The Foolishness of God
I Corinthians 1:18-25
October 5, 2003
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; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 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. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (I Corinthians 1:18-25)
In my text there is one word that occurs five times in several different forms. You can hardly miss it when you read the text, but I want to highlight that word so you can see it clearly:
v. 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.”
v. 20 “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
v. 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.”
v. 23 “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
v. 25 “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”
It will help you to know the basic Greek word is moria. In verse 25 it appears as an adjective—moros. We get the English word “moron” from this Greek word. It has the idea of something that is ridiculous, ignorant, stupid, contemptible. The American Heritage dictionary says that the word “moron” is considered offensive. If someone were to say, “You moron!” we would be insulted, and properly so. But that is the very word that Paul uses here—and not just once, but five times. It is the way he uses it that catches our attention.
First, he says that those who are lost consider the message of the cross as foolishness. It is “moronic” to them. They do not understand it; it makes no sense that a Savior should die for them.
Second, he says that God has turned the wisdom of the world into foolishness through the cross of Christ. He turned the tables upside down and shows the intellectuals that they weren’t so smart after all.
Third, God was pleased to save anyone who believes in Jesus through the foolishness of the preaching of the gospel. When the “moronic” message of the gospel is preached, the world laughs at it, but God saves those who believe it.
Fourth, in all of this God’s power is displayed through what men consider weakness, and the “foolishness of God” turns out to be smarter than the wisdom of this world.
In his sermon on this text, William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, makes a striking observation: “One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense.” He’s right, of course. If you come to church long enough, if you sing the hymns and pray the prayers, and if you listen to enough sermons, you start thinking to yourself, “This stuff really makes sense.” And eventually we forget how radical the message of the gospel really is. That’s Paul’s point in this passage.
The gospel is radical. It’s out of this world. It’s contrary to the wisdom of this age. In fact, Paul flatly says that “the world through its wisdom did not know him” (v. 21). That statement by itself is very powerful. The people of the world are very smart in their own way. We all know people who are extremely intelligent. That is, we all know someone (probably more than one person) who strikes us as flat-out brilliant. There are people all around us with incredible intellectual powers that leave us in awe. From time to time, I meet people who know so much and who operate at such a high level that I can do nothing but stand back and admire them. And these people have a true “wisdom” about them. That is, they possess true expertise in a given area of life and they have truly “mastered” that subject matter. So there are smart people all around us. That’s just a fact. And the world in all its wisdom can do great things. It can dream, design, create, build, produce, improve, engineer and reengineer. We’re a generation of technological geniuses. We can do things with computers that our grandparents never dreamed of. We can split an atom, and we can peer inside the deepest recesses of the human body to discover a renegade cancer cell. We can listen to radio waves from the edge of the universe. We can take the entire text of the encyclopedia and shrink it to fit on a computer chip so small the eye can hardly see it. I can sit at my desk, type on my keyboard, hit the “Send” button, and my e-mail will arrive seconds from now in Jos, Nigeria or in Singapore or in a New Tribes Mission jungle camp in Irian Jaya. Exactly how that happens I could not say. But it does, and it is so commonplace that I long ago ceased being amazed by it. E-mail is just a routine daily miracle of modern life. The wisdom of the world is great in its own way.
Terror at Maxim Restaurant
But that is only part of the story. Our great knowledge can easily be put to evil uses. Terrorists use the same e-mail system to alert each other that the time has come to strike again. Yesterday a female suicide bomber blew herself up at the Maxim Restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa. The bomber was a 23-year-old law student. Concealing the explosives under her clothes, she talked her way past security, entered the restaurant, and then detonated the explosives. At least 19 people died, including the young woman. The victims were literally blown apart. In a supreme irony, the restaurant was a symbol of Arab-Jewish cooperation. For four decades it has been owned by two families—one Arab, one Jewish. The grandson of one of the founders said, “We never thought that this would happen to us.”
But it did, and it is not an isolated incident. After 9/11, it’s hard to say what would surprise us anymore. Exactly what would qualify as “unthinkable” these days? We are intellectual giants and moral pygmies. The world through its wisdom does not know God. That’s what Paul says. But he adds an important phrase that we might overlook. “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” (v. 21). Let’s break this down into a series of simple statements:
1) The world cannot know God through its own wisdom.
2) God set it up this way to demonstrate the wisdom of his own plan.
3) The world considers the preaching of the gospel to be foolishness.
4) But God saves sinners through what the world considers foolishness.
5) The best thing we can do for the world is to preach the gospel.
6) Those who believe the gospel will be saved.
7) But we shouldn’t expect the world to be happy with us.
The Scandal of the Cross
This is what Paul plainly says in verse 23: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The Jews “stumbled” at the cross because most of them were looking for a political leader who would deliver them from the heel of the Roman Empire. They simply could not imagine a crucified Messiah. It is difficult for us to understand what crucifixion meant to the Jews. We’ve sanitized the cross and domesticated it. We gold-plate it and wear it around our necks. We put it on earrings and on our stationery. We hang ornate crosses in our sanctuaries and on our steeples. We build churches in the shape of the cross. All of this would have been unthinkable in the first century. So terrible was crucifixion that the word was not even spoken in polite company. If we want a modern counterpart, we should hang a picture of a gas chamber at Auschwitz in front of our sanctuary. Or put a noose there. Or an electric chair with a man dying in agony—his face covered, smoke coming from his head. The very thought sickens us. But that’s what the cross meant for Jesus. And that is why the Jews were scandalized by the cross. They could not conceive of a God who would allow his Son to die that way.
The Greeks were another matter. They didn’t practice crucifixion so they didn’t have the problems that the Jews did. They looked to philosophy as the answer to the deepest problems of life. The notion of a man hanging on a cross to save the world was utter nonsense to them.
How the Cross Offends
Erwin Lutzer points out that the cross offends modern men and women in three ways. First, it offends our pride. The cross was and is a sign of weakness in the eyes of many people because it was a method for executing criminals. Only the worst of the worst, the dregs of society, so to speak, or the worst enemies of the state, were crucified. And we are called to follow a man who died on a cross! The thought is revolting. Yet that is exactly what God asks us to do, which in the mind of some people is like being asked to follow a loser. Second, it offends our wisdom. The cross spells an end to salvation by education, as if we could gain merit with God by sharpening our intellect so that we can answer the cosmic questions. This offends certain people who prefer to believe that the problem today is not sin, but ignorance. But they are wrong. Education is good and necessary, but it can never open the door of heaven. God purposely made the way of salvation simple so that even young children could believe it. Third, the cross offends our values. It extends an equal invitation to the powerful and to the weak, it welcomes the flight attendant and the aborigine, it transforms the drug addict and the debutante. Everyone is invited into God’s family on exactly the same basis. There are no favorites and no special deals for those with money or power or worldly position. Those things that matter so much to us simply don’t matter to God. This is a shocking affront to the way the world does business, but it is also the way of the cross. After 2,000 years the cross still sparks controversy and opposition because it points to a truth that many people do not want to hear.
This is what Paul means in verse 25 when he speaks of the “foolishness of God.” Christians worship a God who died on a cross. How can this be? When a familiar gospel song speaks of the “old rugged cross, so despised by the world,” it is sober truth and not mere sentiment. If we dare to venture beyond the stained glass, we discover that not everyone views the cross of Christ with favor. During a debate between a Muslim and a Christian, the Muslim apologist tried to ridicule the Christian faith by saying that Christians are riding on the back of a crucified man. The Christian gave the proper response: “You’re right. We’re riding on the back of a crucified man and he is going to take us all the way to heaven.” That illustrates a crucial difference in perspective. To the world the cross is a symbol of shame; to those who believe it is a symbol of salvation.
Not Peace, But a Sword
Jesus spoke of this truth when he declared, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). These words shatter the popular notion that Jesus came to make us feel better about ourselves. The exact opposite of that statement would be closer to reality. Jesus is the great divider of humanity. He came to turn a man against his father and a daughter against her mother (Matthew 10:35). As hard as those words sound, they come from the lips of Jesus himself and we dare not ignore them or water them down. The cross judges the world—and every one of us individually—by confronting us with our sin, calling us to repentance, and challenging us to a higher allegiance than anything we have known before. And then to top it off, Jesus calls us to “take up the cross” and follow him. Those who will not do it are not worthy of him (Matthew 10:38). These are strong and even troubling words and most of us will spend a lifetime trying to understand what they mean, but those who choose the way of the cross, though it be filled with pain and difficulty, will save their lives. Those who reject the way of the cross will in the end lose all that they have lived for.
Jesus calls us from the cross and he calls us to the cross. Those who will not heed his call will hate him all the more. And they stand condemned by the very cross that would have saved them.
Called to Believe
According to verse 18, the message of the cross is “the power of God” to those who are being saved. What men call foolishness, God ordains as the instrument of salvation. What men mock, God raises up as the only means of salvation. How do we obtain God’s salvation? Verse 24 says it plainly: “But to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Our passage explains the offer of salvation two ways:
Verse 21 says “those who believe.”
Verse 24 says “those whom God has called.”
So which is it? Is salvation for those who believe or for those whom God has called? The answer of course is yes. It’s both—because both are entirely biblical. Those who believe are those who are called by God. But then the question comes—Does not the Bible say “whoever” believes may be saved? Yes, it does. While hosting a national call-in program, I spoke with a woman from Virginia who asked a good question. She wanted to know how we can know who the “chosen” of God are. My answer was very simple. We can’t. Only God knows who the chosen (or the elect) are. Our calling is to preach the gospel to every man and woman on the face of the earth. We are to invite them to trust Christ and be saved. We aren’t supposed to worry too much about who is elect and who isn’t. God can take care of that himself. Our job is to preach the gospel and trust God to use the gospel to draw many people to faith in Christ. When I preach, I never know how people will respond or who will respond. I’m in sales, not administration. But that’s true of all of us. We do the preaching and God does the drawing. When we do our part, God always does his.
Imagine the gates of heaven with a sign over it reading, “Whosoever will may come.” As you pass through those gates, you look back and the sign reads “Chosen from before the foundation of the world.” I think there is good biblical balance in that illustration. We are not called to “reconcile” predestination and free will. Only God can do that. Let us preach the gospel with confidence knowing that anyone who trusts in the Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead will be saved.
God has no other plan of salvation—and he doesn’t need one. There is no “Plan B” for those who don’t want to be saved by the cross of Christ. If people will not have Jesus, then they won’t have salvation either.
What does all this mean for us? Let me suggest a few things very briefly.
First, we must continue to preach the cross of Christ boldly and aggressively. This is our only message. It is the “Good News” the world needs to hear. So let us go from this place and preach the cross. Go back to your office and preach the cross. Go back to your classroom and preach the cross. Go back to your factory and preach the cross. Go back to your neighborhood and preach the cross. Go back to your apartment building and preach the cross. Go back to your university and preach the cross. If we believe in Jesus at all, then we must preach the cross because it is the only way to heaven.
Second, we should not be surprised that as we preach Christ, the world rejects us and our message. This should not discourage us, but it should be a bracing dose of reality. If we’re waiting for the world to give us a merit badge for preaching the cross, we’re going to wait forever.
Third, we should reject any attempts to water down the gospel or to shy away from the message of the cross. We need to tell it like it is, and let the chips fall where they may. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said it this way: “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.” Christianity is not reasonable (in the way the world counts reasonableness) and should not be made to sound reasonable. It is revolutionary and radical and that’s why the world rejects it. It stands apart from all that the world has to offer.
In this life there are many roads a person may travel, but only one that leads to heaven. The road to heaven starts at the cross where Jesus died for you. Just keep walking in the blood-stained path of the crucified Savior and that road will take you safely home at last.
The people of the world consider the cross foolishness. They’re right. It is the “foolishness of God” that destroys the wisdom of the world. And we are fools in the eyes of the world when we preach the cross. Let’s preach it anyway. That’s my whole sermon right there. Amen.