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Foolish or Powerful?

Listen for God’s word to you from 1 Corinthians 1:18 to 2:16…

For the message of the cross is foolishness 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;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 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. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.


We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:


“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”

    the things God has prepared for those who love him—10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.


The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 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. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.



I.             The Word of the Cross (1:18-25)


Paul begins this section of his letter by saying something very counterintuitive. You would think that he would want to commend his message to his audience in every way possible. But he begins this part of his letter by admitting how his message appears to some. He says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 


Why are there these two reactions to the message of the cross? Why does the preaching of the cross not always produce a positive result? Paul answers that question by quoting Isaiah 29:14, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 


The reason why the message of the cross appears foolish to some is because they approach it from the standpoint of human wisdom. And what is the problem with human wisdom? Paul tells us throughout these verses. In verse 17, which we read last week, Paul agrees that worldly wisdom is eloquent. In verse 19 he says that worldly wisdom is clever. But then in verse 20, he points out that worldly wisdom is really nothing but words. And in verse 21, he shows that worldly wisdom does not meet our basic need or desire.


Paul goes on to ask three rhetorical questions: where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Paul had encountered all three of these in his missionary journeys. His preaching in Athens is considered by some to have been a failure. Paul went to the very heart of where Greek philosophy was discussed. He preached on Mars Hill, right below the Parthenon. But he gained very few converts there. The message of the cross did not make sense from the perspective of Greek philosophy.


But Paul was not embarrassed by this. He admits it. He asks another rhetorical question: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” The answer is, of course, yes. Human beings have not reached God in their merely human wisdom. No matter how hard philosophy tries to find God or define him, it cannot do it. All the religions of the world, in one way or another, try to reach up and grab hold of God. But all religions fail. Instead, God reaches down to us. He becomes a human being. He lives a perfect life. He dies on the cross in our place. He rises again from the dead. He commissions his disciples to preach the message of the cross to the world. And through the seeming foolishness of that message, God saves those who believe.


You would think that since Jesus was a Jew and Paul was a Jew, that Paul would find a receptive audience among his fellow Jews for the message of the cross. But Paul says that his fellow Jews demand signs. Reading through the Gospels we see this was the case. And yet, when Jesus was right in front of them, right in their face, many Jews failed to believe the signs that Jesus did give. Their asking for signs became an excuse for not believing.


Paul notes how Greeks seek wisdom. No doubt this was the case. It was the ancient Greeks who, in many ways, got philosophy going.


The message of the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews. Their own Scripture said, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” How could the Messiah die the death of the cross? It did not seem right to them.


And to the Greeks who did not believe God had any feelings, or could suffer in any way, the idea of God dying on a cross was foolishness.


But Paul says that to those whom God has called, whether Jews or Greeks, Christ is the wisdom and power of God. 


Often in the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom was personified. Jesus was the fulfillment of that Old Testament picture of wisdom. 


Jesus is also the power of God. The word in Greek is “dunamin” from which we get our English word dynamite. Jesus is the dynamite and the wisdom of God. In a way, Jesus blows up all former categories of wisdom and power and shows us something completely new.


Paul says that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” This reminds me of what the Lord said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is something counterintuitive about God’s power. It works best in our weakness, not in our supposed human strength. As Henri Nouwen used to say, we are all called to be wounded healers.


This leads us to Paul’s second major point in this section…


II.          The Ways of God (1:26-31)


Paul shows how God started his church with the weak people of this world. Most of the first Christians were from the lower echelons of society. Not many were wise, influential, or of noble birth. Many, in fact, were slaves.


In the way that God started the church of Jesus Christ, he was turning the tables, so to speak, on the wisdom and ways of this world.


How would we go about it if we were starting a new religious movement today? We might hire a PR firm. We might get a book by Paul published by a top publisher. We would get Paul on all the right television talk shows. We would have a social media campaign.

Not so with the early church. It grew in a way counter to everything the world would tell us to do these days. It grew from person to person, one at a time, as the word spread. The church began with no buildings, no public relations campaign. It was not even popular in the centers of power and wisdom, as Paul found out at Athens.


Nonetheless, Paul here insists on four great things that Christ is for us:


First, Christ is wisdom. Jesus provides the ultimate wisdom. Why is this true? Because Jesus is the wisdom from God. He comes to us directly from God. He is better than any book. He is better than any proverb. Why? Because he is a person. Jesus shows us wisdom embodied. 


I think of the story of the little boy who was having trouble sleeping because he was scared of the dark. He called out to his father and his father came into the boy’s bedroom to comfort him. Then the father left, and a few minutes later the boy cried out again. The father went back, and he told his son, “You don’t need to worry, God is here with you.” And the boy said, “But Daddy, I need somebody with skin on!”


That’s what we all need: somebody with skin on. And that is what Jesus is for us. He is wisdom with skin on.


Second, Paul says that Christ is righteousness. This means that Jesus provides us with a right relationship with God. We are saved through grace and not by our own works. The moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ, God declares you to be something you are not. He declares you to be righteous because of faith. God is willing to take you as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you as you are.


That’s why Paul says a third thing about Christ; he is holiness. It is only the presence of Christ that makes us whole. Jesus was set apart and he makes us a people set apart. When we put our faith in Jesus, God declares us to be something we are not. He declares us, legally, to be righteous. But then he goes on to make us actually righteous and holy. It is a long process. It takes our entire lives. But God is committed to finishing what he starts with us.


Then fourth, Paul says that Christ is redemption. Jesus buys us back from slavery to sin and makes us the slaves of God—devoted to him. Jesus can deliver us not only from past sin, but from present helplessness, and from future fear. As William Barclay says, Christ frees us from slavery to self and to sin.


When I was a child, I knew only one thing about redemption. I collected S&H Green Stamps and “Blue Chip” stamps. I know many of you remember this. But for those who don’t, let me explain. You could collect these stamps, then you could take them to a redemption center (usually the supermarket if I recall correctly) and you could turn in the stamps and redeem something else in their place. If you saved up a lot of stamps you could redeem a transistor radio or some such item.


Jesus has done something like that for us, but in a far greater way. He offers his life for us at God’s redemption center so that he can purchase us. Can you imagine?


This leads to the third major thing Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 2.


III.       The Ministry of the Spirit (2:1-16)


Paul has given us a word about Christ and the cross, a word about God and his ways, and now a word about the ministry of the Spirit.


Paul insists that his own ministry is an example of God working by his Spirit in human weakness. Paul did not go to Corinth with eloquence or human wisdom. He was not a humanly powerful and popular speaker on the lecture circuit. Paul went in weakness with great fear and trembling. But, at the same time, Paul went with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. If we allow him to do it, the Holy Spirit can speak through us to other people for their good.


Some time ago, I shared this story with our women’s Bible study group. Many years ago, I travelled to the Baltic Republic of Latvia and trained a group of young people in street evangelism. We would go on to the streets of some of the larger cities in Latvia. We would set up “camp” on a street corner. Our musicians would play some music to attract people. Then our drama people would perform a little skit. Then I would preach. One of the Latvians would translate. And afterwards, each of the young people in our group would approach people in the audience and ask them what they thought.


When we did this in one spot, I noticed that after my talk, fourteen-year-old Janis was talking to an older man who had wandered into our meeting. Pretty soon, Janis’ conversation with this man was attracting an audience. I asked my interpreter what Janis was saying. He was sharing the good news about Jesus with this elderly man and answering his questions. Then as we walked away from that encounter, Janis turned to me and said, “I don’t know where all those things I was saying came from?”


I responded and said, “Janis, I know. It came from the Holy Spirit.”


That night, that elderly man came to our meeting at the local church, and he gave his life to Jesus Christ.


The Holy Spirit spoke through Paul in his weakness, and the Holy Spirit can do the same through us if we let him.


Paul spoke a message of God’s wisdom, a message that contained a mystery. Paul sums up that mystery in a quote from Isaiah 64:4, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”. In other words, we cannot fully imagine what God has in store for those of us who love him. We cannot even dream how good heaven is going to be.


But, Paul says, “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” What we can know of God’s present and future blessings is revealed by the Spirit. 


Paul even goes so far as to say that because of the Holy Spirit living in believers, “We have the mind of Christ.” We are like a glove and the Spirit is like the hand that animates the glove. The Spirit wants to think the thoughts of Christ through us. He also wants to perform the deeds of Christ through us.


The story is told of a small European village where there stood a statue of Jesus carved out of stone. Just so, the statue had stood for centuries, the prized possession of the entire village. However, during the war, this village was bombed, and the statue of Jesus was damaged. The hands of the statue, which once reached out in loving openness to all who passed by, now were broken off. For many days, the villagers debated with one another about how the statue should be restored. Finally, it was decided that the statue should be left as it was, without hands, in commemoration of the suffering that this village had endured. The villagers placed a small plaque at the foot of the statue that read, “I have no hands but yours.”


The words are reminiscent of a poem written by St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun who lived from 1515 to 1582…


Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.


Yours is also the mind through which the Spirit thinks the thoughts of Christ. The Lord chose in creation, and in his incarnation, to need you and me to complete the work of his kingdom. He still chooses to need us and use us for his glory and the good of humanity.


Is the good news of Jesus Christ foolishness or is it the greatest power for good that the world has ever known? There is one way you can find out for certain. Invite Jesus to come into your life right now.


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