The ‘Foolish’ Gospel (1 Cor 1:18-25)

In our series through 1 Cor 1-4 so far we’ve seen how the Corinthians were divided. The wealthier members were trying to display their sophistication and importance by hosting the most eloquent Christian speakers. They were still trying to play the world’s game, but doing it in the church. They were attaching themselves to the various speakers like a fashion accessory; a way of promoting their own image to the world.

biblejeansTo what extent do we use our faith to do this? Do we ‘wear’ our brand of Christianity as a fashion statement – a means of projecting our image to the world? Is it a way of displaying our style, our sophistication, or even our carefully crafted image of not appearing fashion-conscious?

For some of us , we can wear our knowledge of the Scriptures like a Scouting merit badge; the kinds of conferences we attend & books we read become part of our identity.

For others, our preference for cutting-edge café-fellowship over traditional churches gives us a smug sense of superiority.

Or maybe our taste in Christian music helps define our personal ‘brand’ – the image we present to the world.

As followers of Christ, have we taken up our cross only to turn it into bling?

In Corinth, Paul deliberately didn’t try to impress them by worldly standards:

1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with the wisdom of speech, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

This became a problem for Paul, particularly with Apollos around, who was a very gifted orator. It meant they made unfavourable comparisons with Paul, because he refused to play that game. He spoke persuasively, but didn’t give in to the entertain-me culture that wanted public speaking to be a spectacular circus act. This meant he came across as ‘unsophisticated’. So those who wanted to use their faith as a fashion-statement wouldn’t be caught dead wearing ‘brand Paul’, because he wouldn’t pander to their pretensions. So Paul then, in our reading for today (1 Cor 1:18-25),  begins his defence of why he prefers to appear unsophisticated; why he won’t play the world’s game.

Because it’s not just Paul who refuses to pander to their pretensions. It’s God, too. That’s Paul’s first point. The whole gospel message is designed by God to undercut human wisdom. So that to those outside of God’s people, it seems foolish; even ridiculous.

1:18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God

And it’s not just in the New Testament where this happens. It’s been God’s style from the very beginning. Back when God chose an old guy with no kids to become the father of many nations, and the means by which the world would be blessed. When God then rescued a bunch of slaves from Egypt and made them his special people. When he picked out a king to defend them – from the smallest tribe; the youngest son; a shepherd boy whose most notable skills were slinging a stone and strumming a lyre.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God refusing to play to our expectations. God does move in ways which are not only mysterious, but sometimes appear downright foolish. Which leads Paul in the next verse to quote Isaiah:

1 Cor 1:19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

God doesn’t pander to our pretensions. When God acts to save us, he does it through the most unlikely of ways. A crucified messiah – I mean, how ridiculous is that? God himself, dying on a cross! Can you imagine hearing that concept for the first time?

It certainly sent the Jews for a spin. They were expecting a military hero like David or Solomon to come in, raise up an army and defeat the Romans. Instead, they got a carpenter from Nazareth who somehow managed to get himself killed by the Romans. And on a cross! The most shameful of all deaths. Even the Old Testament weighs in on that – describing anyone hung on a tree as being ‘cursed’.

So clearly, God wasn’t pandering to any Jewish pretensions when he came up with that rescue plan for the world! He didn’t bother with market research in Judean shopping malls; he didn’t run it past any focus-groups of Pharisees. In fact, he seemed to be deliberately messing with them. As Paul says in v22 ‘Jews demand signs’ – but even Jesus himself refused to perform on demand. Instead, they are given the message of Christ crucified – which Paul says is ‘a stumbling-block to the Jews’.

But God wasn’t any kinder to the Greeks either. (Here the term ‘Greek’ refers to ‘civilised non-Jews’ – the majority of Paul’s audience in Corinth.)

1:22-23 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

Just like Jesus refused to give signs to unbelieving Jews, Paul won’t use the façade of eloquence desired by the Greeks. He won’t pander to their pretensions to wisdom; to sophistication; to culture. In place of lofty arguments and flashy speech, he tells of a guy who got nailed to a cross for their sin. And who came back from the dead to bring them life.

Members of the Greek intelligentsia, then, needed to give up their preoccupation with human ‘wisdom’ and cultured speech – if they wanted to be saved. They needed to embrace the foolishness of a crucified saviour.

The gospel is a great leveller. Sure, it withstands intellectual scrutiny, as Luke was at pains to point out when he wrote Acts. But unlike Greek philosophy, the gospel doesn’t pander to intellectuals and cultural elitists. In the gospel, God works in a way that messes with human pride.

1:21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

Be careful, then, that your intellectual pretensions don’t get in the way of you responding to the gospel. That they don’t make you distort the gospel into something that fits better with your prejudices and preferences.

That’s what’s happened to many denominations over the past couple of centuries. In the face of scientific advancement and human achievement, some aspects of the gospel became a bit of an embarrassment. The idea of miracles – who needs that kind of superstition these days, when we can explain everything with science & cure everything with medicine? Or angels and demons – aren’t they just relics of an unenlightened time, ignorant of hallucinogenic drugs and mental illness?

And what about this resurrection nonsense? Surely they don’t mean a literal rising from the dead! It’s more a symbol of hope; a myth from pre-modern times which describes the spiritual enlightenment which comes to each of us. And don’t get us started on meaning of the cross. Jesus didn’t die to atone for our sin; to satisfy God’s wrath, in an act of cosmic child abuse. He died as an example for us all; showing us how much God loves us…

Do you see how the intellectual pretensions of our era can make the message of cross seem like foolishness? How they can become a stumbling block for us? If we’re not careful, we can start to overlook, ignore or even change some parts of the gospel message, to try and make it fit in with human wisdom. But it won’t work. Because God has deliberately made it that way.

1:20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

For scientist, or for someone who has studied the humanities, it’s often harder for them to come to Christ. Not because the gospel is anti-scientific, or doesn’t make sense. But because it refuses to play to the self-important assumptions of these disciplines: the assumption that we humans have all the answers; that we humans can solve all our own problems. The gospel says we can’t. Only God can. Only a God who – foolishly – died on a cross in our place.

In the gospel, God does not pander to our pretensions. So that alone should make us stop & think, whenever we catch ourselves bringing our worldly pretensions into the church.

To think about

What are some other pretensions of our culture that can stop us from responding to the gospel?

What are some of the ways in which you have seen God undercut human pretensions?

Post responses and questions

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