Authentic Wisdom & Power
Authentic Wisdom and Power
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
I will never forget that college basketball game. The competition was intense. The fans on each side were cheering with a deafening roar as our two schools battled back and forth up and down the court. One team would gain the lead only to lose it seconds later to the other. The intensity built until suddenly one of our players grabbed the basketball and, with a supreme burst of energy, dribbled out of the crowd of players, broke into the open in his own fast break, and perfectly executed his lay-up. Then suddenly it dawned on him what he had done. In stunned disbelief, he cradled his head between his hands as his elation instantly turned to despair. He had gone the wrong way and scored for the opposition. Some still affectionately refer to him as "wrong-way Lindberg." Many of us have been involved in situations where we had two facts in common with “wrong-way Lindberg”. One, we were totally sincere. Two, we were dead wrong.
Please turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter one and follow along as I read verses 18 through 25 from the English Standard Version
” 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.
For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,
but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. ”
The Apostle Paul fingers the church at Corinth as one that was totally sincere but dead wrong . He acknowledges them as brothers and sisters in Christ, but he alerts them to the fact that they held something in common with Lindberg and me. They were totally sincere but dead wrong. They had divided into cliques. They were quarreling. They were prideful. All of this came out of their determination to be super Christians. But they were going the wrong way.
Paul straightens them and us out with frank confrontation.
I have on many occasions asked a person whether or not they were a Christian. I no longer do that. I've discovered that if I ask simply, "Are you a Christian?" the answer is quite predictable. It's an immediate, "Yes! What do you think I am? A Jew? A Muslim? An atheist?" Some even say, "Sure, I go to church." Or some say, "Certainly I am, although I don't go to church very often. You know, you don't need to go to church to worship God. In fact, I feel closer to Him on the beach or when I am skiing than at church."
The passion of my message today, taken directly from Paul's letter to the church at Corinth, is that human wisdom and the authentic divine wisdom, at which we're going to look, are quite different. Also, human power and divine power are quite different.
The Apostle Paul emphasizes and again reemphasizes that authentic wisdom and profound power is found only in the cross of Jesus Christ.
I. Many people cannot comprehend the cross of Jesus Christ.
Paul states it in this sequence of comments. He writes in verse 18, "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" .
He goes on to write, ". . . but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:23-24).
He writes on, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).
Why is it that many people cannot comprehend the cross of Jesus Christ? Why is it a "stumbling block" to some and "foolishness" to others? It is because the cross and all it stands for runs so contrary to our human understanding.
Somewhere along the line, you and I confronted the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all of its simplicity. Our hearts were moved to repentance and trust in the Savior. We become Christians, true followers of Jesus. My walk began with a Billy Graham crusade on TV. Your experience may be one of dramatic encounter with the Risen Christ at a camp, an evangelistic service, through the personal witness of a friend, perhaps through faithful preaching. You initially begin to grow in your relationship with Jesus. Then time goes by, and you become part of a Christian community. You hear other believers talk about preachers they like and preachers they dislike. Your own particular personality and perceived needs direct you to a particular kind of church and preaching. What emerges is a situation today quite similar to what was faced in Corinth. Some end up claiming to belong to Paul and others to Apollos, while others claim to be followers of Cephas. And some exclusivists attach themselves to a somewhat self-centered version of Jesus Christ. It is not likely that our first church choice was based on godly wisdom on our part. If we were following closely, listening to the nudging of the indwelling Holy Spirit, then we were guided to a Bible-preaching church. If we were not listening to the Holy Spirit, we may have been attracted to an “ear tickling” church – one that preached what you wanted to hear. For without the Holy Spirit’s guidance it is likely we would look to be entertained or wowed by excellence or elegance or eloquence.
But, there is an excellence and elegance and eloquence of language that deprives the Gospel of its power & effect. It is the wisdom of words that has a destroying impact on the message. It may sugarcoat unpleasantness and dwell on man’s inherent goodness instead of man’s inherent sinfulness. Or it may wrongly preach the health and wealth doctrine to the exclusion of suffering and refining. The truth ends up veiled. Why? The proud human mind resists spiritual reality. The more sophisticated we are the less we want to hear about our need of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross. The idea of the blood atonement makes us nervous. We'd rather be involved in self-sacrifice. That's a bit more palatable. The wisdom of words can explain the Gospel away. The eloquence of words can adorn the gospel, romanticizing what it is to be a Christian. Some of us don't like the bluntness of the statement that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses to them. Let's cut out everything that takes our eyes away from the cross of Jesus Christ!
Some Bible translations distort the true meaning of 1 Corinthians 1:18. They translate it to read, "The preaching of the cross is foolishness." The most exact translation is that which I read. It is the New American Standard Version, which reads, "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
Paul is not writing about the act of delivering a sermon on Sunday morning. Preaching is part of the "message about the cross," but it is not all of the message. The fact is that the cross of Jesus Christ has its own eloquence. It makes its own statement. Those of us who are preachers must be careful that we do not make statements so ornate that we decorate the cross with that which subtracts from the simplicity and power of its own message. The gospel message is this: Christ came to die for our sins!
The message of the cross is that there is a God. The message of the cross is that this God created us in His image. The message of the cross is that this God wants to be in a personal relationship with us. The message of the cross is that this God observes that something has gone wrong. The message of the cross is that God sees us living in an active or passive rebellion against Him. The message of the cross is that this God, who yearns to be in intimate relationship with us, initiates His supreme act of love designed to destroy death, the wages of sin. The message of the cross is that He delights in showing His mercy. The message of the cross is that He knows that there is only one way by which you and I can be saved. The message of the cross is that of His complete atoning act, in which this God becomes the God-man Jesus Christ who takes your sin and mine upon himself as He is nailed to that cross. The message of the cross is that He physically dies. He literally rises from the dead. And, in His resurrection power, He invites you to come to Him. The message of the cross is that He invites you to put your personal trust and faith in Him, the crucified and risen Messiah.
This word of the cross is not something that can be devised by human reason. It is a gift of revelation. There are some who will hide behind their own self-styled Pantheism, believing in some supernatural forces that hold everything together. There are others who will espouse a kind of Deism, believing that there may be a God out there somewhere but you can't know much about him or her. They may not officially deny the existence of God, but they certainly minimize one's capacity to have a personal relationship with God. So we end up with religion of human creation, salvation by works, in which I will do my level best to live the best life I possibly can so that, if someday I do happen to come face to face with a personal God, I can at least show Him my merit badges, and He will be more apt to tell me how wonderful I am.
No! The cross of Jesus Christ is the central message of the Christian faith.
What is that word of the cross in its practical application to you and me today?
First, God wants you and me to humble ourselves and depend on Him.
If only the wise and clever of this world could be saved, it would be sad, wouldn't it? The average person, as well as the most intelligent and as well as the mentally disadvantaged qualify based on Christ's atoning work.
Second, God wants you and me to die to self and to the flesh-life.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who don't believe. But for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God, because daily we are being delivered from our tendency toward one-dimensional, fleshly living.
Jesus stunned His listeners when He said, "And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. " (Luke 9:23).
In the first century, the cross was far from that beautiful gold ornament that adorns many a contemporary neck. It was the symbol of crucifixion. Paul states that it is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is literally "moronic" to those who have not trusted Jesus personally. But to those of us who have trusted the Savior, we are called to die daily. If we would find ourselves, we would lose ourselves. If we want to be first, we end up last. The last shall be first. Jesus radically reorganizes the pecking order. When God wants to do an impossible task, he takes an impossible person and crushes him and, in the process, He makes out of you and me men and women usable in His service.
This is not a popular idea, is it? But it is the essence of our having authentic wisdom and profound power. That's why you are listening more intently than you probably have ever listened to me before. It's not because my words are so eloquent. It's because this message is the essence of the Christian life. In a few moments, we're going to celebrate that essence, as we partake of Christ's body and drink of Christ's blood!
II. What I am really saying is that God turns upside down our human understandings of wisdom and power.
When the Apostle Paul quotes God as saying, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart" (1 Corinthians 1:19), He is referring to Old Testament Israel at the time of Isaiah. You can read about it in Isaiah 29. Israel was surrounded by the Assyrians. Human wisdom said, "Get help from the Egyptians to defeat Sennacherib." God rebukes the people for putting their confidence in human wisdom and power. He rebukes them for articulating pious statements of loyalty to Him, while at the same time refusing to follow Him.
Building on this spiritual truth, Paul reminds us of the futility of human wisdom when it comes to spiritual reality. He asks the question, "Where is the one who is wise?" (1 Cor. 1:20). We're impressed with philosophers, aren’t we? We are all sheep looking for a shepherd to follow. Dumb sheep! We’ll follow Karl Marx! We’ll follow Freud! We’ll follow the DaVinci Code! Dumb Sheep! He asks the question, "Where is the scribe?" The church at Corinth had Jewish Christians who stood in awe of the brilliance of the scribes who transcribed the Scriptures and studied them so faithfully. He asks, "Where is the debater of this age?" Corinthians loved clever, rhetorical debating skills. Are we any different? Who do you follow?
Paul is declaring that all the brilliance of the wise philosopher, the genius of the scribe and the verbal skills of the debater end up being foolishness before the wisdom of God. He writes, "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our message, to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:21).
Do you catch this? God turns upside down our human understandings of wisdom and power. Human wisdom can't bring salvation. It takes authentic godly wisdom. Human power in the form of Egyptian support can't defeat the Assyrians. It takes the profound power of God. God does business in a different way.
Each of us is acculturated to expect something different from God. The message of the cross is not a popular word to twenty-first century Canadians. We dress for power. We have formulas for success. We want a gospel that will make us wealthy, brilliant, beautiful and powerful. We are not much different from the people in Paul's day. Dumb sheep!
Paul states that "Jews demand signs." It was incredible to them that one who had ended His life upon a cross could possibly be the Messiah. Even with Isaiah 53 being a familiar passage of Scripture, the Jew could not fathom a suffering Messiah. The cross was and continues to be an obstacle to the Jew. The Jew sought for signs. The Jew had a way of following after false messiahs. Just a few years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, in the year A.D. 45, a man called Theudas emerged. He persuaded thousands of Jews to abandon their homes and follow him out to the Jordan River, promising that, at his word, the Jordan would divide and he would lead them dry shod across. In A.D. 54, a man from Egypt arrived in Jerusalem claiming to be a prophet. He persuaded 30,000 people to follow him out to the Mount of Olives by promising that, at his word of command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down. How different from Jesus. Jesus was meek and lowly. He deliberately avoided the spectacular. He was the "suffering servant" who ended His life on a cross and urged His followers to take up their cross and follow Him.
Paul states that "the Greeks desire wisdom." To the Greeks, this message of the cross was foolishness. They could not relate to a God who had feelings of a personal nature. A suffering God to the Greek was a contradiction in terms. The very idea of incarnation, God becoming human, made no sense. It would make God ugly, bad, unhappy. God should be above all that. They couldn't picture a God who would get His hands dirty. In the final analysis, the Greeks sought wisdom. They were looking for that which was intellectually pure. Ultimately, wisdom became identified with the clever mind, the cunning tongue, the persuasive rhetoric, the ability to debate to the finish and win. The Greeks were intoxicated with fancy words. The Christian preacher with his blunt message seemed a crude and uncultured figure to be laughed at and ridiculed, rather than to be listened to and respected.
Now let me make one point clear. Paul is not putting down education. Christianity is not anti-intellectual. Unfortunately, some Christians have distorted this teaching, incurring a religious "know nothingism." God has given you a mind. You don't have to scrap your brain to be a Christian. Thank God for brilliant scientists, philosophers and historians. Sharpen the intellectual gifts that God has given you, read the great classics, expose yourself to the best logical thinking of human philosophy. Be deeply committed to intellectual truth. Just realize that no amount of worldly intellectualism will bring you into a saving, personal relationship with God.
Some brilliant people are offended by the cross of Jesus Christ. They view the blood atonement as a primitive, barbaric concept. They are too sophisticated for it. So they work out their own religion of ethics and moral goodness, refusing to receive the free, unmerited grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. That's too simple. At the same time, some brilliant people come to simple faith in Jesus Christ. They realize the limitation of human wisdom. Remember the adage, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know”? That’s where we have to be to receive God's gift of grace. To experience God’s authentic wisdom and profound power. We must discover that the death of Jesus Christ enables us to become part of the family of God. We must discover that our death daily to the flesh, to sin, helps them grow as a member of the family of God. There is no other way but simple trust in Jesus Christ and His word. Observe how Paul zeroes in on who Jesus Christ is in verses 30 and 31. He writes, "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”
You see, Paul urges you and me along with the believers at Corinth not to boast in our own intellectual wisdom, in the clique or fraternity to which we belong. In fact, if we are going to boast, boast in the Lord.
At this point, he quotes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. I urge you, look up this passage. Underline it in your own Bible. In fact, you may want to have it printed up and framed for the wall of your study. It is Jeremiah 9:23-24.
“Thus says the Lord: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches,
but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord."
Is there any more appropriate statement from God designed for us who live in the year 2006?
III. Paul concludes this particular part of his argument in a very practical way.
First, in verses 26 -29 of our key passage today, he urges us to consider who makes up the church of Jesus Christ. He writes: 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. That's right. God turns upside down our human understandings of wisdom and power.
What are the three criteria necessary to get into the best fraternities and sororities, the finest clubs and the most sophisticated organizations of society? Wisdom, power, noble birth!
It helps to be wise. What is your grade-point average? How did you score on your SATs or the Graduate Record Exam? What creative artistic contribution have you made?
It helps to be powerful, doesn't it? The rewards go to the strong, don't they? Power and prestige rule in high society.
It helps to be of noble birth, doesn't it? Without noble birth you won’t be ascending to any thrones in the near future, will you? When all else fails, you can try to get in the sorority or fraternity or that exclusive club as a "legacy" based on your birth and personal connections.
Who gets written up in People magazine? Who gets featured in those fast-moving Entertainment Tonight nightly TV shows? It's the worldly wise, the powerful, or those with all the right connections.
Paul appeals to the very circumstances of the Corinthian believers in his appeal to see how wonderful the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is. It's available not on the basis of how smart you are, not on the basis of how powerful you are, not on the basis of how well bred you are. Not many in the church, whether it be Corinth or here in Millet, are members of the world's elite. There are some business leaders, but the rest of us are pretty average aren’t we? There are a few of super athletes and artists and business leaders who come to Christ but the fact is that most of us are fairly ordinary. In fact, God has chosen the weak as well as the strong. So whatever your background, you qualify for God's grace, not on your own merit but because of the cross.
Second, Paul urges you and me to consider what is effective preaching.
It's not clever rhetoric. Paul writes in Chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians, "When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the spirit and of power. So that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Paul tried to do his best to avoid clever rhetoric. Perhaps he had seen the inadequacy of his brilliant utterance at Athens, when he made that dramatic address on Mars Hill to the Athenian philosophers. I happen to think it's one of his most striking messages. For some reason, it fell flat. It may very well be that momentarily he had tried to fight clever rhetoric with clever rhetoric, only to discover that someone always comes along who is a bit more clever in their rhetoric.
Samuel Zwemer, the great missionary statesman to the Muslim world, declared that never yet has anyone been argued into the Christian faith.
State the simple message of God's love and grace, declaring the cross of Jesus Christ.
If the Apostle Paul was pastoring here in Alberta, he probably wouldn't have the reputation of being a great preacher. He wrote about himself in the Second letter to the Corinthians in Chapter 10, verse 10, "For they say, 'His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible”. He goes on to compare himself to some superstars who had developed large followings. He would match his mind against theirs any day. He writes in 2 Corinthians 11;5-6, "I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you". Paul knew he had a great mind, but he wasn't in the business of matching wits. He knew you can’t argue someone into the Christian faith. Only God can do that!
But you and I can have authentic wisdom and godly power.
But it won't come through the wisdom of this world and the power of this world. As brilliant as this world's wisdom may be and as strong as its power may be, God’s authentic wisdom and power will be yours only as you, at the gut level, where it really counts, determine to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Let us eat of the body of Christ and drink of His blood, focusing our attention on the centrality of our crucified and risen Lord. May our prayer be that of those words of Isaac Watts.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
As the servers come forward now, let’s pray for the consecration of these elements: Father, we are thankful for the bread and cup. We pray that these elements will provide more than physical nourishment. Grant us the peace, unity, and spiritual nourishment this bread symbolizes. May this cup speak again of the blood Christ shed for the forgiveness of sin. Cleanse us and consecrate us again as we partake of this token meal together. We eagerly await the day we shall eat it with you in the Kingdom of Heaven. In Christ’s name, Amen.
As the servers distribute the bread now and the cup later, please hold on to your serving until all have been served so we may partake together.
(When all are ready to partake) “The Lord Jesus on the night He was betrayed, took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me” Let’s partake.
(When all are ready to partake of the cup) “In the same way, after supper He took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.