1 Corinthians 1:18-31 ~ Life Together: The Foolishness That Can Save You
“God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”
How many times a Sunday do we say this phrase: “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins”? For those of us who grew up in church, that’s a given. That’s been imprinted deep into our souls. But for those of us who did not grow up in church, that statement must have made no sense, and maybe still doesn’t.
When Paul was spreading the gospel, no one had grown up in church. The message of the cross made sense to no one; it sounded crazy to everyone. No matter who Paul talked to, every time Paul shared the gospel, he had to deal with this barrier. How could a man dying on a cross save anybody?
When Paul brought the gospel to his fellow Jews, the message of the cross sounded foolish to them. The very idea of the Messiah allowing himself to be nailed on a cross was nothing but weakness and failure. Everybody knew the Messiah was supposed to be strong and powerful and able to make all submit to the rule of God. But this Jesus who died on the cross was weak. To the Jews, he was the anti-Messiah. And besides the problem of weakness and defeat, there was the problem of shame. In Scripture it was written, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” (Deuteronomy 21:23b) Crucifixion was reserved for the scum of the earth, for the worst offenders. So when Paul told Jews about the message of the cross, it was nonsense to them.
And when Paul told gentiles that Jesus died on the cross to save them from the destruction of sin, it was nonsense to them too. In Paul’s original words, it was simply MORONIC to them. Whatever else the gentiles believed about their gods, they believed this: a god is one whom humans cannot touch or harm. A god cannot be influenced, much less hurt. To the Greek mind, there was no way that a crucifixion could have anything to do with a saving god. It was simplistic nonsense.
And for anyone today who has not grown up in church, the very idea that someone’s death could somehow be any help to anyone else is still a strange idea indeed. The gruesome thought of a man being nailed upon a wooden cross beam until he dies just reminds us how nasty human beings can be to each other. How can the cross be anything more than the proof of our inherent sinfulness, and the evil that is in the world?
But Paul wrote, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” When some people heard Paul’s message, they found themselves connected to God in a way they had never known before. They found themselves transformed by the power of God. How could that be?
There is a great old hymn that begins, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” When I survey the cross, when I focus on it, here is what I see. I do see the depths to which humanity will stoop. I do see the best of religion and government conspiring together to do the worst act in history. I don’t see any good coming out of any of that.
But there is something else I see. I see an innocent man suffering and dying. And the sight of him I cannot turn away from. Here is a man who has come to know suffering like all the rest of us. The sight of him tears down my greatest barrier to believing: the problem of pain and suffering in this world, the question of how can there be a God who cares if so much pain and suffering is permitted in this world? I still don’t have a complete answer for that. But when I see the Son of God going through his undeserved pain and suffering, something clicks in me. I realize that the Messiah, God’s chosen one, has come to know suffering like all the rest of us. He did not go through this earth exempt from pain. He knew the same pain that we know, and more so. And that draws me to him.
It is a strange attraction which does not conflict with reason, but goes beyond reason. Generations ago in Denmark, there was a young Christian named Soren Kierkegaard who said reason was like a swimmer wading out into the ocean while keeping his feet firmly on the sand, so he could not go very far from shore; while faith is the willingness to float thousands of fathoms above the ocean depths, far from shore, so as to appreciate the majesty of the ocean. (Robert Gnuse, resources for preaching on February 2, www.goodpreacher.com)
So the weakness of God in Christ on the cross does not offend me. Instead, it touches something deep inside me. It unlocks something in me. It calls me to go, not against reason, but certainly beyond reason, into faith. The death of Jesus on the cross may seem like weakness and foolishness at first, but gaze on it awhile, remember the resurrection that will follow, and see if it does not end up becoming for you the strongest and wisest thing you have ever seen. Paul explained it this way in verse 25:
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,
and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
To those who find their lives transformed and saved by the message of the cross, Jesus is not the epitome of foolishness; he is the incarnation of wisdom:
- For us Jesus becomes the wisdom of God
- For us Jesus becomes the way to right relationships with God and humanity
- For us Jesus becomes the one who sets us apart to a different kind of life that is more alive than any other way of living
- For us Jesus becomes the one who delivers us from life’s dead ends, namely from sin and from death. (paraphrase of v. 30)
There’s something else about this gospel of the cross that draws me in. It’s the part that says you don’t have to be wise or powerful or rich already in order to be included. The gospel is for those who can’t brag about any of those things. The gospel is for people who don’t have a prayer of making it other than by God. At the end of the passage, Paul quotes from the prophet Jeremiah, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (v. 31) Here’s the passage Paul quoted from, Jeremiah 9: 23-24:
Don’t let the wise boast in their wisdom;
Don’t let the powerful boast in their power;
Don’t let the wealthy boast in their riches;
But let those who boast, boast in this,
That they understand and know me, says Yahweh…
The wisdom of the world would reserve salvation only for those who are wise enough and powerful enough and rich enough to achieve it. But the wisdom of God extends salvation to the ones whose only qualification is that they know God. When Paul told the Corinthians that, it was music to their ears, for Corinth had a poor reputation; they were the nobodies and the nothings of the Greco-Roman world:
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. Vv. 26-29
When I survey the wondrous cross, when I see that Jesus suffered as one of us, when I see that the gospel is not just for the smart and the rich and the powerful but for all of us, something deep inside me is touched. And I am changed from one who was being destroyed to one who is being saved.
That makes sense to me. Jesus Christ is not God’s ultimate folly. Jesus “is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one.” (The Message, v. 25) The foolishness of the cross is what is saving me.
THE FOOLISHNESS I CAN SHARE WITH OTHERS
It’s also the foolishness that I can share with others. What draws me to the cross also has the power to draw in others and transform them too.
That makes all the difference when I share my faith with others. It is not my wisdom that will convince others to follow Jesus. The cross has its own power to convince. (N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p. 13) Just telling the story of the cross will release that power. It is not the power of my wisdom that is at work, but the power of God’s wisdom, the God who uses what is weak and vulnerable to do things great and powerful.
In God’s wisdom, God’s kingdom is where the weak and the foolish find themselves just as welcome as the strong and the wise, if not more so. (NT Wright, p. 13) That means there’s hope for me, and hope for you, and hope for others we tell this to.
– Douglas E. Murray