The television world is full of philosophers and pop psychologists. Oprah, Dr. Phil, and many others have their shows filled with guests who will try to tell you what the meaning of life is, how to live the good life, gain wealth, raise good kids, improve one’s marriage, get the dream job, etc. The Christian church apes this search for meaning and tries to put their “spin” on life. Some use the bible to show you how to invest money for maximum profit, advice on how “to live your best life, now” (Joel Olsteen). Others like Rick Warren writes that we should have a “purpose filled life.”
There is nothing new about the search for wisdom. It occurs in all cultures throughout human history. The Greeks whose industry freed a few great minds to contemplate. They produced great philosophers like Thales, Pythagoras, Anaximander, Parmenides, Zeno, Diogenes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many, many others. The whole Roman world of Paul’s day was full of philosophers. And there were many want to be philosophers who tried to attract followers on the street corners and the marketplace in much the same way as people use Facebook and Twitter to attract followers.
Wisdom and philosophy, then, was practically worshiped by the world of Paul’s day. And Corinth was no exception. When Paul and others came to the church at Corinth, they were evaluated by the congregation and surrounding community in terms of their rhetorical skill and how their philosophy lined up compared to others. This, or course, caused a major division in the church there. Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew sent there by Paul to refute the Jewish polemical attacks against the new church. He was a man of much learning and was a skilled orator which the Book of Acts says so skillful that he silenced the opposition. The wisdom lovers in the congregation would love Apollos, but not for the right reasons. Others were loyal to Paul who founded the church. For all of Paul’s knowledge, he apparently lacked polish in his preaching, at least compared to Apollos. Yet as founder, he had his followers. Then others who had come out of Judaism preferred the preaching of Peter who was perceived, probably wrongly, as being more sympathetic to Judaism, Others who were the super spiritual rightly understood that the message brought by all the aforementioned evangelists centered on Jesus Christ. But Jesus was more than the consummate teacher of wisdom, so even the “Christ-followers” in the congregation were off base. The result was chaos.
Paul, having heard reports from Ephesus of what was going on, wrote this very stern letter to the Corinthians. Certain issues needed to be dealt with immediately. First and foremost, the split in the church needed to be addressed. After a short greeting, he dived right in in verse 10 to address this division. He mentions the factions directly and begins to set the record straight. The message which he preached was not his, but came from God. All of the leaders they were “following” were actually servants of God. There was one message which they all preached which came from God and not from worldly wisdom.
In this morning’s text, Paul addresses the topic of wisdom. The “for” develops the rationale for why Paul preached what he did and why which was introduced in the previous passage, It answers why he did not use human wisdom to shape the message he brought to them. He begins by admitting that the message of the cross which he preached as considered by the wisdom of this world utterly foolish. The Greek word here for “foolishness” is the word we get “moron” from. Paul admitted as did Tertullian later who summed this up as “I believe in what you call absurd”. But this same world that considered Paul’s message to be offensive to knowledge was perishing. What good was all the world’s wisdom when death and destruction comes to all? Worldly wisdom has no answer to death which would be seen as the end of all things. It could be summed up as: “If you are born with nothing and die to nothing, and life is short, what difference does it make in how high you rise or how low you fall in life?” Death is the end of worldly wisdom.
This is the logical conclusion to the meaning of life. Death cancels all meaning. However, the bible says that the situation is even worse than just dissolving into nothingness. The Bible says it is appointed to man once to die. But it also adds that after death there is a judgment. As meaningless as is the search of the philosophers is, the end is far worse than the meaninglessness of death.
The Bible is full of what the theologians call “two way” theology. There is a way of death and there is a way that leads to death. Jesus employed such theology in the Sermon on the Mount when He compares the broad way to destruction and the narrow way to life. And Paul follows up the way of death and destruction the philosophers offer which is widely travelled in this age to the way of life. For those who are being saved, the word of the foolish weakness of the cross is the very power of God. He goes on to quote a prophecy from the Old Testament book of Isaiah to make his point. In it, God promises to destroy the wisdom of the wise man and set aside the understanding of the intelligent. This, Paul infers is fulfilled in the preaching of the Gospel.
Starting in verse 20, Paul confronts the pundits of this world directly. Seeing that it was God’s purpose to destroy the wisdom of this world where does that leave this worlds philosophers, scribes and debaters? The world considers the preaching to the cross to be moronical, but Paul tells them that it is the other way around. The preaching of the cross makes the wisdom of the world moronical. The Greek word for “wisdom” here is Sophia, from which we get “sophisticated”. Why was this world’s jangling foolishness? The answer is that for all its wisdom, it did not find God.
The search of the Greek philosophers was to find a principle of unity in the cosmos. They were confronted by a universe full of diversity. How does one find a unified purpose to things in the midst of the chaos of diversity? To the Greeks, God was this abstract and impersonal principle which unified all things. The formal name for the quest of the Greeks was the solution of “the one and the many” problem. An ancient philosopher named Thales said “All is water” as if water is what held all things in common. Another said “All is Air”. Another said “All is static” and another “all is flux”.
I could go on with many other answers to what “all is”, but it should be sufficiently shown by these examples that their solutions all contradicted each other. The greatest of these philosophers, Aristotle, came the closest to solving this intellectual problem. He used a principle that is called “remotion” to find what all things had in common. He concluded this “all” was “thought thinking itself” who was the formal and ultimate unity. The problem is what sort of god did Aristotle prove? The last step of remotion is to find what being and non-being had in common. Of course, the answer to this is that they have nothing in common. But nothing is something because it can be described by the word “nothing”. So Aristotle’s god is the empty set. He did not find the God revealed in Scripture.
The problem with Greek philosophy is that it starts from finite man and tries to search out the infinite God. This quest is similar to what the devil reasoned to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The chief idolatry of man is to try to describe or name the universe without the need for God. This led to the human endeavor to solve the one and the many problem. But this is not man’s problem at all. God tells us what man’s problem. Man is a fallen rebellious sinner in need of redemption. The arrogance of human wisdom does not allow God to describe whet the ultimate problem for the human race is. This is why the preaching of the cross is so foolish.
God chose a way that negated the value of human wisdom. Human wisdom has blinded the human race to the real problem. He chose to send His Son to die on a cross to redeem the world. In this, God was addressing the real problem we face .God also chose the cross to destroy the arrogant self-righteousness of Judaism. To the Greeks, Paul’s preaching was utter foolishness. But the Jews saw a crucified cursed Messiah rather than a powerful national figure who would restore national Israel to Davidic glory as an utter scandal.
Paul goes on to say that what the world considers foolish and scandalous actually displays both the utter wisdom and power of God. In it, all human pride and self-reliance is negated. It is all levelled at the foot of the cross. Those who come to the cross in faith will discover the true power and wisdom. The wise man becomes an total moron to the world when he comes to Christ’s cross, and those whom the world thinks are ignorant become supremely wise when they embrace the wisdom of God. The strong must become weak and vulnerable at the cross, and the weak and vulnerable in this age become powerful at the cross.
The world today prides itself in the increase of what it considers to be knowledge. Just as the Greeks thought their wisdom was a great gift to the world, the world of today prides itself in its advancement. The world searches for its meaning just like the Greeks did. But the modern Age of Reason has become the postmodern world of doubt. The world today is in process of rendering its own knowledge into Aristotle’s empty set. Skepticism abounds, and the answer to the problem of unity is that there is none. Anyone who has read the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes or who has studied this morning’s text would be well advised not to waste time trying to find meaning under the sun apart from God who has created the sun, us, and all things. The only answer for man is to come to the cross. It is God who gives meaning to the universe, whose power is demonstrated in creation itself and confirmed by the redemption offered in Jesus Christ.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” about dying of thirst at sea, even though he was surrounded be water. “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink”. This is because the water was salt. It was useless to quench the dying mariner’s thirst. In fact, the salt was toxic, it was worse than doing without. Such is the wisdom of this world. The world’s wisdom is actually a slow poison that kills body and soul. It looks promising, but it leads to the way of death.
I suppose the question to bring to the church this morning is why we spend so much time trying to find meaning in the world’s pursuits when God has rendered them so foolish. Is God’s message just another philosophy among many? Or is it the life transforming message with a future beyond our death and the death of this age? It is time to embrace the message of the cross in the church today and to proclaim God’s message and not worldly wisdom.
Some would say that we need to be sophisticated in this world in order to reach the wise in this world. In other words, “When in Rome, become like the Romans”. We claim that we need to approach the world on common ground. However, this is expressly contrary to what Paul is teaching here. I must agree with the theologian Cornelius Van Til that the common ground is found in Romans that God has revealed Himself to everyone. Even though they know God, they have deliberately suppressed this knowledge. The common ground it to confront this suppression directly. One can see the wisdom of this approach. The atheist confirms the existence of God by his/her violent attempts to suppress God. Why did Sartre spend so much time attacking the idea of God if he was so sure there was no God? His very attempt to suppress God is the very proof that God had revealed Himself to Sartre.. Sartre’s philosophy leads to no exit. But there is an exit. This is to believe on Jesus Christ our Lord Let all who wish to be truly powerful and wise embrace the cross of God’s wisdom.
The wisdom of the world seeks unity and ends in division. the wisdom of God leads to unity in Christ.