The Gospel and Worldly Wisdom

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 1:21

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.

1 Corinthians 1:21, RSV

Have you ever thought of how difficult it must have been for the apostle Paul to bring the Christian message to the Greek people of the first century? He had a number of forbidding obstacles. For one, he was a Jew, and he was preaching a Jewish Messiah. That prejudiced his case from the start. To the Greeks he was an alien, talking about some foreign divinity. That must have made it hard for him even to get a hearing.

But a greater problem lay in the content of his message. He preached to the Greeks a man who had been crucified, calling Him a Savior. This would have been a stumbling block for anyone. To the Jews the idea was abhorrent because the Old Testament law declared that a man who had been hanged upon a tree was accursed by God. How could Paul and his companions dare to say that this man had been God’s Chosen One? The Greeks didn’t have that problem, but like everyone else in the Roman world, they found the very thought of crucifixion detestable. It was a punishment reserved for the vilest of criminals. It was the cruelest, most agonizing, most shameful death imaginable. It was too horrible to think about – being impaled on a cross, stripped, mocked, a public spectacle, left hanging there as food for birds of prey. Imagine how it sounded to the Greeks that a man who died this way was supposed to be the Savior of the world.

But the preaching of the Resurrection was an even greater scandal. That might be more palatable to Jews. They had notions in their Scriptures of things like this, but to the Greeks it made no sense at all. It was not only that the Resurrection seemed impossible to them; it wasn’t even desirable. In Greek thought, the body was viewed as a kind of prison-house of the soul. The body was the source of all our problems. The goal of human life was for the immortal soul to escape from its enslaving body into realms of pure bliss. What kind of good news could it be to such people that a spirit once set free got enfleshed again? That was anything but progress. That was a giant step in the wrong direction. Now, what chance would Paul’s preaching have with people like that?

What these first century Greeks were interested in above all else was “wisdom.” They were philosophers, which means, literally, “lovers of wisdom.” They revelled in speculative thought. Remember what Luke writes about them in the Book of Acts? “Now all the Athenians and foreigners who lived there, spent their time in nothing except in telling or hearing something new.” And the novelty they sought was in the world of the free-soaring mind. They wanted to hear someone spin them a system, dazzle them with brilliance, impress them with eloquence. Profound thought, beautifully expressed – that’s what they were looking for.

Paul’s message didn’t seem like wisdom to them. They had a word for ideas like this. It was “moria” – foolishness. You know, that’s the word from which we get our English term “moron.” To the Greeks, what the apostle had to say seemed stupid, ridiculous, the babbling of an idiot. How in the world, do you suppose, did any of these people, these first century Greeks, become Christian?

Paul didn’t back away from the conflict. He apparently made no effort to accommodate his preaching to their tastes. He even refused to bring his message in the style to which they were accustomed. He was plain-spoken, anything but eloquent. He was a man with a decidedly unwelcome message who showed little ability to get it across. But still, he took the offensive. He challenged what was the golden calf of their culture: the search for wisdom.

According to Paul, God Himself has challenged their so-called wisdom. Listen: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” He quotes the ancient scriptures to that effect, “God says, `I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’” How did God do that? How has He toppled the structures of human wisdom and exposed all their wizardry as foolishness? Paul goes on, “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.”

It’s important to see here that Paul is not an anti-intellectual. He was a highly-educated man himself. He too prized the life of the mind. Not for a moment did he want to ridicule people because they think, because they reason, because they search for truth. What he is speaking against here is what we might call “worldly wisdom,” wisdom in quotation marks, a certain way of thinking.

Paul, you see, was a Jewish rabbi, an expert in the Old Testament Scriptures. He prized wisdom as highly as did any Greek. But his definition of it was very different from theirs. In the Bible, all wisdom comes from God. For any human being, it begins with the fear of God, with knowing God, taking Him into account, walking before Him with a sense that we belong to Him. Wisdom begins with God’s self-revealing. It’s not a human achievement but a divine gift. When Paul writes that God has destroyed the wisdom of the wise, he means that God has exposed the folly of people who think they can be wise without Him. And this is the great charge that he brings against their form of wisdom: it has not led people to know God.

Notice, Paul does not say that all their thinking is wrong. He doesn’t ridicule their intellectual abilities. He doesn’t deny that they have insight or that at times they reach valid conclusions. He simply says that all their efforts to understand and all their searchings for truth have not led to a vital, personal knowledge of God.

The apostle is not claiming here that Jewish minds are better than Greek minds, that he has been more successful in discovering God than they have. His point is that no human being can find God by thinking. He is not an object which they discover at the end of a search. God, to the apostle Paul, can be known only as He reveals Himself, only as He chooses to make Himself known. Paul asks, “Isn’t that true even of human persons?” “For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him.” He’s pointing here to a power of personal reserve in every one of us. In a sense, we decide, don’t we, who will know us deeply?

Maybe you’ve had the experience, as I have, of being frustrated at your inability to get to know someone. You spend time with a person, talk with them, observe them, ask them questions, but they seem guarded. They won’t let you know what they really think about things. They don’t give you a fair reading of how they feel about you. And even though you know what they look like, what they sound like, and to a degree, what they act like, you don’t feel that you really know the person. That is, until that person chooses to open up to you, to let himself or herself become really known.

But that, according to the apostle Paul, is what God has now done. When in God’s perfect plan, the world’s wisdom totally failed to reach a true knowledge of God, it pleased the Lord to open His heart to us, to make Himself fully known. The wisdom of God, in which the living God becomes real to people, is Jesus Christ. The message Christians preach, which centers in Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us, is God’s supreme self-disclosure, His perfect wisdom.

The second charge which Paul brings against the worldly kind of wisdom is that it doesn’t really do anything for people. It may be intellectually stimulating, but it does not minister to us in the depth of our need.

According to the apostle and the rest of the New Testament, our problem is not simply one of ignorance. Our situation is much more alarming. We are perishing because of our rebellion against God, our self-chosen estrangement. Because of our disobedience and lovelessness, we are under God’s judgment. We are dead in our trespasses and sins, hastening toward a doom of endless separation from God.

Our own wisdom, our own intellectual pursuits, have been powerless to do anything about that. All our flights of intellect can do nothing to bring us forgiveness and release. We are lost men and women. Left to ourselves, we are utterly without hope.

But the Christian gospel, says the apostle Paul, is the most glorious good news. It seems like folly to the Greeks, but to God, it is consummate wisdom. And though it seems to them weak and contemptible, it is really the hiding place for God’s power. Listen to Paul again: “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Contrary to human wisdom, this wisdom of God does something. It is powerful, effectual. It actually saves people. It brings them from death to life. It restores them to a right relationship with God. It frees them from condemnation and releases them from bondage. It brings to them eternal life – now.

But it does that only for those who believe, only for those who hear in it the call of God. If people insist on saying it is foolishness, if they dismiss it as of no value, they remain in their sins. They are numbered among the perishing. But whether they be Jews or Greeks or whoever they are, the gospel offers them the possibility of rescue and restoration. The gospel brings God’s power to bear upon their desperate need. And the gospel is centered in this very Jesus whom worldly wisdom despises. This message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is “a stumbling block to Jews,” says Paul, “and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” He makes all the difference.

This gospel, friends, is proclaimed to you today. You are called to believe it, not because it suits your intellectual taste or because of anything about the way it is presented. The power of the gospel has nothing to do with plausibility or human eloquence. The message is simply this: The Lord of the universe has given His Son to be crucified for your sins and has raised Him from death on the third day. God calls you today in the name of this Jesus to repent, to turn from your sins, to put your trust in Christ as your Savior and Lord. The moment you do that, you will come into a vital, personal knowledge of God through this same Jesus Christ. And the moment you do it, you will pass from death into life. You will no longer be among those who are perishing but among those who are being saved. What before may have seemed like foolishness to you will now appear as the most wonderful truth. And what seems like weakness will prove to be for you the saving power of God.

The issue is simply this: Will you depend upon your unaided powers in your search for truth or will you receive with a grateful heart the revelation God has given of Himself in Christ? Will you dismiss the message of the crucified and risen Jesus as laughable and false, or will you embrace it as God’s good news? My prayer for you is that you will place all your confidence now in Jesus Christ, the living Lord: crucified for you, risen for you, living and reigning for you. And that you will find Him to be the power and the wisdom of God.

PRAYER: Father, for this great gospel which overturns our thinking and straightens out our lives, we praise You this day. And ask that the power of it, the wisdom of it, in Jesus Christ, may dawn on the hearts of all who share this message. In the name of Jesus. Amen.