Text: 1 Cor. 1:17-31
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. 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. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
What kind of people are you looking for when you imagine future church members? Who is the target audience, you might say? Who is that you would like to be surrounded by when you think of your religious community? Now, I know a man who would joke to me, but always with some measure of truth, that we needed to get more doctors and lawyers. This was tongue in cheek, but he meant some of it. Wouldn’t it be nice to attract some upstanding members of the community, some who would tithe, and some who would be a good face to the outside world? Wouldn’t that give us a boost in the arm? And of course, as a pastor, a man struggling with the flesh, yes, this would be great. We want movers and shakers who can do great things. But, here we read in 1st Corinthians that that is not the way that God typically chooses to work. This is not to say that He would never use that kind of thing. Of course, He has throughout history chosen smart, powerful, and influential people. But those are typically the exceptions and not the norm.
God actually chooses weak people. “Not many wise, not many noble” are called. He chooses weak people to carry out His kingdom and to proclaim His gospel. He does this for a reason. He wants to show the world His strength. He wants to show the world His wisdom. He wants to show the world His glory. He wants to do this so that when He does a mighty act through His people, everyone can see that it was not the power of the flesh but the might of our God who did it. All flesh will be drive towards the glory of God, and we will bow down and worship Him.
The Cross is Foolishness
Now, the chief way in which God makes sure that it is not the mighty, wise, and noble who are attracted to His message is by choosing, in His providence, to send the messiah to die. This is the first way that He makes that point clear. Human wisdom, reputation, and fame all come to their stopping point when we get to the cross.. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The Cross—Christ crucified— is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s the main message we’re supposed to preach.
Think about it. God is here. He’s got a wonderful plan for your life. He’s going to save you and the entire world. And the way that He did this is by sending His Son to come and die. That doesn’t make sense on an earthly level, does it? Imagine another way of putting it. You’re waiting for the hero to swoop in, rescue the people, and kill the bad guy. But instead, he is killed. Now yes, the message continues that Jesus is resurrected, He is ascended into heaven, and He is coming again. But that still doesn’t satisfy the fleshly eye because we want to know where he is now. What is he doing now? God has chosen what seems to be foolishness as the way He will save the world.
Listen to this quote that Paul gives. “For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent’” (1 Cor. 1:19) That quote comes from the prophet Isaiah, from chapter 29. If you know anything about Isaiah, you know that it is a book about judgment. And what we see in Isaiah 29 is God saying that when His judgment arrives, nothing else is going to help anyone avoid. The next verses say this:
Woe to those who seek deep to hide their counsel far from the Lord,
And their works are in the dark;
They say, “Who sees us?” and, “Who knows us?”
Surely you have things turned around!
Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay;
For shall the thing made say of him who made it,
“He did not make me”?
Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”? (Is. 29:15-16)
These words follow the quote where it says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.” Those people who try to use their craft, their power, and their plans in order to escape God will fail. They will be found out.
There is a story in the news. It’s been out for a few weeks actually, but it’s gaining traction now. The story is about something that is a real shame, but it’s relevant when we think about the darkness turning to light. There was a website called “Ashley Madison,” and this site was designed to help men commit adultery. It was a dating site, but particularly for men to cheat on their wives. Of course, something like that must have secrecy in order to work, and so what happened was that a group of hackers hacked this site and made all of the members and their email addresses public. They released it online, and now anyone who wishes to find it can.
This hack created a great moment of separating the wheat from the chaff. There were Christians on the list. Unfortunately Josh Duggar, the medium-level celebrity Christian, was on that list. He’s had a history of trouble, but in the past he has managed to say that he had changed his ways and could continue as a leader. But this time he has had to step down and admit he was living a lie. He was exposed. Now, as a Christian celebrity, the news media likes to focus on him, but if you look at the rest of the list you can see more embarrassing names. About 30 of the email addresses ended in “whitehouse.gov,” which means they worked for the president.
Can you imagine someone thinking in their craftiness and cunning that they had found a way to do something like this and not get caught? They are hiding in the dark, and then one day, the lights come on. There’s nowhere to hide and nothing to say. That’s just one little example. It’s a shame that such a webpage even existed, and I don’t know that I can endorse the tactics of the people who did that. But now that they have done it, I don’t know that I feel sorry for the people who were exposed. They got what they had coming. But the real message here is that this same reality awaits all of us. We hopefully are not engaging in something that outrageous, but we all have our secrets. We all have our sins which we wish to keep in the dark. But if you continue in them, you can be guaranteed that they will find you out. This is what God is saying in the prophesy of Isaiah. The wisdom of the wise will run out when God’s judgment shows up. And Paul brings that quote up now for the Corinthians in order to say, “Don’t be concerned if your little church is rag-tag and small, if it doesn’t have the respect of your community, or if it is being put down by those who appear to be smart and powerful because there is going to come a day when all of that is turned upside down and the wisdom of the world will be exposed as foolishness.
What’s fascinating is that he is not particularly talking about atheism at this point. Atheism is a rather new phenomenon in history. In the first century there may have been one or two atheists out there, but certainly not a group of them. In the first century the popular thing was “wisdom” or sophia as it was called in Greek. The philosophers were interested in finding sophia, and this wisdom could bring you salvation, or at least a form of glory. Paul seizes on this. The wisdom of the world does not know God. The wisdom of the world does not know His salvation. None of the smart and influential people of the first century promoting wisdom could find salvation.
But it wasn’t only the Greeks and their wisdom that Paul addresses. He also includes the Jews and their “signs.” “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified” (22-23). The “sign” here is the fulfillment of prophecy. The Jews wanted to see the son of David coming back, the throne reestablished, and the kingdom on earth. But they were looking for this with worldly expectations. They wanted a king who was tough, who would defeat all of their enemies, and who would establish a worldly kingdom. But they did not get that.
Instead they got a carpenter of no particular rank, who had no markings of esteem about him. He wasn’t someone who everyone naturally would have flocked to. And he preached a message which at times completely contradicted their expectations. One of the most obvious is Matthew 5:44 when he says “Love your enemies.” At that time in history, the Jews would have been wanting war. They would have wanted leaders like the Maccabees who could raise up an army. Jesus says that this is not the way that He is going to do things. In fact, He says that He is going to die, and after He dies, He says that His people will follow His example by self-sacrifice. They will bear scorn and persecution and preach about Him. This was not something that was easy for the Jews of the 1st century to accept. This is not something that got them excited. It did not motivate them. In fact, it was a scandal. It was a stumbling block.
Yet in God’s mercy, He does choose both Jews and Greeks who will believe. Even though both of these communities have obstacles which make the messiah and the cross unattractive, God chooses members of both who will accept it. To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:22)
God Doesn’t Choose the Strong
Now what is this weakness of God? I think that this is an interesting expression because, of course, the Old Testament does proclaim that God is all-powerful. He is God the maker of heaven and earth. So the “weakness” of God here is a rhetorical statement. It isn’t that God is actually weak, but that He chooses to work in and through weakness.
You might remember a similar statement in 2 Corinthians. This is where Paul talks about the “thorn in the flesh.” It’s in 2 Corinthians 12. There, he says this:
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7-9)
So, God’s strength is made perfect through weakness. The weakness is the weakness that His people experience. In Paul’s case it was a physical ailment. It impaired his preaching the gospel and traveling about planting churches. And God does not take it away. Paul prays for it to be taken away, and God says “No.” Why? Because God wants to teach the world about grace. He wants to show the world that His grace is sufficient. It is not our strength which achieves the end goal of spreading the gospel and saving the world, but it is God’s strength. He works in and through weak people to preach His message and proclaim His gospel.
This is how it’s been all along. Think back to Genesis. Jacob, though we’ve argued that he shouldn’t have the stock description of a bad guy and no-good cheat, is still the younger brother. God skips over the firstborn who is big and strong in order to choose the second. Later on with Moses, we learn that Moses has a speech problem. Moses says that he is unable to speak (Ex. 4:10). That is a real weakness. Even with King David, we see that he is not the firstborn. He is not “like Saul” in that way. And later on, he is man who carries with him some very big sins, including murder and adultery.
God has always used people who would not pass muster in today’s media spotlight. He uses men who are not great candidates to be the president of the United States. Yet they achieve His purposes.
God still does this today. Remember Luke 5. Jesus says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). This is the same reason that Jesus does not call rich people. He says, “it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24). Why? Why is it hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom? It’s because the kingdom requires sacrifice and weakness. It requires being willing to be humiliated. Rich people typically don’t like to do any of those things. No one likes those things, of course, but the rich man has had a life of experience where has not had to do them and has been able to protect himself from every going through such things. He’s used to a certain quality of living, and he’s not going to give that up. He has power, and so he does not accept the gospel.
This is why God chooses people. It’s because they—we—don’t have those ways to block Him out. We don’t have things that get in the way, and we can’t every say that our success is because we were so good that this church was successful. God chooses weak people to show that it was because of Him and Him alone.
So if we look around us today, we shouldn’t be surprised when the cultural elite are not among our ranks. We shouldn’t be surprised when we are like the Island of Misfit Toys from that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer claymation movie. This is all of God’s doing. This is His choice. This is how God wants us to be. So that we will not glory in ourselves but in Him.
Glorying in the Lord is Judgment Against the World
He also chooses us to put to shame the world. Listen to those verses again:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Cor. 1:27-29)
Again we see an element of judgment. At the 2nd coming when Christ returns, when the lights are turned on, and when the sheep and goats are separated we will see this judgment. Most of the goats are going to be rich men. Most of the goats are going to be smart. Most of the goats are going to be beautiful, powerful, and successful. And they are going to see the chosen of the Lord as a ragtag motley crew of misfits who don’t seem to have anything going for them. And at that moment, God’s judgment will be driven home. It was never about this. It was never about you. It was never about your flesh. It was about God and His glory.
I don’t know if it gives you comfort to hear this, but you weakness is going to put to shame the mighty and the powerful. God wants you guys out there be a little messed up. That’s His plan. He’s doing that on purpose so that He can convict the hard hearts of the proud. So that He can bring the mighty down to the dust, and so that He can show His glory through us.
Think about your chief sins. I don’t mean the sins which are easy and obvious to spot. Think about the sins which are really close to your heart. These tend to have to do with pride and your most passionate loves and desires. I think about my own. Growing up I have always struggled with ambition. Now, this was never in athletics. I was never worried about being the captain of the football team. It wasn’t about good looks. I suppose, all things being equal, I would like people to think that I looked decent. But I’ve never been that worried about it. I never really even cared about “popularity” in the typical sense. But I did and do have a sin problem with wanting to people to think highly of me in a certain way. I want people to think that I am smart, that I am intelligent, and that I am clever. I want people to say, “That guy, he really knows what is talking about.” And because that’s my sin, I can fake being humble about other things. I don’t have to have money, I don’t have to have power. But when it’s in my domain I do want everyone to see me and to praise me. That’s vanity in that. That’s self-righteousness. I want my own glory and that’s where Satan will grab me and take my focus off the glory of God.
You can usually see these sins when you get panicky. When something happens and you say, “Whoa, I can’t handle that one,” that’s usually where your pet sin is being exposed. When you look at your life, and there are things which are getting too close to home, when you feel like you need to eject and save your idol, that is when you need to turn to the foolishness and weakness of God. You need to embrace that anxiety and insecurity and say, “It’s not on me to fix this. It’s not on me to overcome and show everyone. This is God’s choice to work through my weakness to show His glory.
So, if you are ever frustrated in life because you are not getting the kind of success you had always envisioned, remember God’s weakness. When you are worried that maybe you don’t have those powerful, popular, and beautiful people around your, remember God’s foolishness and weakness. When you think of this church and you say to yourself, “Hmm, small crowd, dirty floor, and the air conditioner is not even working!” remember God’s foolishness and His weakness. This is how God wants us, and this is for His purpose. It is so that we will glory in Him.
If you are unfairly passed over or mischaracterized, remember God’s foolishness and God’s weakness. He has chosen “the base things, thing things which are despised, to bring to nothing the things that are.” He wants us low so that He can raise us up in Christ. He calls us to die so that we might be resurrected through His Spirit. He wants to show the world that it is His power and not ours that makes the difference. It is not the kings and the chariots in whom we trust, but in the Lord. In Jesus Christ and His death we are saved. In His resurrection we are victorious. And when He comes again, that’s when everything will be clear. The lights will be on. The secrets are exposed. The sheep and goats are separated, and the glory of God is manifest. No one will argue. The entire world will see.
But prior to that happening, when you have fear and anxiety, you should go worship God. He is the one with strength, with power, with wisdom, and with righteousness. He is the one who will provide for and take care of you. He is the one who will make His gospel effective. Believe it.
God has chosen us for this purpose— that the wisdom of this world will be brought to foolishness. The strength will be turned to dust. The weak and foolish things that have been chosen by God will be seen as wisdom in Christ, righteousness, holiness, and redemption. And he does this so that He who glories will glory in the Lord.
Let us pray.