Menu Close

“The Foolishness of God”

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Bob DeGray
February 12, 2006

Key Sentence

God’s whole approach is foolishness to the partisans of wisdom and power.


I. The message of the cross is foolishness (1 Cor 1:18-25)
II. The criteria for his calling is foolishness (1 Cor 1:26-31)


        The accepted wisdom, or world view of any age is foundational to what people believe, and how they think and act. World view issues are important, not only to interaction with the culture around us, but to understanding trends in the church. Let me show this in the two major world views now operating in western culture. The older of these is call modernism, and it developed during the Renaissance and Reformation and created Western thinking - rationalism, empiricism, humanism, and ultimately skepticism. Almost all philosophy, science, political science, sociology and psychology are grounded in these ‘isms’. And each has contributed to an ongoing tensions between the church and the world and within the church.

        Example: modernism says the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which we studied last fall, are pure myth, created to explain the world to pre-scientific minds. Moderns ‘know’ that Darwin and his ilk discovered the real scientific truth. So, the church has had to get involved in a battle to preserve Scripture’s teaching on creation. But some have simply capitulated to the modernist view. My favorite example is this little Sunday School book, published by the Lutheran Church of America in 1967. The chapter about ‘How Did God Make the World?’ begins: “Imagine a great, wide sea and high empty mountains. No fish swim in the sea. No seaweed grows there. No birds fly over the land. No trees grow; no grass covers the ground. Men who study how life began, scientists, think that the world was like this before any living thing.” What’s the source of truth - scientists? Continuing: “The first living things God made swam in the wide sea. They were very, very tiny. God made these tiny sea animals grow and change slowly.” Then follows four pages of evolution: fish, plants, amphibians, land plants, dinosaurs, mammals, and finally “After millions of years, the time came in God’s plan for people.” No Scripture - just evolution.

        But worse can happen. Do you want to hear what J. S. Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark believes? These are his words “*Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. *Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsense to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of that God. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt. *The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation in which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense. *The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events. *The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God. *Resurrection, however understood, cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history. And of course *There is no external, objective, revealed standard of Scripture that will govern ethical behavior for all time.” This is the fruit of modernism in the church.

        The second great world view is called post-modernism, what comes after modernism. This view questions all truth claims, whether by modernists or by religionists. Truth is seen as varying from person to person depending on their background, experience and personality; absolutes are impossible; knowledge itself is contingent. Therefore morality in any fixed sense cannot be known. And everything from the same-sex marriage issue to the abortion issue to the reading of the constitution is impacted . Some people believe the constitution means what it’s authors intended it to mean, and the meaning doesn’t depend on when it is being read or who is reading it. But many have abandoned this idea. In the church the same approach is applied to Scripture. Two examples: in recent years a theological wrinkle has developed called ‘open theism’. As one prominent proponent writes: In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable? We believe that God could have known every event of the future had God decided to create a fully determined universe. However, in our view God decided to create beings with indeterministic freedom which implies that God chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for himself.” Are we wiser than God? Can we throw out the Scripture that clearly says He declares the end from the beginning?

        A second recent development is what is called the ‘emergent’ or ‘emerging’ church. This is a group of believers intentionally involved in a dialog with a postmodern culture, accepting some of it’s tenets. It’s true that modernism has more than enough flaws to make believers critical of it. Unfortunately, so does the post-modernism these writers have embraced. One of the most thoughtful critiques of the emerging church has been written by Don Carson. One reviewer summarizes the heart of his argument this way: “Carson goes on, in chapters five, six and seven to critique the Emerging Church's response to postmodernism. He is especially frustrated by their refusal to deal with the tough questions, especially those related to claims of absolute truth, and with the Emerging Church's stubborn refusal to use Scripture as the norm against appeals to tradition. He deals with two books in some depth - Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy and Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus. Carson arrives at a chilling conclusion. "I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the Gospel.”

        Which brings us, finally, to our text. I don’t apologize for the long introduction, because I think the things we’ve just described are significant examples of what can happen if Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1 isn’t taken seriously. It’s easy for believers, individually and in groups, to take hold of the popular ideas of the current world view, to the wisdom and power of a given age. Paul has seen, and we will, that the true message of the Gospel, the message of the cross is foolishness to the purveyors, the partisans of wisdom and power. But - it’s just the kind of foolishness God uses to achieve his purposes.

I. The message of the cross is foolishness (1 Cor 1:18-25)

        Paul admits that God’s approach seems like foolishness. 1 Cor. 1:18-25 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. 19For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." 20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For 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. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

        The message of the cross is literally the ‘word’ of the cross - more than the word about the cross, this message embraces all of God plan for salvation. But this Good News is considered ‘foolishness’ by those who do not have ears to hear - those who will not be rescued from sin’s penalty of death. For others, ‘those who are being saved’, it is not the wisdom of God, which you might have expected Paul to say, but ‘the power of God’. Words alone can not save - no matter what the message is, it cannot save. But through this message the power of God is unleashed in the lives of anyone who hears and will believe and by that power God forgives and redeems sinners.

        The conflict between divine wisdom and power and the secular world’s view of these matters comes as no surprise. In verse 19 Paul quotes from Isaiah, 29:14 to show that it is God’s intention to prove man’s wisdom to be folly. Throughout history God has worked in ways that the world would never have imagined or believed. Would human wisdom have chosen an insignificant people like the Jews to be the nation among whom God would dwell? Would human wisdom have chosen the land of Palestine over other places on earth? Would human wisdom have led the Israelites to be trapped between the Red Sea and the on-coming Egyptian army? Would human wisdom have promised a king through the line of a shepherd boy? Would human wisdom have declared that the coming Messiah was to be born of a virgin? Would human wisdom have purposed to save Gentiles through the rejection and failure of the Jews, rather than their triumph? No, this is God’s sovereign wisdom at work. It defies human analysis, but he always achieves his goals by it.

        Paul hammers home the contrast with a series of questions: ‘Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?’. Paul is rhetorically or even sarcastically asking these people to stand up and spout their wisdom, the wisdom of ‘this age’ and see how it fares. He asks his readers to judge: ‘has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?’ They think they’re wise, these Bishop Spongs, these ‘open’ thiests, but over and over again God has confounded their wisdom by his acts in human history; in fact he has made their wisdom look foolish.

        Verse 21 takes it further ‘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.’ No matter how many schemes men come up with, they cannot reach God, or bridge the gulf that sin has made between God and man. God in his wisdom knew, long before man did, that the chasm created by the fall was only bridgeable from his side. Neither wisdom nor power nor human attempts at morality could do it. But God can do it, by grace. Notice it says he was pleased to do this. Foolish though we are, it brings God joy to save through the foolishness of what was preached - the cross. Bishop Spong captured the disdain of the wise: ‘The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.’ From Spong’s point of view, and in the minds of the Greek philosphers, and from the point of view of millions of proud skeptics through the years, the message that God saves through a crucified Savior is contemptible. Nonetheless, there are some being saved, and notice how Paul says their salvation comes about: he saves those who believe. People don’t come to salvation by exercising wisdom or power but by faith, by believing the foolishness of the cross. As you listen today you want to ask yourself ‘do I believe this foolishness?’. For those being saved, it’s the power of God.

        In verses 22 and 23 Paul points out how Jews and Greeks arrive at their judgment of the cross’s foolishness. “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Paul precisely characterizes these two nations. The matter-of-fact Jews showed little interest in speculative thought; they demanded practical evidence; they required God to perform mighty wonders. This was illustrated after Jesus fed the 5000. They came to him and asked, John 6:30, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you?” The Jews ‘knew’ the Messiah had to be attested by power and majesty. So a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms, nonsense to the Jew looking for the restoration of Israel. Thus Jesus is a stumbling block, a skandalon, from which we get our word scandalous. Both Paul and Peter use this word. The humility of Jesus, his humiliation, the fact that he suffered and died, and rose and ascended rather than simply conquering and taking an earthly throne, made his claim to be Messiah scandalous to the Jews.

        Greeks, on the other hand, were looking for rescue through wisdom. Commentator Leon Morris says “The Greeks were absorbed in speculative philosophy. No one among them was more honored than their outstanding thinkers. From the lofty heights of their culture they looked down and despised as barbarians all who failed to embrace their wisdom. Their proud sophistication left no room for the Gospel of Jesus.” Paul had experienced this himself, in Athens, just before he came to Corinth for the first time. Acts 17:21 “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”

        Paul carefully crafted his message to appeal to the philosophical sophistication of his audience; and it worked, they wanted to hear him. But in the end few believed; there are no letters to the church at Athens. For the Son of God to be born in human form, to grow into manhood unrecognized, to go about doing good and healing all kinds of sickness, to surrender his life into the hands of unscrupulous men, to die the death of crucifixion as a common criminal, all this defies human wisdom, and it sounded like foolishness to the wisdom of the Greek world view.

        But Paul says that nonetheless ‘we preach Christ crucified’. This is, or ought to be, the rallying cry of preachers in every age, the test of teaching in every age. Don Carson looks at the emergent church and says “to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the Gospel.”. Bishop Spong calls the atonement “a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God.” Again, as Fox News recently reported “At the biggest church in the country, Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, Pastor Joel Osteen preaches to some 25,000 people each week -- and sin is not on the menu. Osteen said his goal is to "give people a boost for the week." But sin is on the menu: the cross is God’s solution to sin. The shed blood of Jesus may offend sensibilities, but it is the wisdom and power of God, because, Paul says, the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. God’s whole approach is foolishness to the partisans of wisdom and power. The sign seeking Jews were blind to the significance of the greatest sign of all. The wisdom-loving Greeks could not discern the most profound wisdom of all. But God’s wisdom and power were there, in the word of the cross.

II. The criteria for his calling is foolishness (1 Cor 1:26-31)

        Paul goes on to defend God’s foolish criteria for calling people. 1 Cor. 1:26-31 Brothers, 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. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30It 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. 31Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

        The conflict between God’s ways and worldly wisdom is illustrated by the kind of people he called. He might have concentrated on the intellectual elite, or other prominent people, but in fact he chose people with little to commend them from the worldly standpoint. These he has called, a word that shows God’s initiative in salvation, and a very common word in this letter. The large number of unimportant people in the church didn’t come about because the only people who wanted to become Christians were from the depressed classes. It came about because God chose to work his marvels through people who were, from a human point of view, most unpromising.

        So Paul says ‘not many of you were wise by human standards.’ Wisdom has been prominent in the discussion and clearly the Corinthians revered it. But Paul soundly rejects this as God’s criterion for choosing. In the same way all the noblemen, all the business executives and landed gentry, all the people walking in the corridors of power, all were notable by their absence from the church at Corinth. There were one or two exceptions, not many. This was typical of the early church. Jesus had said that his mission was to bring good news to the poor. The apostles continued that mission. Christianity spread rapidly among the lower classes of Roman society, and this made it offensive to the others. The riff-raff were being converted. In this God overthrows one of the false standards of the world, that those who matter are the wise, the well-bred, articulate, gifted, wealthy; the wielders of power and influence. None of these things matters to God. But such ideas continue, even in the Christian church. They were powerful at Corinth, and they stifle the glory of God today, as the organized church continues to run off after fads and fashions notable only because they appear to have had human success.

        Verse 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. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are.” Paul makes God’s method perfectly clear: some consider themselves wise; God chooses the foolish things, like the cross, in order to shame them, hopefully y to the point of repentance. The word foolish there is Greek moron. It’s not quite the same connotation, but God choose the morons to shame those who thought they were wise. In all ages, not least today, Christians have been accused of being ignorant. It doesn’t matter. All we know is that ignorance does not disqualify you.

        In the same way, God chose to save the weak in order to bring shame on the strong; he has chosen those who really are foolish and weak and of no account in this world. It’s always been my opinion that when you compare the wisest of us to the most mentally impaired, there may seem a great gap between the two, but when you compare either to the wise God, they are really very close together. In the same way Stalin and Hitler may have had almost unlimited power by our standards, but the two are barely noticeable compared to the power of God. All of us are by his standards the weak and the foolish who thankfully thus qualify for his sweet mercy.

        So God chooses the lowly, those ‘of lowly birth’. Paul already said there weren’t many of noble birth. God chooses ‘the despised’, those treated as contemptible. Babies in the womb seem to fall into this category, as do the old and the infirm; or those mired in poverty or sin, whom many of us despise, even if we won’t admit it. And God has chosen ‘the things that are not’ - nothings, who in the eyes of the world don’t even exist. Maybe slaves in Roman times; perhaps immigrants in our own. God uses these to nullify the things that are. In salvation God makes something out of nothing, and in judgment he puts down those who thought they were something.

        Do you see what God is doing? He is expressing his own value system of love for the unlovely and grace to the sinner, and also of disdain for those who think they have a leg to stand on. The Biblical shorthand for this truth is found in the phrase ‘God opposes the proud but give grace to the humble.’ It’s found originally in Proverbs 3:34, and is used or alluded to several times in the New Testament. God is always reaching down to rescue and give grace to the lowly and humble and poor in spirit, and to topple the standing of those who appear to be the most proud and successful.

        God does all this with the purpose of taking away from everyone every reason for boasting. Verse 29: ‘so that no one may boast before him.’ The ultimate foolishness is for the creature to boast before the creator - and yet this is what men have done since the fall. The story is told of a farmer in a Midwestern state who had a strong disdain for "religious" things. As he plowed his field on Sunday morning, he would shake his fist at the church people who passed by on their way to worship. October came and the farmer had his finest crop ever--the best in the entire county. When the harvest was complete, he placed an advertisement in the local paper which belittled the Christians for their faith in God. He wrote, "Faith in God must not mean much if someone like me can prosper." The response from the Christians in the community was quiet and polite. In the next edition of the town paper, a small ad appeared. It read simply, "God doesn't always settle His accounts in October." Human boasting always misses the eternal perspective.

        So in verse 30 Paul turns the discussion in a positive direction “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.” God is the ultimate source of salvation, so it is because of him, and not yourself that you can be found ‘in Christ Jesus’. Whole books have been written about this favorite phrase of Paul’s, which he uses to show that the believer is connected to his Lord in the closest possible fashion. Christ is the very atmosphere in which he lives, not in a mechanical way, but in a relationship, in personal attachment to a personal Savior. So we are ‘in Christ’, and he has become for us wisdom from God. Paul has already implied strongly that the apparent foolishness of the cross is actually wisdom. This wisdom is embodied in Christ. In Colossians Paul says that in Christ ‘are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ The philosophers can argue and ridicule as much as they want, but God’s real wisdom is shown in the incarnation of Christ and his sacrifice for sin.

        That’s what Paul is saying when he explains that Christ is ‘our righteousness, holiness and redemption.’ Righteousness in this context means the our right standing before God, which is given to us by virtue of Christ’s death on the cross. As Paul will say in 2nd Corinthians “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ is our righteousness. There is no other. In the same way we could never attain holiness in our own strength, but Christ is our holiness too; in him we have been set apart to God.
        Finally, Christ is our redemption; he has paid the ransom price to set us free. As he himself said “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Law enforcement agencies and governments have long said that they would not negotiate with kidnappers or terrorists. God didn’t negotiate with the sin and shame that held us captive - but he did pay the price, meet the demand, free the captives. 1 Peter 2:24 “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.”

        So there are two conclusions to this. The first is a question: how do you respond to God’s foolishness? The Bishop Spongs of this world would mock and say ‘you simpleton; you can’t possibly believe that faith in this Savior and in his barbaric execution as a bloody sacrifice will do you any good?’ And yet this Christ, this sacrifice is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” You are not saved by whatever it is you may be proud of: your beauty, your strength, your wisdom, your power, your competence or your kindness. But when you put those things aside and in humility simply believe the foolishness of the cross, the death of God for you, you’re saved. That’s the promise of the Savior himself: John 3:14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, [on the cross] that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Have you forsaken wisdom and pride bought in to the humility of admitting your sin and looking to Christ and believing on him for the salvation he accomplished on the cross?

        The second conclusion is like the first - that even as believers we must not succumb to the wisdom and pride of men. Paul’s verse 31 says “Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” He’s summarizing Jeremiah 9:23-24 “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, 24but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth.” Let not the wise man boast of wisdom or the strong man of strength or the rich man of riches, but let him who boasts boast in the Lord, who has foolishly saved the foolish and the weak and the humble by his own humility and self sacrifice.