We have become so accustomed to the cross that it is hard to understand what is so deplorable about the cross. In religious culture the cross has been turned into an icon. We are used to seeing pictures of a cross. You may have driven through various towns where you will see a large cross on the side of the road. Crosses are placed on the tops of many church buildings. People will even where jewelry that have a cross on it. Through these things the cross has become sanitized in our minds. To fully grasp what the image of the cross meant in the first century we must consider our own capital punishment devices in our culture. Today 33 states use lethal injection as the means for capital punishment for heinous crimes committed. The electric chair is used in 8 states and the gas chamber is used in 5 states. Can you imagine driving down the road and see large statues of gas chambers and electric chairs? Can you imagine seeing an electric chair set as the focal point on top of a building where people assembled together? What would you think if you saw people wearing jewelry that had the image of a needle used for lethal injection? It is this kind of repulsion that people had in the first century when you spoke about the cross. The cross was not hopeful. The cross was not joyful. The cross was not sanitized. The cross was deplorable. The cross was despicable. The cross was something no one wanted to talk about. The cross was shameful. You certainly would not proclaim a message of hope about a person who was executed by lethal injection, the gas chamber, or electrocution. Let this undergird your thinking when you hear the words of Paul that open this paragraph in 1 Corinthians 1.
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. (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV)
In a world where slick presentation and polished oration reigned supreme, the apostle Paul declares the true dividing line. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but it is the power of God to those who are being saved. To prove this point, Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14. Isaiah 29 in its context presents a people who do not desire to know God (29:11-12). God declared that the people drew near with their lips but their hearts were far from him (29:13). So God was going to destroy the wisdom of the wise and thwart the discernment of the discerning. The point is that the message of the cross is nothing other than God’s way of doing what he promised he would do. Through the cross God is destroying all human pretensions to strength and wisdom. This is a central theme of the scriptures. God will destroy everything that humans like to depend upon for strength and wisdom so that they will have to depend on God for salvation.
Here is our problem. We are so self-centered and so self-glorifying that we think we can outsmart God, as if he owes us explanations. We act as if we are wise and self-determining such that God exists only to meet our needs. The gospel is not some good advice nor is it even good news about God’s power. The gospel is God’s power to those who believe. The gospel is the place where God has supremely destroyed all human arrogance is the cross.
Destroying False Systems (1:20-21)
The apostle Paul asks three rhetorical questions to drive home this truth. “Where is the one who is wise?” When Paul speaks of wisdom here, he not referring to true wisdom like in the Proverbs. Rather, Paul is referring to wisdom as it meant to the Corinthians. In Corinth, wisdom was a public philosophy and articulated worldview that attempted to make sense of life. The wise man, therefore, was the person who adopted and defended one of the competing world-views. This idea is the same as our culture today. From scholars to talk show hosts, people get on tv and claim to be wise by supporting their personal worldview. They claim to make sense out of life, death, and the universe. To the Greeks, if you could explain life then you were in control of it, and the same is true today. So which “wise man” discerned God’s plan of redemption? Who figured out that the cross was the means of salvation?
“Where is the scribe?” The rendering “scholar” is misleading because this would suggest an academic. But Paul is addressing the person who is the expert in the law of God. The theologians, biblical experts, and ethicists fare no better than the wise man. None of them grasped the cross either.
“Where is the debater?” Even the best public philosophers and trained rhetorical speakers did not figure out the cross. No matter how brilliant their oratory performance, none of them came to understand the cross by their own abilities. This is the point: everything the world values is brought to nothing before the cross. God has made the wisdom of the world and all that it deems valuable to be foolish. How? Paul continues in verse 21 how this is.
God made the wisdom of the world foolish in that worldly ways do not bring a knowledge of God nor draws one closer to God. We really need to think about this truth for a moment. Everything that the world teaches as “spirituality” or drawing oneself closer to the divine is false. Nothing in the wisdom of the world brings you closer to God. More worldly wisdom will not bring you closer to God. Choosing a particular worldview or philosophy does not draw you to the divine. Creating spirituality by emphasizing our health, saving the planet, being tolerant, or whatever worldly motto you choose has no spirituality in it and does not bring one to a knowledge of God. Please consider how idolatrous the wisdom of the world truly is.
In fact, notice verse 21 that this is by God’s design. This was in the wisdom of God to do this. Further, it pleased God to do this. God chose to save those who by his grace abandon themselves to him, trust in him, and rely upon him, and not their own wisdom, understanding, or strength. God must be their center, their rock, their help, their anchor, and their confidence, not something outside of what we find in the pages of God’s word.
Understanding the Perishing (1:22-25)
Paul divides the perishing into two groups: what the Jews demand and what the Greeks seek (1:22). But we will see that what both of these groups demand represents what every human does today as their basis for not following and submitting to Jesus.
Jews demand signs. You might recall how often the Jews demanded Jesus to perform a sign for them while he was on the earth (cf. Matthew 12:38-39; 16:1; John 4:48; 6:26). Why was Jesus condemning them for doing this? When we studied the Gospel of John we noted that these people were not asking for a display of God’s power that was desperate of God and submissive. Rather, their request was putting themselves in the driver’s seat. Perform a sign so that we can evaluate you and test your claims. I will decide if you are who you say you are. Such an individual sets himself up as God, sets himself up as judge and evaluator, rather than recognizing that Jesus is God and Jesus is the judge and the evaluator. Jesus was not going to yield to their requests which would have in effect turned Jesus into nothing more than a performer on demand.
But this also represents humans today who reject God because they demand God to do something for them as a condition to follow him. I am stipulating the terms that God must accept if he wants the privilege of me following him. So God must heal my wife or child. God must fix my marriage. God must do something for me so that I will follow him, as if we are gods and he must capitulate to us.
Greeks seek wisdom. These do not create conditions that God has to meet. Rather they create structures of thought so as to maintain their delusion to be able to explain life and the universe. These people think they are academic, scientific, powerful, and philosophical. God, if he exists, must fit into their philosophical worldview and thinking if he is going to be acceptable to them. You will notice that with each of these groups there is the basis of self-centeredness. In both cases the individual says that I have the right to approve God. I will determine if God is right for me and if he fits my view of life and my expectations.
So what does Paul do? He preaches Christ crucified, which is a problem for both sets of people (1:23). The message of the cross is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. For the Jews, how could God’s Messiah be crucified? Jesus did not fit their conditions and expectations for Messiah. For the Gentiles, how could a Savior be a crucified hero? Jesus did not fit their philosophical worldview for it is utter foolishness for a Savior to be killed by a government through capital punishment.
But to those who are called, the cross is a display of the power of God and the wisdom of God (1:24). Notice that Christ is the answer to both groups. The Jews desire a sign and the sign they were given was Jesus and the resurrection. The power of God was on full display through the cross of Jesus our Lord. Also, the Greeks desire wisdom and they were given Christ who is the wisdom of God on full display. The cross of Jesus is the most breathtaking display of God’s wisdom. The world’s rebellious self-centeredness is what ensures that it cannot understand the cross. So what the world dismisses as foolishness God proves to be greater than human wisdom. What the world writes off as hopeless weakness God proves is stronger than any human strength (1:25).
So how does this help us keep from division? How is this teaching by Paul to help these Corinthians be of the same mind and judgment and no longer fight with one another? We will only be united when we fully abandon our worldview and fully abandon our personal wisdom and strength to be fully dependent on Christ. Divisions exist and fighting continues when we make ourselves God and think that we call the shots. It is not our way. It is not what is good for us. It is not God doing what we think he should do or what we think others should do for us. Preaching Christ crucified is the ultimate picture of preaching submission: submission to God and submission to one another. We are admitting and recognizing the weakness of God is far stronger than the strength of humans and the foolishness of God is far wiser than the wisdom of humans.