Paul is utterly unwilling to play ball. For Paul, the customer is not always right.

Think about Paul’s message first of all. The world wants wisdom whether the evidence-based approach of the Jews or the socially acceptable self-promoting model of the Greeks, the world wants wisdom. Verse 17, remember, characterizes the world’s desire for words of eloquent wisdom. Notice there the plural, by the way – “words of eloquent wisdom.” But what does Paul have to offer in response to the expectations of the world? Verse 18, Paul offers only “the word,” singular; the unchanging, unaccommodated, unreconstructed Gospel – “the word of the cross.” The word is, he says, “folly to those who are perishing.” Or look down again at verse 23. What does the church offer a world that demands wisdom? “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews, folly, foolishness to the Gentiles.” Paul knows what the world wants, he knows that nothing more offensive to Jews and Greeks alike can be imagined than a message about a crucified Messiah. And yet he simply will not accommodate the message to fit the context. He will not!

The Foolishness of the Cross

Now it’s hard for us, I think, to get the sense of just how radical Paul is being here because the cross isn’t nearly so offensive to us as it was to Paul’s peers in those days. We put it, don’t we, on condolence cards and we make jewelry out of it and we decorate our churches with it. It is ubiquitous, it is inoffensive, it’s clean, and it’s safe – the cross. In Paul’s day, things were radically different. Listen to the Roman orator, Cicero. He said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.” It was a vulgar, gruesome, shocking thing even to mention in polite society.

And so the words that Paul uses in our passage to describe his message really do capture how people felt about it. He says in verse 18 it is “folly.” He calls it “foolishness” in verse 23. The Greek word is “moria.” We get our English words, “moron” and “moronic” from it. That is how people thought about Paul and his preaching and his message. “It’s moronic, idiotic! It’s nuts! Who would believe such a foolish thing that the means by which God would save the world is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ?” And then when he says that the Jews found it to be a stumbling block – the word he uses is “skandalon.” It means, “an insurmountable obstacle; a barrier to faith that could not be surpassed.” It stretches credulity to breaking point. It is offensive and absurd; a scandalous thing. A scandal. And so the pressure to lighten up and dumb down and back off and repackage and retool the message must have been enormous.

The Folly of Preaching

And the same thing applies to the methodology and not just the message. Paul is utterly committed to preaching, isn’t he? Verse 17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” Or verse 21, “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.” Actually, that’s not a great translation. The folly there applies not just to the message, what we preach, but to the method, to the preaching. Literally what Paul says is, “It pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe.” And the word that he uses here for preaching, “kerusso,” the verb for “preaching; to preach” along with the other synonyms that are used in the New Testament for it, were never, never used by the orators and the rhetoricians and the public speakers who really were the entertainers and the wise men of Corinthian culture in Paul’s day in the rhetorical manuals of the day that showed you how to do wise, public oratory. These terms were never applied to the orator’s art.

Paul is very deliberately selecting vocabulary that distinguishes him from what the traveling wise men did in the lecture theaters and in the public squares of the Greco-Roman world of his day. Paul, you see, is “a kerux,” that is, “a herald.” He has been sent by the King with a message that he is to stand and proclaim with authority and urgency. But as a herald, he has no liberty at all to manipulate or elaborate or accommodate the message that the King has sent him to preach. He is simply to stand and to declare the good news to all the world that God has made provision for sinners in Jesus Christ crucified. And he knows as he does that that both his method, preaching, and his message, the cross, are regarded as imbecilic and moronic and ineffective and irrelevant.

Who wants a talking head explaining and ancient book in a day of sound bites and constant, 24/7 digital buzz? Nothing has changed, has it? Preaching seems so irrelevant and the message about a cross soo uncomfortable. And so the pressure bearing down upon Paul to adjust and modify his approach and adapt to the patterns of the culture, to make the message acceptable, that was enormous and it’s still enormous today. You can see it if you look, perhaps most obviously, at the mainline denominations of our country and their wholesale capitulation to the moral standards and the philosophical expectations of the day. So the supernatural is rejected, the ethics of the Bible are ridiculed, and the exclusivity of the Gospel – “that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved but the name of Jesus” – the exclusivity of the Gospel is regarded as profoundly offensive. And so the Gospel is accommodated to the tastes and preferences of the world.

“But that’s them; that’s the liberals. We are, not us! We don’t cave under those kinds of pressures. We stand firm!” Really? Let’s not underestimate how deceptive our hearts can be. The desire for approval and acceptance – those are powerful motives, aren’t they? We want to be effective but we don’t want to give offense. And so we tell ourselves that in our friendship evangelism we are going slowly. We’ll get to the point eventually. But then times goes by and our friendship with those dear, non-Christian colleagues or neighbors begins to deepen wonderfully but the evangelism piece of friendship evangelism never quite starts to happen. We never quite get around to talking about sin and guilt before God or the urgent need for forgiveness or the penalty paid by Christ in our place to satisfy divine wrath or the reality of hell or the hope of heaven or the call to repentance and faith. We might talk, we might talk about healing and wholeness and acceptance with God because that’s easy enough, appealing, comfortable. We might even mention how the Gospel has set us free and given us joy. That’s compelling, isn’t it? But we don’t want to blow it, we tell ourselves. “If I start to talk about the cross and the blood and the curse of God on sin and all that stuff, they’re going to run a mile. They will run a mile.”

And now don’t get me wrong, I think sometimes it’s important to go slowly and share the truth piece by piece and to build solid, deep, lasting, real friendships with non-Christians around us. I was converted through a dear Pentecostal brother who ever single day for two years shared his faith with me and worked hard at building a relationship with me and pointed me to Jesus. And by the end of that, I came to know the Lord through his witness. It can take time and we can and often should go slowly. But let’s level with each other for a moment, shall we? Isn’t there a real temptation to never actually get there at all, to present the story, the whole story, to press the claims of Jesus with clarity? Don’t we feel it in our hearts? I do – that jolt of fear. “They won’t like me anymore if I say that. They’ll think I’m crazy or narrow-minded or bigoted if I say that.” And so we don’t, or we de-emphasize what the Bible puts front and center. And the Gospel is accommodated to the culture and the cross of Christ robbed of its power.

The Gospel Message for Those Who are Being Saved

But brothers and sisters, the cross of Christ is all we have. It’s all we have to offer! The good news about Jesus Christ crucified for sinners – that’s it! And so Paul is calling us here, isn’t he, to take our courage in our hands and make Him known. The world wants wisdom; what we have is the message – the word of the cross. Paul, praise God, Paul doesn’t leave us with the world’s expectations and the challenge to speak the truth fearlessly. He also comes along behind and says, “You know, here’s what God will do if you would but risk it enough to open your mouth and speak for Christ. Here’s where your confidence can lie in those fearful moments when you step out in faith and speak for Jesus. Here’s what God will do.” One of the great emphases of our passage is on the sovereignty of God. You see it hinted at in verse 18. “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.” So there are two groups. Do you see them? There are the perishing and the being saved. And the great distinguishing mark of these two groups is how they respond and what they think about the Gospel. The perishing regard it as folly. They disregard it entirely! But the being saved are being saved by that very Gospel message which they come to discover is, in fact, the power of God at work in their lives. God wields it mightily in their hearts and it saves them. God does it sovereignly, freely, by the Gospel, this foolish message about the cross. That’s why one group embraces it and another sees it as folly.

God’s Work of Grace

God is at work. That’s what verse 19 says, isn’t it? Quoting Isaiah 29 and verse 14, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Salvation, God says, will not come through the wisdom of the world. God is going to use other means, and so verse 21 – “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” God uses the folly of the Gospel proclaimed. And if you’ll look at verses 24 and 25, the sort of climax of the portion of Scripture before us, Paul sums it all up brilliantly. Verses 24 and 25. “To those who are being called” – there’s the emphasis on God sovereignly at work to bring people to Himself – “To those who are being called, both Jews and Greeks,” this foolish, weak message is in fact “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God stronger than men.”

What an unlikely tool for bringing men and women, boys and girls, who think they know better, who want wisdom, who are so very enlightened into saving faith and redemption and all that Jesus provided. Just a message about a crucified Christ. It is silly! It’s nuts! It’s weak! It’s foolish! But Paul was not afraid to keep preaching it. Why not? Because he knows that his effectiveness has absolutely nothing to do with his rhetorical skill and everything to do with the sovereignty of God who takes that weak message and works the miracle of saving grace in the hearts of hearers. He gets ahold of the sovereignty of God. God saves sinners! God does it! Praise the Lord! I don’t do it. You don’t do it. And yet when we open our weak, lisping, stammering tongues begin to speak, we open our mouths for Jesus, He takes that foolish message and He does that mighty miracle in the hearts of hearers and He saves them. He saves them!

Paul was captured by that message and it enabled him in face of the almost crushing expectations of the world, demanding a message and a method that conformed to patterns of wisdom that were ungodly, Paul was able to stand in the face of those expectations and keep appearing like a fool for Christ because he knows salvation belongs to the Lord. And when he takes a foolish message preached in this foolish methodology by a weak sinner clinging to Jesus, He gets great glory when He does the work and not we. And so if you’re going to open your mouth for Christ, get ahold of the sovereignty of God. We preach Christ crucified, but God opens blind eyes. And in the confidence of it, you can fight fear and cross the pain barrier and say something for Christ and see what God will do. See what He’ll do if you take Him at His word and stand on His promises and preach a crucified Christ. Make Him known! In the hands of a sovereign God, the Gospel is unstoppable, irresistible, supremely wise. It is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

If you will be a herald and merely stand to proclaim King Jesus to the world, God will do the saving and the convincing and the persuading. You don’t need to. He will do it and all the glory will be His. Let’s have confidence in the Gospel and the sovereignty of God who works by it. Armed with that confidence, let’s go to the world. Let’s go to the world emboldened to make Christ known. The world wants wisdom. What the church has is the foolish message about Christ crucified but look what God does. Look what He does. He saves by so foolish a message. And so let us have confidence in it and be bold to go preach it to the world.

Let’s pray together!

Father, we thank You for the good news about Jesus. Would You please forgive us for thinking ourselves wiser than You, being reluctant to open our mouths to speak for You, being more afraid of men than we are of You, of not really believing that You are sovereign and that You have ordained this weak, foolish message to do mighty things in the salvation of sinners. Would You give us renewed confidence in You? Would You help us to be glad that You work by weak methods that all the glory might be Yours? And then would You make us bold; not self-confident but confident in You – bold to stand up and preach Christ to those we profess to love who need to hear of Him for us. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.

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