For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (
1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
I will never forget that college basketball game. The competition was intense. The fans on each side were cheering with a deafening roar as our two schools battled back and forth up and down the court. One team would gain the lead only to lose it seconds later to the other. The intensity built until suddenly one of our players grabbed the basketball and, with a supreme burst of energy, dribbled out of the crowd of players, broke into the open in his own fast break, and perfectly executed his lay-up. Then suddenly it dawned on him what he had done. In stunned disbelief, he cradled his head between his hands as his elation instantly turned to despair. He had gone the wrong way and scored for the opposition. Some of us still affectionately refer to him as “wrong-way Lindberg.”
Some years ago, I took my then 11-year-old daughter Janet on a special outing out to Ruby’s on the Pier. In my endeavor to find an entrance to the parking lot, I made a right turn down one of the streets on the Balboa peninsula, only to discover that I was going the wrong way. Three cars came around the corner. The traffic screeched to a stop. There I was, embarrassed, not knowing quite what to do as I faced those three drivers and their fellow passengers who stared at me with looks of scorn mingled with irritation.
Bill Lindberg and I had two facts in common. One, we were both totally sincere. Two, we were both dead wrong.
The Apostle Paul fingers the church at Corinth. He acknowledges them as brothers and sisters in Christ, but he alerts them to the fact that they held something in common with Lindberg and me. They were totally sincere but dead wrong. They had divided into cliques. They were quarreling. They were prideful. All of this came out of their determination to be super Christians. But they were going the wrong way.
Paul straightens them and us out with frank confrontation.
Early in my ministry, I would, at least two or three times a week, ask a person whether or not they were a Christian. I no longer do that. I’ve discovered that if I ask simply, “Are you a Christian?” the answer is quite predictable. It’s an immediate, “Yes! What do you think I am? A Jew? A Muslim? An atheist?” Some even say, “Sure, I go to church.” Or some say, “Certainly I am, although I don’t go to church very often. You know, you don’t need to go to church to worship God. In fact, I feel closer to Him on the beach or when I am skiing than at church.”
The passion of my message today, taken directly from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, is that human wisdom and the authentic divine wisdom, at which we’re going to look, are quite different. Also, human power and divine power are quite different.
The Apostle Paul emphasizes and again reemphasizes that authentic wisdom and profound power is found only in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Many people cannot comprehend the cross of Jesus Christ.
Paul states it in this sequence of comments. He writes, “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” (
He goes on to write, “. . . but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (
He writes on, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (
Why is it that many people cannot comprehend the cross of Jesus Christ? Why is it a “stumbling block” to some and “foolishness” to others? It is because the cross and all it stands for runs so contrary to our human understanding.
There is a curse that continually plagues the church of Jesus Christ. It is the curse of eloquent preaching. It is a curse that gradually creeps up on the corporate church and the individual believer.
Somewhere along the line, you and I confront the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all of its simplicity. Our hearts are moved to repentance and trust in the Savior. You become a Christian, a true follower of Jesus. Your experience may be one of dramatic encounter with the Risen Christ at a camp, an evangelistic service, through the personal witness of a friend, perhaps through faithful preaching. You initially begin to grow in your relationship with Jesus. Then time goes by, and you become part of a Christian community. You hear other believers talk about preachers they like and preachers they dislike. Your own particular personality and perceived needs direct you to a particular kind of church and preaching. Even as a child’s palate becomes sensitized to more sophisticated types of food, you can become a connoisseur of preaching, savoring exotic expressions of the faith.
We encourage this in seminary. We give preaching awards to graduating seniors. Often the award is based on the particular verbal skills and creative expressions of the apprentice preacher. Those not quite so unique in their expressions begin to perceive themselves as bland, and we scramble quickly to devise methods that will bring our own rewards. Each Christian community develops its preaching heroes. Occasionally there’s substance to the choice. More often the rewards go to those who are gifted with words, are extraordinarily entertaining and can capture the imagination of great crowds by the brilliance of their utterance. Many of these preachers are very sincere and their followers most earnest.
What emerges is a situation today quite similar to what was faced in Corinth. Some end up claiming to belong to Paul and others to Apollos, while others claim to be followers of Cephas. And some exclusivists attach themselves to a somewhat narcissistically oriented version of Jesus Christ.
We preachers get the message. To have a following, we better be unique. We better preach with style. We better be spellbinding, telling captivating stories, pacing the preaching with humor and anecdotes that sweep the people along. Do anything to attract a following. Develop one’s own disciples. Use all those theological, intellectual and rhetorical skills possible to develop a following. But wait a moment. One of the greatest leaders the Christian church has ever known blows a whistle on these preaching awards and this development of personal constituencies by saying, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (
There is an excellence and elegance and eloquence of language that deprives the Gospel of its due effect. It is the wisdom of words that has a destroying impact on the message. It sugarcoats unpleasantness. The truth ends up veiled. Why? The proud human mind resists spiritual reality. The more sophisticated we are the less we want to hear about our need of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross. The idea of the blood atonement makes us nervous. We’d rather be involved in self-sacrifice. That’s a bit more palatable. The wisdom of words explains the Gospel away. The eloquence of words adorns it, romanticizing what it is to be a Christian. Some of us don’t like the bluntness of the statement that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses to them. Let’s cut out everything that takes our eyes away from the cross of Jesus Christ!
Some translations distort the true meaning of
Paul is not writing about the act of delivering a sermon on Sunday morning. Preaching is part of the “message about the cross,” but it is not all of the message. The fact is that the cross of Jesus Christ has its own eloquence. It makes its own statement. Those of us who are preachers must be careful that we do not make statements so ornate that we decorate the cross with that which subtracts from the simplicity and power of its own message.
The message of the cross is that there is a God. The message of the cross is that this God created us in His image. The message of the cross is that this God wants to be in personal relationship with us. The message of the cross is that this God observes that something has gone wrong. The message of the cross is that God sees us living in an active or passive rebellion against Him. The message of the cross is that this God, who yearns to be in intimate relationship with us, initiates His supreme act of love designed to destroy the death wages of sin. The message of the cross is that He delights in showing His mercy. The message of the cross is that He knows that there is only one way by which you and I can be saved. The message of the cross is that of His complete atoning act, in which this God becomes the God-man Jesus Christ who takes your sin and mine upon himself as He is nailed to that cross. The message of the cross is that He physically dies. He literally rises from the dead. And, in His resurrection power, He invites you to come to Him. The message of the cross is that He invites you to put your personal trust and faith in Him, the crucified and risen Messiah.
This word of the cross is not something that can be devised by human reason. It is a gift of revelation. There are some who will hide behind their own self-styled Pantheism, believing in some supernatural forces that hold everything together. There are others who will espouse a kind of Deism, believing that there may be a God out there somewhere but you can’t know much about him or her. They may not officially deny the existence of God, but they certainly minimize one’s capacity to have a personal relationship with God. So we end up with religion of human creation, salvation by works, in which I will do my level best to live the best life I possibly can so that, if someday I do happen to come face to face with a personal God, I can at least show Him my merit badges, and He will be more apt to tell me how wonderful I am.
No! The cross of Jesus Christ is the central message of the Christian faith.
What is that word in its practical application to you and me today?
First, God wants you and me to humble ourselves and depend on Him.
If only the wise and clever of this world could be saved, it would be sad, wouldn’t it? The average person, as well as the most intelligent and as well as the mentally disadvantaged qualify based on Christ’s atoning work.
Second, God wants you and me to die to self and to the flesh-life.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who don’t believe. But for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God, because daily we are being delivered from our tendency toward one-dimensional, fleshly living.
Jesus stunned His listeners when He said, “If any want to become my followers, let then deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (
In the first century, the cross was far from that beautiful gold ornament that adorns many a contemporary neck. It was the symbol of crucifixion. Paul states that it is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is literally “moronic” to those who have not trusted Jesus personally. But to those of us who have trusted the Savior, we are called to die daily. If we would find ourselves, we would lose ourselves. If we want to be first, we end up last. The last shall be first. Jesus radically reorganizes the pecking order. When God wants to do an impossible task, he takes an impossible person and crushes him and, in the process, He makes out of you and me men and women usable in His service.
This is not a popular idea, is it? But it is the essence of our having authentic wisdom and profound power. That’s why you are listening more intently than you probably have ever listened to me before. It’s not because my words are so eloquent. It’s because this message is the essence of the Christian life. In a few moments, we’re going to celebrate that essence, as we partake of Christ’s body and drink of Christ’s blood!
What I am really saying is that God turns upside down our human understandings of wisdom and power.
When the Apostle Paul quotes God as saying, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (
Building on this spiritual truth, Paul reminds us of the futility of human wisdom when it comes to spiritual reality. He asks the question, “Where is the one who is wise?” (
Paul is declaring that all the brilliance of the wise philosopher, the genius of the scribe and the verbal skills of the debater end up being foolishness before the wisdom of God. He writes, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (
Do you catch this? God turns upside down our human understandings of wisdom and power. Human wisdom can’t bring salvation. It takes authentic godly wisdom. Human power in the form of Egyptian support can’t defeat the Assyrians. It takes the profound power of God. God does business in a different way.
Each of us is acculturated to expect something different from God. The message of the cross is not a popular word to twenty-first century Americans. We dress for power. We have formulas for success. We want a gospel that will make us wealthy, brilliant, beautiful and powerful. We are not much different from the people in Paul’s day.
Paul states that “Jews demand signs.” It was incredible to them that one who had ended His life upon a cross could possibly be the Messiah. Even with
Paul states that “the Greeks desire wisdom.” To the Greeks, this message of the cross was foolishness. They could not relate to a God who had feelings of a personal nature. A suffering God to the Greek was a contradiction in terms. The very idea of incarnation, God becoming human, made no sense. It would make God ugly, bad, unhappy. God should be above all that. They couldn’t picture a God who would get His hands dirty. In the final analysis, the Greeks sought wisdom. They were looking for that which was intellectually pure. Ultimately, wisdom became identified with the clever mind, the cunning tongue, the persuasive rhetoric, the ability to debate to the finish and win. The Greeks were intoxicated with fancy words. The Christian preacher with his blunt message seemed a crude and uncultured figure to be laughed at and ridiculed, rather than to be listened to and respected.
Now let me make one point clear. Paul is not putting down education. Christianity is not anti-intellectual. Unfortunately, some Christians have distorted this teaching, incurring a religious “know nothingism.” God has given you a mind. You don’t have to scrap your brain to be a Christian. Thank God for brilliant scientists, philosophers and historians. Sharpen the intellectual gifts that God has given you, read the great classics, expose yourself to the best logical thinking of human philosophy. Be deeply committed to intellectual truth. Just realize that no amount of worldly intellectualism will bring you into a saving, personal relationship with God.
Some brilliant people are offended by the cross of Jesus Christ. They view the blood atonement as a primitive, barbaric concept. They are too sophisticated for it. So they work out their own religion of ethical humanism, refusing to receive the free, unmerited grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s too simple. At the same time, some brilliant people come to simple faith in Jesus Christ. They realize the limitation of human wisdom. They receive God’s gift of grace. They experience His authentic wisdom and profound power. They discover, as you and I can, that the death of Jesus Christ enables them to become part of the family of God. They discover, as you and I can, that their death daily to the flesh, to sin, helps them grow as a member of the family of God. There is no other way but simple trust in Jesus Christ and His word. Observe how Paul zeroes in on who Jesus Christ is. He writes, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'”(
You see, Paul urges you and me along with the believers at Corinth not to boast in our own intellectual wisdom, in the clique or fraternity to which we belong. In fact, if we are going to boast, boast in the Lord.
At this point, he quotes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. I urge you, look up this passage. Underline it in your own personal Bible. In fact, you may want to have it printed up and framed for the wall of your study. It is
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.
Is there any more appropriate statement from God designed for those of us who live in the year 2006?
Paul concludes this particular part of his argument in a very practical way.
First, he urges us to consider who makes up the church of Jesus Christ.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human 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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (
1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
That’s right. God turns upside down our human understandings of wisdom and power.
You’ve applied for membership in sophisticated organizations, haven’t you? What are the three criteria necessary to get into the best fraternities and sororities, the finest clubs and the most sophisticated organizations of society? Paul’s first-century understandings apply to today.
It helps to be wise. What is your grade-point average? How did you score on your SATs or the Graduate Record Exam? What creative artistic contribution have you made?
It helps to be powerful, doesn’t it? The rewards go to the strong, don’t they?
It helps to be of noble birth, doesn’t it? In the final analysis when all else fails, you can try to get in the sorority or fraternity or the club as a “legacy” based on your birth and personal connections.
Who gets written up in People magazine? Who gets featured in those fast-moving Entertainment Tonight nightly TV shows? It’s the wise of this world, the powerful of this world, those with all the right connections.
Paul appeals to the very circumstances of the Corinthian believers in his appeal to see how wonderful the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is. It’s available not on the basis of how smart you are, not on the basis of how powerful you are, not on the basis of how well bred you are. Not many in the church, whether it be Corinth or here in Newport Beach, are members of the world’s elite. There are some political leaders. There are a few of our super athletes and artists and business leaders who come to Christ. The fact is that most of us are fairly ordinary. In fact, God has chosen the weak as well as the strong. So whatever your background, you qualify for God’s grace, not on your own merit but because of the cross.
Second, Paul urges you and me to consider what is effective preaching.
It’s not clever rhetoric. Paul writes, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the spirit and of power. So that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (
Paul tried to do his best to avoid clever rhetoric. Perhaps he had seen the inadequacy of his brilliant utterance at Athens, when he made that dramatic address on Mars Hill to the Athenian philosophers. I happen to think it’s one of his most striking messages. For some reason, it fell flat. It may very well be that momentarily he had tried to fight clever rhetoric with clever rhetoric, only to discover that someone always comes along who is a bit more clever in their rhetoric.
Samuel Zwemer, the great missionary statesman to the Muslim world, declared that never yet has anyone been argued into the Christian faith.
State the simple message of God’s love and grace, declaring the cross of Jesus Christ.
If the Apostle Paul was pastoring here in Southern California, he probably wouldn’t have the reputation of being a great preacher. He wrote about himself in another letter to the Corinthians, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible'”(
You and I can have authentic wisdom and godly power.
But it won’t come through the wisdom of this world and the power of this world. As brilliant as this world’s wisdom may be and as strong as its power may be, His authentic wisdom and godly power will be yours only as you, at the elemental gut level where it really counts, determine to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Let us eat of the body of Christ and drink of His blood, focusing our attention on the centrality of our crucified and risen Lord. May our prayer be that of those words of Isaac Watts.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.