RPM, Volume 12, Number 19, May 9 to May 15 2010

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

A Sermon




By Scott Lindsay



This week we are continuing in our study of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, picking up at chapter 1, vs. 18 and continuing through to vs. 25. If you remember from the introduction to this letter, we saw how it can be divided into two parts, the first half dealing with problems that have arisen in the Corinthian Church, and which have been reported to Paul, and the second half dealing with specific questions that the Corinthians would like Paul to answer.

Last week we looked at verses 10-17 where Paul begins dealing with one of the many problems reported to him - the problem of factions and divisions within the church, factions which had formed around the various Christian leaders. Paul's response to these "personality cults" was to remind the Corinthian believers that Christian unity and fellowship is to be centered upon the Cross of Christ and NOT on those who proclaim the Cross of Christ.

In the passage before us this morning, Paul is building upon these truths, showing here the reason WHY the cross of Christ (and not human personality) should be their focal point: because the cross of Christ IS the power of God and the wisdom of God.

This is a message that the Corinthians desperately needed to hear since there were some among them who were leading the congregation in directions that were different from those that Paul had taken them in - moving them toward things that they felt displayed a "deeper wisdom" and which had more significant "spiritual power" than even the Cross of Christ. This foolish and misguided perspective was one cause, among many, of the divisions which were tearing the Corinthian church apart.

At any rate, those are the kinds of things that we will be exploring together this morning. But before we do that, let's pray together:

(Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

The first thing I want you to notice here is the absolute inability of human philosophy to lead people into a knowledge of God. Paul says quite plainly that "the world did not know God through wisdom". Now, in saying these things, Paul is not saying that he is against human wisdom, nor is he saying that there is nothing that can be learned from it. To be sure, there are all sorts of helpful benefits which have come through human wisdom in many areas, including fields such as medicine or science or law. So, this is not a general swipe at human wisdom and thinking but, as Barrett says, a specific indictment of the "wisdom of the world" as it applies to just one subject - the knowledge of God. In that particular area, human reason and philosophy has proven itself to be completely and woefully inadequate.

Of course, it is easy to miss this because we look at our modern world and we feel that we have really come quite a long way since Paul's own time. And certainly, at least in one sense we have.

Yet in another very real sense, we have not come very far at all and some would say, we have gone backwards. For example, we have made great strides in the area of medicine: human life expectancy and quality of life is at an all time high - and yet human philosophy, under its own steam, has not really made any progress in explaining what life is FOR. Sure, we live longer, but for what? And one of the real world consequences of this failure to make progress is seen in our attitudes toward the elderly and the unborn.

Similarly, we have made great strides in our legal systems and in theories of jurisprudence, and yet our theories cannot explain why people continue to hate and exploit and kill and abuse one another, and at an increasingly alarming rate. We have the most advanced forms and means of communication in the history of humankind, but are we really any better at communicating with one another than people, say, in the 16th century? The ever-climbing divorce rate and the continual disintegration of the nuclear family would suggest that we are not...

So, even in areas where human wisdom has made some strides forward, the truth is that our progress has been partial at best and at any rate is counter-balanced by a simultaneous lack of progress. However, while human wisdom might claim limited progress in some areas, when it comes to the specific area of the knowledge of God, it cannot even claim that. Indeed, it is one of the most striking facts of human history that the world in all its wisdom has not succeeded, and will never succeed in bringing a single person into the true knowledge of the living God. "In the wisdom of God", Paul says, "the world did not know God through wisdom..."

Well, if it's true that human knowledge has proven itself to be useless in leading people into a true knowledge of God (and it is) then if God is EVER going to be known, it will only be possible as a result of the direct intervention and revelation of a God who wants Himself to be known.

In vs. 21 Paul says that it "pleased God" to work out his saving purposes through "the folly of what we preach". Now what was it that Paul preached? Looking back at vs17 we see that it was "the gospel" and then in verse 18 this is made even clearer by the parallel expression, "the word of the cross". So what does that have to do with people being brought into the true knowledge of the living God? Only everything. What happens when God saves his people? He brings them into a right relationship with Himself - i.e., they come to know and see God as He truly is (Holy, Loving, and Just) and, at the same time, themselves as they truly are (sinful and in need of a Savior). Thus being saved is all about knowing and being known by God. And this "knowing and being known by God" is not a result of the speculations of the human mind but rather results from the saving work of God, through Jesus life and death on our behalf. By his life Jesus fulfilled the demands of God's holiness in our place and so we are credited with his righteous life and good standing before God. By his death Jesus removed the barrier of sin and its penalty that stood between God and His people.

Indeed, this is precisely how God, as vs19-20 indicate, "destroys the wisdom of the wise" and "makes foolish the wisdom of the world" - by bringing about by himself and through the cross, that which could never be accomplished by any person, through human wisdom or effort. As a result, this means of saving people - by his action and his action alone - has the necessary effect of humbling all those who think they know better than God and it has the result of showing human wisdom up as something that, by itself, is hollow and ineffective in the most important things of life.

Now, because the knowledge of God is utterly dependent upon Him, and is not the natural product of human reasoning, then the wisdom of God demonstrated in the Cross will always be received by those who are enamored with worldly wisdom as that which is: 1) offensive, 2) foolish, 3) weak 4) unwanted and 5) unimpressive. Let's think about each of these in turn...

First, the wisdom of God displayed in the Cross of Christ will always be, at its heart, a truth which is deeply offensive to "those who are perishing", as Paul puts it. And the reason is not hard to see, is it? The very idea that people are both: a) in a hopelessly lost condition and, at the same time, b) unwilling and unable to even acknowledge it, much less do anything about it - the very idea of that is an appalling truth for the unbelieving person to have to come to terms with. They can't and they won't. And yet it is such a necessary truth, isn't it? It is a necessary truth for many reasons, not the least of which, as Barrett notes, is that God understands that the human propensity for arrogance and pride is such that it cannot be given even the slightest toe-hold which it might use to make some sort of boast before God. As Paul writes later in this same chapter:

...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...
Second, the wisdom of God displayed in the Cross of Christ will always be, not only offensive, but will also be regarded as utter foolishness by those who are perishing. Now, obviously, the Apostle Paul himself does not believe the Cross of Christ is folly, but he knows that this is how it is regarded by the unbelieving world, and so he reflects that in his words here. As it was then, so it is today. To the unconverted mind it IS the height of ridiculousness to suggest that a Jewish preacher, put to death by his own people 2000 years ago, nailed to a wooden cross could have any relevance for life in the 21st century.

Now, of course, we know that the unbelieving mind finds this message about the Cross to be utter foolishness, but the sad reality was that, in Paul's day, this sentiment was not only to be found outside the church but was creeping into the church at Corinth as well. As one writer has put it, "As best as we can recapture the situation, some persons in Corinth are now saying that Paul's [original] "word of the cross", his message of Christ crucified, was weak and foolish. It [was somehow lacking and so] must be improved, made more acceptable by dressing it up differently, using words of wisdom." In short, many of the Corinthians had moved on beyond the cross to something else, something additional, something higher and more superior than what they had before.

You can see SOME of this going on when you look ahead a bit at chapter 4, verses 6-14, for example. If you read those verses you will see that somewhere the Corinthians had gotten hold of some teaching, some crazy notion that had taken them away from the Cross - moving that off center stage and putting something else in its place, so much so that some of the Corinthians felt that they had surpassed even Paul and Apollos in their "wisdom" and "knowledge" and "power". And so the Cross of Christ was seen as foolishness not only by the unbelieving world, but amazingly, even some of the Corinthian believers had begun to despise what they felt was Paul's over-emphasis upon the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Friends, does that sound at ALL familiar to you?

Third, the wisdom of God displayed in the Cross of Christ will always be seen, not only as offensive and foolish, but also weak. Notice once more vs25. Paul there refers to the "weakness" of God and, in context, he is referring to the death of Christ. Again, Paul uses this kind of language not because he personally believes God has any weaknesses or that the Cross was a sign of that, but because he is reflecting the view of those who are perishing: i.e., that any religion that has at its very core the image of a beaten, broken, bloodied man dying the death of a common criminal - any religion that has that at its heart and soul is surely a weak and hopeless religion.

Yet, Paul is saying that this so-called "weakness" was stronger and more powerful than any man or any man made thing. He is saying that through the action of the Cross which, in the eyes of the world, would seem to have been an utter defeat and failure, but through that unlikely spectacle God powerfully accomplished what no man, or collection of men, from this or any age could ever have accomplished.

Once again, while Paul's words here would describe the situation and attitude of the unconverted, they also, sadly, reflect the attitude of some within the Corinthian congregation who had come to feel that Paul's message of the Cross was, as Lucas says, a "weak message" - a negative message. It was not the sort of message that was going to get anybody fired up. It was not the sort of preaching that you could expect people to really get excited about or that was going to be very effective in building up the church.

Because of this belief, some within the Corinthian congregation had moved on to a "different" message, a message, as chapter 4 would suggest, that was all about triumph and victory and overcoming and personal achievement and blessing, etc.

Again, I ask you, does any of this sound familiar? Is this not the same situation in much of the church today where we have seemingly "moved on" from the Cross of Christ? Oh, the Cross of Christ is still there, somewhere in the background, but it is not center stage - something else is. Why? Because to keep focusing on the cross, and sin, and repentance is bad form. It's negative, it's weak, it sends the wrong message.

Friends, I'll be the first one to tell you that there is a time and a place to talk about triumph and victory and overcoming and blessing - but none of those things should ever be allowed to take the central place of the Cross. What did Paul say? "....we preach Christ CRUCIFIED, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles...."

Fourth, the wisdom of God displayed in the Cross of Christ will not only be offensive, foolish, and weak, but will is also be unwanted, it will be the last thing that people are looking for. To be sure, it is exactly what people NEED, but it will not be what they DEMAND, it will not be what they THINK they need or want.

Look again at vs. 22-24. The Jewish people were sitting around waiting for a certain kind of Messiah. A Messiah who was, as one writer puts it, "powerful, a victor, spattered with blood, perhaps, but with the blood of enemies he had slain...To contemplate a Messiah who was powerless, bloodied with his own blood, humiliated as he hung naked impaled on a stake by the hated Romans.." - that kind of Messiah was a stumbling block to Jews. And so, if they were going to accept this Jesus as a Messiah, he was going to have to meet some pretty tough criteria. Someone was going to have to provide them with an irrefutable demonstration of power upon which they could base their convictions.

That was the Roman angle. The Greeks, on the other hand, preferred to speculate their way towards God through reasoning and philosophy. Depending entirely upon human reason, they had come to the conclusion that the first characteristic of any God was that he was apatheia - passionless, impervious to things like human feeling and thus, to them, the concept of a suffering God was absolute madness and it would take no small amount of reasoning to convince them otherwise.

So, it was that Paul found himself in a demand-driven culture. The Jews demanded from him one thing, the Greeks another. Paul's response was NOT to respond to EITHER kind of demand but, instead, to give them that which they did not want and for which they were not asking and which, beyond that, was considered unacceptable and unreasonable on their own terms.

Does that mean that Paul did not consider his context, that he did not take into account the people among whom he was ministering? Of course not, we know that Paul did that. Later on in this same letter Paul will say, in chapter 9, that "to the Jews he became as a Jew.... and to those outside the law, he became as one outside the law.... that he might win those outside the law...." Clearly, Paul did take into account the people among whom he was ministering. But whatever that means, and hopefully we'll work that out later on, but whatever that means, it doesn't mean that Paul was just this sort of chameleon, this sort of demand-driven person who just gave people what they wanted to hear, taking a kind of "Gallup Poll" approach to ministry. I think that sometimes that IS how Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9 are taken but you can only do that if you take those words out of context. You can only do that if you just go straight to I Corinthians 9 and forget that he wrote 1 Corinthians 1 first.

Paul's preaching was not demand-driven and even though it may have been unwanted it was, in fact, the very thing the people most needed. "...The Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified...."

Fifth, the wisdom of God displayed in the Cross of Christ will not only be offensive, foolish, weak, and unwanted, but it will also be unimpressive - it will not be outwardly attractive, it will not come in an impressive, sophisticated package that will garner the praises of the watching world.

See again vs. 17, and then 1 Corinthians 2:2-5. Now, I don't want to say too much about this because we will give it a fuller treatment later on but do please note that the effectiveness of Paul's preaching was not because it was so brilliantly presented. As Barrett says, " Paul's message was solid in content, not "flowery" in its presentation , whereas the message of those he criticizes was empty of content though impressively eloquent in delivery.

Those who were practicing this "eloquent but empty" speech in Corinth were, no doubt, doing so for a number of reasons and motivations, but surely among them would have been the desire to be accepted and approved of by the world. Well, let me tell you, that was not only a problem back then, it continues to be a problem among the people of God today as Christians who struggle to believe the Gospel, continue to prostitute themselves to the whims and standards of particular persons and social institutions whose approval they feel they simply must have, or they will not survive. It is all too easy to trade the security of the Gospel, the security of knowing that you are a deeply loved son or daughter of the Living God - it is all too easy and tempting to trade THAT for the fleeting approbation of the unbelieving world.

But sooner or later, every believer has to come to terms with the reality that the Gospel which you serve is, in the eyes of the world, foolish, unwanted and unimpressive. Sooner of later you will have to come to terms with your own heart on this matter and you will have to be willing, for the sake of the Gospel - to be regarded yourself as foolish and weak and unimpressive - and this by those whose approval you once thought, and which some of you still think this very morning, that you cannot afford to do without.

Well, I think I've said enough about that but again, you see, because the knowledge of God is utterly dependent upon Him, and is not the natural product of human reasoning, then the wisdom of God demonstrated in the Cross will always be received by the world, and by the worldly church, as that which is: 1) offensive, 2) foolish, 3) weak, 4) unwanted, and 5) unimpressive.

Now, given all that we've seen so far this morning, one question that remains is this: If the Cross of Christ is the very power of God and the very wisdom of God, how do people experience that power and receive that wisdom today - a question which Dick Lucas astutely asks about this text.

Do you understand what I'm asking? The life, death and resurrection of Jesus - all those events are history. They happened way back when and are over and done with. So how is it, then, that an event which has already taken place becomes the power of God and the wisdom of God for a person living in the year 2010, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?

A person today cannot experience the reality and power of that event immediately - for that to happen we would have to travel back in time. So, a person today does not experience that power immediately but rather, mediately. Which is to say, the means by which a person today experiences the power and wisdom of God is through the proclamation of the Gospel, the "word of the cross ", as Paul describes it. Listen again to what Paul says in vss. 17-18:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 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.
Now we have already seen that the cross of Christ itself is the power of God and the wisdom of God. It is the power of God because it accomplished something - the salvation of God's people. Further, it is the wisdom of God because it resulted in the true knowledge which was/is the deepest knowledge of all - the knowledge between the Creator and his creature.

So, the Cross of Christ IS the power and wisdom of God, but the word of the cross, the proclamation of the Gospel is ALSO described by Paul as the power of God. It is the God-ordained means by which the historical power of the cross becomes the contemporary power of God for his people in every age.

Now you may feel that this is not a very important issue, but friends it IS. And, again, let me express my indebtedness to Lucas for driving this point home so well. But the question of power is a pressing one for the church today. We have been given a great commission and a great command, to fulfill as God's people. And if we are to serve the Gospel and see the Kingdom of God advancing in the hearts of men and women, we are going to need power to see these thing accomplished. And where will that power come from?

Well, as one writer points out, traditionally the church in Rome has answered that spiritual power is to be found in the Mass, mediated through the person of the Priest. The Pentecostal church has said that spiritual power is to be found in a second blessing, an additional and transforming spiritual experience that happens sometime after your conversion. But what does Paul say? Paul says that the power needed for the church today can be found in the Gospel and in the proclamation of that Gospel.

Now, I think that sometimes we struggle to see this because our notions of "power" have been corrupted by worldly ideas of what "power" is and, as a result, we often think of it as this sort of "force" which we can tap into and use to manipulate our world, or our situations, or our finances, etc. Those sorts of ideas about "power" are often seen on "christian" television (whatever that means) and, sadly, have more to do with pagan notions of power than they do with what the Bible actually says.

Over against that sort of view, Paul shows us that God does offer power to his church - but not as the world understands power. The power of God is the power of the cross - the power that comes through divine humiliation, sacrifice, weakness, and suffering and which is made available through something as ordinary and as outwardly unimpressive as the simple declaration of the Gospel.

In other words, you don't need to run over here to seek power through some ritual, nor do you need to run over here looking for power in some spiritual experience, all that you need, all that the church needs to be empowered for its commissioned task is already available in the Gospel and in the proclamation of the Gospel, which is the very power of God to those who are being saved. You and I have all that we need, right now, if only we will speak the words.

In summary, let me just say this: What human wisdom is powerless to do - bring people into the knowledge of God - God has powerfully done, And continues to do through the deeply offensive seemingly foolish, patently weak, completely unwanted and outwardly unimpressive proclamation of the Gospel.

For God's sake (literally) let's open our mouths! Tell somebody what God has done through the Lord Jesus! And as you do, know this: that as we are faithful to do that we will see the power of God manifest itself before our very eyes, as he draws his people to Himself....



This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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