We’re resuming our journey through Paul’s masterful letter that takes deep theological truths, deep truths about God, and applies them to the problems of the church of God in Corinth. As we have seen, that’s one of the things that is most helpful about Paul: he shows how everything is theological. Every disagreement, every temptation, every sin, every quarrel in the church. It’s all theological.
And Christians of every age can derive great benefit from this letter written to a particular church in the 1st century Roman empire because the problems present in Corinth are not particular to that church. Indeed, the problems are quite universal. We may have different dress, and different speech, and worship in a different culture, but the problems are always the same. Sin is the problem and Sin doesn’t change. And, encouragingly enough to us, Christ is the solution, and neither does Christ change.
With that in mind, we turn to our text. Paul has opened his letter with a greeting, and a call for unity in the first 17 verses. Then he moves into an extended argument against factions, or divisions, tribalism in the church. This argument extents all the way into chapter 4. We won’t cover the entire argument, but will instead focus our attention on verses 19-25. I’ll start by reading verse 18 where Paul makes his opening statement, and then proceed with 19-25 where Paul defends and explains his opening thesis from verse 18. 1st Corinthians 1, beginning in verse 18. Hear the word of our Lord:
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[b] 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.
Our passage tonight begins in verse 19 with Paul quoting from the book of Isaiah. Some scholars see one or two other allusions or echoes of texts from Isiah in the following verses as well. I’m sure those other texts of woe or condemnation from Isaiah 28-33 are all swirling around in Paul’s mind as he wrote this. Indeed, from our text in 1:19 through chapter 3:23, we see a common theme of 6 different Old Testament quotations, each of which pointing to God as the one who acts “to judge and save his people in ways that defy human imagination.”
God’s plan from the beginning was to save, to redeem, to liberate his people through a method and a means that no man could imagine, and in doing so, he would be proving that human wisdom was really nothing. And that’s my first point. See the God who destroys human wisdom. See the God who destroys human wisdom.
Verse 19, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.” That was the plan of God revealed in the prophecy of Isaiah 29. And Paul sees the cross as a direct fulfillment of that verse; the cross is the means that God has used to bring about his promise of destroying the wisdom of the worldly wise men. He has, in the cross, laid aside all human pretentions of strength or wisdom.
Man in his wisdom has an inflated view of himself, of his strength and of his intelligence. We can see this easily by looking at the philosophies of man in our culture. One simple example is that the modern wise man thinks that he has solved the mystery of human origins by concocting the theory of evolution. He thinks in his wisdom that man evolving from primordial soup and from monkeys is really the foundation of true human knowledge and wisdom.
But the cross destroys such nonsense by proclaiming instead that there is a God, there is a creator, there is sin and judgment and a curse. None of those things can you have in a world that evolved from nothing. There can be no sin, no morality, no objective standard of justice and righteousness, no foundational answer to what is right and what is wrong. If the world is truly about the survival of the fittest, then the weak and the humble have no hope, and worldly power and domination actually become a virtue. Man’s wisdom undermines true virtue.
You need a holy God for that, and the cross shows you what real virtue is. But man won’t have it. In his wisdom, man rejects God’s wisdom. So God destroys man’s wisdom in the cross.
We see this tendency in ourselves too, not just out in the world. We naturally possess a puffed-up sense of our own abilities. Our default assumption in a disagreement is that we remember things accurately, and the other person doesn’t. We’re infallible in our memory of events, and, coincidentally, our memory always seems to paint a rosy picture of our actions and an ugly picture of their actions.
Or maybe you’ve noticed this in yourself: that you’re the one that possess the wisdom to see right through complex situations. You’re the one with the discernment and intelligence to solve other people’s problems. They just need to ask me, need to listen to me, need to follow my advice. But what does Paul say:
In verse 20 he asks, “where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” These rhetorical questions Paul is using to drive home the point that God has successfully destroyed human wisdom in the cross. The cross is the power of God to demolish human wisdom.
DA Carson is helpful here when he points out that the point of God destroying the wisdom of the wise has already been made in verse 18 where God said the word of the cross is the power of God to those being saved:
“One might have expected Paul to say, “For the message of the cross is foolishness those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom of God.” Instead, he insists it is “the power of God.” Of course, he will later say that the gospel is also God’s wisdom (1:24), but he starts off on a different note. This is not a slip on Paul’s part; the point is crucial. Paul does not want the Corinthians to think that the gospel is nothing more than a philosophical system, over and against the folly of others.
It is far more: where human wisdom utterly fails to deal with human need, God himself has taken action. We are impotent when it comes to dealing with our sin and being reconciled to God, but where we are impotent God is powerful. Human folly and human wisdom are equally unable to achieve what God has accomplished in the cross. The gospel is not simply good advice, nor is it good news about God’s power. The gospel IS God’s power to those who believe. The place where God has destroyed arrogance and pretension is the cross.”
Where is the philosopher man? Where is the debater? Modern men think they have a coherent view of the world, a worldview that answers all the questions and makes sense of the world? But they can’t even handle the most basic questions of life: where did we come from? Why are we here? Why is there evil? How do we deal with justice in the world?
God, in the cross, reveals the total and complete inadequacies of these human philosophies. The stoics, the epicureans, the sophists, the Platonists, they were all made fools by the cross. And today, the Marxists, the naturalists, the evolutionists, the postmodernists, the atheists and the agnostics, they’re combined wisdom is cut down to nothing by the cross.
The world thinks that the intelligent and the learned are the wise ones. They’ve got it all figured out. But God thwarts the wisdom of the wise by sending simple fishermen as his apostles. Not philosophers. Not scholars. Not professors and academics. Fishermen.
And he’s sent them to proclaim a message of the cross, a message about the Power of God in the cross. Their message isn’t one of a system that is a little better or more consistent, as if the gospel and these human philosophies are competing for a slight edge over each other in terms of wisdom. God has sent his people to proclaim a different message, a message of the cross, a message of foolishness in the eyes of the world, a message that destroys the wisdom of this age when it proclaims the power of God.
That’s the God we serve, that’s what God has done in the cross, he has destroyed human wisdom.
But how has he done this? How has God in the cross destroyed human wisdom? Well we see in verses 21-22 that God reveals the foolishness of the worldly wise. God reveals the foolishness of the worldly wise man.
The wise of this age tend to have two different but related reactions to God and his word of the cross. That’s how Paul breaks it down. Men tend to seek for signs, or they seek for wisdom. That’s what Paul says in verse 22: that the Jews sought signs and the Greeks sought wisdom. Paul takes the category from verse 18, the perishing, and he breaks that category down even further into two groups: the Jews and the Greeks.
But why does he do that? What does he mean by that? And what does it have to do with us, you might ask. We’re neither Jews nor Greeks, and there aren’t many of either of those groups around here. Well I’ll tell you.
Both groups are united in this: they try to mask their unbelief under the guise of human wisdom. They think they are wise, but all that their wisdom shows is their unbelief.
Consider the Jews. They were always looking for signs, Paul says. This happened throughout Jesus’s ministry. Matthew 12:38, Matthew 16:1, John 4:48 all mention this. People would come up to Jesus and ask for a sign. “Prove yourself to be true. Vindicate yourself by doing something miraculous. Then we will believe. Then we will admit that what you are saying is true.”
But what they were doing actually reveals a deeper issue. They were NOT open-minded and neutral observers coming to rationally decide whether or not so believe God. They wanted to put themselves in the place of judge. They were making demands upon the son of God so that THEY could evaluate him, so that THEY could assess him and test his credentials. They want to take the place of judging God himself. Do you see the unbelief and the pride wrapped up in such a posture? Do you see the irony of the creation seeking to judge the creator? What folly! What pretention!
But we must also see that this demand for signs isn’t unique to the Jews. It’s what is underneath any demand, any condition that we put upon God for our belief and submission.
- I‘ll trust in God when he heals me, or my child.
- I’ll come to Jesus, as long as I get to keep my independence.
- I’ll joyfully become a Christian once God reveals himself to me in the manner of my choosing.
- I’ll spend more time in God’s word and prayer when my marriage improves.
- I’ll submit to God only when HE submits to MY timeline.
- I’ll acknowledge Jesus as Lord IF he delivers the act of my choosing.
In each case, I am assessing him. I am determining if He is worthy of submission and praise. I’m not coming to Jesus on his terms, I’m coming on MY terms, that I dictate, and he must acquiesce if he wants MY company. We can demand signs just like the Jews.
But Paul says that there is another reaction to God’s word, to be like the Greeks who sought wisdom. They wanted a coherent logic. They wanted a consistent worldview of explainable cause and effect.
They weren’t demanding signs like the Jews, but were doing something just as problematic. The Greeks were concerned with identifying an all-encompassing explanation for the universe. Whether that explanation was chaos and order, or motion, or the gods, or the fundamental elements, they were looking to explain everything by their systems.
Do you see the problem? They want to remain under the delusion that their human wisdom allows them to explain everything. “They think they are scientific, in control, powerful. God, if he exists, must meet the high standards of their academic and philosophical prowess and somehow fit into their system, if he is to be given any sort of respectful hearing.”
We see this same temptation today. God is reshaped to fit into the boxes of our choosing. Christianity must fit within my categories of injustice and oppression, or of evolution and natural selection, or of American exceptionalism, or of capitalist greed. Whatever our lens is, whatever our preferred system is, we shrink and twist and contort God into our system, and in doing so we become the judge, and the cross gets left out.
In both the Jews and the Greeks there is a profound sense of pride, and a profound self-centeredness. God is not believed on his own merits. God must prove himself as worthy of belief, but only if he meets the demands of our choosing.
I’ll come to him once it all makes sense to me,
once somebody explains sin and evil to my satisfaction,
once I understand providence,
once I can see what’s going on and it matches my judgment of what is correct and proper.
Have you felt such a pull in your own life? Where you don’t understand what God is doing, you don’t understand why he’s making you do something, why he’s making you experience some trial, why he’s given you such a burden, and you’re tempted to disbelieve because you can’t make sense of it? Unbelief isn’t a sin that departs us when we come to faith either. It can follow us around and tempt us to doubt God, doubt his power, doubt his goodness, doubt his love, just like the Jews and the Greeks disbelieved God.
If you discover such unbelief in your heart, then the solution that Paul would prescribe is to consider the foolish message of the cross. That’s the irony of this whole passage, Jews demanded signs, but failed to see God’s most prominent sign: Jesus dying for our sins on the cross. Greeks demanded wisdom, but failed to grasp the all-encompassing wisdom, the singular key that unlocks all wisdom, which is found on Calvary.
And of specific encouragement to believers, who find themselves again doubting God, read again what Paul says in verse 21: “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save.” It pleased God to save through the cross.
God didn’t begrudgingly commit to his plan to save through the cross. It wasn’t a backup plan. This was God’s plan all along. To send a liberating king, but a king who was the suffering servant. To send the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent, but to do so at the great cost of being bruised himself. And it pleased him to do so.
Christ didn’t die in your place begrudgingly. He is no reluctant savior. In his great wisdom, he willing became a fool to the world in order to save those of us foolish enough to trust in his death.
Indeed, scripture says that it was for the JOY set before him that he WILLINGLY endured the cross. Jesus is not ashamed of you and your sin. He didn’t have to be coaxed into redeeming you. He’s not afraid to look upon your defilement and unbelief. He knows of it already, more intimately that even you do, and yet it pleased him to save through the cross.
When you find remaining unbelief, when you find yourself again playing the judge over God and his actions or demanding signs from him as a condition of your submission and belief, remember again the Jesus who was hung on the cross. It pleased him to save those who were guilty of prideful unbelief. He joyfully undertook the mission to redeem an arrogant bride.
He doesn’t regret his decision to die for you, in fact, he ever lives to make intercession for you, that’s what scripture says. When you come to him confessing your unbelief, HE DELIGHTS in washing you again, in applying the merits of his atonement to you again. In acting as your great High Priest again. He delights in his work, delights in his service to his Bride, delights in washing her as white as snow again. You’re not a burden, and your redemption is not his chore. You’re the apple of his eye, and he is pleased in his work as your great redeemer and high priest of the cross.
God was pleased to save through the foolishness of the cross.
Finally, let’s move onto vs 23-25 and see our calling to foolishness. Our calling to foolishness.
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.
Paul’s calling, and the calling of every disciple, is to believe, to trust, and to proclaim a message that the world finds foolish. There’s no way around it. Jews want signs and Greeks want wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.
And it is not insignificant that Paul boils down the Christian message in this way: to Christ crucified. You’ll not offend the world if you preach Jesus alone. Lots of people preach Jesus as a good man, as a wise teacher, as a role model, Jesus as a social activist, Jesus as an advocate for the oppressed, Jesus as a cultural revolutionary. The world doesn’t find any of that foolish. In fact, much of the world will love you for preaching that.
But that’s not what Paul calls the church to proclaim. We preach Christ CRUCIFIED. A Christ that died. A Christ that was under a curse. A Christ that absorbed wrath. A Christ that atoned for sins. A Christ that is bloody and bruised and broken and did it all for a sinful people who would never have chosen him if left to themselves. That’s whom we proclaim. That’s whom we preach.
And it’s a stumbling block to Jews and Gentiles, Paul says. Notice the subtle shift in Paul’s language from Greeks to Gentiles in verse 23. Nobody is outside of his categorization. Whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, that’s everybody, that’s the whole world, whether you’re red or yellow or black or white, you’re going to find this message foolish until you come to hear it in faith.
But that’s the good news of this foolish message, verse 24, but to those who were called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power and wisdom of God. The good news is that out of the whole world, out of the Jews and the Greeks, out of those that mocked and sneered and scoffed at the message of the cross, God chooses to Call.
We’re not without hope. We’re not without help. God has chosen to call some from the world, some from the perishing, some from the four corners of the globe and reveal to them HIS power and HIS wisdom. He’s worked in their hearts, through the preaching of a foolish message of the cross, to open their eyes through the gift of faith.
By faith we come to see that what we thought was wisdom is actually rubbish, and what we thought was foolishness, is actually pure wisdom. God shows us that we’re actually not as righteous as we thought: that we’re proud, that we’re vain, that we’re lustful, that we’re greedy, that we’re selfish. But in his grace he doesn’t just show us that.
He also gives us eyes to see the beauty of what happens on Calvary. Christ takes on our pride, our vanity, our lust, our greed, our selfishness, and he takes every drop of punishment that we had earned, and he bears it, he takes it on his body on that tree, and takes it all the way to the grave. The wrath that we had earned has been assuaged, it’s been absorbed, he has wrung dry every drop that was coming to us.
And not only that, he was raised from the grave three days later. God accepted the sacrifice of Christ in our place, confirming our life and our own resurrection to come. All of this foolishness has been made to be wisdom to us because we’ve been called by God from darkness into light. We’ve been regenerated, born again, given new life in him.
That’s the great news of the gospel. And that great news can be yours tonight too. If you’re stumbling over this gospel, if you struggle to understand what I’m saying, what Paul is saying, what the bible says, then I urge you: don’t stop investigating until you’ve come to know Christ.
The stakes are too high. The stakes are your own soul and eternity. Read the scriptures and see what they say of this Christ. Read the gospels and see how he died and was raised. Read the book of Acts and see how thousands of people came to believe this foolishness, and believed it with such tenacity that they were willing to die for it.
Nothing can explain this kind of radical transformation in Paul’s own life. Nothing can explain it, short of the power of God working in his life. He went from the most devout of Jews, highly trained and highly accomplished, well-respected and zealous, powerful and wise in the eyes of the community. But he gave it all up and became a fool in the eyes of the world.
How can we explain that? How does Paul explain that? He explains it through the power of the cross. The power of God manifested in Christ crucified. That’s the only explanation. That’s the only reason. Christ crucified is the power and wisdom of God.
The feebleness of a crucified messiah hanging on a tree, the moment of apparent greatest weakness, has actually become the moment of greatest strength and power.
And the foolishness of a suffering servant being crucified, the moment of apparent greatest folly, is actually the moment of greatest wisdom.
And that’s because God’s plan of saving sinful people WHILE ALSO retaining his perfect righteousness and justice all culminates on the cross. God judges sin, thus maintaining his justice and righteousness and holiness, but he judges it on his own son, thus glorifying his own mercy and grace.
Mercy and Justice kiss at the cross. That’s the wisdom and power of God. And that’s what proves Paul’s final statement: the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The foolishness of God, that is the unbelievable story of God who would die for his people, is actually wiser than men. Men could never concoct such a plan. Man would never design a deity that would lower himself to such depths. Man would never imagine a powerful God who would stoop so low in his mercy, and who would show such mercy to such an undeserving people. That that is exactly what God has done. God “uses a crib in Bethlehem as a cradle for his royal son and he selects a cruel cross as the instrument of death for his divine emissary.”
God, in his apparent weakness, has demonstrated his strength over man. God’s shown his humility, thus highlighting man’s pride. He’s shown his mercy, thus highlighting man’s harshness. He’s shown his justice, highlighting man’s own sinfulness. And he’s done it all in the cross, in Christ crucified. God’s wisdom, the wisdom of a crucified savior on a cross, is wiser than man’s wisdom. And God’s weakness is stronger than man’s.
This is a lesson that we constantly have to re-learn in the Christian life. We’re wired to fight for strength and status, to posture and to preen, to dictate terms and to dominate. But that’s not God’s way. That’s not what Christ has done. And that’s not the path of strength and wisdom. In fact, true strength, true wisdom, looks like death. It looks like dying to myself, and my preferences, and my desires, and my ambitions, and my needs, so that others might be served in love. It’s putting others first out of love, just like Christ has done. And true strength and true wisdom, looks like what Jesus preached:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons[a] of God.
If you want to be a son of God, full heirs to the life that was bought by Jesus on the Cross, then come to Jesus today and make yourself a fool, belief on this foolish message of the God-man dying in the place of sinners.
For it is only when you become a fool, that you truly become wise. And only when you become weak, that you truly become strong.
 Richard B. Hayes, “The Conversion of the Imagination: Scripture and Eschatology in 1 Corinthians,” NTS 45: 402-3.
 Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 15.
 Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 20.
 Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 21.
 Simon Kistmaker, 1 Corinthians (Baker: 1993), 60.