Date: 06 Nov 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
In the previous two sermons we have considered the significance of the Cross to our Christian faith; what it truly means in the overall scheme of things and how we should view it as we meditate on all that Jesus has done, and keeps on doing, for us. Firstly we heard Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering of servant, the man of sorrows Who suffered on behalf of the many. In the next sermon we saw how that prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled in Jesus and we then considered Jesus’ compassion as He spent His final hours on earth.
Today I want us to consider how many of the people reacted to all this as Paul preached his message of Christ crucified. In many ways it is a fanciful and strange message that takes some believing. Hopefully we will be able to see from these verses in 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 how Paul dealt with the sceptics and how so many accepted Jesus as Saviour
How good is your memory? Do you remember some of the comedy that used to be on the good old steam radio? Perhaps stupidly I have a pretty good memory for comedy and one of my memories is of an American comedian by the name of Bob Newhart. He used to do particularly humorous monologues that usually involved someone writing or phoning home from a holiday or a trip of some sort. One such sketch involved Sir Walter Raleigh phoning home about his latest discovery. He phoned home to tell them that he had bought tons of leaves. The person he was speaking to was rather taken aback at the news given that it was autumn and they had rather a lot of leaves of their own lying on the ground. As they were talking the receiver of this call even said to one of his colleagues, come and listen in, I’ve not nutty Walt on the phone. When prompted to explain what he was suggesting they do with all these leaves, Sir Walter went on to explain that you take these leaves, cut them up roughly, roll them up in some paper and then; and it is here that the receiver suggests that perhaps you stick them in your ear; you hold them between your lips and you set fire to them. It’s all very, very funny, but think about it a little and you will remember that the tobacco industry became a multi-billion pound industry all over the world. That may have been a paraphrase, but the story was true.
Now let’s think in a similar way about the story of the Messiah and how God sent the Saviour of the world to be in the world. Doing it in the same style as Bob Newhart we could perhaps see it along these lines. This is God speaking and I’m telling you that I’m going to send the Messiah into the world. He is going to be born as an ordinary baby in a squalid stable in a small town called Bethlehem. When he’s born he’s not going to be surrounded by splendour and huge wealth; he’s going to surrounded by shepherds and some strange men from the Orient plus of course a bunch of smelly animals. He’s going to grow up as the son of a carpenter and he’s going to be an ordinary little boy. After that he’s going to walk around performing a few miracles and talking about the coming kingdom of God. Then a little while later I’m going to let Him be arrested, tortured and crucified by being nailed to a cross. Finally, and this is the best bit, three days later He is going to come back from the dead. He is the Saviour of the world. Once again, that may have been a paraphrase, but the story was true.
Does that sound sensible or does that sound stupid? I may have presented that in a slightly humorous way, but it is in essence what God planned and in many ways it does sound too fantastic for words, especially in a world that is totally sceptical of such things.
Signs & Wisdom
Paul was writing this letter to a troubled church in Corinth. The city was full of idolatry and strange worship rituals that often included sex acts on the altar. It was also a very cosmopolitan place and had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles with a wide variety of backgrounds and intellects.
Paul makes it clear that the Jews in Corinth were looking for signs of various sorts that would indicate the coming of the Messiah. Quite what those signs were is difficult to determine but they certainly weren’t impressed by the prospect of a carpenter’s son being the Saviour of the world. They regarded Paul’s message as a stumbling block that they simply couldn’t get over. They basically refused to accept the gospel until they saw some physical, mystical or miraculous signs to confirm what Paul was saying.
As for the Greeks, many of these supposedly intelligent people were philosophers and “teachers of the law”. They were regarded as the highly intelligent ones who could discuss and argue complex issues about mankind, about history and about the likelihood of the Messiah ever coming. When they heard the message that Paul was preaching they regarded it as utter foolishness; as Paul says, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1:18a). The philosophers would definitely not have agreed but they were among those who were perishing. I should point out here that it was the intellectuals who regarded the message as foolish and not Paul himself!
The entire population, including Jews and Greeks, were expecting the Messiah to come at any time; their perception was that He would be a magnificent warrior who would not only defeat all enemies but bring peace, wealth and prosperity to all. Paul’s crazy sounding message that He would die on a cross and then rise from the dead seemed so far-fetched as to be laughable.
These intellectual Greeks, who Paul sometimes refers to as the Gentiles, regarded the whole story as utter foolishness. They couldn’t accept that the Messiah would come in the way that Paul claimed that He had. What Paul was saying didn’t gel with their intellectual thinking and philosophical arguments. Their arguments always involved highly intelligent sounding theories and eloquent speeches and they were revered for their ability to mount and support such intellectual arguments. However, none of their arguments or clever sounding speeches led to salvation despite the fact that people may have believed every word they said. Despite having believed the philosophers’ message they were no closer to salvation or drawing near to God than when they started.
In 1:19 Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14 and paraphrases the prophet’s record of God’s words, “the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish”. What these philosophers failed to appreciate or understand was that man’s wisdom is finite whereas God’s wisdom is infinite and so far exceeds man’s wisdom that it is impossible to calculate. God said as much in Isaiah 55:8-9 when He said, “‘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.’” What Paul was trying to get these people to understand was that God could not be found through human wisdom but only through the message of the cross. Salvation is not the result of human wisdom but solely the result of God’s mercy and grace.
Mankind’s arrogance knows no bounds and there are many in the world today who will always believe that they have the greater intelligence and intellect. Too many people believe that they are so wise that they try to see events through the lens of their own wisdom rather than through the lens of God’s wisdom. That is totally wrong; we will never, ever have greater wisdom than God. There are many who think that they are ‘smart’ and the ‘smarter’ they believe they are the less time they have for God. That leads such people to reject His Word and to constantly reject and oppose Him in all that He does.
Paul was more than happy to point out that God had made these people look foolish; for all their superior intelligence, that wisdom and brainpower did not lead them to a saving knowledge of God. As Paul says, “the world through its wisdom did not know him” (1:21).
In 1:17 Paul made clear what he regarded as his mandate when he said, “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”. This message of the Cross, the message that Jesus died on that rough wooden structure to bring salvation to a fallen world, may not have been accepted by the intellectuals but it was music to the ears of those who Paul describes as “being saved” (1:18). To them “it was the power of God” (1:18) at work. The message may have sounded foolish to some but to those who were “not wise by human standards” (1:26), weren’t influential or of noble birth, it was very much what they wanted to hear. That is not to say that the wise, the wealthy and the noble were excluded from salvation; the gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive and is available to all who seek Him. What Paul was observing was that in the main it seemed to be the intellectuals and upper echelons of society who thought the message was foolish whilst the lowly believed and accepted it.
Paul was happy to explain that God chose to do things that way; He chose what may seem to human minds to be utterly foolish in order to defeat the supposed wisdom of the philosophers and teachers of the law. Just imagine if salvation was available only to the wise; the wealthy; the nobles; or it could be earned in some way. The boasts of such people would be heard for evermore, they would be able to claim that they had bought their salvation or earned it through their intellectual superiority. That was never in God’s plan since, as Paul says very clearly in 1:31, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”.
Paul preached a simple message, Christ crucified. Jesus died on the cross at Calvary and shed His blood to pay for the sins of the world. Those who accept that message; place their faith in Jesus and ask Him into their lives are the ones who receive salvation. At no time did Paul use intellectual arguments or eloquent words to explain what Christ did for us. It is a simple message and Paul presented it in a simple way. To the intelligent it may have sounded foolish but to those who were looking for salvation it was exactly what they wanted to hear.
The cross was reserved for the execution of the lower classes, criminals and slaves and the like, and the very thought that someone executed in such a way could be the Messiah was consequently regarded as utter nonsense. This form of execution was particularly humiliating and many Jews turned their faces away from anyone hanging on a cross as they were usually hung there naked. The cross didn’t speak of victory, it spoke of defeat; it spoke of weakness not power; it spoke of humiliation rather than conquest. How could any in their right mind believe that the Messiah would suffer such a death? And yet this was the message that Paul was preaching; this was the message that he wanted everyone to believe and accept.
The cross and the events surrounding Jesus’ death were absolutely central to this “foolish” message of salvation. Without the cross it is difficult to believe that the message would have had quite as much power. The people were familiar with executions on crosses and so were familiar with the suffering associated with it. Many of the Jews would have been familiar with Isaiah’s word in Isaiah 53 and may have been able to connect the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy with Jesus suffering on the cross. This is not a foolish message; it is a powerful message that demonstrates that God is in control. It is a message that rests not on human power but on God’s power. It is a message that does not rely on human intellect but on the human heart.
There are many in the world today who are like those Greeks to whom Paul was preaching, they simply cannot accept this message. Just like the intellectuals of Paul’s time they find the whole story of how Jesus came, died and rose again, to be foolish and utter nonsense. It sounds so crazy that they simply cannot, or will not; believe that a supposedly loving God would kill His own Son to bring salvation to the world. They cannot accept that someone could actually rise from the grave simply because it is beyond human wisdom and understanding.
All too often that leads many people to seek other ways of coming to a right relationship with God. They try new age spirituality, they try spiritualism, they try yoga, they try Buddhism, and they try numerous other weird and wonderful ways of seeking God. None of these methods work; none of them will ever lead to salvation. Jesus Himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). In order for anyone to come to God through faith in Jesus Christ they need to accept that Jesus died for them on the cross. Sadly people 2000 years ago found that message to be foolish and they still do today.
Throughout his travels Paul always preached the same message: Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins. Many refused to accept it, regarding it as being so foolish as to be impossible. Many still do refuse to accept it for the same reasons. However, people do come to faith in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit working in them and making clear that the cross plays in integral part in salvation. Jesus needed to die and suffer on that cross in order to satisfy God’s demands. If we accept that simple message then we will receive God’s great gift of salvation and spend eternity with Jesus in paradise.