Date: 24 Jan 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Over the last couple of weeks we have been looking at 1 Corinthians 1 and thinking about Christ crucified and God’s wisdom. I had intended this week to look at Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 3 about Church Leaders. However, as the wine was being served during last week’s Communion service, the word “boast” came to me; I’ve no idea where from although I can probably guess! And so, this week I want to concentrate on 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 where Paul says, “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, so that no one may boast before him.” I want us to consider for a few minutes what Paul means when he talks about boasting.
Lots of people boast don’t they, sometimes perhaps justifiably but mostly simply for the sake of it. One person who springs to mind as a great boaster who was probably justified in his boast is Mohammed Ali, who when he first came to prominence in world boxing used to boast loudly and confidently, “I am the greatest”. He did of course go on to prove just how great he was with some amazing victories in the boxing ring. The former Chelsea Manager, Jose Mourinho, is also a great boaster who used to say of himself: “I am the special one”. Recent events would suggest that his boasts weren’t truly justified.
Those two sportsmen aren’t alone in boasting; it is something that many people do; most though seem to boast when they have little or nothing to boast about. Just think of business people, politicians and the wealthy. To me, many of them only boast as a means of trying to enhance their own status. The wealthy in particular seem to think that having great wealth makes them superior and allows them to boast. I’m not sure that the Psalmist would agree with that given his words in Psalm 49:5-6, “Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me — those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches?”
There are a number of other examples in the Old Testament where people boast for the wrong reasons; that is, of course, assuming that boasting is acceptable at any time. David writes in Psalm 52 when he says of evil people, “Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?” (Psalm 52:1). It seems possible that the “mighty man” to whom David refers was someone by the name of Doeg who was one of King Saul’s leading officials. This “mighty man” carried out some of the more gruesome tasks that Saul wanted done and was a thoroughly evil but powerful individual who boasted about his “achievements”.
The prophet Isaiah also recorded on God’s word when he wrote in Isaiah 28:14-15, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers who rule this people in Jerusalem. You boast, ‘We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement. When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by, it cannot touch us, for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding-place.’" The people to whom Isaiah refers seem to have made a covenant with another “god” thinking that that “god” would protect them when the day of judgement came. Subsequent events proved them fatally wrong!
In those examples the people had been boasting about the wrong things; about their own wealth, their own evil achievements and their own power to choose the “god” they thought would save them. As Paul constantly preached, salvation comes only through the grace of God.
In the verses that we looked at last week Paul was telling us just how great God’s wisdom is when compared to human wisdom. God’s power and wisdom far exceeds anything that we might imagine. As Paul says in 1:25, “... the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Despite that statement mankind still thinks that it is far wiser than God and can receive salvation in any way that they want. They ignore what God has to say on the subject and think that they can buy salvation, or earn salvation or obtain salvation through another “god”, just as those of whom Isaiah was talking in Isaiah 28 thought.
Paul is at pains to point out in all his letters that none of those options are possible; there is only one way to salvation and that is through coming to faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. However, despite the urgings of Paul and the other Apostles, there have always been those who think they know better, they know an easier way to receive salvation. They see themselves as superior beings who neither recognise Jesus Christ and nor have any need of Him as Saviour.
To people such as these the whole idea of someone dying on a cross so that they may be reconciled to God and have eternal life is so preposterous and so far-fetched that they simply cannot accept it. The very idea that Jesus died on a cross and then three days later left His tomb as the risen Lord is totally beyond their comprehension. Their wisdom says that that simply isn’t possible and that any God Who allowed His own Son to die such a brutal death isn’t the kind of God that they wish to know. Paul knew about all this which is why he wrote in 1:27, “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.” If God had allowed or enabled people to receive salvation through their own wisdom, knowledge and intelligence, then they would have been able to boast about it to anyone who would listen. That is not something that God wanted and it is something that Paul is arguing against in these verses.
Throughout this first chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul has been at pains to explain that salvation is only available through coming to faith in a crucified and risen Jesus Christ; there simply isn’t any other way. Knowing that there were those who were convinced that there was another way to salvation, Paul’s parting reminder is that God has done things His way “so that no one may boast before Him” (1:29). If people don’t understand that then they are simply failing to understand God’s power and wisdom.
The question is, if they don’t come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, how do they expect to come to salvation at all. Their own wisdom says that they are able to engineer salvation through their own methods and without the need for the risen Lord Jesus Christ. In that way they will be able to boast to anyone who will listen about their own wisdom, power and prowess. If that were possible and did actually happen, just think of all those who would be queuing at their door to join them. The bragging rights to such an achievement would be enormous.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul had explained quite clearly that the only route to salvation is by faith through grace alone. As he says in three beautiful verses in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Those verses hopefully make it very clear that human skill and wisdom cannot bring salvation; it is entirely a gift from God through His grace and is for all those who place their faith in the risen Jesus Christ. There is no other way despite what the many doubters may assert. Because that is the only route to salvation the temptation and ability to boast has been removed. Salvation is unmerited, undeserved and unearned and therefore there is nothing for us to boast about in how we received salvation. That is, apart from what Paul has to say in both 1:31 and 2 Corinthians 10:17 where he quotes Jeremiah 9:24 which says: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”. That is the only time and the only way that a believer may boast.
As I have tried to explain, Paul is urging everyone not to boast except “in the Lord”. However, Paul himself did have plenty to boast about even though in general he avoided doing such a thing. He gives us his pedigree as a Jew in Philippians 3:4b-6, which on the surface gives plenty of scope for him to boast. In those verses Paul tells us that, “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” However, he doesn’t boast about any of that; rather he is simply trying to deflate the opinions of others who may have been getting above themselves because of their supposed status in the community.
That doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t boast; he most certainly did but always in what one could say was the right way and for the right reasons. Here’s what he says to the Galatians, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14). For Paul, a legitimate reason to boast was to boast about what Jesus Christ had done for him through His death on the cross. Paul felt that everything that he had and everything that he had done and was doing was as a direct result of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nothing else counted, only Jesus Christ. How do we feel about that? Is Jesus as important in our lives as He very obviously was in Paul’s? Could we boast about what Christ has done for us?
Paul talks at some length about his boasting in 2 Corinthians 10. He explains there that his boasting is all based on what God has done through him in his ministry. He doesn’t want to boast about, or encroach on, the work of others in other parts of the world but only about his own work that God has enabled him to do in and through Jesus Christ. In doing that Paul is trying not to boast about himself as such. He is more than aware that the important thing is how God sees us as we serve Him. The Message translates 2 Corinthians 10:17-18 very clearly when it says, “What you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about you that makes the difference”. What Paul is basically saying is that boasting, except in the Lord, gets us nowhere; the important thing is how God sees us.
In this first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has explained that the only message that he preaches is “Christ crucified”. That is the focal point of the gospel and anything else is peripheral. Others may preach other messages but to Paul, Christ dying on the cross of Calvary to bring salvation to others was the central message. Having made that clear, Paul moved on to show the difference between God’s wisdom and human wisdom. Too many think that because of their superior knowledge and wisdom they both deserve salvation and can earn it. Paul’s comments were intended to disavow people of that notion; God’s wisdom is far superior to anything we can imagine or understand. Not only that but salvation is neither deserved nor can it be earned; it is only available as a gift from God. If salvation could be obtained in any other way, apart from God’s grace, then it would allow people to boast about their achievement and to appear elevated above all other mere mortals who, because of their inferior wisdom, were unable to do the same. Because salvation is only available through God’s grace, any boasting before God becomes sheer nonsense.
Let us all remember that salvation comes through God’s grace as a result of our placing our faith in the risen Jesus Christ. There is nothing for us to boast about in that since it is all down to God and Him alone. Let us all make sure that we place our faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone lest we boast about anything or anyone else.