Date: 17 Jan 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Last week we took a fairly close look at 1 Corinthians 1:23 where Paul tells us that he preached “Christ crucified”; he had no other message, in fact he didn’t seem interested in any form of ministry other than preaching Jesus Christ crucified. He may have baptised a few people; he may have founded a few churches and he may have written a few letters, but during his entire ministry Paul believed that his true calling was to preach Jesus Christ crucified. This was, and still is, a powerful message that some regarded as utter foolishness whilst others regarded it as being full of wisdom, God’s wisdom. It is God’s wisdom in comparison to human wisdom that I want us to think about this morning.
Paul simply saw his ministry as being preaching and nothing but preaching; but preaching in a particular way. He wasn’t sent to preach an intellectual message but rather the message given to him by God; that is, the message of the cross. To human ears and thinking that may not have been a very wise message, in fact, as Paul tells us this message was “foolishness to those who are perishing”. Many didn’t want to hear this message because it was felt to be so foolish. However, foolish or not, it is a message that has been preached ever since, sometimes well and successfully and sometimes not so well and unsuccessfully.
Jesus Himself said that He had come to save the poor and the needy, to heal the sick and to bring people into His Father’s kingdom. When Jesus preached He tended to use parables and symbols that people could identify with, and I doubt that anyone could say that Jesus’ sermons used difficult language or eloquent phrases. What He said was aimed at everyone regardless of their social position or educational background.
Paul always tried to preach in a similar way by avoiding a worldly style of teaching with the use of eloquent words and phrases and by just bringing the simple but powerful message of the cross of Christ. Paul wanted to avoid being compared with other, perhaps better, speakers and teachers. He wanted the message of the cross to be heard loud and clear and to speak for itself. Consequently Paul didn’t want to dilute that message in any way by using fancy phrases. Notice what he says in 1:17, “...Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Whilst many knew of Jesus and had heard about His crucifixion a few years earlier in Jerusalem, they simply couldn’t grasp the idea that mankind could be saved by a nondescript preacher from Nazareth dying on a cross; to them it was utter foolishness. To the intelligentsia and upper echelons of Corinthian society the idea of an executed criminal from a despised race being the Saviour of the world was utter madness. In today’s world it would be similar to our hailing as the Messiah someone who died in the electric chair after spending years on death row. That would be very difficult for many to accept. In the same way, the very idea of Jesus dying on the cross just didn’t fit in with the Corinthian intellect and the way that they saw things. After all, no one ever thought that the long awaited Messiah would be executed as a common criminal by the Romans. Quite the opposite, the human wisdom was that the Messiah would be a great warrior who would win great battles, kill the enemy and then overthrow the occupying army. That was not the message that Paul brought. His message may have been powerful but it was also simple; it said that the Messiah was ‘just’ a carpenter from Nazareth who died on a cross.
Many may have regarded the message that Paul preached as being totally foolish but to those who responded positively and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, it was an absolute delight; it was “the power of God” at work in their lives. Based on human wisdom the message may well have appeared foolish but this was a message inspired by God’s wisdom, something entirely different and more powerful than human wisdom.
Wisdom & The World
This message about a carpenter simply didn’t fit in with existing human wisdom because it was God’s wisdom. It was a type of wisdom that many in Corinthian society, and in the world today, simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand. As Paul makes very clear in the opening words of this passage “the message of the cross” is “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1:18).
However, to those who recognised the sinful predicament in which they found themselves, it was a message that saved them. It was a message that brought them to faith in Jesus Christ; it was a message that they accepted fully and openly, and it was a message that, for them, contained “the power of God”.
God knew exactly what the response of the world would be, hence the prophecy by Isaiah quoted by Paul. Isaiah recorded God’s words in Isaiah 29:14, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” That prophecy highlighted the difference between human wisdom and God’s wisdom. The people of Corinth to whom Paul was talking thought of themselves as being very wise and intelligent. Consequently to them the message of the cross was utter foolishness. They were hardly alone in thinking that as mankind has always believed they were the superior being in possession of superior wisdom and intelligence. However, God knew otherwise and Paul was happy to remind them of that fact by asking a rhetorical question in 1:20b: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
The message that Paul preached may have not been wise in the worldly sense, but it was most definitely the message that God wanted preached. I’ve long felt, and I know I’ve mentioned it before, that two of the most powerful words in the Bible are “but God” as they usually signal something important is coming. Take a look at 1:27 and see what that says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise...” This foolish sounding message that Paul and others preached was God’s idea all along. He knew how it would be received by the so-called wise people but He wanted to shame them into admitting that they were wrong in assuming that human wisdom had an answer for everything. You see, we all need to remember that God’s wisdom is of a totally different order altogether. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this when he quotes God’s words again in Isaiah 55:8-9, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
I’ve no idea how old the people of Corinth to whom Paul was speaking were, but there is always an assumption that the older one gets, the wiser one becomes; if only that were true! If it is true then there is a short passage in Job 32 that soon deflates that thought. In Job 32:9a we read, “Great men are not always wise” (KJV). The Corinthians certainly seem to have regarded themselves as highly intelligent and great men although I think those few words in Job might put that thought in some perspective!
Paul was always anxious that the message that he preached relied on God’s wisdom and God’s power and not human wisdom or anything else. Paul felt that that was so “your faith might not rest on human wisdom” (2:5). He went on to add in 2:6-7 that, “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the message of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.” That was important as Paul went on to explain that His message came from God through the Holy Spirit and not through human wisdom. He makes it very clear in 2:13 that, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.”
Message of This Age
For Paul, there was an important comment in 2:7 when he referred to “the message of this age or of the rulers of this age”. Paul was well aware of the type of message that such people were putting forward; it was a message that was intended to appeal to human wisdom.
Paul was writing this letter and these thoughts to the Christians in Corinth. This was a major cosmopolitan city that was a seaport and major trading centre, as well as being a city filled with idol worship and immorality. Having previously visited the city, Paul was well aware that “the message of this age” was being preached throughout the city. The same thing is happening in the world today; a new age philosophy is slowly but surely taking hold with a whole plethora of ideas and cults available to follow. Take a look in any major bookshop, such things do still exist, and you will always see huge displays of ‘new age’ books with all sorts of things that an individual may do to reach a level of spiritual enlightenment. None of them of course mention Jesus as the story of someone dying on a cross in order to save people and bring true spiritual reality is simply too far-fetched and foolish for the 21st century. How wrong can they be? The message of the cross is just as important, just as vital and just as needed today as it ever was; and as Paul has pointed out, it came from Spirit-taught words not words written by a human author trying to sell a few books!
A wonderful example of how human wisdom can be extremely foolish comes in 2:8 where Paul says, “None of the rulers of this age understood it [that is the message of the cross], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”. That is still true today. Just notice how Christianity and any faith in Jesus Christ is regularly derided in the print and broadcast media and on so-called social networks. Anyone who believes in Christ and upholds Biblical teaching is regarded as Victorian at best and insane at worst. There is no doubt in my mind that were the events of Jesus’ ministry and arrest to have taken place in the 20th or 21st centuries, the outcome would have been the same, there would have been a rush to crucify Him.
As an example of how people see Christianity in the 21st century and much prefer the message of this age, I was interested to read an article in The Times on Thursday, 14 Jan 2016 written by Edward Lucas, who happens to be a cousin of Justin Welby! Mr Lucas writes, “To be fair, the modern age is tough on Christianity. The cult of pseudo-rationality puts its claims under a wrongly focussed microscope; how can you actually believe this stuff, the Dawkinsites ask, not realising that their own moral and even scientific beliefs are based on hefty doses of supposition and wishful thinking.” Mr Lucas goes on to talk of being involved in writing a book on Anglicanism and being told that, “Christianity is ‘cannibalism acted out to please the Sky Fairy’” That is the message of this age that Paul was arguing against 2000 years ago, and it is still the same message that is sadly being spread and believed today.
Paul didn’t preach long eloquent sermons and he didn’t use jargon. He preferred to keep his sermons simple and straightforward so that the man in the street could understand and react to the message. That happened because God’s power was at work in the words that He gave Paul. Paul’s power and skill came solely from God because God “chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1:27a). Many of the people to whom Paul was preaching could identify with Jesus in both background and upbringing. He had lived a simple life and had not come from a wealthy family with the accompanying privileges in life. He had suffered at the hands of the Romans just as many of the people had. It is important to note that His position as the Son of God had not brought Him any special protection from the persecution that He suffered at the hands of the Roman occupier. To the wealthy and the intelligent this seemed utter foolishness, but to those who believed and were being saved as a result of this message it was wonderful.
The same problems still exist today. Far too many regard the message of Jesus dying on a cross in order to save them and give them eternal life, as being total and utter rubbish; they find it laughable, and as that article by Edward Lucas illustrated “it is cannibalism acted out to please the Sky Fairy”. Thankfully there are those who are seeking to know God and hear and accept this “foolish” message as being the “power of God” at work. It is a saving message to all those who hear it and accept it. How do you regard the message of the cross? Is it the saving power of God or is it foolishness? It’s up to you to discern and decide.
 Lucas, Edward, Soppy Christians are their own worst enemy in The Times, 14 Jan 2016, page 24