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The Foolishness of God

1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 ESV

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.
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.”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Jami is out of town this week and when she’s out of town I don’t sleep well. So, I usually end up watching TV until all hours of the night. We haven’t had regular TV service for years, just Netflix, but I remember years ago when this would happen, I’d be up all night watching infomercials.

I like infomercials. Infomercials are silly and ridiculous … and somewhat convincing.

They aren’t convincing, though, because the product is good. And it’s not because they have a really polished and convincing presentation that gives you an unbiased view of the product. It’s nothing like that at all.

Infomercials are convincing because they slowly toy with your mind and slowly pull at your heart.

And if you’ve ever bought something from an infomercial, you know there’s a waiting-for-my-amazon-order-to-arrive like anticipation. And when it arrives, you are thoroughly convinced that you have bought the greatest thing ever.

And we all have that friend who ordered some sort of magic ice-cream scooper or ginsu knives or that thing that pulls the dents out of your car. Now, don’t look around the room, but even though the product operates like it came off the shelf at the Dollar Tree, there are people who refuse to admit their error and in their arrogance, they continue to boast in the superiority of the product.

And this makes sense, actually. We all operate this way to some degree. Not because we buy bogus products from infomercials, but because we all have misplaced convictions. And we hold to those convictions even when there’s good reason to abandon them, because our lives have become so invested in those convictions. We are all living according to some amount of misplaced convictions.

Another way to say that would be to say, we mistake what is clear in the world for what is godly. The mistake we make without convictions is when we form convictions based on worldly standards—science, technology, sociology, psychology—and we assume that because there are realities in the world, those realities are godly.

And you’d be surprised how often we do this.

  • We excuse our pride with gifting by saying God made me this way.
  • We excuse our covetousness and envy with God’s justice by saying we deserve or have earned something we have not received.
  • We excise our lust, adultery, sexual preferences, and promiscuity with science by claiming that it’s the order of the universe, so God’s promises are impossible to keep.
  • We excuse our anger by claiming God’s righteousness.
  • We excuse our gluttony by claiming God’s provision.
  • We excuse our laziness by blaming God for not providing.

To deceive yourself in that way isn’t just to lie to yourself, it’s anti-biblical. Beginning our passage today, Paul wrote,

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. (1 Corinthians 1.17, ESV)

Paul is concerned that he has misplaced convictions. He doesn’t want to lean on worldly institutions in order to accomplish God’s purposes. Paul is concerned that his education and training—Paul was highly educated—could rob power from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul could have easily clung to what he knew and understood from the world. He could have made excuses, but he knew that his excuses robbed power from God. And he wanted God’s power, a far more superior power.

When we make excuses for things that are sin or for our persistence in worldly patterns of behavior, we too rob power from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So today, we are going to explore three comparisons that demonstrate the absolute necessity of following the pattern of the Gospel instead of the patterns of the world.

The first comparison is…

The Wise and the Foolish

Let’s talk about wisdom for a moment.

What is wisdom?

We often think of wisdom as knowledge. But, wisdom and knowledge are not mutually exclusive terms. They are related, but different.

Knowledge is information. Wisdom is what you do with the information. I’ll give you an example.

You get on the freeway and you’re headed somewhere and if you’re like virtually everyone else, you’re running late. You get your speed up and your headed for the carpool lane or the fast lane and then all of the sudden you see everyone hit their breaks. The first thing you do is look at the clock, because now, you’ll be late for sure. So you think, ‘Man, I wish I’d checked the traffic before I got on the freeway.’

That’s what we call ignorance. You didn’t have the data so there was nothing you could do about it. You took the freeway, because you didn’t know any better.

But, what if you did check the traffic?

If you did check the traffic, surely you would have gone a different route! If you had the right knowledge, then you could’ve acted differently. If you had the right data, you would have been wise, because you would have gone a faster way and it would have gone well for you; you would have got to your destination on time.

But, what if you checked google and you knew that there was an accident and you still went that way instead of finding another way?

If you had the right data and you still did what you shouldn’t have done, then we have a word for that too. That word is folly or foolishness. Wisdom is having the knowledge and acting on that knowledge. Wisdom is when you take the knowledge and put it into action.

So, when we know what God requires—we have the knowledge of God—and we still do what the world does—lust, anger, gluttony, pride, etc.—we act as fools not as wise.

That’s what Paul meant, when he wrote,

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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–19, ESV)

When Paul says, ‘The word of the cross,’ he is using a euphemism for the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died on the cross so that you don’t have to die.

Realize the grammar here, though. Paul doesn’t say that people who refuse to believe the Gospel are fools or that their belief systems are folly. Folly is having the data and refusing to acknowledge it. Paul is talking about very wise people who have lots of data, lots of knowledge about the world, and various religious practices, and philosophies of all kinds. And they live consistently with that knowledge.

So, here comes Paul or other Christians of the day, preaching the Gospel, this message about Jesus and the message is so counterintuitive that they refuse to believe it. They hear the argument that they bought a bad product from an infomercial and they refuse to change. And they don’t just refuse to believe it, because Paul says, it is folly to them. In other words, for them to practice Christianity would cause them to act contrary to the beliefs that they already hold and to them that would be foolish.

Listen. You can’t miss this.

Christianity isn’t just another set of religious practices that fits into our lives however they do. The Gospel calls us to forsake the things that we already believe in order to get Christ. Christianity insists that we abandon our worldviews and call them foolish in order to believe the Gospel.

And this is interesting, because Paul was talking to polytheistic people. Paul was talking to people who would believe and follow all sorts of different gods. And they loved to gather and talk about all sorts of philosophical ideas. They were all about including every god and every idea, because they didn’t want to miss out on anything.

This idea falls into a philosophy you may have heard before. It’s called Gnosticism. The Greek word gnosis means knowledge, so Gnostics are those people who are seekers of knowledge—which sounds like a good thing. But, Gnosticism is the idea that there’s a bit of godliness or knowledge of God to be found in everything and it’s the human responsibility to search God out in everything that exists. It’s the idea that the exploration of all things—even sinful things—will result in greater enlightenment.

And the Gospel comes against this idea. The Gospel doesn’t fit with the puzzle of knowledge that humanity pursues through different religions and philosophies and often through scientific ventures and all that. So, the world calls Christianity foolish, because they can’t practice it within the framework they already hold to.

Why not? Why can’t Christianity fit in with the wisdom of the world?

Well, we’ll explore some of the systems the Greeks were dealing with in a moment. And we’ll also look at some of our systems of thought as well.

For now, I think we can sum up the wisdom of the world with an illustration from the book of Job. In the book of Job, Job is being tormented by Satan and Job’s friends come over to counsel him and give him advice. Job wants to know why God is allowing this pain in his life and all of his friends give him some worldly understanding.

So, in Job 11, Job’s friend Zophar speaks and he tells Job that he is being punished because of his sins. He says,

For he [God] knows worthless men; when he sees iniquity, will he not consider it? (Job 11:11, ESV)

Zophar says, God will not ignore your iniquity, your shortcomings, your sin. He will consider it and he will punish you for it. And that’s a true, but look what Zophar prescribes as the solution to Job’s torment.

If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning. (Job 11:14–17, ESV)

His advice is that you have to stop doing bad things and God will accept you. He says that if we are good enough, people we will be acceptable to God, and we will think well of ourselves, life will go well for us.

That’s the thinking of the world. That’s how most major world religions work. If you do well enough, God will bless you, accept you, save you, enlighten you, etc. And that’s even how many Christians think. According to the State of Theology Survey, “36% of self-identified evangelicals agree or somewhat agree that, ‘By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.’”

And yet Paul says, they are perishing. They won’t be saved because of their wisdom, because their wisdom causes them to reject the Gospel. The wisdom of the world clashes with the Gospel so that you cannot believe both. You can’t be a Christian and believe that ‘good people go to heaven.’

Why?

Because the Gospel is that all have sinned—all are broken, all are unfaithful, all fall short of the glory of God. And all are doomed to perish according to God’s wrath. All people are born into the Kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of the world is at war with the Kingdom of God.

We are used to thinking about refugees in our current political climate. We recognize that the individual people in the kingdoms of the earth are not the people causing the wars. Wars are caused by the people in power. And so, we let people come to our country as refugees to escape their leaders. We do it all the time.

So, listen, if we didn’t allow refugees, what might happen to foreigners that are found in our country during a war?

Well, they would be imprisoned and possible killed for war crimes. You can’t just sneak over to the enemy’s territory and put on their clothes and pretend to be a part of their country. You can’t make yourself a refugee. You will be found out and you will perish because of it.

And that’s the Gospel. You might not be a person who fights against God. You might not be a person who does things that are per se evil. But, you are still living in the Kingdom of the world. And there is nothing that you can do to get to the other side, to the other Kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

That’s why Paul said he didn’t preach with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power!

To say that human effort—eloquent words and all that—makes the Gospel work is to reduce the efficacy of the cross. We can’t talk people into God’s Kingdom because joining God’s Kingdom is nothing humans accomplish in any way. It’s something God does. As the King and Lord of His Eternal Kingdom, God has freely opened His borders to us, not just as refugees, but He has offered us full citizenship.

And what of our war crimes?

Jesus died to pay for our war crimes, to pay for our sins, brokenness, and unfaithfulness so that we can freely enter His Kingdom without due punishment.

Now, if that’s the Gospel, then it should be absolutely clear to you that you cannot have a foot in the world and a foot in the Kingdom of God.

That’s the issue we fight today with refugees. Mind you, I’m not taking sides on the arguments about refugees in the US. But, the fact remains, when we allow refugees into our country, we will allow a few people in who are keeping their foot in their country of origin. That may happen here in the US, but that never happens in God’s Kingdom.

In many churches today, we have reduced the Gospel to believe in Jesus and try to act like a good person. But, that’s not the Gospel. The ancient world understood spiritual warfare and allegiance to King and Country. They knew that to follow Jesus meant full abandon. It meant giving up everything that you believe, it meant breaking relationships, it meant giving up so much that they had worked so hard for. So, it seemed like foolishness.

So, quoting Isaiah, Paul says,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (1 Corinthians 1:19, ESV)

Though they are wise, they are only wise according to the world and they will perish. They were arrogant. They let their knowledge and wisdom of the world stand in the way of eternity. And they will pay the price for their allegiance with the world.

So, then Paul turns to another contrast to demonstrate the superiority of the Gospel.

The Simple and the Rhetorics

Paul continued,

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? 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. (1 Corinthians 1:20–21, ESV)

By, ‘Rhetorics,’ I mean the scribes, the wise people of the world, the debaters of the age, the people who are trained in rhetoric or speech. And Paul was simple. By that I mean that he didn’t want to get up and debate with these guys using complex rhetorical arguments as was common in that day. Paul just wanted to speak the truth as simply as possible.

Notice Paul says that the world did not know God through the wisdom of the world. God cannot be known through the world. That much can be known about the world and even about God’s nature as creator and His power can be known is true. But, God cannot truly be known.

The Christian gets to really know God, not just that He exists or to know things about Him. We get to know Him intimately, like a son knows His Father. You don’t get that kind of knowing from the creation.

So, don’t miss this. Paul writes, ‘In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God.’ It is God’s design that you can’t find Him on your own. It’s God’s design that your eternal state rest fully on His work and not on your own work. And so, it pleased God, Paul says, to save us from the perishing with the Kingdom of the world. Even though the world calls the Cross folly, it pleased God to save us by Jesus’s death of the cross, because the cross was fully God’s work to save us. That’s God’s way. Salvation is fully His work.

So why doesn’t everyone believe? If the Gospel is so simple and yet so profound, why doesn’t everyone become a Christian?

Paul goes on,

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:22–25, ESV)

The Jews demanded signs in order to believe that Jesus was the way to know God. We have several accounts of this happening in the books we call the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But, I’ll show you one. Jesus was in his home town preaching and the people recognized him and began to mock him. So, he left without doing many miracles there. Notice Matthew’s commentary on that event. He writes,

And he [Jesus] did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:58, ESV)

Jesus didn’t perform signs because they didn’t believe. Belief comes before signs and miracles. So, Jesus was a stumbling block to them. They wanted Him to prove who he was and then maybe they would believe, but Jesus calls us to faith first. So, Jesus became a stumbling block to their belief.

And the Greeks seek wisdom, but God’s wisdom doesn’t accord with their wisdom as we already addressed in detail, so the Greeks called the Gospel of Jesus, folly.

Here’s what I want you to see. The Jews and the Greeks—and basically everyone who has ever existed in history—they wanted Jesus to meet them on their own terms. But, we are called to meet Jesus on God’s terms. We don’t tell God what He has to do so that we will ‘give in’ and believe. That’s not how it works. God calls us to Himself so that we will believe on His terms.

That’s why Paul says, that ‘for us who are called, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ When we come by faith first, we experience the power of God. When we come by faith first, we begin to understand the wisdom of God. But, God doesn’t give it up front because he doesn’t want us to just adopt the pieces of Christianity we like. He wants full abandon. He wants us to abandon the Kingdom of this world and to become citizens in His eternal Kingdom.

And, I get it, there’s so much to give up.

The Greeks were pluralistic. They believed in lots of gods and they affirmed them all, even though they usually only worshipped one. That’s a lot to give up.

They were also a thinking people. They loved the different philosophies of the day—and for obvious reasons. That’s even more to give up, really.

The two major philosophies were that of the Stoics and the Epicureans that Paul encountered in Athens as recorded in Acts 17:18.

Stoics believed that all people are manifestations of one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love and readily help one another. They focused on living good, ethical lives, and harmony with all people. In order to accomplish this, Stoic communities usually lived according to very rigid ethical standards.

Epicureans were almost the opposite. They didn’t believe they were collectively part of god like the Stoics. Instead, they preferred the idea that god created everything and then stepped back to let people do whatever they wanted to do. Epicureans believed that pleasure is the greatest good and thus anything that feels good is ethically good.

Interestingly, both the Stoic and Epicurean ideas persisted through the Gnostic communities in following centuries. The Gnostics believed they were all part of God, but also believed they could find God in all things, so they loved food, drink, and sex of all kinds as part of their journey to know God.

You probably don’t know any Stoics, Gnostics, or Epicureans and we don’t have many religions specifically organized around those ideas today. But, they are ideas that are as old as humanity itself and so the ideas persist the thinking of many people today.

You know we live in a pluralistic society. That means that our society wants us to validate every other religion or way of thinking. And pluralism is just a short stones throw from universalism, because universalism says that all paths lead to God. Universalism doesn’t just call us to validate other religions, but also to acknowledge that they are valid paths to knowing God and spending eternity with Him in His Kingdom. This is a very Gnostic idea, that permeates our culture. The idea is that we are all part of the greater whole and that we are all working to come back together.

Next, atheism has dominated intellectual discussions for years now and is constantly effecting the thinking of colleges students. Atheism leads in two directions. Some atheists become utilitarian in their thinking. That means that they make ethical decisions based on what gives the greatest benefit to society. That’s a very Stoic idea. Other atheists go the way of the Epicureans and say that whatever feels good is the greater good since all there is to behold is pleasure in life now.

And as Christians, don’t we often look around us and exclaim just like Paul,

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? (1 Corinthians 1:20, ESV)

The Rhetorics of our day are the scholars and college professors who push these ideas. But, we have two other venues of Rhetorics that make these ideas far more pervasive than in Paul’s day. Those are mass media and social media. Mass media pushes ideas until they seem normal and good to everyday people and then social media causes these ideas to seep into the thinking of every nook and cranny in society. BADLY WORDED STILL

And you might feel powerless against it.

And that’s OK, because our powerlessness points us to our third contrast that demonstrates the superiority of the Gospel.

The Weak and the Strong

Have you every thought to yourself: How can I possibly compete with all of these ideas? How can I proclaim the cross to people who think it’s so foolish? Or, how can I call someone to faith when I don’t understand everything myself?

It’s east to feel like we are in the weaker position as Christians.

Sometimes we feel so simple in our thinking, because the Gospel is simple. And that’s good news, because Paul was intentional about being simple. He refused to speak eloquently, to debate His faith. He simply called people to the truth.

You may not have gone to college, so you don’t feel like you have what it takes to convince someone that Jesus is the way. Or maybe you feel like pastors who went to seminary should do that sort of thing since they have so much more knowledge about the Bible. Or maybe you weren’t raised in a Christian family, so you feel like you’re behind in the game.

Notice what Paul says about that,

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. 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; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…(1 Corinthians 1:26–28, ESV)

You may feel foolish compared to more educated people, but God chose according to His sovereign plan to shame the wise through the fools.

You may feel week compared to the boldness and arrogance of the intellectuals in the world, but God chose according to His sovereign plan to shame the strong through the week.

You may feel despised by your coworkers and family because of your faith in Jesus, but God chose you to carry His plan to its fulness.

You are the extraordinary ordinary of every story ever told. You’re the hobbit that kills the dragon. You’re the geeky Peter Parker, who gets to become the world’s greatest superhero. You’re Katniss Everdeen from the dregs of society in District 12 who frees the entire world from persecution.

You’re John Wesley who was the 15th child in his family, who became one of the Western Worlds greatest evangelists and greatest theologians. You’re George Whitfield, born a seventh child into a poor family, who again, became one of the greatest preachers who ever lived. You’re Matthew the tax collector who was hated by his own people, even his family, but became one of Jesus’s 12 disciples and one of the great evangelists of the 1st century.

It’s not that you have some amazing power in you as a human being; it’s that as a Christian you have the power of the Holy Spirit in you, to accomplish unimaginable things.

God chooses the week to shame the strong. He chooses those who have no noble birth to be great in His Kingdom. God chooses those who are despised in the world to be the greatest in His Kingdom.

Why? Why not use the strongest? Why not use the nobles? Why not princes? Why not the scholars in the institutions? ­­­­

…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:29-31, ESV)

The reality is that there is nothing in us as humans and nothing in the world which we can accomplish that is worth boasting in before God. All the wisdom in the world is meaningless when placed next to the apparent foolishness of the cross of Jesus Christ. There is nothing eternal in the world except for condemnation, but there is eternal freedom from condemnation found in the folly of the cross.

We don’t boast in our earthly accomplishments, because they are nothing compare to what Christ has accomplished. We boast only in the Lord, because it is the Lord who has called us to be citizens in His eternal Kingdom. It is the Lord who has rescued us from this world and brought us to His side.

That is our boast. So Paul says,

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5, ESV)

Even the Apostle Paul found himself weak and powerless. And yet, He accomplished much, because in Christ His words came upon the ears of His listeners as a demonstration of God’s power through His Spirit.

And this is such an important teaching for me. I’ve always been insecure about myself. I’ve never felt that I could accomplish much in life. And yet, in Christ I have an irrational confidence that God will do amazing things. And that may be where you are at. You may think personality, or age, or disability, or your level of education or something else, makes you incapable of being a part of what God is doing in the world. And that may be true if you are trying to accomplish God’s purposes according to the power of the world.  

But, if you have been rescued from the power of this world and the penalty of your sin and you know that you have been seated with Christ in God’s eternal Kingdom, then the fullness of the power that rose Jesus from the dead resides in you. You are empowered to accomplish great things in the Kingdom of God.

So, what will you do with that?

What’s Your Next Step?

Grab your next step card and fill in that question. Let us know what step you will take towards accomplishing God’s purposes in your life this week.

How will the power of God rule your life this week? What step will you take to get your foot out of the world? What step will you take to demonstrate that you are in God’s Kingdom?

For many of you that may mean taking another step of faith today. For some of you that may mean letting go of the world for the first time and making a commitment to Christ for the first time so that you can confidently enter God’s Kingdom, even now.

Let us know what step you will take and our leaders will be praying for you.