1 Corinthians 1:18-25
October 1, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 13:45 in the audio file.
Or, The Perfect Offense to All Human Pretense
I don’t know anyone who dislikes pretentiousness more than my wife. Of course God dislikes it, and He can see the fullness of everyone’s heart, but Mo seems to have special (albeit not inerrant) sensors and serious unimpressed-ness when others try to act impressive. I am very grateful for this part of her.
Sinful human beings like to pretend that they are impressive. We make believe, and try to make others believe, that we are something to behold, someones to esteem. The world presents a variety of options for stroking our egos, and those in the church are not less susceptible to the marketing of these self-centered mindsets. You can be admired because of your authoritative presence, your financial power, your insightful wisdom, your winsome speech, your sharp appearance, even your ostensible righteousness. If you can’t have those qualities yourself, you can at least identify with those who are. You can be cool by association; you have the t-shirt.
Of course there are people who have genuine influence, who exercise actual discernment and can teach true truth to others. There are obedient saints, and they do tend to hang out together. But, to those with eyes to see, the ones who play at appearances are funny, foolish, and the object of God’s destruction. There is nothing that flays a faker and causes such offense to human pretense as a crucified Christ.
The church in Corinth was vulnerable to impressive appearances and under the spell of status seeking celebrities. Some of Chloe’s people reported to Paul that quarrels and divisions were happening among the believers over their favorite religious figures (1:10-17). Division is one of the reasons Paul writes this letter, and it’s one of the most inconsistent behaviors for those who believe in a crucified Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul reminds the church about appearances, about foolishness and wisdom, about weakness and power, about destruction and salvation, about who gets the last and loudest laugh. He reminds them that the best they can get from what men have to offer could never get them to God; why do they care so much about appearances? And he reminds them that his message and ministry were centered on the word of the cross, the perfect offense to all human pretense.
There is the “wisdom of word” (σοφίᾳ λόγου, ESV: “words of eloquent wisdom”) in verse 17 and it contrasts with the word of the cross (Ὁ λόγος…ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ). There are two ways of thinking, two paradigms that shape how men evaluate things.
The word of the cross is the “gospel” about the “cross of Christ” (verse 17), the preaching of “a crucified Christ” (verse 23). And this cross talk is folly, it’s ridiculous, and in a few verses we’ll see it is a stumbling block (verse 23). The cross is offensive to anyone and everyone in the world who thinks about it. In the Roman world the cross symbolized all that a man did not want to be. A crucified man wasn’t just a convicted criminal, he was scum to the Romans and was cursed according to the Israelites. The cross was a symbol of torture, yes, but for those who were judged and rejected. To die like this, in such a remote place like Jerusalem—in the Roman Empire equivalent to Fargo, SD, from the perspective of a New Yorker—was so obviously laughable.
And Paul agrees. The word of the cross is folly…to those who are perishing. A crucified Christ is clearly stupid to a certain kind of person who is in the process of being ruined.
Here is the antithesis. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God. We would expect the contrast to be between folly and wisdom, and it is that (see verse 24), but more. The word of the cross not only shows itself to be a good option, it causes effects.
The first effect that it causes is judging those who think they are wise. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14, a passage where God declares His purpose to expose and frustrate and defeat those who act as if they don’t need Him. This isn’t merely “how it turned out,” this is God’s purpose. God cracks all self-promoting pretension, especially religious pretension.
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
therefore, behold, I will again
do wonderful things with this people,
with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”
Paul then asks four rhetorical questions proving God’s triumph. Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Here are three categories of persons: the philosopher and the law-man/academic/scholar/theologian and the rhetorician/advertiser. They could be three separate types, or mixed in one type. Each kind is an expert, a professional, the kind of man you look up to who has answers.
And, by God’s common grace and the realities of being God’s image-bearers, men have come up with some great things. Men have invented instruments and music and art, men have built houses and businesses and countries. Men have harnessed electricity and send invisible signals from virtually un-scratchable pieces of glass off of orbiting satellites and written formulas for gravity. But none of these have reconciled any man to God. Where are the experts who brought us to God? They don’t exist.
So the fourth question, Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? Yes, He has, and is, and will. They are congratulating themselves and celebrating their great achievements and conferring degrees on their wisdom, and the joke’s on them.
The world cannot know God on their own, that’s how He’s made the world to work. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. This does not contradict what Paul wrote to the Romans about creation making certain attributes of God known to all men. All men know His eternal power and divine nature though they suppress that knowledge (Romans 1:19-20). But in 1 Corinthians Paul describes how no poet or philosopher or scientist has discovered communion with God. The world does not know God’s Son, God’s grace, God’s love, God’s salvation through any effort of observation, hypothesis, or experiment. Again, this is how God made it to be.
Instead, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. His purpose and delight was to reveal Himself in the Word made flesh and then crucified and then proclaimed. It pleased Him not to reason men into salvation or answer all their curiosities. He used the very thing perishing men think folly, not the act of preaching but the fact of a crucified Christ, to save men. This does have implications for the style of communication, since the context is about not following those who use eloquent or impressive technique. The gospel is the power of God to salvation, so stop exalting one gospel-sayer over another.
this announcement…meets men’s hearts square on, in a direct clash, that it aims to reverse them completely, to set them going in the very opposite direction. It intends to convert, to turn them completely around; nothing less. (Lenski)
We cannot keep up a pretense of high status and be saved by the cross.
This offends men who act as if they were judges. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. Christ did do miracles and signs, and He told men to believe His works (John 10:37), but He did not do them because He needed to prove something to doubters. Skeptics don’t get to judge Jesus. Those who are perishing do not determine the standards of evidence or get to tell Him what will satisfy them. They are on the scale being weighed, not the ones using the scale. Jews wanted displays of power so that they could be associated with power. The Greeks, the cultured ones, wanted logical first principles and systems of proofs developed out in branches. In our day, men call it science, with all the unspoken philosophy underneath it. For Jews and Greeks the word of the cross was unacceptable.
But proof can’t produce faith in Christ, proof is seen by faith. Wisdom can’t produce faith, faith opens eyes to wisdom.
We preach Christ crucified is an acceptable translation, but based on how the phrase is structured, a better translation would be “we preach a crucified Christ.” Men have expectations for what a Messiah will be and do. The Jews certainly did and they had Scripture to support their expectations. But they didn’t read all of the passages, especially the ones about a Suffering Servant, about the unimpressive one wounded for transgressions. They wanted a Christ, but not a crucified one.
This is akin to proclaiming as good news that the victor has been vanquished, the market has collapsed, or the holiday has been cancelled. It is only our familiarity that dulls the strangeness of Paul’s message for us. (Ciampa & Rosner)
To the Jews a crucified Christ was a stumbling block, a scandal (σκάνδαλον), an offense, an obstacle. This was monstrous. No way was salvation this way. Someone hung on a tree was cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23); the Christ couldn’t be cursed. We can hear these persons saying, “My God wouldn’t crucify His own Son. This is cosmic child abuse!” To the Gentiles a crucified Christ was folly, madness. This is the kind of hate speech that people shouldn’t have to listen to.
But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Called is the effective work of God to draw men to Himself. The Corinthians were “called to be saints” (verse 2), they were “called into the fellowship of [God’s] Son” (verse 9). God initiates and makes the gospel effective. The word of the cross then is God’s power and wisdom. No sign ever atoned for man’s sin, Jesus on the cross did. No syllogism ever resulted in God’s grace to man, Jesus on the cross did.
Verse 25 summarizes this great reversal of appearances. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. The problem with this translation is it makes it seem as if “foolishness” and “weakness” of God are, or could be, attributes of God. It’s not easy to translate the phrases, but some awkwardness might be beneficial. We could say, “the thing of foolishness of God” and “the thing of weakness of God” as in this “thing” God’s done. You called it God’s pawn, but it beat your queen.
The word of the cross is the power of God to us who are being saved:
Therefore, preachers of the gospel should not attempt to use worldly methods to manipulate men to believe, nor should they seek to be seen as impressive by their audience. The cross is the determinative killer of status. And since the message of the cross offends, we cannot plan or program a way to cater to the self (in the preacher or the hearer), the very thing the cross destroys.
Therefore, a crowd could be good or bad. A crowd that loves the wisdom of the world is not good even if they use Jesus’ name and call themselves a church. A crowd of those humbled by the cross, gathered to worship Jesus not themselves, is good. And also, the fact that there is no crowd does not necessarily mean that the cross is being proclaimed. It could mean that you’re talking about Jesus but being a jerk.
Therefore, as for the “audience,” those who listen to gospel preaching and still demand signs and/or wisdom demonstrate that they are perishing. The gospel, and God’s wisdom, and the death of Jesus Christ, are not subjects for debate. The cross is not for consumers. Any attempt to trim the message in order to make it more acceptable to human wisdom will be destroyed by God; the center can’t be trimmed. The cross is not trying to make you feel better about yourself. The cross devastates your natural feelings so that you can have life.
Therefore, divisions in the church based on preference for preachers of the gospel is inconsistent with the pretense shattering work of the cross. Paul wrote about this because of the divisions in Corinth. By way of application, this is why I’m “a” pastor, why all our elders are pastors, why we promote the plurality of overseers. All are yours (see 1 Corinthians 3:22).
Therefore, if you want to know God, you must know the cross. The cross is where God reveals and saves. Any theology or religious system of thought that does not include the cross is defective and destructive.
Therefore, you cannot love the cross and love yourself, not the way the world wants you to. Christianity is not about Christ boosting your ego. The cross blows away powdered sugar pretenses and transforms us. The fact that when we think about the cross we don’t think about terror but rather God’s love and wisdom proves its power. That same power is at work in all of us who believe.
The word of the cross is not folly, it is power, though we might expect to hear in contrast to folly that it is wisdom. Likewise, the word of the cross does not promote pride, but thankfulness. If you were expecting to hear humility, that’s right, too, but a humble person ins’t necessarily quiet. Lots of bitter skeptics keep their mouths shut (regardless of what it seems on social media). Thank God for your blessings. Thank God for your troubles. Thank God for your future. Thank God for the cross.
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:11–12, ESV)