1 Cor 1:18-25
Our education system takes up different subjects that it seeks to teach to our children and young people. Thus from Kindergarten on they learn about math and reading. As they get older we add subjects while continuing build on those that have already been introduced. So, math and reading are a focus throughout school. But we add in writing, and the different sciences, and history and social studies.
This approach to education, naturally, assumes that all of these areas of study are important. They are all needed so that a person can be well rounded. And at the same time, as students advance in school the diversity of topics in our education system begins to help direct young people into different areas of study and vocations. The system begins to separate out those who excel in different subjects. It also helps students to identify the subjects they find interesting and enjoy. In high school students begin to have more choices about what they are going to focus upon as they schedule classes. And of course, this process only advances for those who go on to college.
This is the only education we have ever known. And so it will probably surprise you to learn that education in the ancient Greco-Roman world of the New Testament had only one subject: rhetoric. All of Greco-Roman education was about teaching people how to speak in public. All the education they received about reading, history and any other topic took place because they were in texts that were studied for the sake of rhetoric.
Students learned models for speaking and the way of generating arguments that would be persuasive – what the ancients called “invention.” They learned figures of speech and the way to ornament their language to make it interesting and pleasing.
And as a result of this, people were judged on the basis of how they spoke. I don’t mean grammar – this was way beyond that. Instead, people were judged on the basis of the way they were able to use these rhetorical strategies. They were judged on the nature and character of their language, the way they were able to sow it with clever allusions to well known ancient texts and stories.
In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul has just admitted that judged by those standards, he really doesn’t measure up. In the verse just before our text he says that Christ sent him to preach the Gospel “and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Now from the world’s perspective this was a problem. There were those to whom Paul ministered – especially at Corinth – who thought this was a problem and that it called his ministry and message into question. But in our text today, Paul says that the way he preaches the Gospel matches the character of the Gospel. And rather than being a sign that it is suspect, this character reveals the mystery of God at work in the world.
Paul begins by saying, “For the word of the cross is folly 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 the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” The apostle freely admits that those who reject the Gospel – those who are perishing - think it is folly and foolishness. However, this is the understanding of the person who is perishing. In fact, it is the power of God for those who are being saved. And the character of the Gospel is also God’s judgment upon the world and its own arrogance. It is God destroying the wisdom of the wise, and nullifying the understanding of those who think they understand.
Paul tells us that the Gospel is God’s way of doing things as he deals with fallen humanity that is busy all the time making itself into a god. He writes, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 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.”
Curved in on itself, the fallen world refused to know God. In its wisdom it would not submit to God. The creature refused to acknowledge the Creator. And so, Paul tells us, in his wisdom God gave the world a message that was utterly foolish. At least it seems foolish. But in fact it is God’s saving wisdom. Paul explains, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Paul wrote in the first century A.D. The irony is that here in the twenty first century A.D. we live in a world that is more like Paul’s than anything that has been seen in eighteen hundred years. The corrosive effects of rationalism which began during the Enlightenment of the 1700’s have largely destroyed for many people any sense of the authority of God’s Word. With it has gone any sense that God is the almighty, holy and just Creator.
Rather than God’s will, it is each person who decides for him or herself what is true and right. There is no right and wrong, and so people are free to do whatever they want. Complete anarchy reigns in the use of sexuality, and the family – the basic unity of society - is destroyed. In fact things are so unhinged that two people of the same sex can be joined in marriage, or no matter what biology says about your sex – the “birds and the bees” stuff of your body parts – you can decide that you are any gender you want to be.
Of course, in a world where the idea of authoritative divine revelation is rejected and there is no right and wrong, the message of God’s Word about the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead sounds pretty foolish. Take the further step in a world that is becoming more and more pluralistic, and assert that Jesus Christ is the unique and only saving revelation of God, and you have a definite scandal.
And that is the challenge and temptation for you. For you see the scandal and foolishness of the “word of the cross” is not simply the fact that Jesus died on the cross. It includes all of the things we have just been talking about because apart from them the cross is meaningless.
The temptation is longer to see God’s will as authoritative and instead to go with the flow. It is to begin to imitate the world and to adopt its values and manner of life. It is to begin to despise preaching and the word by simply ignoring the things in it you don’t like or which may cause you inconvenience. It is to be silent about Jesus around others because the world now says that religion is only a private affair – that polite people and acceptable citizens don’t make Christ and the Christian faith part of their public life.
The word of the cross is folly to the world today. But for all those who see their own failings – for all those who know that they often put God second, and that they harm others by what they do and say – it is the power of God for salvation.
The Gospel – the gracious gift of God – is the power of salvation because not only is the historical fact of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion true, but so also is the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The One crucified in weakness on Good Friday, rose in glory and power on Easter. And now he has been exalted to God’s right hand in the ascension with all things subject to him.
This he has done. And in order to deliver the forgiveness he won for you and to sustain you in the faith he has given you gifts – Gospel gifts. Now to many, these too look as foolish as the Gospel itself. For example he gives you … me. Well, not me as a person but he gives you the Office of the Holy Ministry and a pastor in that office to preach the Gospel to you each Sunday. There is a foolishness to this. After all, you are going to come to the same place and you are going to hear your pastor say the same thing every Sunday. But those words of Gospel are life giving words – they are Spirit filled words.
In our text, Paul has been describing why his words were not words of eloquent wisdom. But in the next chapter Paul returns to this subject. And there he says, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”
And then a little later Paul adds, “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” These are things that you are able to believe and understand because of the Spirit. These are things that the Spirit continues to address to you. For as Paul says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” The natural man does not understand these things. Paul says they are foolishness to him.
But to you who have been born again through the work of the Spirit in baptism, they are saving words of wisdom. You have been born from God, and as Paul says at the end of chapter one now “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” We rejoice in this Gospel and the peace it provides because to those who are called Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. We rejoice in the face of the world’s derision, because we know what Paul says at the end of our text: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”