1 Corinthians 1:26-31
October 8, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:00 in the audio file.
Or, Boasting Like a Nobody
I’m not sure what evangelism and apologetics and pastoral ministry were like a couple hundred years ago. We have some books, we can study history, but it’s hard to get a full picture of both what men wanted to say and what men wanted to hear. Since I’ve been alive and able to listen to gospel preaching and gospel presentations the emphasis is usually on how much value and worth and significance the other person has in God’s eyes. You don’t have to search too far to hear, “God values you so much that He sent His Son to die for you.” But, is that true?
What is man’s worth in God’s eyes? Does God see something of value in us that causes Him to love us? Yes, men are made in God’s image. No other created being in the universe has such capacity for glory as a human being. We do believe that all human life, all human lives, are valuable in this respect. But even at this point no person has inherent importance. Any value is still a gift and worth is borrowed. Our best glory is reflected glory.
And that was before the fall of mankind in Adam. We are all born into Adam’s guilt. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We are sinners and we sin. We are wretched.
Yet men want to feel good about themselves. They want others to think they are great. They want respect and appreciation and admiration. They want to be liked, and get likes.
In his 17th century book Pensees, Blaise Pascal wrote:
That something so obvious as the vanity of the world should be so little recognized that people find it odd and surprising to be told that it is foolish to seek greatness; that is most remarkable. (Pensees, 5)
The cross does not boost our egos, it kills them. The cross does not make us feel good about ourselves, the cross demands that we repent from loving ourselves. Love of self belongs with wisdom as the world defines it. That’s why the world thinks that a crucified Christ is folly. But the word of the cross is the power of God and it ruins the world’s evaluation of status. Some people think a crucified Christ is foolish, yet a crucified Christ saves fools.
Paul could have pointed to any number of proofs, but he starts with the personal testimonies of those to whom he wrote. They were not special, certainly not in the world’s eyes. They didn’t have extra influence. They were nobodies. And Paul says God chose them to receive everything in Jesus. All they lost was pretense and all they gained was glory in God.
There were quarrels in the church (1 Corinthians 1:11) apparently not based on who was speaking the truth but who said it better. Believers were tempted to divide from one another based on a pecking order of personality and external preferences. But the church isn’t built around significance, it’s built around the cross, and the significant people of the world think a crucified Christ is offensive. Paul wants the believers to boast, but to boast like a nobody. To get them there he urges them to consider their calling.
Paul’s first evidence is the status of most of the church. They weren’t great or popular or pretty people by worldly standards.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Paul tells them to stop and assess, as if he said, “Look at yourselves! No one thought of you as anything special.”
The wise guys are those esteemed for their education and intelligence, at least according to worldly standards (κατὰ σάρκα, “according to the flesh”). The powerful are the influential; “the strength in view is not the strength of the weight-lifter but the strength of the opinion-maker” (Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 27). Those of noble birth are those with social status for their family resources and connections. Most of the Corinthian Christians didn’t come from the upper class, from the respected group of cultural taste-makers. They didn’t have “ancestry, accomplishment, or affiliation” (ESVSB).
In Roman culture, they were the plebeians; they didn’t have friends in low places, they themselves were the ones in low places. That not many means that there were some that the world recognized, men such as Gaius (able to host of “the whole church” – Romans 16:23) and Crispus (ruler of the synagogue – Acts 18:8), but the majority were of humble status. Some would have been slaves, some former slaves, some poor, perhaps wondering where their next meal would come from.
Yet they were called. Paul keeps using the idea in chapter one to emphasize God’s choice, and he’s about to say even more about God’s choice in the next three verses. God did not make His church out of celebrities and scholars and statesmen. It wasn’t because God couldn’t, but because He had a different point to make.
Here is emphasis by repetition: God chose, God chose, God chose. Three times God chose directly against what the world exalts and He chose on purpose what they would not in order to show the vanity of their standards and ultimately to show how little value humanity brings to the table.
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. The world has a system and that system means nothing in terms of who knows God or even reality. They think they’re doing advanced calculus and they’re barely fist-drawing shapes with jumbo crayons. Yet those who have faith like a child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1-4). God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. A man might have his hands on cultural levers, but no man has the power to deliver himself from sin, either in practice or before God. No one achieves abundant life, but the Shepherd gives it to His sheep (John 10:10). And God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. These are the “nobodies,” the “nothings,” those who are not even considered to be persons, let alone significant persons.
The principle behind these choices is summarized in verse 29. So that no human being might boast in the presence of God. This is not because God can’t handle the competition. It’s because it’s not true and it cannot be the best for any man to prop himself up on a lie. How can he boast in his wisdom that can’t best God’s foolish thing? How can he boast about his money that God gave him? How can he boast about his ancestry? He had nothing to do with who his parents were. As the the Old Testament prophet urged: “Let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
So this is the profile of those God chose: foolish, weak, low, despised, nobodies and it was on purpose.
There isn’t any reason to boast in our inherent worth because we don’t have any. But we will get to boast (see verse 31). We don’t have anything that God hasn’t given to us. And what else could He give us that we don’t have in Christ?
Verse 30 could be translated “From Him you are in Christ.” An earlier version of the ESV had, “He is the source of our life.” The updated ESV has, Because of him. It’s not because of themselves, it’s not because of clever or charismatic teachers. From God we have four things in Christ:
All of these gifts are from God. We were not great but He has given us great things.
Consider your calling. Consider what you have in Christ. And now we have the antidote to human boasting (verse 29). We should boast but not in ourselves.
The so that sends us to the summary. Here’s what to do now. As it is written prepares us for the Old Testament quote coming from Jeremiah 9:24, though the entire paragraph assumes knowledge of Jeremiah 9:23 too.
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23–24)
We are to boast, to celebrate, to praise, to commend, to brag about knowing and being in Christ. Do acknowledge what you’ve been given and make sure others know you know that it’s been given.
Not many are chosen from positions of worldly influence, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t choose any. “Kings are people, too” (Wilson, Empries of Dirt, 97). “God himself, by the mouth of David, exhorts kings to embrace Christ (Ps. 2:12)” (Calvin). But the existence and influence of the church doesn’t depend on having “important” members.
The Corinthian church was evidence of God’s grace, grace that messes up human standards of evaluation. Their backgrounds were not important, but God chose them because of it. He didn’t choose them because they were so “valuable” to Him, but because they weren’t valuable in the world’s eyes.
So the Corinthians should not have been puffed up against one another. They should not have been dividing over men’s words when it was the word of the cross that humbles, and gives real gifts in Christ. It didn’t matter who had more followers or likes, actually.
Likewise, not many of us are great. We are in a small town in a distant state. We are not people of platform, though we are people gifted in Christ. On the congregational level we are not impressive, and that’s exactly how God is using us to shame the famous, the influential, and independent people around us.
But in our hearts we still tend to want too much applause, influence, recognition, respectability. But we are not the eagles in The Lord of the Rings, we are not Gwaihir the Windlord. We are the dull and dumpy hobbits.
A final word from Blaise Pascal:
Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. (Pensees (Penguin Classics), 57)
Are you weak according to the world? Good. Are you unwise according to human standards? Good. Are you unimpressive by cultural criterion? Good. You are chosen by God to confound the world and make a point about His power and wisdom and glory. Through the church His manifold wisdom is being made known to rulers an authorities in heavenly places. Through nobodies His love that surpasses knowledge is being made known. Walk worthy of your calling.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20–21, ESV)