1 Corinthians 1: 18 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. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 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. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Christians live in the only major religious tradition in the world whose founder was executed by established authority. Why would any first century person have been converted to Christian faith through the preaching of Paul? It doesn’t make sense.
If we think that a good God gives us everything we want, think again. What would have happened to you if God would have given you everything that you wanted during your life? Would you really love a mom and a dad like that? No, not at all. Instead, you would become a monster. God does not try to buy our love by giving us everything we think we need. God just gives us love. It pours out from him into our hearts so that we can also love.
Four ways by which God creates genuine, deep love in us:
- God does not eliminate suffering from our lives but God suffers with us and for us. God is with us and we are not alone. That creates love within us.
- Unconditional love. There is absolutely nothing that you can do to stop God from loving you.
- A third quality that goes into creating love is to affirm/support/encourage. The quality of affirmation creates love in the other.
- The fourth quality that creates love is this: to be willing to die in place of another person if he or she becomes sick. That is at the very heart of the cross. When that becomes an experiential reality in your life, that creates love within you.
Christ’s love is the deepest kind of love, a love which is willing to die for another. The cross symbolizes a way of loving, a way of living, and a way of losing yourself for the benefit of another.
To understand Jesus is to understand the cross. To understand the cross is to understand the love of God. To understand the love of God is to understand a God who suffers with us, who loves us unconditionally, who loves us affirmatively, and a love that loves us so much that God is willing to die for us. That is the Gospel.
The foolishness of the Cross:
The core of Paul’s preaching is the proclamation of the crucified Christ. This is not a message geared to win friends or influence people. The cross was a lousy marketing tool in the first century world and now too.
The first century realities of crucifixion: capital punishment by the forces of the Roman Empire, reserved for disreputable individuals such as rebellious slaves, insurrectionists, pirates, or gangsters who had threatened the social order of the Empire. The cross was the imperial instrument used to suppress subversion (going against the status quo/upsetting the system – something Jesus excelled at)
Given this reality, it would be sheer idiocy (not just mere foolishness) to think how the cross might be a way that God reveals himself. Paul, however openly, boldly, and regularly proclaims the cross as the intentional and exclusive means God has chosen to meet humanity and introduce our salvation.
God’s embarrassing action in the cross relates to our human attempts to establish what we think are appropriate means for meeting God. According to 1:22, Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom. Here, Paul is referring to attempts to encounter God, either through miracles (such as the events surrounding the Exodus) or elaborate philosophical systems. The proclamation of Christ crucified does not fit such human criteria – it is offensive to Jewish feelings and idiotic to Gentile/Greek intelligence (1:23).
God, however, has not sought us out similar to the ways we have sought out God. Rather, God has intentionally and decidedly destroyed the ways and means by which we decided get to God (1:19, quoting Isaiah 29:14). Through the four rhetorical questions in 1:20, Paul declares that God has rejected and embarrassed the best and brightest of human efforts to understand, explain, and experience God.
What Paul rejects is the attempt to know God, to approach God, to be reconciled to God from below, from our side, by our own efforts. We simply cannot think or feel or act our way up to God. We cannot know God or relate to God through our own wisdom. We do not get to God, or find the key to knowing God through our efforts. Rather, God comes to us and establishes the terms of the encounter through the cross.
For many Corinthians, the Romans were the good guys (major trade route bringing wealth, stability, slave labour). So, to their thinking, Jesus must be to blame for his own crucifixion. After all, he was a seditionist, keeping company with zealots, undermining the imperial health and tax systems, proclaiming the in-breaking of an alternative empire. To say otherwise would be foolishness. He was not the last unarmed innocent to be condemned to certain death by powers that justified his killing in the name of their own peace and security.
But, says Paul, God chose what is foolish to shame those who think they are so wise.
Paul’s God is about the work of using the worst the empire can do to overturn its so-called power, overturning it not with force but with the power of weeping women, terrified disciples and a moaning body on a Roman cross.
Paul freely acknowledges that “the message of the cross is foolishness,” but only to those who are perishing. In that shocking statement, Paul uses a word that hints at the identity of those who are perishing. “Message” is the Greek word logos, which to the Jews could be a reference to the law or to wisdom, while to the Greeks it was the reason behind the cosmic order. In using that word Paul is acknowledging that message of the cross is an offense to both the religious mind and the reasoned mind. Indeed, both kinds of people see the word of the cross as nothing less than foolishness. And both kinds of people are perishing because of their rejection of the cross.
“But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Paul chooses “power” here, perhaps as a way of emphasizing that the logos of the cross is not merely good advice to us, telling us what we must do to be saved. Rather, that logos is a message about what God has done. More than that, the cross itself is God’s power at work doing what we cannot do. The message of the cross is not first of all a way of thinking or a way of living; it is God’s actual power at work to save those who cannot save themselves, no matter how hard they think or how well they live.
At first Paul’s argument sounds like a series of baseless assertions. Paul agrees that the message of the cross is, from any normal human vantage point, foolishness, but nonetheless asserts God’s wisdom in it. The text seems to go around in circles: if you think the cross is foolishness, your conclusion just proves that you are perishing.
God in his wisdom invented another way to God. And it wasn’t only his wisdom at work; it was also his love. “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Salvation can be gained not by thinking, not by doing, but only by believing the event itself, the actual crucifixion of Christ.
The Jews represent all the people in the world today who simply want proof/facts. We want to see actual miracles, signs that will prove to us that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah promised for ages. The idea of a suffering Messiah or, worse, a Messiah that died on a Roman cross under the curse of God, is not merely nonsense; it is blasphemous/sacrilegious/offensive. A crucified Messiah was a scandal, a stumbling block for everyone who thinks that if God is going to save the world, he will do it through his almighty power (our logic).
The Greeks represent all the people in the world who don’t care about “the facts,” about alleged historical evidence of the truth of Christ crucified. Paul is talking about people for whom the message of Christ crucified just doesn’t make any sense. The idea of a crucified God simply doesn’t fit into the mindset of those whose gods fight and fornicate on Mt. Olympus or who have no gods at all. The humanistic mindset (“Man is the measure of things”) has no room for a God who becomes human and dies for humanity. The whole idea is simply foolish superstition.
Paul knows those people, just as we do. What is his approach to them? How will he preach about Jesus to those who demand evidence of God’s power and to those who are governed by the prevailing wisdom of the day? He preached Christ crucified regardless. He didn’t change his message to fit his audience, precisely because Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God. The cross of Christ was the only way that made sense given the nature of God and humanity and the world.
God chooses the way God chooses not just to demonstrate the capacity to upend the status quo, as if God were saying by these choices, “I’m bigger than you.” God chooses the foolish/weak/nothing in order to upend the status quo and in order to create life. Like the acorn that falls to the ground, cracks, and spills out its guts and by all reckoning is dying, life is created, and an oak tree grows out of that destruction, because of God’s design. God also designed life to come out of the crucifixion – Jesus rose from the dead. He is alive forever now, death has lost the battle! I bet the devil was full of glee as Jesus hung on the cross, thinking he had won, but it was very temporary. In the end, God wins. God has already won. We are living in that time span where the kingdom of God is breaking in, bit by bit, one person at a time, as Jesus is born again in people’s hearts as they come to believe.