The Power and Wisdom of God
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 1:18–1:31
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 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. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
In the mid-19th-century an archaeological dig among the ruins of ancient Rome unearthed a house that formed one part of the palace of Caligula, a man who had briefly ruled as Emperor. Caligula’s reign, which began just a few years after Christ, had begun well enough. But within a few months he exhibited cruel and sadistic behaviors that bordered on insanity. When he died suddenly, it was suspected that he had been poisoned by the members of his own party.
In the years following Caligula’s death, the imperial palace continued to expand, and over time the house in which he had lived was buried beneath the foundations of a larger palace complex. In fact, it remained virtually hidden until its discovery in 1857.
Ironically, the unearthed house soon became best known for a bit of graffiti that was found on one of its walls. Scholars deciphered it as a kind of ancient cartoon, depicting a young man looking up in admiration at a crucified figure. The one hanging on the cross had the body of a man and the head of a donkey. Beneath the picture was written “Alexamenos worships his God.” It was an obvious mockery of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Even—or perhaps, especially—then, how utterly foolish and ridiculous would a religion seem to be that required its followers to worship a crucified God.
From its very beginning—whether in Jerusalem, Rome, or Corinth—“the word of the cross (has been considered) folly.”
It takes both divine insight and personal humility to believe the message of the Gospel. Man’s pride exerts itself in any number of ways that prevent him from coming to God by way of the cross. In the beginning, man was created in the image of God and endowed with certain attributes, which on a much smaller scale reflected those of His Maker. More often than not, those very attributes are presumed to be inherent rather than bestowed. Man instinctively believes that it is within his own power and within his own wisdom that he is able to make his way through this life in preparation for the next.
“Not so!” says the Apostle Paul in the text before us this morning. God alone is all-powerful and all-wise. Indeed, there is not the slightest weakness or foolishness in Him. Therefore, writing with figurative-absurdity, Paul argues throughout this passage that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
From last Sunday’s message you may recall that Paul criticized the believers in the Corinthian church for allowing themselves to be divided over various Christian messengers. “Christ is not divided,” he told them, and neither should they be. What was of far greater importance than the messenger was the message...the proclamation and reception of the Gospel, not the one who presented it. As for himself, Paul stated in verse 17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” The two words, “wisdom” and “power,” set the stage for discourse that we find in verses 18 through 31. Here we are reminded that the power and wisdom of God are infinitely greater than that of man. In fact, there is not even a fair comparison to be made.
There are two main thoughts that arise out of this section with regards to the so-called “folly” of God. In verses 18 through 25, it is displayed through a crucified Messiah. And then in verses 26 through 31, it is demonstrated through a chosen multitude.
Let us not fail to keep in mind that when Paul references “the folly” or “the foolishness of God,” he is employing a form of argument known as ad absurdum, which attempts to disprove a statement by showing how it leads to a ridiculous and illogical conclusion. Therefore, when he says that...
The “folly” of God is displayed through a crucified Messiah (1:18-25)
...he is actually arguing just the opposite. In other words, he is emphatically stating that it is through “the word of the cross” that the wisdom of God is most brilliantly exhibited. Later on in this section, in verse 23, he will define what “the word of the cross” means... specifically it is “Christ crucified.” That and that alone is the message he and countless messengers of the Gospel from his time until ours have been called upon to preach.
But as we know and as he goes on to show, that message—that one redeeming message—is not welcomed by all. It is, in fact, considered “folly to those who are perishing,” which could be translated “on their way to destruction” (“απολλυμι”). “Folly” is the term which our word for “moron” (“μωρια”) is derived. To view the cross of Christ as “moronic—as many still do—is to place one on what preachers in earlier times referred to as “the road to perdition.” The use of the present tense participle further implies that their condemnation not only awaits a future judgment, but that God’s condemnation rests upon such people even now.
Others, however, do receive “the word of the cross,” and to them it is “power of God” that leads to salvation. Paul had written similar words in the opening chapter of his letter to the church in Rome (cf. Romans 1:16). In that passage he testified that there was no shame in adhering to and clinging to such a message. And furthermore, it was offered to “everyone who believes.”
But how could it be that a dead Jew hanging on a Roman cross could be the source of salvation for anyone? Where did such a notion originate? In constructing an answer to that question, Paul begins by taking his readers back to the Old Testament, namely Isaiah 29:14. Quoting nearly verbatim the words of the prophet, Paul inserts, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning, I will thwart.”
That same prophet Isaiah would later remind his hearers that the Lord had said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways...For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Both the Corinthians and we need to realize that God does not operate on the basis of our limited reason. At times He seems to violate every rule of human logic in order to subject our meager understanding to His infinite wisdom. Therefore, Paul asks three rhetorical questions in verse 20:
- “Where is the one who is wise?” Wise in the eyes of the world, that is.
- “Where is the scribe?” A reference to the legal expert in the Jewish law.
- “Where is the debater of this age?” A reference to the Greek philosopher.
He responds to his own questions by asking a fourth: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Yes, He has.
The distinction Paul makes between Jews and Greeks in this passage will be more clearly seen in verse 22, where he points out that the Jews in their search for wisdom “demand(ed) signs,” while the Greeks sought for it through rhetoric and philosophy. Both pursuits inevitably lead to spiritual cul-de-sacs. As verse 21 makes clear, God never intended for men to find Him by searching for Him through logical reasoning or instinct. Such a pursuit only leads to man creating a god in his own image. Like a broken GPS, man’s wisdom will never direct him to God’s front door. Divine revelation alone is able to do that.
Therefore, the apostle declares, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” As has been said many times before and deserves to be said again, to “believe” means more than merely giving mental assent to or agreeing with something. It means putting one’s whole trust and commitment into it. The English Standard Version has caught the proper nuance of what Paul is arguing here. Some translations (e.g., KJV) read, “the foolishness of preaching,” as if it were “the act or manner of preaching” that was in view. Paul has already addressed that issue in verses 10 through 13. Instead, he is here focusing on the content of the message preached, which is explained in verse 23: “But we preach Christ crucified.” In other words, the Christian Gospel is a message about a crucified Messiah. If you miss that, you miss the most essential thing. That is, as verse 24 declares, Jesus “Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Such a message posed a “stumbling block to Jews,” who looked instead for a conquering hero-messiah who vanquished every enemy. In fact, hadn’t their own Scriptures declared that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23)? Indeed it had. A “crucified messiah” to them was a contradiction in terms. What they were unable to comprehend, however, was that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). He bore our curse for us, “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands...by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
As for the Greeks (and all Gentiles), “the word of the cross” was nothing short of “folly.” It was “foolishness” and sheer lunacy. It would take a lot more than human reasoning to see the sense of such an illogical claim. And that is precisely what Paul claims in verses 24 and 25. If the folly of a crucified Messiah were to make any sense to the human mind, the breakthrough would have to come by divine revelation.
Thankfully, there is a third group mentioned in this discussion. The Jews in their scribal understanding of the Scriptures perceived the cross to be “a stumbling block.” The Greeks in their vaunted wisdom considered the cross to be “folly.” “But,” as verse 24 declares, “to those who are called”—and, remember, that is how Paul described these Corinthian believers in verse 2 and again in verse 9 of this same chapter—“both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.” The “power” for which the Jews sought and the “wisdom” that the Greeks chased after could only be found in the “power” and “wisdom” of the cross. Verse 25 tells us why: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
God, in His infinite wisdom, has chosen to save people by way of the cross and by no other means. Even today there are many who stumble at the cross and there are others who laugh at it. But, by grace, there are some who believe, experience, and embrace the “power” and “wisdom” of the cross. And where the cross is preached with “power,” the “wisdom” of man is no longer able to stand. Have you discovered that to be true in your life? Perhaps not, so let’s read on.
In addition to being displayed through a crucified Messiah,
The “folly” of God is demonstrated through a chosen multitude (verses 26-31)
Beginning in verse 26, Paul shifts gears away from the message and messenger to those who have heard the message and been “called” by God unto salvation. As he will relate, not only is it true that no one is able to grasp the message of the cross through their own reasoning, but furthermore there is no one who is worthy to receive it. It is a fundamental tenet of the faith that Christians are those whom God Himself has called.
When the reader is urged to “consider” their calling, the term means “to look to” or “reflect upon.” Paul is saying, “Think about it, brothers.” “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” John inserted a similar disclaimer of human initiative in the prologue to his Gospel, writing of Jesus, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Salvation is the brainchild of God from start to finish. It is He, and He alone, who provided the method and the means by which anyone could be saved.
Three times in verses 27 and 28 Paul reminds us of God’s sovereign choice. Verse 27 emphasizes this point by introducing a strong contrast (“αλλα”) in verse 27: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” Everything the world looks at as undesirable, God is able to make from it something extraordinarily valuable, namely the eternal salvation of a chosen multitude of sinners who otherwise would be destined for destruction and damnation. Why, He is even able to use what is non-existent to bring into being the fulfillment of His preordained purposes. He did so when He first spoke His creation into being, bringing life out of nothing. And He does so again whenever He re-creates, by giving life to those who are declared to be “dead in...trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Not only that, but He is further able “to bring to nothing” or “nullify” those things in which men take so much pride and place so much stock.
There is no question that Christianity spread most rapidly in its beginning among the lower classes than it did among those of a higher social strata. That was part of the reason for its offensiveness. It remains true that the Gospel cuts across all demographics as the Lord is in the process of choosing a people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (cf. Revelation 5:9). That He would select some from among the Corinthians bears witness to that. And that He would select some of us here this morning is also a testimony.
Why God chooses to operate in the manner that He does is explained in verse 29, which begins with a purpose-clause: “so that” (“‘οπωs”) no human being might boast in the presence of God.” To “boast” of something means “to put one’s full confidence in.” The very same word (“καυχησιs”) is used in Ephesians 2:8 and 9. There we are reminded that there is no ground for human boasting or pride in the matter of salvation, which is solely on the basis of grace through faith. Of a truth, we will never discover how much God is until we realize how much we are not.
The Christian’s identity is no longer found in himself, but in the Lord who called him and chose him. Paul says as much in verse 30 when he writes, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus.” Reminding us that we are “in Christ” was one of Paul’s favorite expressions. It describes the present secure state of the believer. It is as a result of being “in Christ” that God’s wisdom is imparted to us. The benefits of His wisdom are described at the end of this verse. They come to us in the form of “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Although these appear to be separate truths, I believe that they are actually to be seen as various components of the larger package labeled “God’s wisdom.”
To describe in detail the full implication of these three terms would require another sermon, so I will try and summarize them briefly:
- “Righteousness” has reference to the work of Christ in obtaining for the believer “right standing” with God. We have no inherent righteousness of our own...what we do possess has been imputed to us by God through the merits of His Son (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21).
- “Sanctification” refers to Christians being “set apart” unto God for His holy purpose. Remarkably, those who are “in Christ” are said to be “holy.” Amazingly, they are even called “saints.”
- “Redemption” speaks to the ransom price that was paid to secure the believer’s release from the bondage to sin and its penalty. Our freedom from sin came at an infinite cost that none of us was able to pay. It took the blood of the sinless Jesus to pay the price that God’s justice required.
Together these three results demonstrate that salvation is fully a matter of God’s amazing grace, secured through the so-called “folly” of the cross. It is a message that is not easily received by those who believe themselves to be adequately “wise” or sufficiently “strong.” If they were, then there might be reason for boasting. Some might be so bold as to say, “I found God,” when in reality it was God who found them. The minute we insert our so-called “contribution” into the equation, we minimize the grace of God and exalt ourselves. And when we do that, we believe—even under a thin guise of humility—that we have something about which to boast.
But God will not allow that to happen. Paul concludes this section with a quote lifted from Jeremiah 9. Let’s take a minute to look at that passage so that we are able to see it in its fullness. In this chapter, the Lord is heard grieving over the waywardness of His people and urging them to turn again to Him. There in verses 23 and 24, we read,
“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 (and here is the part Paul cites) 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.”
The opposite of “boasting” is “humility.” When God chooses a people, He does not look for the “wisest” and “strongest” among them. He looks for those who will “humble (themselves) under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt (them)” (1 Peter 5:6).
In Simon Gathercole’s book, entitled Where is Boasting?, that author argues that as early as the 1st-century professing Christians frequently boasted as if they had in some way contributed to their salvation through their own inherent ability, especially their intellectual insight. Like many today, there were those within the Corinthian church community who believed that they could somehow “do enough” or “be enough” to warrant the mercy of God. Paul, ever the advocate for the necessity of divine grace, argues to the contrary. He, therefore, concludes this section by exhorting them, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” That is because in Him alone is the “power” and “wisdom” necessary for salvation.
Paul will dive deeper into this subject in chapter 2, but before concluding today, we need to be reminded that in both Paul’s day and in ours, the cross of Jesus Christ is presented not only as a way of salvation, but also as a way of life. The verses we have looked at this morning are heavily theological in nature, but Paul is never content to let Christian doctrine to become stagnant within the stream of Christian duty.
In recent days I have been reading through John Bunyan’s classic allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. There is a scene in the early chapters of the book where Christian, the main character, and his fellow-traveler Faithful are on the road leading to the Celestial City. Along the way they encounter another man whose name is Talkative, who states that he is journeying to the same destination. But as they converse, Faithful is made aware that Talkative’s knowledge of spiritual things far exceeds his practice of them. As his name would suggest, Talkative is more about discourse than deed. At last Faithful has had enough, and so he confronts Talkative, saying:
Indeed to know is a thing that pleaseth talkers and boasters; but to do is that which pleaseth God. Not that the heart can be good without knowledge, for, without that, the heart is naught. There is, therefore, knowledge and knowledge: knowledge that resteth in the bare speculation of things, and knowledge that is accompanied with the grace and faith of love, which puts a man upon doing the will of God from the heart. The first of these will serve the talker; but without the other the true Christian is not content.
Sometimes professing Christians will boast of a “power” and a “wisdom” that rests in their own strength and understanding. Such dependence will land the traveler short of the Celestial City. That is because any “power” and “wisdom” that we may innately possess is derived from God and limited, and is therefore subject to His sovereign authority. To claim an independent “power” and “wisdom” of our own is to relegate the Lord to a subservient role in our lives or, worse, to exclude Him altogether.
God is not asking us to shift our brains into neutral, but He is instead introducing a new paradigm for us to adopt. As Samuel was reminded, “The LORD sees not as man sees” (1 Samuel 16:7).
In a later epistle that Paul would write to these same Corinthian believers, he would remind them of the shift of focus that is characteristic of those who understand the true nature of the cross: “From now on,” he tells them, “we regard no one according to the flesh (in other words, from solely a human perspective). Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16).
There is a God-glorifying wisdom and power to the cross. The Gospel calls upon us to trust in Christ, the crucified One, no matter how offensive or foolish that seems to the world. The sinless Jesus laid down His life on that cross as a substitute for sinners who are willing to place their trust and hope in Him, instead of in themselves.
Have you been to the cross? Have you heard His call? “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Has He become that for you?