What is wisdom? What is foolishness? These are important questions that people in every generation have to answer. These two questions are before us today and they were before the people who lived in Corinth in the first century. What is “wisdom?” The Cambridge Dictionary defines “wisdom” as “The ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.” I have to ask you, “Is your knowledge and experience enough to help you make wise decisions about the most important topics in all of life?” Could it be that all we need to consistently make wise decisions is enough knowledge and experience? You don’t have to answer that now, but hopefully by the time we end our study you will be able to answer that question for yourself.
Let’s move on to the next question. What is “foolishness?” The same dictionary gives us this definition: “The quality of being unwise, stupid, or not showing good judgment.” Here’s another question for us to consider: “How do you determine what it means to not show good judgment in any given situation?” Is it unwise to give up a promising career to devote yourself to something that most consider foolish? Is it foolish to forgive someone who has caused you great sorrow and pain? Is it unwise to give up your dreams to follow someone else’s desire for your life? Is foolishness a concrete standard for all to follow or should foolishness be determined by something or Someone outside of our own thinking and reasoning? Once again, I don’t expect you to answer these questions now, but hopefully before we finish our study you will have an answer.
In our Scripture for today the Apostle Paul talks about foolishness and wisdom throughout the eight verses we’ll look at during our study. Let’s read our Scripture together and then we’ll see what we can learn.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25 NIV)
The Greeks were enamored with philosophy, learning, and the pursuit of wisdom. Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle are the three most famous Greek philosophers, but Greece was full of philosophers who developed world views, ways of understanding life and the world, and each of these schools of thought had their followers. While Paul was in Athens, which we can read about in Acts 17, he ran into some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who had questions about the “strange ideas” Paul was teaching. They invited Paul to the Areopagus to share his ideas. Then in verse 21 we read,
21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) (Acts 17:21 NIV)
The Greeks loved to exchange ideas, debate the superiority of one idea over another, and to continuously pursue more and more knowledge. The accumulation of knowledge, following the Socratic school of thought over the Epicurean school of thought or the Aristotelian school of thought brought about an air of superiority for one group over another. “There may be many wise people in Athens or Corinth, but we are the wisest of the wise!” John MacArthur writes,
The world today, just as in Paul’s day, is caught up in the admiration and worship of human opinion, human wisdom, and human desires and aspirations. Men are continually trying to figure out on their own what life is all about–where it came from, where it is going, what it signifies (if anything), and what can and should be done about it (if anything). Modern man has made gods of education and human opinion. Although human ideas are constantly changing, appearing and disappearing, being tried and found wanting, conflicting with and contradicting each other, men continue to put faith in them. As long as they reject divine authority, they have no other option. (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians. pg. 36-37).
There is another group of people that Paul had in mind when he sat down to pen these words to the people of Corinth. Paul wrote, “Jews demand signs…” Whereas the Greeks were enamored with and fixated on the pursuit of wisdom, the Jews were fixated on signs, but what kind of signs? God had acted powerfully throughout Israel’s history in delivering them time and time again, but they knew one promise had yet to be fulfilled…the promise of the Messiah! The One who would come to overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel. They were looking for signs of the Coming One, the Mighty Warrior King who would do God’s bidding. They had studied the Scriptures, they knew, or they thought they knew which signs to look for, but they sure didn’t see any of those signs present in Jesus. Time and time again in the Gospels they said, “Show us a sign!” You can read that phrase in each of the four Gospels, but let me give you just one example. Turn with me to Matthew 12:38-40.
38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt. 12:38-40 NIV)
Jesus said the only sign He would give them was the sign of the prophet Jonah. Out of all of the miracles Jesus performed, He would spotlight His own execution and resurrection as the sign to validate His claim to be the Messiah? Who would ever do something like that?! A crucified Messiah was scandalous to the Jews! It was absurd, ludicrous, the epitome of foolishness to think such a thing could actually be true. Let me give you just one example from history to show you that what I’m saying is absolutely true. In Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho,” written between 155-160 A.D. Justin Martyr, a follower of Jesus, seeks to prove to Rabbi Trypho from Scripture that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. The Rabbi responds,
Sir, these and such-like passages of scripture compel us to await One who is great and glorious, and takes the everlasting Kingdom from the Ancient of Days as Son of Man. But this your so-called Christ is without honour and glory, so that He has even fallen into the uttermost curse that is in the Law of God, for he was crucified. (Dialogue With Trypho. pgs. 31-32)
Neither Jew nor Greek could accept the foolish declaration that God became Incarnate, that God became man, and died for the sins of others. It was utter foolishness! I want us to focus on verses 19-20 for a moment. Let’s read those verses once again.
19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:19-20 NIV)
Paul quoted Isaiah to make his point that the wisdom of people will be shown to be foolish in the end. This statement was true in Isaiah’s day, it would prove to be true in Paul’s day, and it is still true today. Let’s take a look at how it proved to be true in Isaiah’s day first. When Isaiah made this statement the king of Assyria, the most powerful nation in the land, had his sights set on conquering Judah. The Lord told Isaiah to tell His people not to worry about King Sennacherib because his plan was destined to fail. Sennacherib would be defeated not because of the power of Judah’s army or the wise, military strategy of King Hezekiah, but because of God’s mighty power.
Now you need to know that human logic, reason, and we can even say conventional wisdom would never consider not to prepare for battle if the nation was getting ready to be attacked by a super power. King Hezekiah struggled with Isaiah’s counsel. He tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and went into the temple of the LORD. What God was calling him to do went against reason and logic. In the temple, in prayer, Hezekiah acknowledged that the Assyrians had destroyed nation after nation, but then he continued to pray,
20 Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, LORD, are the only God. (Isaiah 37:20 NIV)
Hezekiah had heard Isaiah’s word from God and he had been obedient to follow God’s counsel even though it made no sense whatsoever. We read in Isaiah 37:36-37,
36 Then the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning– there were all the dead bodies! 37 So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there. (Isaiah 37:36-37 NIV)
God’s Word was true and it remains true to this day. Have you lived long enough to notice that the wisdom of people is always changing? It doesn’t matter what topic we are talking about, wisdom that originates from us is always changing. We can use our current crisis as an example. If you have followed the wisdom we’ve received from the World Health Organization and our own Center For Disease Control then you know that we’ve been given mixed messages. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not true. I don’t know if wisdom has changed from one day to the next as new discoveries have been made. I’m not being critical, I’m simply pointing out that we’re getting mixed messages.
Covid is a recent topic of discussion, but let me use another example that I’ve been following for 30 years now. That is the topic of education for the Oklahoma City Public School system. I can remember 30 years ago hearing about the crisis being faced by the Oklahoma City Public School system. The drop out rate was unimaginable, test scores were unacceptable, and so the OKC School Board came up with a new plan. That was 30 years ago. I have lost track of how many new plans have been proposed and implemented in the 30 years I’ve been staying up with what’s happening in the lives of our kids who attend schools in the OKC Public Schools system. Experts have been brought in, people with Ph.D’s in Education have been consulted, new Superintendents have been hired, and each new plan was the Promised Plan, the one that would turn things around. The result of all of these plans is that our kids are still in the same boat they were in 30 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the advances that have been made. My own family has benefited from one of the advances that has been made in science and medicine. Connie and Annie both have what doctors call Lynch Syndrome. It is a genetic predisposition to cancer. Connie was diagnosed with cancer when she was 45. Because of Connie’s family history with cancer, Dr. Geister was suspicious and told her she needed to get genetically tested. When she tested positive for Lynch Syndrome, Dr. Geister said all of our kids needed to be tested. Dan and Nate were both negative, but Annie, who was still in college, tested positive. We’re grateful to know Annie has Lynch Syndrome because there are tests she can take every year to make sure she stays on top of things. How many people, unaware of what was going on inside of them, unaware of their genetic makeup, died at a young age before there was any knowledge of Lynch Syndrome?
With that said, has the discovery of Lynch Syndrome advanced us as people? It has helped people live longer, but has it made us better human beings, more caring individuals? With all of the advances we’ve seen take place in our lifetime, have any of them made us better people? We live in the wealthiest country on the planet. Does that fact make us more generous than any other nation? Agricultural science has helped us to produce more food than at any other time in history. Has this fact wiped out hunger in our nation or around the world? We now have more laws in place in our nation than at any other time in our nation’s history, but have they helped us to become more law abiding citizens? With technological advancements we can now communicate in more ways than ever before, but have they helped us to listen more attentively to one another, have they given us a better understanding of one another? Human wisdom and advancements continue to take place, but none of them solves the basic problem of humanity which is sin.
So, if the wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of humanity is insufficient to do anything about our most basic problem, where can we turn? That’s a great question! There is a wisdom of another kind that Paul has experienced, that transformed his life, and from that day forward he devoted his life to making it known. Paul’s message is simple. While the Greeks gave themselves to all kinds of theories of wisdom and knowledge and the Jews looked near and far for signs of the coming Messiah, Paul said, “…we preach Christ crucified.” Paul hammers this message home again and again. In the very next chapter of his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes,
1 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NIVO)
Wow! What a declaration! What a powerful truth! Paul had no use for flowery rhetoric, no use for erudite arguments or philosophical takes on life, he desired nothing more than to make known the power of the cross to transform lives. The cross? Of all of the things God could have chosen to demonstrate His power and wisdom why would He choose the cross?
I want you to stop and think about it for a moment. In our country the primary means of execution has been hanging, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and most recently, lethal injection. On our communion table we have a cross, a gold plated cross, but imagine if it was a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. Those are abhorrent symbols to us as Americans. They are symbols of death, not life. It doesn’t matter what ethnic background, socio-economic bracket, or educational level you come from–those are horrible symbols. The same can be said of the cross. I’ve already shared with you what Rabbi Trypho thought of the cross, but Martin Hengel reminds us it was not just the Jews who winced at the thought of the cross. He writes,
Death on a cross was regarded in Roman society (and Corinth was a ‘Roman’ city) as brutal, disgusting, and abhorrent. It was reserved for convicted slaves and terrorists, and could never be imposed on Roman citizens or more ‘respectable’ criminals. It was so offensive to good taste that crucifixion was never mentioned in polite society, except through the use of euphemisms. For Gentiles who might imagine a ‘divine’ savior figure, and for Jews who expected a Messiah anointed with power and majesty, the notion of a crucified Christ, a Messiah on the cross, was an affront and an outrage. (Hengel, Martin. The Cross. pg. 93)
God chose the least likely path, the path of death, to be the only path to life, abundant and eternal life. What people understood to be the most abhorrent symbol of death became the singular means of life and salvation for those who believe. Paul wrote,
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV)
Paul says there are only two conclusions you and I can draw after being confronted by the cross. We can either walk away believing that the message of the cross is foolishness, utter foolishness, or we can fall before the cross in humility and gratitude as we recognize the power and wisdom of God who has done for us what we could have never done for ourselves.
Why the cross? Because the cross renders our intellect and power utterly useless. You cannot think your way to God. You cannot determine your own path to reconciliation and salvation. You can’t think your way into knowing God. Plato, Aristotle, the greatest minds of our day–all of these are incapable of knowing God’s thoughts and ways on their own. This should not be news to anyone. In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read,
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 NIV)
If we were to put together a think tank and ask people, “How can we make things right with God?” That think tank would come up with the same answer that most people today would give: “You should try to live a better life.” What does that mean? “Well, it means that you shouldn’t lie, you shouldn’t steal, you should be nice to other people, help people that are in need. You just need to do better.” This has been the predominant thought of humanity forever. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at the world’s religions and you’ll see that I’m right. Paul wrote,
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21 NIV)
The world says, “We are in a fix, but we can figure it out. The Bible says that we are in a fix that none of us will ever be able to figure out. Recognizing our dilemma is the gateway to understanding that something far more powerful than solving the dilemma on our own has happened. God has drawn near in Jesus. Jesus paid our debt, your debt, my debt, through His own execution. Jesus died for all who would believe in order that we might be reconciled to God and experience life as God intended.
There’s a story that’s been told for many years of an old church that, when it first started, had a powerful ministry in its community. They were known for powerful Bible teaching and preaching. Many people came to know Jesus through the ministry of the church and its members. The members of the church were so committed to teaching and preaching God’s Word that they had “We preach Christ crucified…” etched into the stone over an archway leading into the church. As the years rocked along ivy that was growing on the front of the church began to cover the sign so that it read, “We preach Christ.” Eventually the ivy grew more until the sign read, “We preach.” The sign was like a living testimony of the church’s history. The passion to declare the Bible’s teaching of the sinfulness of humanity and costliness of redemption through the cross was lost along the way. They wanted to reach more people and new ideas of how to have a successful ministry were implemented. I pray this will never be said about Britton Christian Church.
It is through the cross alone that we are redeemed. It is through the cross alone that our hopelessness can be transformed into hope. It is through the cross alone that reconciliation with God, and with one another, takes place. Oh the precious cross of our Savior! I want to invite you to come to the cross this morning and receive the grace and mercy of our King.
Britton Christian Church
October 18, 2020
1 Corinthians 1:18-25