The Gospel: Foolish God
We were in Corinth last weekend. Okay, not really, but figuratively. The more I read and study this ancient city, the more I realize that it is in many ways and on many levels antiquity’s version of New York City. It was re-populated by ex-slaves, immigrants seeking a better life (that’s why Paul reminds them in our reading today: “Not many of you were wise…powerful…or of noble birth). It quickly grew and became one of the premier centers of commerce, religion, and popular ideas. The general ethos of Corinth was one of independence, self-sufficiency, and self-promotion. The proverb went: “Not for everyone is the voyage to Corinth,” meaning that if you could make it there you could make it anywhere 🙂
So, we were in New York last weekend, and we had this surreal experience. We had to hop a cab and a couple minutes into the ride the driver begins to speak to us. Over the next few minutes, we learn that he is a cinematographer from Egypt who moved to the big Apple in pursuit of a better life. He then went on to tell us that it was fashion week in the city and that just the night before he had been driving an intoxicated, possibly drugged up, fashion model. To which he exclaimed: “I would never want that life.”
So, we have a highly educated and trained Egyptian cinematographer, driving taxi for two mid-western nobodies, judging his prior evening’s clientele who outwardly was the symbol of success (which in our culture is sexiness), but inwardly was broken and dying…and all the while, there’s a little white cross hanging from his rearview mirror. And it dawned on me, “We’re in Corinth!” This is exactly the atmosphere into which Paul has boldly attempted and successfully planted a new Christian community. Right in the midst of this center of self-promotion and self-sufficiency and pride-inducing success…Paul drops the gospel message of the cross and resurrection!!! And it actually takes root and begins to change lives. This resonates so deeply with me and what we are all about here at City Hope. When I tell people that we’ve started a new mission in Highland Square…they usually ask why we would want to do that here. And my only answer is: Because God called us to it. Because if we can make it here…we can make it anywhere! J
So far we have seen that it’s into this environment that Paul reminds them that they have been called and set apart by God to live in a way that represents who God is on the earth. And the primary way they show who God is is by living together in unity – unity that comes only through Jesus.
As further evidence of God’s power at work in the Corinthians, Paul highlights three things about the gospel in 1:18-2:5 – The Message; The Members, and The Messenger.
Paul begins in v.18 with the message of the cross. Now, I must be transparent with you at this point. The cross makes me uneasy. In my early days as a Christian, I clung to the cross. I sought God’s forgiveness and deliverance and healing with vigor. I readily shared with anyone who would listen about what God was doing in my life and heart.
But as I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve noticed a drift away from the cross. I’ve noticed a diminishing of its power in my own life as I’ve moved on to “more important things.” Often, I long for the simplicity of those earlier days when the cross of Christ and its implications were everything to me.
But the truth is…the message of the cross is offensive to my selfish ways. It strips me of any entitlement or self-sufficiency. It confronts me with my sin. It continually calls me to see things differently and to live dependently upon God. The cross of Jesus Christ does not bend to my wishes or conform to my preferences. So, as much as I may want to dress the cross up with fancy words or theological discussion about why I am or am not doing something, when all those things are stripped away the message of the cross is still there. As much as I may want it to make complete sense to me and my way of understanding things, which is idolatry – conforming God to my image – the cross won’t conform. And when I want to write someone off or judge them…the cross reminds me that no one is beyond God’s relentless love.
The cross stands alone through time and trial as “The Lord’s sign” – the symbol of a foolish God. In this center of wisdom and wealth, Paul relies entirely on the gospel message of a God who came down…a crucified messiah. We must understand that in their “wisdom” and understanding you couldn’t have both of these. Messiah and crucifixion don’t go together. Messiah means power, splendor, majesty, triumph. Crucifixion means weak, humiliating, loser. This was scandalous. As Gordon Fee writes, “Only God is so wise as to be so foolish.” That’s our paradigm friends. A crucified Messiah.
Paul continues to explain the paradigm of the gospel message. “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.” We must keep in mind that for Paul “the cross” is an all encompassing term that he describes later in chapter 15: “That Christ died for our sins…and that he was buried…and that he was raised on the third day…and that he appeared…” The cross divides the ages. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has set into motion a new reality…a new age. That’s why Jesus’ Gospel message was: “The Kingdom of God is at hand! God’s new reality…God’s way of setting things right…is here…in me!” To those who are still trying to live according to the former age’s standards of success and pride… the gospel is utter foolishness and stupidity.
We lose some of this because we’re so familiar with the cross as a symbol of Christianity. However, to the original audience of Greeks and Jews, the cross was stupid. It was a symbol of shame and scorn and humiliation. Much like an execution chair or lethal injection needle would be to us today. It was a symbol of what was deserving of the most vile criminals. And that’s where Paul starts because that’s where God starts. In an act of divine humiliation, God comes down in the person of Jesus and not only lives as a peasant, but is subjected to a humiliating death on a cross.
But to those who are part of the new age…who have been justified in Christ and are in the sanctification process…being saved…it is the power to receive what Jesus has done and is doing in us and for us. This word “power” is repeated again in v.24 and in 2:4-5. It is the word used to describe the animating force which makes us truly alive. The message of a crucified messiah may be a stumbling block to those who seek a sign of power, and it may be foolishness to those who desire wisdom, but it is both power and wisdom to those who have received God’s grace. If at the end of the day you cannot say that your belief in Jesus rests solely on what God has done for you…if you can take credit for doing it in your own strength…then it’s not the gospel. It’s not the good news that in Jesus, God did and does what only God could do and does.
That’s why Paul’s next act is to quote from Isaiah 29:14 – “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” In Jesus, God is turning things upside down…or right side up. Paul then launches into full sarcasm by asking, “Where is the one who is wise? scribe? debater? Hasn’t God made those things foolish?” He goes on, “God is so wise that He chose not to use human wisdom to save people, but He chose to use seeming foolishness (a crucified messiah) to make salvation available to all who would believe…even Jews and Greeks. As v.25 says, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Praise God!
So, God’s power is demonstrated through the gospel message of grace.
Now, Paul turns the attention from the message to the recipients of the message…the Corinthians themselves. He asks them to consider their own call from God. Can we take a moment and do that? Let’s take a moment to consider our own calling from God. We may not have made a decision to answer that call yet, but let’s at least consider that if you’re sitting here…He has called you.
And in considering that calling, Paul reminds them of this: 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.” Hallelujah! Does anyone else find comfort in that message? It’s like a checklist for me: foolish…check! weak…check! low and despised…check! That’s the gospel message my friends. God uses the things that by appearance or social status or bank account or education or whatever we think is weak and foolish and despised…and He accomplishes His purposes.
The gospel is for everyone! You can’t disqualify yourself or someone else because God didn’t do that. In fact, the more disqualified you feel…the more qualified you probably are.
Ultimately, verse 30 reminds us that God is the source of our life. He is the fountainhead from which life flows to us through Jesus. And then Paul simply begins to gush in his description of Jesus. There’s no pattern or organization to this list. Paul just can’t contain himself when he begins to talk about all who Jesus is to us. He is…wisdom…righteousness…sanctification…and redemption. In other words, He is everything! He is true understanding. He is the one who sets everything right. He is the one who sets us apart. He is the one who has ransomed us. So, if you’re going to boast…make boast of Jesus. Gush with what God has done in and through Jesus.
The Corinthians themselves are the greatest evidence of the power of the gospel.
Gordon Fee again writes, “God, it turns out, deliberately chose the foolish things of the world, the cross and the Corinthian believers, so that he could remove forever, from every human creature, any possible grounds on their part of standing in the divine presence with something in their hands. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” (p.84)
God’s power is made evident through transformed communities.
Finally, Paul turns attention to himself. He points out that he did not proclaim the testimony/mystery of God with fancy rhetoric or sophisticated wisdom. Instead, he made an intentional decision “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The interesting thing is that Paul could have used techniques and tricks of rhetoric in which he was trained. But he intentionally set those things aside so that the pure gospel message could be received and believed.
In fact, Paul came in weakness and fear and in much trembling. Instead of a well organized and persuasive argument, Paul demonstrated Holy Spirit’s power so that the Corinthians wouldn’t depend upon a message or messenger, but upon God and His power.
You may not know this about me because I’m pretty good at keeping up appearances, but I am a worrier and doubter. I have had several seasons in my life where I have gone through times of significant doubt and despair – wondering what this whole life thing is about and if I’m wasting my time doing what I’m doing. So thank God your salvation isn’t dependent upon the messenger 🙂
But you know what has kept me from going over the edge or walking away when all the rhetoric and persuasive arguments were stripped away? It’s not so much of a “what” as it is a “who.” It’s God…Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The problem is that once you’ve experienced something for yourself…you can’t deny it. In the end, with all my struggles and doubts, I find that God continues to show up. It’s Him that draws me. Not a specific belief or a good feeling. It’s Him! I think that’s what Paul was getting at here. He had a personal encounter with Jesus that changed everything for him, and everything else…as he says in Philippians…is a pile of crap compared to knowing Jesus.
God’s power is made evident through changed lives.
So, like Paul, my prayer today is for a demonstration of God’s power through Holy Spirit. My prayer is that we would simply come to the cross of Jesus where the ground is level, where we have nothing in our hands. That we would consider the evidence of The Message of a God who expresses Himself through a crucified Messiah, The Members of a transformed community, and our own personal encounters with God as His Messengers. And that we would simply ask God to meet us in a powerful way.
So, let’s take a few minutes and come to the cross of Jesus Christ where true life is found…redemption…healing…renewal.