God's Wisdom and Ours

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 1:20-31

Every Christian is called to ministry – service – in Christ’s name in the church and the world. But what does that entail? In the apostle Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth he speaks more about the nature of Christian ministry than anywhere else. David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors Paul uses in First and Second Corinthians describing ministers of Christ. He explores them in this series: “What We Are, Images of Christ’s Servants.”

The apostle Paul wrote oftener and at greater length to the church in Corinth than to any other church in the New Testament. Based on internal evidence, it’s likely that Paul wrote at least three or four letters to the Corinthians, and these letters provide the material for the two New Testament books we know as First and Second Corinthians.

The reason for all this attention can be expressed in the old proverb: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Paul wrote more often to the Corinthian church because it had more problems than any other. And these ancient epistles, written to correct the moral and theological errors of people who have been dead almost two thousand years, still remain relevant to us. For though civilizations and cultures change, human nature doesn’t, and Paul’s lessons for the Corinthians have much to teach us as well.

Jesus Christ: The Wisdom and Power of God

We live today in a revolutionary era. I don’t mean in a political sense, but in a technological one. Just as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century turned society upside down, so the Technology Revolution of the late 20th century is changing our lives and our culture in radical ways. The most basic changes that are affecting our society today have to do with the gathering and transmitting of information. Satellite and cable broadcasting, the internet, digital audio and video, cellular telephones, wireless connectivity, email – all those things were unimaginable just a few years ago. Now they are unavoidable and increasingly impossible to live without.

In one way or another all this technology has to do with the use of information. “Knowledge is power,” the saying goes. We now have nearly the sum total of human knowledge available to each one of us literally at our fingertips. And we are beginning to feel incredibly powerful as a result; powerful enough, perhaps, to conquer all disease some day, to design perfect children, even to banish death itself. Of course, it would be well for us to remember that knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom, and that technological marvels and scientific achievements in the past have often led to great horrors.

Well, God, as we also learn in the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians, is interested in these things himself. Jesus Christ, we read, “is the wisdom and power of God” (v. 24). You see, God has a very different way of defining these things. His wisdom is summed up in Jesus Christ who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God, as stated in verse 24. Christ is God’s best, fullest, most eloquent and powerful message to the world. He is not wisdom in the abstract but wisdom spoken and truth personified. Everything God wants to communicate to us about what is true and good and worthy is found in Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul uses a number of parallel expressions in First Corinthians 1 to describe God’s wisdom and power. Of course, they are revealed supremely in Jesus himself (v.24), but more particularly it is in “the gospel” (v.17), or “the cross of Christ” (v.17), or “the message of the cross” (v.18), or “Christ crucified” (v.23). All those phrases are from 1 Corinthians 1:18-24. In other words, God’s ultimate wisdom is revealed not merely in the general story of Jesus – his life, his teaching, the beauty of his example – but in the specific story of Jesus’ death and its saving significance. “The gospel” is “the message of the cross.” “The message of the cross” is the story of “Christ crucified”; not just that it happened, but what it means. The gospel is the news that on the cross at Golgotha Christ took our place, shouldered our guilt and died our death as the just penalty for sin, so that we could be forgiven and granted eternal life. This is the wisdom and the power of God.

God’s Wisdom vs. Human Wisdom

Now Paul’s primary interest in describing this divine wisdom is to emphasize the contrast between God’s wisdom of Christ crucified and human religious wisdom. The typical human attitude, the view of what John Bunyan called “Mr. Worldly Wiseman,” is that salvation is a matter of our striving and doing. Who is God, and how do you come to know him? The world in its wisdom says “through religion, by performing rituals, prayers and sacrifices”; or through morality, by leading a good life to the best of your ability, being sincere, compassionate, a decent person. That seems to make sense; it appears to be wise. But it is actually foolishness because it doesn’t work.

According to the New Testament no one actually comes to know God that way. Then how do you come to know God? Through “the foolishness of what was preached” (v.21b), says Paul. When you stop to think about it, it does seem kind of ridiculous. I mean, somebody just gets up and tells the story of a man who died a criminal’s death on a cross two thousand years ago. But in God’s wisdom and through his power people are saved as a result of hearing and believing that story (v. 21.)

Now it’s true that many who hear the gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ crucified reject it out of hand (v.18a). It seems ridiculous or downright offensive. To Jews in Paul’s day who wanted a religion of power, the notion of a crucified Messiah seemed scandalous (from skandalon – v.23), an intolerable weakness. To Greeks who prized philosophical wisdom, a system of speculative knowledge and high-sounding ideals, the whole story of the incarnation of the God of the universe as a Jew called Jesus of Nazareth, and then his suffering and dying on a Roman cross for the sins of the world, and his bodily resurrection on the third day . . . well, it was simply laughable.

You see, the New Testament proclamation of the cross is offensive. There is no getting around it without eliminating the gospel itself. The message of Christ crucified for the sin of the world offends people’s easy-going tolerance, which assumes that all religions are basically the same and everyone can pretty much find God in their own way. It offends people’s sense of self-reliance, their feeling that the true way to heaven is by trying your best to be a fairly good person. Most of all it offends human pride, for the gospel of the cross declares to us that we are not the fundamentally good folks we like to think we are, but rather helpless sinners guilty of an offense so monstrous the Son of God himself had to die to pay its just penalty.

God Shames the World

But there is a very good reason why God’s wisdom and power in Christ present such a contrast to human wisdom and power, why the gospel is so offensive to the world. It’s no accident that the cross is scandalous. God intends it to be just that. God has chosen to save this way in order to humble everyone and everything, to show that his “foolishness” is wiser and his “weakness” stronger than anything the world can offer. As Paul says here in First Corinthians 1, reading from Eugene Peterson’s marvelous paraphrase,

Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb – preaching, of all things! – to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.

1 Corinthians 1:21, The Message

Another way God brings down human pride is through the sort of people whom he saves. Paul goes on to write:

Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the best and brightest” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”?

1 Corinthians 1:26-28, The Message

There are many ways by which we measure status. Most of them involve the display of money, or knowledge or power. But however we measure it, God doesn’t think very highly of the way we go around clanging our status symbols. God takes a dim view of all the games we play to distinguish ourselves from others and convey a sense of our own superior importance. So, says the apostle, God has done something about it. He has “shamed” the world by choosing those whom the world considers weak, lowly, and despised (vv. 27-28).

The reason God acts this way, says Paul, is “so that no one may boast before him” (v.29). The Bible repeatedly tells us that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble, but here it tells us that he humbles everybody.

So I ask myself: In the light of the cross, what is it that I’m so proud of? What makes me feel like I’m better than others? Is it my intellect or strength? But God has shamed the world’s wisdom and power by choosing the “foolishness” and “weakness” of the cross. Is it my accomplishments, all that I have achieved and done? But Christ had to die in order to save me even from my accomplishments. Is it my money, my possessions, my looks? No, if I must feel proud, if I must boast, let it be only of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:31.)

Once we have got this straight, once we have renounced all our pretensions, once we have exchanged our human wisdom for God’s wisdom and power, once we have turned away from our religion and good works and accepted Christ’s provision at the cross for our salvation, then we are ready to ask what he wants us to be and to do as his servants in the world.

Stay tuned next time for the answer to that.