At Commencement I think of the student going around campus wearing a big lapel button with the letters BAIK. Someone asked him what that meant.
He replied, “That means ‘Boy Am I Confused.'”
“But don’t you know that “confused” is not spelled with a K,” he was reminded.
“Man,” he replied, “You don’t know how confused I am.”
This young man is not alone in his predicament. You will find confusion everywhere, even among college graduates. Nowhere is it more apparent than in measuring wisdom by the world’s standards.
If this confusion of values seems remote, listen to the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:18-19:
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.
The apostle is not depreciating the pursuit of knowledge. In this admonition, the best educated Christian of the day, the most gifted theologian the Church has ever known simply makes the point that what God esteems wisdom stands in contradiction to the learning of this present age. Thus true disciples of Christ invariably became fools in the eyes of the world. As Paul explains his position in the early chapters of the Corinthian letter, several aspects of this difference of perspective are emphasized.
For one thing, the redeeming Gospel of grace appears utterly foolish to the world. There is simply no way the scandal of Christ crucified can be made compatible with the humanistic presupposition of this secular age. Of course, if somehow the blood could be taken out, then the Gospel would not be so offensive to our sensibilities (cf. Galatians 5:11). It’s the horrible spectacle of Calvary — that awful sight of the Son of God nailed to the tree, His tortured body writhing in pain, red blood streaming from His wounds running red down the wooden beam — that is the scene from which the proud of this world shirk in horror.
It is alright to talk about Jesus’ great ethical teachings, even to exalt His exemplary life of compassion, but insistence upon the necessity of His vicarious death for our salvation is more than the egocentric mind of this world can stand. It jerks off the mask of our self-righteousness, and shows just how far short we have sunk in degradation and shame. Yet God, in His infinite love, is seen willing to bear the wrath of His own invariable law by taking upon Himself the justice due us all.
This revelation comes as a jolt to those who seek to earn God’s favor through human virtues. No wonder the moralistic Jews rejected it. The cross, Paul observed, was a “stumbling block” to their religion of good works. And to the philosophic Greeks who worshipped the noble aspirations of mankind, it was held in no less contempt (1 Corinthians 1:23). In their lofty idealism, they could not conceive of God becoming involved in the dirty affairs of His creation, and if He did, it would not be in humiliation and shame.
To the broken and contrite who bow before the cross in repentance and faith, the very thing that makes it so distasteful to the learning of this world makes it “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). Indeed, the blood-drenched hill of Golgotha becomes the eternal witness of God’s forgiving grace.
The late Charles Berry once told of the inadequate Gospel he preached at the beginning of his ministry. Like many other young men with a liberal theological training, in his early years he minimized the atoning nature of Christ’s work, and looked upon Christianity essentially as a way of being a good person.
During his first pastorate in England, late one night while sitting in his study, he heard a knock. When he opened the door, there was a Lancashire girl standing, with a shawl over her head and clogs on her feet.
“Are you a minister,” she asked. Getting an affirmative answer, she went on anxiously, “You must come with me quickly; I want you to get my mother in.”
Imagining that it was a case of some drunken woman on the streets, Berry said, “You must go and get a policeman.”
“No,” said the girl, “my mother is dying and you must come with me, and get her in — to heaven.”
The young minister dressed and followed her through the lonely streets on a journey of a mile and a half. Led into the woman’s room, he knelt beside her, and began to describe the kindness of Jesus, explaining that He had come to show us how to live unselfishly.
Suddenly, the desperate woman cut him off. She cried, “that’s no use for the likes of me. I am a sinner. I’ve lived my life. Can’t you tell me of someone who can have mercy upon me, and save my poor soul.”
“I stood there,” said Berry, “in the presence of a dying woman, and I had nothing to tell her. In the midst of sin and death, I had no message. In order to bring something to that dying woman, I leaped back to my mother’s knee, to my cradle faith, and told her the story of the cross, and the Christ who was able to save unto the uttermost.”
Tears began running over the cheeks of the eager woman. “Now you are getting at it” she said. “Now you are helping me.” And the famed preacher, concluding the story, said, “I want you to know that I got her in, and praise be to God, I got in myself.”1
That’s it. That’s what the Gospel is all about. Though you may be called a fool by the worldly wise, cherish the old rugged cross — the all-sufficient truth that God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
Recognize, however, that more than the message of the cross will be held in disdain by the world. The apostle goes on to note that the manner of making known the Gospel through human instruments meets with the same contempt. “Foolishness of preaching” is his way of expressing it (1 Corinthians 1:21), a folly even more pronounced when the spoken witness is not refined “with enticing words of man’s wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:4, of 1 Corinthians 1:17). If only there were a more sophisticated communication system, perhaps the deployment of angels with their supernatural media gifts, then the methods would excite more respect from the world. If, though, earthlings have to be used, at least let them be learned in the arts of elo-cution and homiletics.
But have you noticed, what Paul also observed, that not many wise by human standards, not many in positions of power, not many born of noble parents, are called? (1 Corinthians 1:26). Rather he says, “God has chosen the world’s simpletons to shame the learned; and God has chosen the world’s weaklings to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27, Berkeley); even “what the world counts poor and insignificant,” God has chosen to do His work (1 Corinthians 1:28, Twentieth Century NT). Incredible! Obviously God has not paid much attention to the world’s expectations in calling His servants.
Look around you, and see what God has on His hands. Not the kind of crowd which one might expect to shake the gates of hell. In fact, how many of us would have passed the review committee if the world had set the standards? For that matter, how many of the original disciples would have made it?
I have to say that the longer I live the more I am amazed at what God puts up with. I expect if we could really get down to where all of us have come from, this assortment of graduates here today would make one think that God is no respecter of persons and can use anybody for His purpose.
That is what Paul is saying to the Church. You do not have to be a super-star to do the Lord’s work. And, dare I say it here in this distinguished assembly, a college or seminary degree is no assurance that you will get the job done either. In fact, most people that are really out there working for God around the world have never seen the inside of a college, much less a theological graduate school. Worldlings would describe them much as they did the early disciples, “unlearned and ignorant” (Acts 4:13). Natural men and women just cannot fathom the Spirit of God making ordinary people into ambassadors of heaven. Yet your effectiveness as a leader will be directly related to the way you help Christians understand their priesthood, and equip them for making disciples — a ministry you share together. If it is ever imagined that the Great Commission excludes anyone who follows Christ, however unpromising the person may appear, you can be certain that the notion does not reflect the wisdom that comes from above.
Paul does not say that all of the wise and mighty miss God’s calling; he only notes that “not many” respond (1 Corinthians 1:26). Clearly some of the most astute and erudite people in society are found within the ranks of the church, and their gifts are being wonderfully used by God. Still, in all honesty, why are there so few?
The answer comes quickly: “That no flesh should glory” in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:29). Since the redeemed have no boast except in Christ, Who “is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification,” He alone can be praised (1 Corinthians 1:30-31; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:21). Any good thing that does not ascribe its being to Christ becomes a detriment to the purpose for which it was given by God. You see, the greater one’s ability for service, the greater the potential for self-adulation. Do not think for one moment that because of your higher education you are immune to this danger. Indeed, the temptation to conform to the wisdom of a fallen race may be stronger than ever.
What finally appears so foolish to the world, however, is the commitment expected of those who bear the Gospel message. You can give creedal assent to the message, even become a spokesperson for the Gospel, and still avoid ridicule by the popular mind, providing the claims of Christ are not taken seriously as a mandate to live. It is when you go all the way to the cross, denying self in obedience to the will of God, that you are looked upon as a laughingstock by the politically correct.
Paul understood all too well what that derision meant, for he had been demeaned as a wild-eyed fanatic ever since he left the house on Straight Street with a new sparkle in his eye. Like the other apostles who lived “as men condemned to death,” he was a “spectacle to the world,” or to use the paraphrase of the Living Bible, like one “put on display at the end of a victor’s parade, to be stared at by men and angels” (Romans 4:9). Be that as it may, they were “fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10).
The stigma of following his Lord, thus, became a characterization which he accepted with dignity. Reproach, deprivation, persecution inflicted upon him by the world only made him exclaim, “I am become a fool in glorying” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13; cf 2 Corinthians 11:16; 2 Corinthians 12:10-11). What can you do with a person like that? At most, you can only kill him. But Paul already reckoned himself crucified with Christ, so there was no fear of the enemy; the grave had lost its sting. The life he now lived was not his own; it belonged to Christ, and he knew that nothing could ever separate him from the love of God (Romans 8:39). Whether he lived, he lived unto the Lord; whether he died, he died unto the Lord; therefore, whether he lived or died, what difference did it make — he was the Lord’s (Romans 14:8).
That is the kind of dedication which creates a problem for the devil and those in his bondage. It sets the prisoner free, and puts within the heart a song that nothing can take away.
Some of you will remember the account of those five missionaries who were killed while seeking to make contact with the Auca Indians in Ecuador. What most gripped me about the incident was an interview a reporter had with the widowed wives. “Why would God permit this to happen?” he asked. “After all, were not the men on an errand of mercy?”
One of the wives, turning to the incredulous man, quietly replied: “Sir, God delivered my husband from the possibility of disobedience.”
Such confidence in the face of death startles this do-as-you-please age of self-indulgence. It’s so unlike the accepted norm. Interestingly, one of the leading religious magazines in America, in an editorial on the martyrdom of those missionaries, suggested that it was a foolish waste of life.
How like the thinking of this world! They missed the point completely. The call of Christ is not to protect our life, but to lose it (Matthew 16:25). Only in giving ourselves for His sake can we find that life which knows no fear, that life which flows with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
Jim Elliot, one of those missionaries, expressed it well while in Wheaton College when one day he wrote in his Journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Not long before he left on that fateful mission which ended in death, he had discussed with his wife the possibility of his not returning. “If God wants it that way, darling,” he explained, “I am ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”
But this is too reckless, too dangerous, you might say. Yes, it may be. Nevertheless, it is what made the apostolic Christians more than conquerors. Throwing caution to the wind, they lived like those who already reckoned themselves to be dead — dead to sin, dead to the world — but alive unto God. A peculiar breed indeed! Saintly stalwarts who laughed at limits, rather did not see them, would not heed them if they did.
Would that this kind of foolish abandonment to Christ would characterize this class. You are among the most gifted, mentally keen students in America today. And you have received an education in one of the finest academic institutions. I salute you. You have given us all reason to rejoice in your intellectual ability.
But you will understand when I do not pray for you to go from these halls with wisdom, as the world gives honor. We already have ample leaders who are smart; many who are brilliant; but, oh, how we need more fools — fools for Christ’s sake.
Here is the real measure of your Christian education. Do not deceive yourselves. Remember the admonition from the Word of God:
“If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19).
1Narrated by Paul Rees in an editorial in World Vision, December, 1971, p. 31. Quoted by Robert E. Coleman, The Heartbeat of Evangelism. NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1985, pp. 16-7.

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