I want us to be candid this morning about a massive problem we have with the gospel. The problem with the gospel is that it's completely absurd. It's ridiculous. If you don't believe me, imagine a conversation at work or at the school gate tomorrow – well, Tuesday.
Someone comes over to you and says, "Hi, how was your weekend?"
You reply, "Oh it was very nice thanks. I went to church on Sunday."
Now, let's imagine that for once that doesn't kill the conversation. Your friend replies, "Church? Wow. What do Christians believe anyway?"
How are you going to answer that question? "Well, there's a God and he created the world and the universe and made it really great. But we all turned our backs on God and we live in his world without reference to him and that means we do things he can't tolerate because he is perfect and good and holy. But he had a plan to help us to know him and to offer us a way to be right with him.
"Oh right. What was the plan?"
"He sent his Son, Jesus, into the world as a baby – it's the Christmas story. In fact it was an amazing story because his mum was a virgin and because it fulfilled lots of things God's messengers had promised. Anyway, he grew up in a backwater town called Nazareth and became a carpenter. Then when he was about 30 years old he gathered some followers and went around for two or three years performing miracles and teaching and it was really amazing..."
"Hang on, God's Son came, not in a massive spectacular way, but as a baby, with a virgin as his mum, born in a cowshed, he grew up, he got a job – God's son got a job – and then he let everyone know who he was. What, like Secret Millionaire or something. He must have shot to fame at that point?"
"Yeah, kind of. The religious leaders didn't think he was the son of God so they had him killed on a Roman cross. That was the most shameful, humiliating, painful execution the Romans used. In fact, they pretty much reserved it for political terrorists and foreign criminals. But then he came back to life and appeared to lots of people and then went back to heaven as God's chosen King."
"God sent his son to earth and he got executed in an excruciating and humiliating way, and then he came back from the dead?"
"Yeah, and it was all God's plan to punish Jesus for our rebellion instead of punishing us. So because we're all sinners, you need to trust that his death was for you so that you can be right with God. One day Jesus will come back for everyone who trusts in him, but everyone else will be cut off from God and his goodness forever."
Can you imagine your friend's face? The gospel is just not believable. It's ridiculous. The gospel is absurd.
Now, what with Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, it's been a few weeks since we were in 1 Corinthians chapter 1. Do look up that chapter, by the way. It's on page 804 of the blue bibles.
Today we pick up where we left off last time, with Paul arguing against the divisions in the Corinthian church. The Christians in Corinth are dividing into fan clubs of various leaders of the wider church, looking to them for identity, making idols of them. Paul urges them to unite under Christ, the true head of the church. He is the saviour. He was crucified for them. They were baptised into his name. These leaders don't even want this kind of following. Paul says his job, v17, was just to preach the gospel, the good news about Jesus. Paul even tells the Corinthians that he doesn't come 'with words of human wisdom' – why not? – 'lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power'. Not only does Paul have no power to save, he doesn't even have the power to persuade people through his preaching that Jesus can save. No, it's the cross that contains the power of salvation, not wise words or skilful argument, and it's God who deserves the glory, not Paul or any other teacher. Paul continues this train of thought in today's passage, and we'll look at it under two headings:
(i) To the world, the gospel is completely absurd
(ii) In reality the gospel is the power of God for salvation
1) To the world, the gospel is completely absurd
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 man? Where is the scholar? 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 miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…
The message of the cross is foolishness (literally moronic) to those who don't believe it. The world sees us as morons for believing this crazy story. Bring up the subject of the gospel and people will think it's stupid. Identify with Jesus and people will think you're stupid. Mention that Jesus has a claim on their lives and people will treat you with contempt.
But in today's passage, Paul argues that this is exactly the reaction we should expect, because it's the reaction God has designed. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are heading for God's judgement but it is the saving power of God to those whose sin is paid for by Jesus on that cross. God designed it this way.
In fact, v19, God even announced in advance that he would design this reaction. Those four words 'For it is written' show that at the cross, God did what he said he was going to do. I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. It's a quote from our first reading, Isaiah 29. In Isaiah 29 God says, 'These people are just paying me lip service. Their way of serving me is something they've made up out of their so-called wisdom. It's not the worship I want. They are like little pieces of pottery claiming to know better than the potter who made them. Well, I'm going to confound them and their so-called wisdom. I'm going to work amazing wonders in a powerful, effective, salvation-bringing way that's so far from their arrogant assumptions that they won't even recognise it.'
And so at the cross, God shattered human wisdom. Eventually this will be revealed to everyone, and in the meantime, between Jesus' crucifixion and his second coming, people's reaction to the cross is what will at that time be the only criterion by which God's final judgement is made on each person.
Paul goes on, v20. Where is the wise man (meaning the Greek philosopher)? Where is the scholar (meaning the Jewish scribe)? Where is the philosopher of the age (literally the debater/orator)? All three of them epitomized educational excellence, in their different ways. Paul continues, v21: …in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him… The world in all its wisdom, didn't know God! In the whole spectrum of the educational elite, no-one taught the wisdom of God.
Paul asks where these educated, wise people are, and the answer is they're everywhere! Remember the culture of Corinth? Speakers and philosophers and debaters flocked to Corinth for self-promotion and fame and recognition. And what about today? Where are the wise and the well-educated? Well, they're everywhere, especially somewhere like Britain. What famous examples come to mind? Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Paul McKenna even? In all their education and wisdom, have they come to know God? Stephen Hawking is another clever guy, and there's a famous quotation at the end of his book, A Brief History of Time. The book discusses, amongst other things, the so-called holy grail of physics, a single scientific theory that can describe everything. Hawking says this:
"If we do discover a complete theory it should in time be understood in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people be able to take part in the discussion of why it is we and the universe exists? If you find the answer to that it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would truly know the mind of God."
(From Stephen Hawking A Brief History of Time)
For all his brilliance, Hawking falls short of knowing God. In fact, all we can do as human beings is observe and understand the mechanics of creation. That's what science is. And I guess we can theorise about everything that science can't measure. I guess that's philosophy. But by our own skill and willpower we can't know God.
Now don't get me wrong. Wisdom and education and science and philosophy and the use of our minds are all wonderful gifts from God. We benefit hugely from skilled statesmen, researchers in medicine and people making breakthroughs in science and engineering that vastly improve our quality of life. But human wisdom is worse than useless for spiritual understanding, because we are just clay pots compared to God, the potter. Human wisdom remains inside the box of human existence and experience. Human wisdom can't invade heaven to investigate what's there.
Trying to find God, to know God, by our own ability is just a modern day version of the Tower of Babel. The people at Babel said, 'Let's build a great city with a tower that reaches to heaven so that we will make a great name for ourselves.' But Paul says God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. God wants the glory for salvation. That means that wise people can't get glory for figuring it out. God's wise plan was for the message to be foolish and counter-intuitive and absurd so that the glory for salvation would be his.
Paul goes on, v22:
22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…
The Jews failed to see the truth of the gospel because they were blind to the signs Jesus performed among them, because they pre-judged Jesus. So they were blind to the greatest sign of all, Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The Greeks failed to see the truth of the gospel because their search for wisdom was founded on pride and self-promotion, not on God-fearing humility. The idea that the saviour of the world would come as a baby and get a job and be rejected by the people who were waiting for him and who would die a gruesome death as a homeless preacher is crazy to them, even before they got to the part where that death was what they themselves deserved.
And doesn't that sum up people's reaction to the gospel even today, 2000 years later? Why doesn't God give me a sign to show he's there? Why doesn't he perform amazing signs to me? If the gospel is true, how come it seems to be so weak? Surely God would make a watertight, cast-iron, totally convincing message that can't be denied? Why doesn't God come to me and reveal himself to me and convince me on my terms? Why doesn't God jump through my hoops? These are the questions of someone sitting on a throne demanding a performance. These are the questions of rebellion against God and mistrust of him. Are you asking those questions? Can you see the absurdity of a creature asking those questions of the creator, like a clay pot interrogating the potter? Isn't it possible that God is wise and good and powerful to save?
Or are you a Christian experiencing doubt because of the apparent weakness of the gospel? If so, please see that this is God's design, in his infinite wisdom. Notice in verse 18 that Paul doesn't contrast foolishness with wisdom first and foremost, but with power. To us who are being saved the gospel is the power of God. The weak message of the cross is powerful for salvation. It is effective, it is successful. And that brings me to the second point. Much more briefly,
2) In reality the gospel is the power of God for salvation
22 Jews demand miraculous 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 man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
Paul says, v23, We preach Christ crucified.
Christ crucified – well that really is a stumbling block to the Jews – the idea of a weak, rejected Messiah dying on a Roman cross… that was outrageous to the Jews.
Christ crucified – well that really is foolishness to the Gentiles (non-Jews) – the idea of one Messiah for the whole world, a Messiah who died, and by a method that was too disgusting to mention in polite company… that was irrational and shockingly distasteful to the Gentiles.
A crucified messiah defied all Jewish expectations and was dismissed as absurd by Gentiles. But, v24, to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Notice that God calls. If people understand and accept the weak gospel message, it's only because of God's work in them. From the outside looking in it looks like hurdle of faith that I have to leap over. From inside looking back, we can see that God was working to open eyes and hearts and minds to see and believe the truth of the gospel. God is at work to overcome the stumbling block and the foolishness of Christ crucified. For those Jews who are called by God, Christ is the power of God. For those Greeks who are called by God, Christ is the wisdom of God. And so, in v25, Paul concludes with the truth that never seems to occur to those who reject the gospel, which is also the truth that gives assurance to those God calls: God is infinitely wiser and stronger than man. When God acts in a way that seems foolish, hiding his wisdom, well, what seems foolish in fact surpasses the peak of human wisdom. When God acts in a way that seems weak, hiding his power, well, what seems weak in fact surpasses the peak of human power. God is infinitely wiser and stronger than man.
So where does that leave us? If you're not a Christian, perhaps you're looking into Christianity, or maybe you're not at all looking into it, but find yourself here anyway. It's great you're here, but perhaps you're left feeling completely unconvinced by Paul on this. Maybe you're thinking that if you're not going to demand God shows himself by powerful signs or wise arguments, does that mean you'd have to bin your brain to become a Christian? Well, no, not at all. The message of the cross is counter-intuitive to the point of absurdity, but it's not a message without intellectual substance. Why not come along on Thursday night and try out the Christianity Explored course. Come and look at the evidence for the gospel. Come and ask your questions. Come and see why so many people are convinced by Jesus.
Perhaps you're a Christian but you can barely dare to believe that the weak message of the cross is enough to save. Your sin seems so great and seems to run so deep. But the message of the cross is effective for salvation. Or perhaps you're a Christian but you've noticed over Easter that you very seldom think about the cross any more. To both of you this passage says: stick with the true gospel in your own faith – the cross brings assurance for those in despair and cause for sober self-assessment for everyone else.
And what about when we want to bring the gospel into conversation at work or at the school gate or amongst non-Christian friends and family, and we're afraid of looking stupid? Well, you're right to be worried about that. If you stick to the true gospel, the message of the cross, you will look stupid. The world will see that message as absurd. But nevertheless, do stick to the true gospel. Don't be tempted to change it. Don't water it down or try to make it more palatable. Don't be taken in by the latest re-hash of age-old mistakes like saying that in the end love wins and everyone goes to heaven. Don't change the message of the cross. God does call – he does call – so stick with the true gospel with courage and persistence and prayer as you seek to make Jesus known.