Sermon Discussion Questions:
Read 1 Cor 1:18-25 together
1. What is the kind of wisdom we must avoid? What did this kind of wisdom look like in Isaiah's situation? See Isaiah 30:15.
2. "A life devoted to efficiency and practicality and “what makes plain sense,” seems wise. But it is a life that not only eliminates the opportunity for God to surprise us with His provision, but it is actually a life that will end in destruction." What did this look like for Isaiah? What did it look like for the Corinthians? What does it look like for you?
3. "The one principle of hell is: 'I am my own.'" (George MacDonald). How does the gospel help free us from thinking our life is our own, we are in control?
4. Who do you think are the modern day equivalents of the people listed in 1 Cor 1:20? How has God "made foolish the wisdom of the world"? And how should that free you from worldliness?
It’s third grade in Mrs. Baker’s class at Sunset View Elementary. Recess has just begun and you are being lined up by the biggest kids in class to play a game of kickball. Each team captain begins to pick who they want on their team.
It’s seventh grade in your third-hour English class. Mrs. Williamson has been unfair and pompous, and you know that with the right quip, you’ll settle the score and get the laughter (and respect) of the class.
It’s the week of your senior prom. You stare at yourself in the mirror as if you’re examining a Martian, scrutinizing every detail, wondering if your hair, your complexion, your eyes are worth being looked at by your date.
At one point in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child.” With age comes perspective. You look back at your younger self and what you were concerned with and chuckle to yourself. But at the time, getting picked first or scoring a point in the war with an uptight teacher didn’t seem small. Having some other awkward, gangly teenager look at you with desire felt titanic in importance. This is the desire for what C.S. Lewis calls, “The Inner Ring.” Being brought in to circle of the important people, being seen by the eyes of those you deem valuable. When you become an adult, you don’t lose the desire for the “Inner Ring” of course, it just matures, puts on more respectable apparel. You spend money you may not have to impress others; you overwork yourself to earn the nod from your boss, or your parents. I know of no better reflection on this than Lewis’s final book in his space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. The pull towards belonging to the inner sanctum, the few, the ones who really know, is the “hideous strength” that Lewis is referring to.
But, in a short essay simply titled “The Inner Ring,” Lewis writes:
“It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.” This is what the world is animated by, what you and I can be animated by. And this is what animated the Corinthians as well—there was a worldly wisdom, sophistication, and power that they were deeply intoxicated by. And Paul’s preaching and ministry to them apparently came across rather unimpressive (cf. 2 Cor 10:10). But Paul’s response to them wasn’t to defend his status as being actually wise and sophisticated, but was to tunnel into the very ways of God and the heart of the gospel. God’s wisdom looks like foolishness to the world. His strength looks like weakness. And that is on purpose.
18 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. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 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? 21 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. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
- 1 Cor 1:18-25
Normally, the Bible unequivocally condemns folly. The whole book of Proverbs is given to us to keep us from folly and walk in the path of wisdom. But here Paul, with his tongue in his cheek, explains that the essential message of Christianity--Christ crucified—is actually folly to those who are perishing, and that God is going to be actively working to destroy the “wisdom of the wise.”
What’s going on?
The Wisdom We Must Avoid
Paul cites the prophet Isaiah in verse 19, “For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (1 Cor 1:19)
This is from Isaiah 29:14. In the book of Isaiah, the section of chapters 28-37 serve as one large unit covering the dilemma of Israel’s danger at the hands of the evil world power of the day: Assyria. Assyria was a terrifying enemy to have. Just to give you a picture, here is an inscription from one of Assyria’s kings, Ashurnarsipal II, describing what he did to the survivors of an army he defeated: “I cut off some their arms [and] hands; I cut off of others their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.” The Assyrians were orcs, famous for horrifying methods of torture. To be honest, there are much more graphic and grotesque descriptions, but I think this suffices to give you a picture of what kind of fear would be filling the people of Israel.
Israel was a small bump on the road to Assyria’s world dominance and when they came knocking, Israel had no chance of fighting them off. So, Israel thought it was a wise idea to make a deal with their ancient enemy, Egypt. Egypt had a massive army, chariots, war horses, and was willing to make a deal with Israel if they would pay tribute to them (cf. Isa 30-31). Assyria had already conquered most of northern Israel, and was soon turning its attention to Judah and Jerusalem. But Isaiah explains to Israel that the reason Assyria has been so successful is because they have been faithless to Yahweh. They have served other gods, they have not trusted the Lord, they have not obeyed His commands. So, Isaiah explains, their only hope is found in repentance, in returning to their Lord in trust. Egypt was a false savior, one whose “help is worthless and empty,” (Isa 30:7), a “broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it,” (Isa 36:6).
But, put yourselves in the shoes of an Israelite. The monstrous army of Assyrians are coming. You know that Egypt has at least a large army that you are fairly confident can defend you. But the prophet of the Lord is telling you that the nation’s military defense strategy is…to go to church, to confess your sins, and renew your faith? That the God who you cannot see will be a better defender than the army that you can see, and all you need to do is trust Him. Faith is the confident assurance of things not seen (Heb 11:1ff). It is inherently risky, and essential.
“For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling,” (Isa 30:15). Israel couldn’t walk by faith. In fact, when Isaiah initially told them this, that they would be saved by resting and trusting in God alone (cf. Isa 28:12) here is how they described his preaching: “To whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast? For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little,” (Isa 28:9-10). In other words, Isaiah, we have real-world problems here and need real-world solutions, and you are coming to us with baby-talk! Our problems aren’t going to just go away by resting in God, we got to DO something!
So, the Lord says, “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden,” (Isa 29:13-14).
A life devoted to efficiency and practicality and “what makes plain sense,” seems wise. But it is a life that not only eliminates the opportunity for God to surprise us with His provision, but it is actually a life that will end in destruction.
A life that has an appearance of respectable, sensible religion, that pays lip-service to God, but doesn’t get carried away, doesn’t get too strange in religion seems discerning and sensible. But it reveals heart that doesn’t trust God at all, that believes faith to be a nice garnish on the plate of life, a good porch on the back of the house—certainly not a foundation, not the meal itself. Why do people live like that? Because if faith is trusting in what you cannot see, then it seems so wise to not bank on that too much because it will probably let you down. So keep everything in your hands, in your control, and cede a small slice of life to faith so that if/when it fails, you aren’t ruined! Doesn’t that seem wise?
In John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, who is it that first turns Christian off the path, away from the cross and towards the city of Morality where he can rid himself of his burdens of sin, instead of making the dangerous and scary trek towards Calvary? It is Mr. Worldly Wiseman.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling. Why would you be unwilling? Because to rest entirely in God means to save you means you are not in control anymore. And that is scary. But that is the essence of faith.
What does it take to become a Christian? You must recognize that there is a problem you have that is so far out of your league—a problem that makes the Assyrians seem like flea bites—that you don’t have the faintest chance to deal with it. If the Assyrians seemed foreboding, and they are just flawed, mortal men, men that perhaps you could fight off with enough firepower; men with deeply twisted ideas of right and wrong, men whom you could hope would see a higher light of reason and Justice, see that you don’t deserve this and turn from their destruction.
But the Bible tells us that one day we shall all stand before God Himself as our Judge. And being omnipotent, there will not even be the faintest whiff of a fantasy of fighting Him off, of resisting Him. And, being wholly righteous, being Justice Himself with no shadow of evil in Him, no flaws to His moral reasoning, then there will be no opportunity for Him to change His mind or realize He made a mistake. You will be judged according to His perfect moral standard. And what will you do? What cleverness will spring from that trap? What display of wisdom and strength will fool the all-knowing God?
Nothing will. But this God, infinite in power and righteousness, is also infinite in mercy. And out of His great love for us has given His one and only Son, so that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. So, if you rest in Him, rest in Jesus Christ, trust Him and Him alone for your salvation, know that you contribute nothing at all to your salvation—then you will be saved.
The wisdom we must avoid is the wisdom of the world. The wisdom that keeps us in control, that is so practical that it despises a life of childlike trust in God.
The Foolishness We Must Have
Paul is wanting to remind the Corinthians that this is what faith in God has always been like. The Corinthian situation isn’t as extreme as Isaiah’s situation. There is no army coming to destroy them, but faith isn’t restricted only to the extreme moments of life. It also applies to our day-to-day temptations, like wanting to be seen as important, cool, to be on the “inner ring.”
The Corinthians have been shaped too much by the world they inhabit and are thus intoxicated with being perceived as wise, sophisticated, and important. And it made sense to want that. Don’t you want our church to be influential, Paul? Don’t want us to grow? Shouldn’t we be trying to make our message as palatable and as impressive as possible so that the elites of the day are drawn in? But that is a path of thinking, Paul warns, that leads you to the same destruction that Isaiah warned of. What did Isaiah’s listeners find repulsive about his teaching? It wasn’t that it was illogical, or even false. It was childish. It was below them. It ran contrary to what seemed intelligent, sensible, and practical.
So, what was it about Paul’s message that his contemporaries find offensive? “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,” (1 Cor 1:18). The crucifixion of Jesus Christ simply did not make sense to many of Paul’s listeners. There were those who heard it and knew: this is the power and wisdom of God. Paul brings this up again: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” (1 Cor 1:22-23).
Jews demanded miraculous signs to attest to the truthfulness of the message, Greeks sought wisdom. But Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. It was preposterous out of hand. Interestingly, both Jesus and Paul would often perform signs and wonders to affirm their authenticity to Jewish audiences. And both Jesus and Paul demonstrate a self-evident wisdom that is attractive and plausible. Many Jews at the time had a warped view of who the Messiah would be, and a crucified Messiah certainly didn’t fit that paradigm; and Greeks found the idea of worshipping a god who would submit to death—especially death on a cross--freely as a laughable kind of weakness. But Paul was often able to explain and teach in such a way that would convince and persuade both Jews and Greeks that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Son of God. So why did so many reject their preaching? Because it wasn’t just the medium of Jesus’ death that was offensive (though it was), but the purpose of His death. The message of the cross comes creeps in upon the very core of our being, to that throne we have set up in our hearts where we rule and where we take up control, and it says: Yield! You cannot do this. And oh do we recoil at that!
This is why Paul explains that there must be a supernatural act of God to free us from desperate desire to stay in control: “24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,” (1 Cor 1:24). We looked at this a few weeks ago when we studied the opening verses of chapter 1. It is the effectual call of God which frees us from our internal bondage to the wisdom of the world, to staying in control ourselves, to not trusting God. God calls, and, like Lazarus in the tomb, we come to life! And suddenly, the gospel, which seemed so foolish, so childish, so beneath us before…becomes power and wisdom and beauty and worth everything!
The Freedom We Must Not Forfeit
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?” (1 Cor 1:20)
Paul asks four rhetorical questions: Where is the one who is wise? That is, wise by the world’s standards. Someone who has their life together. Where is the scribe? That is, the expert in Mosaic Law. The PhD in Old Testament who had a cushy job, respectable titles, and comfortable life. Where is the debater of this age? That is the public orator, the philosopher who knew how to speak with eloquence and power according to tastes of this world. Where are they? Paul doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, obviously. Nor does he mean that church has no become so powerful and influential that all of these positions of power are now populated by Christians. So what do those questions mean? They are answered by his fourth rhetorical question: “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. (1 Cor 1:21)
How has God revealed that the emperor has no clothes on? He has determined that those who are desperate to live according to worldly wisdom—to refuse a life of faith and trust in God—will view the preaching of the gospel with a condescending sneer, as below them. This is God’s wisdom, real wisdom. The message of the cross is folly to those who think they are too clever for it, too good for it. But for those who know that they are weak, who know that they need help, who know that their sin far outstrips their capacities, they see power of the gospel for what it is. The gospel is a king, hiding in beggars clothes; A jewel, wrapped in a rag. And the wise, the scribes, and the debaters carelessly cast it aside. That is why Paul can say, “Where are they?” Paul means, they aren’t here, in the church. They belong to “this age” that is passing away.
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Cor 3:20-23)
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor 1:25)
So, what Paul is driving at with the Corinthians and us, is that if we are recipients of this kind of gospel, if we see that we belong to the next age, we must not step into the heavenly Jerusalem but pine after the approval of the world! Be free from a love of this world! If you have been called by God, don’t chafe at not being called into the inner ring of the world. Do not be envious for the eyes of those who cannot see God. Do not long for the words of affirmation from those who cannot bear to hear God's Words.
Do you pine after the wise of the world? Do you long for the “important” people to notice you? Are you ever tempted to maybe even modify your faith to fit in?
In closing, let me read one of Jesus' most famous sayings where we see both his summons to reject worldly wisdom in favor of a childlike faith, and also the essence of resting in Jesus alone.
25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:25-30)