Fools for Christ

Series: Rewire

Sermon by David Strain on Apr 23, 2017

1 Corinthians 3:18-23

Now do please take your copies of God’s Word and turn with me in them to 1 Corinthians – I hope you’re all awake now! I hope that wasn’t me. Can you all hear me okay? Good. 1 Corinthians chapter 3; page 951 in the church Bibles. 1 Corinthians chapter 3. It’s been a few weeks since we were in 1 Corinthians. Let me remind you before we read the passage of Paul’s argument so far. He has been, you will remember, dealing with the problem of division at Corinth. They have begun to divide around their favorite preachers. So one is saying, “I follow Paul,” another, “I follow Apollos,” and still another, “I follow Cephas.” And they are boasting in men. And behind the problem of division lurks the festering sin of pride. And Paul has been tackling both the problem and the presenting symptom, the pride and the divisions, in various ways in his argument thus far. And so from the second half of chapter 1 all the way through verse 5 of chapter 2, Paul has been discussing the apparently foolish message entrusted to the church – the message of the cross – and the apparently foolish members who believe that message who join the church; and then in the first five verses, the beginning of chapter 2, even the apparently foolish messengers who preach that message to the church. Who can boast in men, in church leaders, who can strut and preen and congratulate themselves in their own sophistication and wisdom when the message seems like nonsense, the members it attracts are all ignoble nobodies – that’s what Paul calls them – and the ministers who preach that message are all fools? I should know. The salvation of anyone under such a system, under a scheme like that, must clearly and only be the work of a sovereign God not the product of a preacher nor the wisdom of anyone themselves unaided by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

And then in chapter 2, Paul continues his assault on our pride by showing us that the true wisdom of God, the Gospel message contained in the Scriptures, is itself utterly unintelligible to the natural person. “It has been made known,” he tells us in verses 6 to 10, “to the apostles, that is revelation.” And the apostles are given the words by which to communicate it to us in our Scriptures; that’s inspiration – chapter 2, verses 11 to 13. But unless and until the Holy Spirit enables sinners to understand that truth, they never will accept it as wisdom at all – that is illumination, verses 14 to 16. So in other words, who can boast or congratulate themselves on their own wisdom when salvation comes only by the revelation, inspiration, and illumination of God the Holy Spirit? It’s not at all the product of human intelligence or creative imagination. It is the gift of God.

And then you’ll remember in chapter 3, Paul uses three metaphors, three images, to describe the problems at Corinth and to begin to address those problems to provide his treatment plan. The first of them, in verses 1o to 4, you’ll see he describes them as infants, as spiritually immature. They ought by now to have been feeding on a diet of solid food, of rich, Scriptural teaching. But as it is in their immaturity, they could only manage milk and not solid food. They’re immature. Then in verses 5 to 9, he uses a second image, a second metaphor. It’s a farm this time. He says, “You are God’s field,” the church is God’s field. Gospel ministers sow the seed of the Word and they water the seed of the Word but they don’t make it grow. Therefore, how altogether ridiculous a thing it must be to boast in Gospel ministers, to boast in yourself, as though growth were theirs or yours to manufacture. No, growth comes from God alone. “Boast in Him,” Paul is saying. And then the third metaphor, in verses 10 to 17, we saw, is the great image of a construction site. God is building His church in the metaphor of a temple. From human lives saved by grace, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. And Paul has urged us to be careful, therefore, how we build. We are to build for eternity; build so as to make it last. Be careful what you do, how you live, what are your works, how you build, because a day is coming that will test your works and unveil what sort they are.

And now this morning in verses 18 to 23, Paul is wrapping up this part of his letter with a set of particular exhortations. He’s going to put his finger directly on the Corinthians besetting sin, but as we read it together I want you to look out carefully for the marvelous way that Paul the pastor does more than merely exhort them or warn them about their sin. He also offers them spiritual resources that will help us help them deal with their sin and live in new obedience. When I was first required by my parents to cut the grass in the backyard back home in Glasgow, I was told to make use of a very rudimentary push-mower. It was a brute of a thing. It seemed to me to weigh a ton and so with the slight incline in the backyard, a couple of circuits around that thing up and down and I was exhausted! So the day when we finally bought a new mower with an engine in it was a day of great celebration for me. I still had to mow the lawn, but now the engine virtually pulled me up and down the lawn.

When God calls Christians to deal with sin, He expects us to get to work, but His command has an engine in it. It comes fitted with promises designed to pull us along and enable us to obey. And so, as we read verses 18 to 23, I want you to look out for the exhortations, there are two principle exhortations, and I want you particularly to look out for the resources, the spiritual resources Paul reminds the Corinthians of, which, if we will take hold of them by faith, will enable us more and more to obey.

Before we read the text together, however, would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?

O Lord, we know that the grass withers and the flowers fade but that Your Word stands forever. And so, in humility, we come to the Scriptures to place ourselves under the Word to be taught by You. Would You send the Holy Spirit to wield Your Word in our hearts, showing us our sin and need and leading us back to Christ who is Your answer for the deep needs of our hearts? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

1 Corinthians chapter 3, verse 18 through the end of the chapter. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.

You will have noticed as we read it through together, the passage divides into two neat sections, each part with three verses in each, both of which begin with a word of exhortation. Do you see that in the text? Verse 18 – the first exhortation. “Let no one deceive himself.” Then verse 21, the second exhortation – “Let no one boast in men.” Those are the two exhortations that stand, if you like, as headings in these two blocks of text. Paul really is being very straight with us. He wants to be clear and forthright. He doesn’t want anyone left scratching their heads wondering about what Paul’s point might be. Here’s what he’s after. It’s quite clear. Two things, two dangers to avoid – the danger of self-deception and the danger of boasting in men.

The Danger of Self-Deception

Let’s think about the first of those together for a few moments. It is, of course, our great problem. Isn’t it? Self-deception. We all tend to have an estimation of ourselves that is skewed and warped and distorted. From our own vantage point, we often misread ourselves. Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland writing in Scot’s dialect, puts it this way. You ready for this? He puts it this way;  

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An' foolish notion.”

Right? Doesn’t that clear it up? Here’s about the only place I think in Burns’ writings where he and Paul agree. Here’s what he’s saying. “Oh that some power” – “Oh that God would give us the gift of seeing ourselves as other people can see us.” How many mistakes we would be spared, how many foolish blunders we would avoid if we could just see ourselves with objectivity and be spared self-deception. We often think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Isn’t that the truth? It must just be me. We often think of ourselves more highly than we ought, don’t we? We’re often self-deceived.

The Problem at Corinth

Now look at verse 18 and notice the particular problem at Corinth. It is their love for what Paul calls “the wisdom of the age.” Apparently, you will remember we’ve talked about this already, they prized the sophisticated rhetoric and displays of philosophical prowess that marked and characterized the orators of the day. And they were trying to hybridize the wisdom of the world and the Gospel of Jesus Christ at Corinth. To be sure, they wanted Jesus alright, but they wanted a socially-acceptable Jesus. Certainly they want the Gospel, but they wanted to knock the rough edges to make it fit the tastes and preferences of their culture. And as we’ve seen Paul argue again and again in the opening section of 1 Corinthians, here is his point. When you start to accommodate the message of the cross to the mood of the culture, you lose the Gospel and you deceive yourself. And that is what he’s saying here. Don’t deceive yourself! You can’t proclaim the Christ of Scripture and secure the praises of the culture at the same time.

The Folly of Worldly Wisdom

And he tells us why not. Look at verse 18, verse 19, rather. Here’s why not; “The wisdom of this world is folly with God.” The world’s metrics are all wrong. God doesn’t value what the world values. Wisdom for God is found in the broken body of the Man of Calvary. There’s the wisdom of God – the Lord Jesus Christ, nailed between two criminals, hanging on a Roman gibbet outside the city walls. The only Savior of sinners. That’s the wisdom of God. But the world looks at the cross and says, “You’re joking, right? This is God come down? This is my hope and joy and peace? This wretched form? What a joke! No, we want power. We want political solutions. We want self-help strategies. We want worldly wisdom.” But whatever we might think of the wisdom of the age, however compelling we may at times find it to be, Paul shows us exactly what God thinks of it. Doesn’t he?

Look at verse 19 again. He quotes Scripture this time to help his argument. First from the book of Job chapter 15 verse 3, then from Psalm 94 verse 11. “He catches the wise in their craftiness” and “the Lord knows the thoughts of the wise that they are futile.” You are not wiser than God, Corinthians! And when you begin to accommodate His message about Jesus Christ crucified to the tastes and preferences of the world in order to make it acceptable, you have not found a better way. You’ve deceived no one but yourself. God sees the truth and He catches the wise in their craftiness. He knows the futility of the thoughts of those who think themselves wise.

Becoming Fools In Order to Be Wise

Well then, what’s to be done? Look back at verse 18, would you? Here’s what’s to be done. Here’s what we all must learn to do! It’s actually really rather painful. It’s humbling; it’s hard. You see what Paul challenges us all to do? Verse 18, “If anyone among you thinks he is wise, let him become a fool that he may become wise.” Now you remember the church’s foolish message, the message of the cross. God on a cross; it’s a foolish message in the world’s eyes. And you remember the church’s foolish members – “not many wise, not many noble.” And you remember the church’s foolish ministers. Paul tells us he did not come proclaiming the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. And yet, Paul has shown us it is upon these things that God rests His blessing – this foolish message, these foolish members, these foolish ministers. It is through these that He works for His own glory and the good of His people.

Embrace the Foolishness of the Gospel

And so Paul is saying here now if you want God’s blessing for yourself and see God at work in your life and through your life in the lives of others, then you must take your place among these and give up our attempts at wisdom, the wisdom of the world. Embrace the foolishness of the Gospel. Become a fool for Christ. Embrace the foolishness of the Gospel for yourself. Take your place in the company of fools who believe that Gospel under the ministry of fools who preach that Gospel. Become a fool for Christ. Give up the wisdom of the world; embrace the wisdom of God bound up with the Man of Calvary, the only Savior of sinners, Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you. That’s what it means to be a disciple, you know. To be a Christian is to be a fool in the eyes of the world. Are you prepared to be a fool, to look the fool, that you might stand where God says true wisdom is to be found? Trusting in, resting on, all your hopes committed to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. So first of all Paul says to us, “Do not be self-deceived!”

Do Not Boast in Men!

But then secondly he says, here’s the other exhortation, “Do not boast in men!” Verse 21, “Let no one boast in men.” Now here’s the particular besetting sin of the Corinthians. This is how worldly wisdom, their penchant for worldly wisdom expresses itself in their churches – they begin to boast in men. It’s not just that they have found particular preachers to be especially helpful in their spiritual life and they’re affirming the way that God has used these men. No, they are boasting in men. That is to say, driving what they say about their leaders is pride. They’re motivated by an attempt to makes themselves look good by claiming this leader or that. They’re saying, “My guy’s better than your guy, therefore I’m wiser than you.” It’s worldly wisdom motivated by pride.

And then, as Paul addresses that persistent problem at Corinth, he turns to offer these two, really remarkable truths, that are calculated to make all that boasting unnecessary and reveal it for what it really is – altogether really quite ridiculous. Here in these two truths, we find the engine that will pull us along as we seek to obey the exhortation of God to us in Scripture today. First of all, he asks us to remember what we have, and then secondly, he asks us to remember who’s we are. If you will remember what you have and if you will remember who’s you are, everything will change. Boasting will die, humility will be yours, and the church will know God’s blessing.

Remember What We Have!

First of all, we are to remember what we have. Look at the text. “Do not boast in men,” Paul says. Well why not? Here comes his answer, “for all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours.” The Corinthians were like the young man who wants to buy an engagement ring for his sweetheart as his uncle’s jewelry store. And he keeps haggling with his uncle for the best price on this one ring, all the while not pausing long enough to hear his uncle saying, “Nephew, you don’t understand. You’re going to inherit the whole store! It’s all yours!” They are haggling over Paul or Apollos or Cephas when they have all three. All things are yours! All those whom Christ sends to preach the Word belong to the whole church. “You can have the whole store!” Paul is saying. “Why are you fighting over one of Christ’s jewels when they’re all for you?”

Five Things That Are Ours in Christ

Then look at the other five things that Paul lists that are ours in Christ. Verse 22; do you see them? The world, life, death, the present, or the future. Don Carson, I think, is insightful here when he suggests that these five things, “Represent the fundamental tyrannies of life.” The things that enslave us. The things that hold us in bondage. So he says first there’s the world which tries to squeeze us into its mold. Then there’s this life that we cling to, “as if the Bible had never told us that our lives are but a vapor that quickly vanishes when the first puff of breeze passes by!” Then death, Carson says, “death is the ultimate specter. Death is a tyranny no one escapes.” And that, in turn, fourthly, leads to the constant urgency of the present as we scurry to achieve and leave our mark before it’s too late. And while the terrifying uncertainties, fifthly, of an unknown future haunt our steps at every turn. These are the tyrannies of life – the things that enslave us, the things that hold us in bondage.

But Paul here is offering an entirely different perspective that is available to us in Jesus Christ. Understand, he says, that as Christians, when you get Jesus, these all cease to be tyrants holding you in bondage and they become gifts of God to you, to the praise of God and the good of your soul. And when you do, when you understand that, suddenly the world becomes the theater for God’s glory and you begin to rest in the promise that the meek shall inherit the earth. Life ceases to be something to cling to in insecurity and fear, but the sphere of our joyful service as the Lord leads us and protects us, death likewise stops being a specter that haunts our steps that we’re always trying to run from, but becomes now for believers the gateway to glory where, though we are absent from the body for a time, we shall be, nevertheless, present with the Lord which is far better. So that we can say with the apostle Paul, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain!” And when all of that begins to penetrate, well then the present no longer urgently demands the survival of the fittest, driving us always to perform. Now it offers an opportunity for ministry because we live secure in the wise governance of King Jesus who works all things together for the good of those who love Him. And thus though we can’t yet see it, we know the one who knows the future and all the days ordained for us are written in His book before is yet one of them has come to be. And so we face the future confident that the one who holds the future also holds us, safe in His hands. All things are yours when you get Jesus.

Remember What You Have!

And so he says to us, “Remember what you have!” Someone quoted this past week at the Twin Lakes Fellowship, I think it was a saying of John Owen’s, that “Our great problem as Christians is that we are so prone to forget our privileges,” that we underestimate our privileges. So much of the Christian life would be so much happier, healthier, better, more shot through with joy, more-less inclined towards sin if we merely understood that all things are ours when you get Jesus Christ. “See the true scale of your blessedness?” Paul is saying to us. We’re too often like that family – you know, picture the family on the long drive to the Grand Canyon together, cooped up in the car for just one or two few to miles and they’re all beginning to bicker and squabble. And at the height of their arguing, mom sort of tunes dad out as he man-splains about how he was right to turn that way rather than the other way and she looks out the window and she realizes, “We’ve arrived.” She sees the glory, the landscape with its beauty all around her. And eventually, one by one, everyone else follows her gaze as they begin to drink it in – the glory of the Grand Canyon all around. And the bickering dies. The squabbling and the contention ceases.

That’s what Paul is saying. He’s saying, “Look the glory. Look at the vast landscape of blessing that is yours and when you begin to drink it in and see and remember what you have in Christ, you’ll begin to forget what you were fighting about in the first place. And instead of bickering and squabbling, you’ll begin to adore and you’ll begin to worship.” Remember what you have.

Remember Who’s You Are!

And then finally he says to us, “Remember who’s you are!” Remember who’s you are! Look at verse 23, “All things are yours and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” Not only have all things been given to you in Christ, but you have been given to Christ and the Christ to whom you’ve been given is God’s Christ. Paul is trying to put us into a bigger context. He’s trying to reframe our thinking so that self no longer fills every horizon for us but we see ourselves in perspective. All are yours, you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s who is over all and all in all.

You Belong to Jesus!

So here’s the most basic fact about you today if you are a Christian. Here’s the most basic fact about you – you belong to Jesus. You are His! You are not your own. You have been bought at a price. You are His. And He belongs to God, so that over every square inch, if I can adapt a phrase from Abraham Kuyper, written over every square inch of your life, my life, of the world in which we live, are the claims of the living God and the crowned rights of the Redeemer, King Jesus. And over it all, over us all, He says, “Mine!” And viewed from that perspective, boasting dies and humility comes.

I read recently some words of Neil Armstrong’s. He was reflecting on that moment when he was standing on the moon looking up at the earth. And he said this, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, that little, pretty, blue thing, was the earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye and my thumb blotted out planet earth.” Then he said this, “I did not feel like a giant; I felt very, very small.”

As Paul concludes chapter 3, he wants us to feel that way with the vastness and the glory all around – not boasting, not beating our chests and proclaiming our own wisdom, but suddenly humbled, aware of how very, very small we really are before the vast immensity of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, before the endless landscape of His grace towards us in His Son. Instead of our prideful, divisive claims, Paul is calling us, isn’t he calling us to turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in His wonderful face that the things of earth – boasting, pride, division – might grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. Remember who’s you are and remember what you have. Have you forgotten your privileges? Have you yourself begun to fill every corner of the horizon so that you can’t see beyond your own petty needs and demands and preferences?

Paul wants to take you into a much wider landscape to show you how the Lord has lavished all things upon you so that all things must work together for your good as you live under the reign of King Jesus. Then he wants to remind you, “You don’t belong to you, so you don’t get to live your way anymore! You belong to Christ who shed His blood to make you His.” And overall is the Lordship of God – who’s you are – and to whom belongs all things, to whom be the glory. So that seeing that vast vista, our self-centeredness begins to look really faintly – rather, not faintly, really quite ridiculous. And in humility, instead of pride and bickering and squabbling, comes adoration and praise and wonder to the God who has redeemed us and given all things to us in His Son, we begin to bow down and to adore. And so may the Lord help us to remember what we have and who’s we are that we may not be self-deceived nor may we boast in men but give all the glory to Him.

Let’s pray together!

O Lord our God, we give thanks to You for the vastness of grace, that all things are ours. We confess we don’t know what that means really. What does that mean? Will we ever exhaust exploring that landscape through all eternity? All things are ours. We bless You that it is true. What a promise. And we bless You that we are not our own. We belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ who has redeemed us not with silver and gold but by His precious blood so that not a hair can fall from our head but that indeed all things must work together for my salvation. And therefore He makes me heartily willing from now on to live for Him. Would You do that among us, please, as we remember anew our privileges and learn as we see the vastness of the landscape of grace all around us to stop our prideful self-assertion and instead to bow in adoration and praise? For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.