You’ll perhaps remember from last week that, beginning in verse 10 of chapter 1, Paul is addressing the first of many problems in the church in Corinth. And it’s the problem of the many divisions which existed among them. It seems the church was divided into different groups or parties or cliques with one group claiming they followed Paul; and another group claiming they followed Apollos; and another group claiming they followed Peter; and still another group claiming they followed Christ. And the members of these groups were quarrelling with one another and they were exalting themselves over one another. So, instead of being humble towards one another, and instead of loving and serving one another, they were exalting themselves over everyone else and they boasted about themselves. And so Paul appealed to them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to agree with one another so that there will be no divisions among them and so that they will be perfectly united in mind and thought.
And do you remember how Paul brought them back to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the gospel? Christ the Saviour is not divided; therefore his people shouldn’t be divided. Paul wasn’t crucified for them, but the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified for them; and so they should give their allegiance to the Lord Jesus and to no one else, because no one else died for them. And when they were baptised, they were baptised into the name of Christ and into his church; and so, instead of following Paul or Apollos or Peter, they should follow Christ the Lord whose name we bear.
So, Paul was appealing to his readers to agree with one another so that they wouldn’t be divided any longer, but united under Christ. But from verse 17 onwards he starts talking about preaching. He said in verse 17 that Christ did not send him to baptise, but to preach. Why did he mention preaching and why does he continue to talk about preaching in the following verses? Has he moved on to a different topic? Has he forgotten about the divisions and gone off on some tangent? Well, I explained the last time that what he says about preaching is connected to what he says about the divisions in the church. They were boasting about this preacher and that preacher:
I follow Paul.
I follow Apollos.
I follow Peter.
And in response, Paul shows his readers that there’s no reason for them to boast about Paul or Apollos or Peter, because whatever success a preacher has in his ministry is due, not to his own ability, and not to his own wisdom or power, but to the wisdom and power of God. The preacher is called to preach, not the wisdom of the world, not the latest ideas; he’s called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ who died to pay for our sins and who was raised to give us life. And when the preacher preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of the cross to save is unleashed in the world. But the power to save comes from the Lord, and it’s not from the preacher. So, as Paul says in verse 21 of chapter 3:
So then, no more boasting about men!
No more boasting about men; instead we’re to boast in Christ the Lord.
I want to divide the remaining verses of chapter 1 into three parts. First of all, there’s verses 18 and 19 where Paul continues to write about the message of the cross which he was sent to preach and which every true preacher is sent to preach. And then, in verses 20 to 25, Paul shows that the way we come to know God and his salvation is not through the wisdom of the world, but through the gospel of Jesus Christ. And finally, in verses 26 to 31, Paul refers to their own status whenever God called them. They weren’t wise or influential or noble; and yet God called them.
Verses 18 and 19
Let’s look at verse 18 and 19 first of all, where Paul wrote:
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 this is so because it is the Lord’s intention, according to verse 19, to destroy the wisdom of the wise and to frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent. And the reason the Lord wants to destroy the wisdom of the wise and to frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent is so that no one will be able to boast before him.
We all know from experience the truth of what Paul says in verse 18, because we know that many of those who hear the good news of Christ crucified regard it as nonsense. They hear the message of how the Son of God came down to earth as a man; and he lived a perfect life among us; and he suffered and died on the cross, taking in our place the punishment we deserve for our sins to satisfy the justice of God; and he was raised from the dead to give us life; and he ascended to heaven to rule over all; and he now sends his Spirit to enable his people to believe; and he’s coming again to judge the living and the dead and to take his people into the new heaven and the new earth to live with him for ever. They hear this message; and they dismiss it as nonsense: they don’t believe in God; and they don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God; and they don’t believe he became a man; they don’t believe he died to pay for our sins; they don’t believe he was raised from the dead or that he’s coming again one day. They don’t believe any of this and they regard it all as nonsense which no sensible person living in the modern world could possibly believe. It was fine for people living in the past, who did not know any better. And it’s fine for people today who need a something to give them comfort and hope in the face of death. But no reasonable person, no modern person, can believe it. To many who hear, the message of the cross seems like foolishness.
But then others hear the same message about Christ crucified; and for them, this message is the power of God, because when they heard this message, God the Holy Spirit came into their lives and he set them free from the tyranny of the Devil; and he rescued them from the penalty and power of sin; and he raised them up with Christ to live a new, heavenly life; and he gave them the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in God’s presence.
To some — to those who are perishing in their sins — the message of the cross is foolishness. But to others — to those who are being saved — the message of the cross is the power of God. And this is so, because it’s always been the Lord’s intention to destroy the wisdom of the wise and to frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent. You see, the person who regards the gospel as foolishness, thinks he’s very wise; she thinks she’s very intelligent. They think we’re fools for believing this nonsense; and they think they’re very wise and smart for rejecting it. But those who rely on their own wisdom will never experience the power of the cross to save, because the only ones who experience the power of the cross to save are those who humble themselves and who believe the gospel of Christ crucified. And so, in the end, those who are saved from the coming judgment and who enter in to eternal life will be the ones who boast, not in their own wisdom, but in Christ the Lord who suffered and died to bring them to God.
Verses 20 to 25
Having introduced the idea of the wisdom of the wise and how the wise regard the message of the cross as foolishness, Paul goes on in verses 20 to 25 to show that the way we come to know God and his salvation is not through the wisdom of the world, but through the gospel of a crucified Christ.
And so, in verse 20 Paul is issuing a kind of challenge. He’s saying:
Bring out your wise men who claim to be so wise and full of understanding.
Bring out your scholars with all their degrees and PhDs and all their great learning.
Bring out the philosophers of this age who have thought deeply about the world and our existence in it.
Bring them all out and let’s hear what they can tell us about God and his salvation.
And when we bring them out and listen to them, what do you discover? Well, says Paul, what you’ll soon discover is that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world, because the people of the world — with all their wisdom and all their learning and all their knowledge — are unable by themselves, and relying on their own wisdom, to come to a knowledge of God and his salvation.
When Paul refers to the wisdom of the world, he’s referring to the way people look at the world and try to make sense of it without paying attention to God’s revelation. So, instead of paying attention to God’s word and to what he has revealed about the world and about sin and salvation, they try to work it out on their own. Instead of bowing before the Lord, and accepting what he has said about the world, they stand up tall and they’re determined that they will decide what is true. And in their estimation, what is true is what seems to make sense to them and what seems reasonable to them.
Of course, it all goes back to the Garden of Eden, doesn’t it? Probably everything goes back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ought to have listened to the Lord; they ought to have paid attention to what he said to them about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God said that if they ate the fruit from that tree, they would surely die. But instead of listening to him, Eve listened to the serpent; and she decided that what the serpent said to her made more sense than what the Lord said to her. And instead of bowing before the Lord and listening to him, she stood up tall and decided she knew better.
And it’s been the same ever since, with men and women relying on what makes sense to them, and what seems reasonable to them, and what seems true to them, instead of relying on what God has revealed to us in his word. So, God in his word says he made the world. Nonsense, don’t believe it. God in his word says he rules over all things. Nonsense, don’t believe it. God in his word says Jesus Christ is both God and man. Nonsense, don’t believe it. God in his word says Jesus Christ died for sinners. Nonsense, don’t believe it. God in his word says the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead. Nonsense, don’t believe it. God in his word says the Lord Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Nonsense, don’t believe it. God in his word says that salvation is found in Christ and in no-one else. Nonsense, don’t believe it. And they will bring out their arguments and their evidence and they will challenge everything which the Lord has revealed in his word about himself and about what he has done for our salvation. And in their wisdom, they regard God’s word as nonsense, foolishness, which no one in their right mind should believe.
So, the world through its wisdom did not know God. Relying on its own wisdom, the people of the world did not come to know God or his salvation. And Paul goes on in verse 22 to mention the Jews and the Greeks. And look what he said about them. First of all, he tells us that the Jews demanded signs. So, that’s what they were looking for and that’s what impressed them. They wanted to see mighty miracles and clear demonstrations of God’s power. So, when the Lord was on the earth, the Jews would come and ask him what miraculous sign will you do that we might believe in you? Instead of bowing before him and worshipping him as the Son of God, they set themselves up as judges over him and they demanded that he prove himself to them and give them the signs they wanted to see. And so you remember what they said?
Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert.
That’s what Moses did; what will you do?
That’s what impressed them. The Greeks, though, demanded wisdom; that’s what they were looking for and that’s what impressed them. Think of the Greeks in Athens. Do you remember how Paul went to Athens and they invited him to come and speak to them, because all they did every day was sit around and discuss the latest ideas. So, they wanted fine-sounded arguments and clever ideas. They will not believe unless they get wisdom.
But that way does not lead to the knowledge of God and of his salvation, because the way to know God and his salvation, the way to receive his salvation, comes through the gospel of a crucified Christ. That’s the point Paul is making in the second half of verse 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.
The foolishness of what was preached was the gospel message which the Lord sent Paul to preach. And do you remember from last week? Whenever the gospel is preached, the power of the cross to save is unleashed, so that those who heard Paul preach the gospel and who believed his message were saved.
Now, the Jews thought the gospel was nonsense. Paul says in verse 23 that it was a stumbling-block for them, a message they couldn’t get over and which prevented them from coming to know God and his salvation. After all, they wanted to see mighty signs; that’s what they were interested in; and they weren’t impressed with the message of a crucified Christ. Anything but that! And the Greeks thought the gospel was nonsense too. Paul says in verse 23 that it was only foolishness to them. They couldn’t accept the gospel message. You see that in Acts 17 when Paul went to Athens. When they first heard him, they asked each other:
What is this babbler trying to say?
That’s what they thought of Paul for preaching the gospel: he’s a babbler. It doesn’t make sense. And then, later, after he told them about the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, some of them began to sneer. The Greeks demand wisdom and the gospel message only seemed like foolishness to them: the nonsense of a babbler.
So, the Jews — relying on their wisdom and what makes sense to them — did not come to know God or his salvation. The Greeks — relying on their wisdom and what makes sense to them — did not come to know God or his salvation. The world — through its wisdom — did not come to know God or his salvation. However, God has made known through the preaching of the gospel the way of salvation. Through the preaching of the gospel, sinners hear the news of Christ crucified: the news of how the Eternal Son of God became one of us; and died to pay for our sins; and was raised to give us life; and how everyone who believes in him will be saved. And for those who believe, this message is the power of God, because by this message they’re delivered from their sin and guilt and raised up to live a new, heavenly life. And this message is for them the wisdom of God, because how wise God was to work out their salvation. Even though the gospel of a crucified Christ is regarded by many as foolish, nevertheless it has more power and wisdom than anything which sinful men and women ever produced.
And so, the message this evening is similar to the one we heard this morning, when we were studying the parable of the farmer who went out to sow the seed; a parable about preaching God’s word in the world. Many who hear the word won’t believe; nevertheless in the end, we can be confident there will be an abundant harvest, with a great multitude who have believed. Well, the same message is found here, isn’t it? God raises up preachers to preach the gospel of a crucified Christ; and we shouldn’t be surprised when many disregard the gospel and treat it as if it’s foolish. We shouldn’t be surprised, because it doesn’t make sense to those who are relying on the wisdom of the world to decide what’s true. Nevertheless, we also believe that when God raises up and sends out preachers to preach the gospel of a crucified Christ, the power of the cross to save is unleashed and there will be many who hear and who believe and who will therefore be saved.
And so, we should pray to the Lord and ask him to send out more and more preachers to preach the gospel of the crucified Christ so that the power of the cross to save is unleashed. And we should pray to the Lord and ask him to enable those who hear to give up relying on the wisdom of the world, and to trust instead in Christ the Saviour.
Verses 26 to 31
Let me move on to the third section today, verses 26 to 31 where Paul reminds his readers in Corinth of what they were like when God called them to himself through the preaching of the gospel. What were they like? Were they wise? Were they powerful? No, they weren’t like that: in the eyes of the world, they weren’t wise, or influential, or of noble birth. They were nobodies. Nevertheless God called them; and, according to Paul in verse 27, he calls nobodies like them in order to shame the wise and in order to shame the strong and powerful. So he deliberately chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things, the things that are nothing at all, but who are only nobodies. He deliberately chose them in order to nullify and to bring to nothing all those who are regarded as wise and strong in the eyes of the world. So, he chose the nobodies to shame the somebodies.
Why did he do that? Well, it was once again to confound the wisdom of the world, wasn’t it? According to the wisdom of the world, to be wise and influential and of noble birth is important. According to the wisdom of the world, to be strong is important. And so, in the world, people will boast about themselves and how wise they are and how many degrees they had. And in the world, people will boast about how influential they are and how many friends they have on Facebook. And in the world, people will boast about their noble birth and their connections. And in the world, people will boast about their strength and how powerful they are in the Board Room. That’s the way it is in the world.
But none of those things matter to the Lord; and in fact, those who boast about these things, and who rely on these things, will be shut out of God’s kingdom, because God will not have anyone in his kingdom who will dare to stand before him and boast about themselves and their achievements.
Instead he will surround himself with those who in the eyes of the world are foolish and weak. He will surround himself with them, because they will not boast about themselves or their achievements. Instead they will boast about the Lord Jesus, who is the wisdom of God. And do you see what else we receive from Christ? In the eyes of the world we might be nothing and nobodies, foolish and weak. But if you believe in Jesus Christ, you receive from him righteousness and holiness and redemption. Being righteous means that we are declared right with God so that we’re no longer under condemnation, but are pardoned and accepted by God for ever. Being holy means we have been washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ and set apart to belong to God who gives us his Spirit to sanctify us and make us obedient. And when Paul refers to redemption here, he’s referring to the redemption of our bodies, when Jesus Christ comes again and our bodies will be set free from the grave and from all the effects of the fall, and we shall live with God for ever and ever in the new creation.
In the eyes of the world, you may be a nobody. But if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then in God’s sight you have righteousness and holiness and redemption, everything you need for eternal life in his presence.
There’s one last thing to notice before we finish. Paul, in these verses, refers to the way God chooses his people and calls them. It’s there in verse 24:
to those whom God has called.
It’s there in verse 26:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.
It’s there in verse 27:
But God chose the foolish things of the world … God chose the weak things of the world.
And it’s there in verse 28:
He chose the lowly things of this world. God chose the people he wanted for himself.
We learn from other places in the Bible that he chose his people before the world was made; and therefore before we did anything, whether good or bad, to show that he chooses his people because of his kindness to them and not because of anything they might have done to deserve it.
And having chosen his people, he then called them to Christ through the preaching of the gospel. And when he calls his people, it’s not like when I call my dog and she ignores me. No, when God calls his people, it’s with a call that is completely and utterly effective, so that all who are called by God respond to the call and come to Christ for salvation. The preacher preaches the gospel of a crucified Christ; and he calls sinners to repent and believe; and at the same time, God the Holy Spirit is at work, preaching in the hearts of God’s chosen people, to call them and to draw them irresistibly to Christ the Saviour.
So, what does this tell us? Well, once again, when we think about the effectiveness of preaching the gospel, we need not worry, because we believe that all those whom God has chosen will be called by God through the preaching of the gospel; and will therefore come to Christ for salvation. So, the effectiveness of preaching does not depend on the preacher, but on God who calls; and he will call everyone he has chosen. So, we needn’t worry about the effectiveness of preaching.
And finally, when we come into the presence of God in eternity, there really is no reason for us to boast in ourselves, but there’s every reason to boast in the Lord, because not only did God send his Son to die to pay for our sins; but he chose us, even though we didn’t deserve it; and he called us to come to Christ; and he enabled us to respond to the call and to come. Our salvation is — from beginning to end — from the Lord; and therefore let him who boasts, boast in the Lord, and give thanks to him for his glorious grace and his wisdom and power.