Three years ago 'The Times' newspaper reported on the tragic death of a young girl. Her grave, in a cemetery in the small seaside town of Mablethorpe, was marked by a simple cross. But before long her mother was told by the local authority to remove it. Their rules said: 'Crosses are discouraged, as excessive use of the supreme Christian symbol is undesirable'. Instead the family was given permission to erect a headstone featuring Mickey Mouse.
As someone has commented, "The incident revealed where the true values of our society lie. The Disney interpretation of the world has supplanted the Christian one… " even in a place like Mablethorpe, which, with all due respect, is not considered to be a major centre of worldly sophistication. The so-called wisdom of the world is seen as more desirable than the wisdom of God, which is foolishness to those who are perishing. And the scandal of the cross of Christ continues (v23). From Paul's day to our own the cross has been a cause of offence to many.
In a very worldly and, to some degree, sophisticated Corinth where wealth, status and human wisdom and oratory were prized, the cross of Christ caused offence and was foolishness to those who were perishing. Look at v18 & 22-23:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (or offence) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
These Corinthian values of human wisdom and oratory were in the church at Corinth and the danger was that they would change the gospel, that they would change the message of the cross to suit the world, to make it more palatable and listen to those with great rhetorical skill and human understanding rather than to those who preach the divine wisdom of the cross. Look at v17:
Christ sent me to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
For, v18, to us who are being saved the message of the cross of Christ is the power of God. And v24 to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God". The gospel must not be altered or diluted.
Today the cross of Christ is still a cause of offence. The message of the cross of Christ is still foolishness to those who are perishing. To them the cross is the weakest link. The preaching of Christ crucified is still a stumbling block (or offence) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. The sophisticated, at least in the sense of its computer graphics, Son of God programme on BBC TV apparently misses the true message of the cross. In the church there is much preaching of human wisdom.
The former Bishop of Edinburgh was reported last week as saying that Jesus was not the Son of God. He said the central Christian claims were "metaphors for living a good and humane life". The belief that Jesus was the Son of God was "simply a way of heightening an understanding of this extraordinary man".
If people could really understand that the nature of religion is this wonderful mythic, symbolic, poetic system about deep truth, then they would relax. But we claim that you have to get into your head certain convictions about historical events that are in a sense irrelevant.
What nonsense. No wonder the church is in decline. There is no power in the preaching of human wisdom for the cross of Christ is denied. But the Christian faith is the faith of Christ crucified. That Jesus, the Son of God, fully God and fully man, died in our place on the cross to pay the price for our sins and rose again is central. Paul says so later on in 1 Cor 15:3-4:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
We must not alter the message of the cross – it is true - yes it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. We must preach Christ crucified (v23).
Also today there is some gospel preaching which relies on human eloquence rather than on the power of the cross of Christ. That kind of preaching draws people to the preacher. It nullifies the cross of Christ. Whereas the faithful preaching of the cross leads people to put their trust, not in any human device, but in what God has done in Christ. Look at v17 again:
For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
V18 onwards now explain the second half of that verse. So let's look first at v18-25 where Paul contrasts the wisdom of God, which seems folly to the sophisticated Corinthians, with the worldly wisdom that they so admired yet was so ineffective. Where Paul essentially says, the world has had enough teachers, it needs a Redeemer.
First, THE 'FOOLISHNESS' OF THE CROSS (1.18-25)
The message or literally the 'word' of the cross contrasts with the word of human wisdom in v17.
The message or word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The message or word of the cross includes both the matter and the manner of the preaching and neither please those who are perishing. In their wisdom the message of the cross is foolishness.
In Rome there's a carving which shows how the worldly wise regarded the message of the cross. It shows a worshipper standing before a crucified figure with the body of a man and the head of an ass and the inscription underneath reads: 'Alexamenos worships his god'. It is still true today.
Those who are perishing are blind to the truth of the gospel. To them it is absurd – a message of a crucified Saviour, of the Messiah dying on a cross. As someone has written: no mere human, in his right mind or otherwise, would have ever dreamed up God's scheme of redemption through a crucified Messiah. It is too preposterous, too humiliating.
Yet this gives us another good reason for believing that it did happen – doesn't it - and that it was God's doing. No human would have invented it with any hope that people would believe it to be true. To us who are being saved the message of the cross is the power of God. It is not simply good advice, nor is it information about God's power – it is God's power. Romans 1:16 says that,
the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
Paul here affirms that there are only two kinds of people in the world – those in the process of perishing (those heading for eternal separation from God and eternal punishment in hell) and those in the process of being saved. Each will respond to the gospel message in diametrically opposite ways.
Paul backs up what he says in v18 with Scripture, with a quote from Isaiah 29:14 -
For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate'. (v19)
God's way had from of old stood in contrast with that suggested by human wisdom. People always think their way is right don't they. People today such as, Richard Dawkins and some of our lecturer, teacher and medical colleagues; but also many who live in our neighbourhoods. But God proves wrong their 'wisdom'; he reduces their systems to nothing. Neither the wisdom of the wise nor the intelligence of the intelligent can stand before God.
In v20 Paul hammers home this point:
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
No human wisdom can avail before God. Human wisdom is transitory. This world is but a passing show and its wisdom passes with it. And God has not simply disregarded this wisdom or shown it to be foolish; he has made it foolish. God has rejected all that rests on merely human wisdom.
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. (v21)
Paul is saying that God in his wisdom chose to save people by the way of the cross and by no other way. The word 'pleased' indicates this was God's free and sovereign choice. His plan was never that people should come to know him by their exercise of wisdom. God's way was very different and unexpected, so much so that Paul says it is 'foolishness'. As someone has put it:
People have never acclaimed the gospel as a masterpiece of wisdom. To the natural man it does not make sense. Paul was not unaware of what he was up against as he preached the gospel and we should not be either.
The gospel itself, the message that God saves us through a crucified Saviour is foolishness. People do not receive salvation by exercising wisdom, which is where a number of folk get stuck. No - salvation comes to those who believe.
Perhaps there's someone here this morning who's been thinking through the Christian faith but now you need to simply and humbly believe and trust in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to take the punishment for our sin and rose again so that we, through faith in him, can be forgiven, have peace with God and eternal life. Why not do so this morning, on this Palm Sunday morning and hail him as your matchless King.
God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (v22-25)
The Jews want evidence as some people do today. They demand miraculous signs. They had demanded a sign from Jesus. They thought the Messiah would be attested by striking manifestations of power and majesty. To them a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms.
The Greeks look for wisdom. They looked down, as some people do today, on all who failed to appreciate their wisdom. Some of the Greek philosophers did have high intellectual perception but all their wisdom has no saving power for mankind.
But we, says Paul emphatically, preach Christ crucified – the message of the cross – the message that came from God, not from the preacher. We are to faithfully herald that gospel message of Christ crucified. And the tense of the word crucified means that the crucifixion of Christ is permanent in its efficacy.
But Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. To the Jews the cross is an offence. To them those hanged bore the curse of God (Deut 21:23). The Gentiles saw the cross as foolishness, as sheer folly. There was no wisdom in it from their point of view. Surely God would never act like that. Both Jews and Gentiles reject the crucified Jesus.
But, v24, those who are called by God, Jew or Greek, welcome the message. Those called know that the crucified Christ means power. Before God called them they were defeated by sin; now there's a new power at work in them, the power of God - a power that many of us here this morning will know in our lives.
Christ is also the wisdom of God. That Christ is both the power and wisdom of God is important. Because had the way to God been open through wisdom, Christianity would have opened the way to salvation only to the intellectually gifted. The power in the cross opens the way for the humblest to know God and to overcome evil, and that is a wisdom superior by far to anything the philosophers could produce. On the level of the search for wisdom the 'foolishness' of God proved to be the true wisdom. (Morris)
For, [as Paul concludes in v25] the foolishness of God (ie the cross) is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God (the cross) is stronger than man's strength.
The sign seeking Jews were blind to the significance of the greatest sign of all when it was before them. The wisdom loving Greeks could not discern the most profound wisdom of all when they were confronted with it. The same is true of many today. But to those whom God has called, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.
Secondly, THE 'FOOLISHNESS' OF GOD'S PEOPLE (1.26-31)
All this is illustrated by the kind of people God has called. His power works miracles in the most hopeless material and thus his wisdom excels the best that men can produce.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are. (v26-28)
God does all this, v29, so that no-one may boast before him. We have nothing to boast of before God.
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus. (v30)
We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus. In Christ "who has become for us wisdom from God" in sharp contrast to the wisdom available in the world. The wisdom of God is embodied in Christ, who offered himself on the cross that people might be saved. This is real wisdom – let the philosophers argue as they will. Christ has become for us wisdom from God – that is, v30, "our righteousness, holiness and redemption".
Righteousness means that we have been brought into a right standing before God and into a right relationship with him that Christ makes available for his own. Christ is our righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). We know no other.
We could never attain holiness in our own strength, but Christ is holiness and he is redemption. He has paid the ransom price in his own body on the cross of Calvary. Holiness means that we have been set apart for him. We have been bought at a price. We are no longer our own.
Redemption means we have been set free by him from the power and consequence of sin. Christ's work on the cross brings us into a relationship with him so that we might live for him. Therefore let him who boasts boast in the Lord.
Thirdly, THE 'FOOLISHNESS' OF THE PREACHER (2:1-5)
Not only may the message and the followers of the gospel appear foolish but the messengers too. But God's power is seen in lives changed by the gospel.
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. for I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (v1-5)
Paul reminds his hearers and us that his preaching had conformed to what he's been saying about the 'foolishness' of the Gospel. It had been a plain, unvarnished setting forth of the simple gospel. There had been nothing attractive about it. But precisely because it was so simple and unpretentious its results convincingly demonstrated the power of God. And as we preach or share the gospel this Easter we need to learn from these verses about both the matter and the manner.
Preaching the gospel is bearing witness to what God has done in Christ for our salvation, it's not about superior human eloquence or wisdom. Paul concentrated on the heart of the gospel: Jesus Christ and him crucified. As I'm sure we often feel he came to preach in weakness, fear and with much trembling. We are not to rely on ourselves but on God. He did not use methods of human wisdom. Rather his preaching had been a clear demonstration of the power of the Spirit. It had carried conviction not by human excellence but by the Spirit's power. So that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. Paul had refused to employ human eloquence and had concentrated on the message that was so unpalatable to natural men, the message of the cross. So should we (not forgetting the resurrection).