If you would please go ahead and take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands and turn with me to the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 1. You’ll find it on page 952 of the church Bibles; if you’re using one of our church Bibles, page 952. While you’re doing that, let me just say thank you to those of you who prayed for me. Many of you expressed your concern for me while I was out last week. I was grateful to Ed Hartman and for his faithful ministry. I was able to watch that from home. I wish I was with you last week, but the Lord blessed His Word and I thank you for your prayers and support and encouragement and I’m very glad to be with you. It does mean, however, that we’re back where we were two weeks ago, picking up from where we left off there in 1 Corinthians chapter 1.
Let me remind you a little bit of where we’ve been so far before we read the Scriptures. In verses 18 to 25, Paul explains why he proclaims what the world considers an altogether foolish message. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” he said. A foolish message. And why he uses to foolish a method. “The foolishness of preaching,” he calls it. Why do that when what the world wants is wisdom packaged in eloquent words and in displays of supernatural power? And his answer, remember, to that, is that this apparently foolish message, the cross, and apparently foolish method, preaching, make God appear as glorious as He is when He takes these foolish things and by them saves sinners. The world may mock the methods and the message, calling them weak and foolish, but Paul reminds us that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God stronger than men.” And so we’re to have confidence, Paul says, in the foolishness of the Gospel and in the folly of preaching. That was last week.
But then Paul casts around for an illustration, for some example of that principle. “What can I show these Corinthians to help them really see that God’s upside-down wisdom is worth trusting after all?” And then it hits him. “All they need do is look in the mirror. They are themselves the perfect illustration that God delights to use unlikely instruments for almighty ends.” And so he tells them, verse 26, “Consider your calling, brothers. Remember how you were converted. Cast your mind back to the beginning of your Christian lives. Doesn’t your own experience confirm this very pattern? That God takes the foolish and the weak and the despised, and in and through them does great things? Isn’t that what He did in you and for you, after all?”
Now you will remember that the Corinthians had begun to boast. We saw back in verses 11 and 12 their boasting in their own particular party within the church, claiming that it was wiser, purer, stronger, better than every other party in the church. A new elitism has begun to rear its ugly head among them. And so Paul here is reminding them of their beginnings so that boasting in themselves might die and God alone get all the glory. Now I’ve certainly found it to be a constant danger of the Christian life that as I make progress in my own walk with the Lord I can very easily begin to take credit for my own gifts and graces such as they are. Have you ever found that? We make a little progress and we begin to think, “Hey, look what I did! Look how far I’ve come!” Apparently I’m the only one! Now come on, isn’t it true? A little progress in the Christian life and you start to think, “Hey, I can do this.” And sometimes even if only to ourselves in the dark we begin to congratulate ourselves on how much progress and how much farther we’ve come than the other guy, “Bless his heart.” And that is the Corinthians’ problem and Paul is writing here to deal with it and to deal with it in our own hearts also, the Lord helping us.
Sometimes you hear people today saying, as a word of advice to folks who have come good, hit the big time, “Don’t forget where you came from,” as a way to say, “You need to stay grounded and remember who you really are.” That’s sort of what Paul is saying to us here, isn’t it? “Consider your calling, brothers. Don’t forget where you came from. Take a good look in the mirror. See yourself clearly. Remember the truth about yourself. If you’ll do that, your boasting will begin to shrivel and die and you’ll start to give all the glory and all the praise to God who alone has done mighty things for you.” That’s the gist of Paul’s argument and before we look at the details and read the text together, would you bow your heads with me as we pray and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit? Let’s pray together!
O Lord, we confess that we prefer the lie to the truth. We like to take what You tell us and pass it through our own filter to make it fit what we want to hear. We love to distort the truth, to bend it to fit our preferences. But now we know that we need to hear Your voice with clarity and so we pray, would You send us the Holy Spirit to illuminate our darkened understanding and show us Christ and show us ourselves and lead us where necessary to new repentance and lead us to Him who is all our hope and all that our hearts truly need. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 1. Let’s read God’s Word beginning in verse 26:
“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, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.
Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, one of the great evangelical noble women of England in the first half of the 18th century during the Great Awakening, she was a supporter and a patron of the early Methodists, especially of the ministry of the great George Whitefield, and she used to say that she knew she was going to get to heaven thanks entirely to the letter “M.” And when she was asked what she meant she would turn to our passage, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, and read verse 27. “Not many were of noble birth.” It doesn’t say, “Not any.” It says, “Not many.” She got in solely on account of the letter, “M,” do you see? She understands, actually, that her high social status plays no part in securing her eternal destiny. For that, she knows she must look to the free grace of a sovereign God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, I think, has actually grasped Paul’s whole point in the portion of Scripture we read together a moment ago rather well. Wouldn’t you agree? She knows her pedigree, her social standing, do not matter at all, but only the grace of God in Jesus Christ when it comes to eternal matters.
And that is precisely the point the apostle Paul wants us to grasp and embrace from our hearts in our text today. If you’ll join me in asking three simple questions of our passage I think we’ll get to see that with some clarity. First, we need to ask the, “Who?” question. “Who were the Corinthian Christians when God saved them? What was their original condition?” And then we need to ask the, “How?” question. So, given that this is who they are, “How is it they came to belong to the Corinthian church? How is it that God redeemed them and brought them to saving faith?” And then finally we’ll ask the, “Why?” question. “Why did God choose to save them? What is God’s agenda in bringing these believers to Himself?” “Who? How? And Why?” Those are our questions.
Let’s start with the, “Who?” question. “Who were the Corinthian Christians?” Look at verse 26 first of all. Paul, understand now, Paul is not trying to be offensive verse 26 when he says, “Not many of you were wise according to earthly standards. Not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth.” He’s simply describing the facts. When the church at Corinth began, you can read about it in Acts chapter 18, most of those who were gathered in belonged to the working classes; they were blue-collar types, even slaves, and outsiders, ordinary folks. That’s just how it went down when the church began at Corinth. To be sure, there were a few prominent names among them. If you read Acts 18 you’ll see that early on in Paul’s mission at Corinth, Crispus, who is a ruler of the synagogue, is converted. And in the opening verses of Paul’s letter here, we learn that Sosthenes, who is another ruler of the synagogue, was also converted. And in verse 11, Chloe, who seems to have had an extensive personal household, which may indicate that she is a person of some prominence and wealth in Corinthian society, she likewise is a member of the Corinthian church. So there were some, but not many. There were those saved by the letter, “M,” just like Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, even at Corinth, but not many. They were the exception, not the rule. Instead, Paul says, the Corinthian fellowship was made up for the most part of people who had no reputation for wisdom. They were not wise by the standards of the world, he says. No power. Neither did they have the pedigree. They were not of noble birth. They are peasants, paupers, and plebs.
God Welcomes Riffraff
And if you’ll look at verse 27, Paul even goes a little further than that. He comes all the way out and says they were in fact, “Foolish, weak, low and despised in the eyes of the world.” They were, in summary, the things that are not. Literally, they were nothings, nobodies. It’s not terribly flattering, I know, but that is in fact precisely how society saw the believers at Corinth. Listen to the way one 2nd century opponent of Christianity, a man called Celsus, talked about the church. “The following are the rules laid down by them” – he means the Christians. “They say, ‘Let no one come to us who has been instructed or who is wise or prudent, for such qualifications are deemed evil by us. But if there be any ignorant or unintelligent or uninstructed or foolish persons, let them come with confidence.’ By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly and the mean and the stupid with women and children.” Sorry ladies, that’s Celsus, not me! “Silly, mean, stupid with women and children.” Celsus thinks the church is full of poor, ignorant, silly people. And that fact alone, he thinks, proves that the Christian faith and therefore also the Christian God is not worth believing. “I mean, who would follow a God who welcomes riffraff and dignifies the humanity of the poor and women and slaves like this?” That was Celsus’ view.
Or let me give you one more example; this time an ancient graffito found scrawled on a wall on Rome. It is a picture of the crucifixion with a man kneeling in adoration before a Christ-figure hanging on the cross. But in place of Christ’s head is the head of a donkey, an ass. And the inscription reads, “Alexaminos worships his god.” “What a fool, right? That’s what it’s saying. Only idiots join the church. Alexaminos, you’ve got to be really gullible to buy this Jesus nonsense!”
So forget First Pres Jackson for a moment. Imagine you are looking for a new church. And you visit the website of First Church Corinth; Corinth, Greece, not Corinth, Mississippi! First Church Corinth. You click on the “About Us” page. You want to learn a bit more about these folks and here’s what you read; here’s the description of the church. “We are not particularly wise; very few have a high school diploma. We are not powerful. Persons of rank rarely find their way to us. You won’t see our faces at the society balls or in the pages of ‘Who’s Who at Corinth.’ In fact, First Church Corinth is a community of foolish, weak, low and despised nobodies. We hope to see you here Sunday at 11.” How does that sound to you? “Truth be told, I’m not sure I want to be identified with a group like that. I like my respectability. Maybe I’ll just keep looking.”
The Corinthian Believers Were Foolish, Weak, Nobodies
That’s how people responded to the Corinthian believers in Paul’s day and ever since, you know, believers have felt the sting of that. The temptation has been very real for the church to adorn itself with the trappings of power and wisdom and social respectability in the hope of alluring, of drawing in the elite and the brilliant and the influential to her ranks. I think it’s worth asking if and in what ways we have been pursuing the trends of the culture and adopting the fashions of the world in the hopes that no one will scrawl on a Jackson, Mississippi wall a picture of us looking foolish adoring a crucified ass. You see, Paul really is challenging us to choose, isn’t he? There’s a dilemma and he wants us to see that we stand on the horns of this dilemma. You remember how James puts it in James chapter 4 in verse 4? “Friendship with the world is…” What? “Enmity against God.” You can’t have both! “Friendship with the world is enmity against God.” Follow Jesus and you will be seen not as elite or wise or mighty, but as foolish, weak, low and despised. Or, follow the world and you’ll blend right in. As you do that, as you weigh those two options, would you please remember the words, the question of our Savior who asks us, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet still loses his soul?” That’s the first thing I want us to see – who the Corinthians were. They were foolish, weak, nobodies.
But if that’s who they were and that’s something of the stigma attached to belonging to the church in those days, we do need to ask in the second place the “How?” question. Don’t we? How is it that these already vulnerable people came to belong to a group so universally despised as the Church of Jesus Christ? How did the Corinthian believers come to be believers at all? There are huge social, cultural obstacles for them to overcome, after all, so how did it happen? And Paul’s answer to that is that they are Christians not because in some flash of remarkable insight they cut through the spin and the bad publicity to see the truth for themselves. It’s not because they were smart or savvy or strategic. It’s not even because Paul somehow persuaded them. No, they never would have become Christians, never would have joined the church if it were not for this one consideration. They are Christians, Paul says, because of the sovereign, irresistible, saving intervention of Almighty God in their lives. “Consider your calling, brothers,” verse 26. He’s talking about the beginnings of their Christian life, their conversion, but he calls it their calling because it is because of the call of God that they are believers at all. He’s not talking here merely about the general, universal call that sounds to all people everywhere in the invitations of the Gospel preached but in the mighty, sovereign, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit that accompanies that call, that works in the hearts of some and causes them to respond and pass from death into life. The call of God made them Christians.
God’s Free Choice
Or look at verse 27 and notice the emphasis on the electing choice of God. Over and over again we are told, aren’t we, “God chose.” “God chose what is foolish. God chose what is weak. God chose what is low and despised and the things that are not. God chose. God chose.” You’re a Christian today because God chose! He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. The electing love of the Father was fixed upon you before there were stars. And because God chose, therefore God called. And because God chose and called, therefore, verse 30, you are in Christ Jesus. That’s what Paul says. Look at verse 30. “Because of him,” not because of you, not even because of Paul, but “because of him you are in Christ Jesus.” You have nothing, after all, Corinthians. You have nothing, First Presbyterian Church, to attract the approbation or love of God. Nothing in yourselves. Weak, foolish, low, despised, nothings. That’s what Paul says we really are.
Salvation is a Gift of Grace
Our salvation, he wants us to understand, our salvation is all gift, all grace; sheer, unmerited, free. It is an elementary principle of the Christian gospel to be sure, but it’s not one we can safely ever neglect that we are Christians, listen to this now, we are Christians not because we are better than other people. Do you believe that? You are not a Christian because you are better than other people. If we are Christians, it is in fact because we are cosmic charity cases, utterly, spiritually threadbare, wholly dependent, bereft of spiritual resources. Soul-starved beggars pleading for a crust. And God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, He united us to Christ. He fed us and clothed us with the robes of the righteousness of Christ and took us in our abandonment and sin and adopted us and made us children of God, all by grace, all for free. Because of nothing in us but because of who He is, that all glory might be His.
Who they were – unlovely, unimportant, undesirable. How they were converted – God chose them and called them and united them to His Son, the Lord Jesus. It was all of God from beginning to end. And then finally, let’s ask the “Why?” question. “Why did God do it this way? Why pick such weak, unattractive, unimportant individuals as the Corinthians?” Or let me make it more pointed – why did God save you? Why did He save me? Three reasons in the text; I promise we’ll be quick. Three reasons in the text. Look at it with me;
To Shame the Wise and Strong
First, God chooses the foolish and the weak and the nobodies, verses 27 and 28, to shame the wise and the strong and the somebodies and to bring them to nothing. He does it, verse 29, so that no human being may boast in the presence of God. He chooses, do you see, He chooses weak, poor, foolish people to show strong, rich, smart people that being strong, rich, and smart has absolutely no bearing on their eternal destiny. None! And if they are to hope for heaven, it will require them to humble themselves utterly before God and acknowledge that even they are beggars pleading for mercy like the rest of us. If you stand on your successes, if you boast in your prowess, point out your pedigree, you may find whatever place people give you in the ranks of this world that you have no place among the people of God in the kingdom of God and in the world to come. No, if you are to have any hope, you must learn to sing with Toplady, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross, I cling. Naked come to Thee for dress; helpless come to Thee for grace. Foul, I to the Fountain fly. Wash me, Savior, or I die!”
That We Might Cherish Christ Above All
Secondly, God chooses the weak and the foolish and the nobodies that we might cherish Jesus Christ above all. That we might cherish Jesus Christ above all. Look at verse 30 again. “And because of him, you are in Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” You see what Paul’s saying? The wisdom of the world God brings to nothing; Jesus is all the wisdom that you need. If you’ve ever traveled internationally and you’ve been to multiple different countries you’ll have discovered, maybe to your frustration, that there are different power outlets and different voltages and sockets required, different configurations, and you may actually have invested in a universal adaptor, good for every situation. The need of the human heart is multifaceted and complicated. Paul is saying Jesus is wisdom from God, an answer good for every situation; a universal adaptor to which you may plug in to get what your heart truly needs. Wisdom from God.
And he explains what that wisdom entails – righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Righteousness for our guilt, sanctification for our pollution, and redemption for our bondage. What’s the point? Jesus Christ is enough. He is a sufficient Savior. When the world says you need to be wise and strong and noble and a thousand other things besides, the Gospel says Jesus is all you need and in Him, in God’s great wisdom, there is righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Not money, not power, not influence, not social standing, not respectability, not philanthropy, not penance, not approval – Jesus. Jesus is the wisdom of God. Jesus is what you need. And as we begin to lie in the dust seeing ourselves as we really are in our smallness and futility and weakness and foolishness, we begin to recognize that there is a limitless repository of grace for us in Him so that we don’t need to be strong and wise and noble and mighty. He is enough. Let us make much of Him.
So That We Might Boast in the Lord
And then thirdly, God chooses the weak and the foolish and the nobodies, verse 31, so that “as it is written, let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” God’s agenda in humbling us is that He might be exalted. As we begin to discover how sufficient our Savior really is, He wants to have first place and receive the glory. He doesn’t want you not to boast. He doesn’t want the Corinthians not to boast. He wants us to boast in the right thing – not in ourselves but in Him that the praise might go to Him alone. It is clear, I think, I wonder if you would agree with this – we’re moving into an age in which Gospel churches no longer occupy a position of cultural honor and influence. The days are coming, already here for some of us, when to follow Jesus Christ will bring with it a social stigma and significant personal cost. I think part of the message of our passage this morning, brothers and sisters, is simple. It is to stand firm. Stand firm under the cross of Christ bearing His reproach, content to be foolish and weak and powerless, content to be the nobodies because Paul has been showing us it is the weak and the foolish and the nobodies God delights to choose and to call and a church of nobodies God delights to use to shame the wise and the strong and the powerful and the somebodies, to bring them to the dust of humility before the Lord that they might not boast in themselves any longer but begin to join us in boasting in the Lord alone and in Jesus Christ our perfect Savior.
You know when God does that in a church when He puts us truly in the dust and then shows us the majesty and glory and worth and sufficiency of Jesus and He begins to get all the glory, our hearts fill with joy and He will use us mightily for His own great ends. May the Lord do precisely that among us and all the praise be His. Let’s pray together!
Our Father, as we bow before You, we confess, I confess, that the allure of influence and power is real and it is so tempting to baptize it and court it in the name of Gospel ends. But we pray that You would help us to see ourselves truly, not to forget where we came from, not to forget who we really are. Not many mighty, not many influential, not many wise, not many noble, but weak, foolish, low, despised things that are not. Help us to see ourselves as we really are. But then would You show us, would You fill all our gaze with a sight of who Jesus really is that we may no longer boast in ourselves but boast in Him who is to us wisdom from God, that is, righteousness and sanctification and redemption – everything that we need. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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