For the message about the cross is foolishness 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 I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent.” Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 1Corinthians 1:18-1:25
The Corinthian Christians were characterized by quarrels and a partisan spirit. In verse 13, Paul indicated what he constantly emphasized elsewhere, namely that divisions are contrary to Christ and to the gospel. Christians get caught up by quarrels and strife because of human pride that causes a person to desire to think of himself as being superior to others. In verses 18-31, Paul pointed to two characteristics of the gospel which serve as a death blow to the human pride found in the Corinthian church, and, unfortunately, in our modern churches.
Paul reminded the church that those who are status seekers will never gain recognition and status from the unbelieving world. The gospel does not appeal to human pride. It refuses to co-exist with it. The gospel informs us that there is only one thing to do with pride—crucify it.
The “word of the cross,” meaning the gospel, is not a status symbol to unbelievers. It’s an offense. For those of us who “are being saved,” the gospel is the power of God (see also Romans 1:16). While Christians see the cross as glorious, unbelievers see the cross as a shameful scandal.
The conflict between divine wisdom and power and the secular world’s view of these matters shouldn’t surprise us. Historically, God has worked in ways that the world would never have imagined or believed. God’s purpose is not to glorify man but to glorify Himself by demonstrating the foolishness of man’s wisdom. The text which Paul cited in verse 19 indicates God’s intention of proving man’s wisdom to be folly. Paul referred to Isaiah 29:14 to show that God has always worked in a way that is contrary to human wisdom.
- 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 instructed the people of God to use their power to help the weak, rather than to use their power to take advantage of the weak?
- Would human wisdom have purposed to save Gentiles through the rejection and failure of the Jews, rather than through their triumph?
- Would human wisdom have declared that the coming Messiah was to be born of a virgin?
In verse 20, Paul asked “Where is the wise man, the scribe, the debater of this age?” I think he meant where are they in the church, in the outworking of God’s plans and purposes? Paul wanted the Corinthians to look around them to see where the intellectual and scholarly giants were. Most churches largely don’t have highly esteemed members … people who are recognized by the world as “worthy” of adulation. This is primarily due to the pride of “great men” Even when God draws one of the “greats,” He first humbles them. Consider Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 1-4). But even when “great men” like Dr. Francis Collins or Dr. Ben Carson identify publicly with the church, they quickly discover that the world is hostile their faith and distrustful of their science because of their faith.
Does the world think that God’s wisdom is foolish? They certainly say they do. From their perspective, refusing to see the evidence that doesn’t meet their worldview, God has set up a ridiculous system. What they fail to understand is that God will use foolishness to prove the ungodly to be fools. Since the world has not come to know God through its wisdom, God will make Himself known to some through means which the world regards as foolish. God has chosen the cross of Christ as the means whereby men may be saved from their sins.
Jews and Gentiles may agree on few things, but they mutually hold that the cross of Christ is foolish. The Jews are into power through signs and wonders. All through Jesus’s life, they wanted to see signs and wonders. They expected their Messiah to be a wonder worker, here to do their bidding. Even the disciples bought into this mindset, so that Peter rebuked Jesus for speaking of the cross (Matthew 16).
The Gentiles were into a different kind of power—human wisdom. They took pride in following great intellectual thinkers and powerful orators. The message of a humble carpenter’s son, who died as a common criminal on a Roman cross, was not what Gentiles sought. The straight-forward proclamation of the “word of the cross” presented not as entertainment or deep philosophy was not popular either. To those who are called, this humanly unimpressive gospel is good news, and the proclamation of the cross of Christ is a manifestation of the wisdom and the power of God.
There are two radically different views of the same gospel. The view of the unbeliever, whether Jew or Gentile, is that the gospel is foolish and weak. The view of the Christian is that the gospel is the wisdom and the power of God. What seems to the unbelieving eye to be God’s weakness and foolishness will prove in the end to cause man’s wisdom and power to pale in insignificance.
The Corinthian saints were status seekers. Paul wanted them to see how foolish this was in the light of divine wisdom and power and how inconsistent status-seeking is with the gospel. First, Paul challenged his readers to take a good look around the church to note who was not present among them. Glaringly absent in the church were (and are) those people who hold positions of status in the secular world, in accordance with secular values. The church is not made up of wise men, scribes, and debaters (verse 20). In verses 26-31, Paul wanted the Corinthians to give thought to who is present in the church.
God has not done this because the weak and foolish are any better than the powerful and the proud. He has set aside the highly regarded and employed those things which are disdained so that all the glory might come to Himself and not to mere men. This is the concluding point Paul made in verses 29-31. If God achieved His purposes through the worldly wise and powerful, we would be inclined to give the praise and glory to the men He has used rather than to God. This world believes the “movers and shakers” are the ones who make things happen. Even the church seeks to evangelize and train those whom the world regards as “most likely to succeed.” But God chooses the opposite, those whom we expect to fail (or, more accurately, those we already deem to be failures), so that when His wisdom and power are evident, there are no wise and powerful men to take their bows before men. Instead, men must bow before God, giving all the glory to Him. To God be the glory, great things He has done!
Obviously, there are just as many divisions in the church today as there were in Paul’s day. Sometimes it seems like there are more divisions now compared to then. What is the root of these divisions? Paul identified the root of the Corinthian conflicts as pride.
After setting the standard of Christian unity, Paul sought to correct the ungodly divisions in the church. He did so by focusing on the gospel. Our salvation is Christ-centered and not man-centered. How then can Christians divide themselves from other Christians on the basis of the men whom they have chosen to follow? We were saved in the name of Jesus Christ; how is it that we now take pride in the names of the men we follow?
Over and over and over again, it is the gospel which provides the standard, the basis, the motivation, and the guiding principles for Christian living. The gospel is not just some philosophy we believe in order to be saved. It is the truth which we must seek to grasp more fully day by day, and the truth which we are to live out in our everyday lives. (See Colossians 2:6-7; Colossians 3:12-15; Ephesians 4:32-5:2; Philippians 2:1-8)
Pride is not the root of all evils (see 1 Timothy 6:10), but it is the root of many evils, including strife and division in the church. Pride caused Satan’s downfall (Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:1-19). Satan used pride to tempt Adam and Eve in the garden. Pride prompted King David to stay home from the war, resulting in adultery and murder. God warned the nation of Israel about pride, knowing that these people would eventually take credit for that which God had accomplished by His grace. Pride is a great evil, and it historically has been a prominent factor in human strife and division, even among the people of God.
Paul spotlighted pride as the root problem among the Corinthians. Unlike some pastors today, he didn’t advocate months or years of therapy. He didn’t see the need to know the childhood, background, or individual struggles of each Christian. All they needed to know was the gospel. It is by the gospel that God removed the enmity between sinners and Himself and it is by the gospel that the conflict between men will be removed (see Ephesians 2:11-22).
The gospel is incompatible with human pride, yet too often when men seek to evangelize the lost or attempt to motivate Christians (and unbelievers) to give or to serve, they appeal to human pride. They glorify certain tasks and positions, so that people will fill them for that glory. They publicly laud the gifts or service of people, so that they will be proud of their contribution. Gospel thinking requires us to do just the opposite.
In order to be saved, we must confess our sin and admit that we are unworthy of God’s gift of salvation. We must humble ourselves and accept the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. We must cease trusting in our goodness, efforts, and worthiness, and cast ourselves on the sinless Son of God who died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sin, and giving to us His righteousness as a free gift.
The gospel which saves is the gospel which humbles, and that humbling gospel is the basis for Christian unity and harmony. We live in an extremely prideful age that, perhaps not surprisingly, does not focus on the gospel and does not deal with sin in the church. That needs to change if we as a body of believers are to return to Christ. We will not find status with God by seeking status among our secular neighbors.