I Corinthians 1:18-24
18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
About a month ago, I had an interesting conversation with a young man who has recently been renewed and rejuvenated in his faith. I say he was young. He is about 30 years old, and that seems young to me. He had been a Christian for many years, but recently he has undergone a personal revival, and he is feeling a renewed zeal for Jesus Christ. I enjoyed talking to him, listening to him. It was good to hear his testimony about his personal struggle for a deeper faith. He was talking about how meaningful Christ was to him, and I certainly appreciated that. Then he said, “Christianity just makes sense. It is the only reasonable way to approach life. It is logical to believe in Jesus.”
And that kind of brought me up short. I know he was on a roll expressing his enthusiasm and sincerity about being a Christian, but I had to express a little qualification. I said, “I do not think Christianity makes any sense at all. The gospel is not reasonable or logical.”
Think about what we say as Christians. We say Jesus Christ was God incarnate. This man who lived most of his life in a backwoods province of the Roman Empire was totally and completely a human being and was totally and completely God. That statement is totally and completely illogical. And we say God was crucified. Can you do that? Can you crucify God? God died. Can God die? Is it not the very definition of God that God is immortal? How can God die and still be God? God rose from the dead. Can a dead God overcome death? Then we say that somehow God’s overcoming death means that I also will overcome death. Is any of that logical? Not at all. Paul says in I Corinthians that it is “foolishness,” but this divine foolishness is salvation to the believer.
Tertullian was an early Christian writer and theologian. He lived around A.D. 200. He coined the word “Trinity” (Latin trinitas) as a description of the nature of God, but he is perhaps most famous for saying (in Latin), “Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis”--What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Jerusalem is the geographic origin of both Judaism and Christianity and therefore represents faith. Athens, the center of Greek learning and philosophy, represents reason. What has faith to do with reason? Tertullian’s answer is nothing. Nothing at all. Perhaps Tertullian had in mind this passage from I Corinthians where Paul says much the same thing.
For example, we read in v22, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” (ESV). The Jews wanted to be convinced of the truth of God by miracles. We see this over and over in the gospels. The people did not want to hear Jesus talk about God and loving one another, they wanted him to do something wonderful--feed 5000 people, walk on water, do a miracle. But if Jesus convinced us by “signs” then we would not need faith at all. That is a point Jesus made in his encounter with the Apostle Thomas. Thomas had said that he would not believe in a resurrected Lord until he could put his hand into the actual wounds of the cross. A week later, Thomas encountered the risen one, and Jesus said, “OK, touch me.” But Thomas did not touch him. Instead Thomas proclaimed Jesus “my Lord and my God.” Then Jesus said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:29 ESV).
The Jews wanted proof by miracles. The Greeks had another method. They wanted proof by logical reasoning. The Greeks would say sit down and reason with us like Socrates or Aristotle and convince us of the truth of Christ, but that is not going work either.
I cannot convince you logically that Christ makes sense. I cannot even convince you logically that life makes sense. Human beings have a deep desire to believe that life has meaning and we are here for a purpose. We cannot prove any of that. In fact, sometimes the world seems bent on demonstrating to us just the opposite.
Take a wasp for example. A wasp attacks its prey, a grasshopper or some other insect, and paralyses it and while the poor insect is paralyzed the wasp implants its young, its larva, in the living insect. The larva then proceeds to eat that insect alive from inside. That is cruel. Mother nature is often brutal and pitiless. Look at all the ways the world has of killing us, by accident or disease or natural calamity. Then on top of that we kill each other. We have just left the 20th century, a century of war and extermination camps. How does any of that logically lead us to God?
As we look at our individual lives, we see struggle and chaos and confusion. As the bumper sticker says, “Life is bleak and then you die.” According to the ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus was punished by the gods by being condemned to forever to roll a rock up a huge hill, but when he got almost to the top of the hill the rock would roll back down, and he would have to go back down to the bottom of the hill and start over, and his punishment was that he had to do this for all eternity. He would forever try to roll the rock up the hill and never succeed. Many people would say that the Greek myth of Sisyphus is an allegory on life. We work so hard at living and never get anywhere. Shakespeare said,
Life's but a walking shadow a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Macbeth, Act5, Scene5)
The universe does not care whether you live or die. The universe does not care whether the human species lives or dies. Now if you believe that, then life is joke. Life does not make any sense. And that is where logic and reason lead us—to say that life is absurd.
Greek philosophy tried to approach life reasonably and rationally to give to us a system of thought whereby we might live. It failed utterly. Philosophy leads ultimately to atheism and despair. The world is not about anything. So I am not about anything, so why live at all?
In I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul has realized what we might call the trap of reason. He knows that Human logic does not lead to ultimate answers. He discounts the miracle worship of the Jews and the logic worship of the Greeks and moves us in a different direction, the direction of radical faith in the crucified one.
But think about how absurd Paul was. Think about how absurd we Christians are. First, we say that God created the universe. We cannot prove that. Then we say that God loves us. Again, how would you prove that? Then we say that this loving creator of the whole universe cares about each of us enough to answer our prayers. An atheist would laugh at such an absurd notion.
Then I say that God died for me so that I can live forever with God in heaven. Again an unbeliever would consider that the most absurd statement that any human being could ever make—and it is. I freely confess that belief in the crucified Christ is absurd. Paul says as much.
Look at v18, “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.” to an unbeliever, the “word of the cross” is silly and strange. To a believer, it is the “power of God.” It is a power for living. Through faith, we receive this power that makes sense out of life. No other way works. Radical faith is the only way we can deal with the absurdity of life. People say all the time, “You gotta believe.” They are right, but not quite. That is not quite what Paul is saying. He is not saying just believe, he is saying believe in the “word of the cross.” Then he adds a quote in v19 to make his point. “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’" This is a quote from the prophet Isaiah, and Paul’s interpretation of the quote is that wisdom and discernemnt do not bring us to God. Again we read in v20, “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?”
God has turned everything around so that wisdom is foolishness and foolishness is wisdom. The cross is foolishness. It is absurd. Therefore it is the most profound and important event that ever happened to this world. But we only perceive this by faith. This foolishness of the cross, this absurdity, only becomes the power of God to me by faith, by a radical faith, by a faith entirely unassisted by human logic and human thinking.
Imagine this. It is pitch dark. You cannot see even your hand before your face. You believe that you are standing on one side of a canyon. The canyon is incredibly deep. If you fall, you will certainly die. But you believe that the canyon is very narrow at this point and you believe that if you can take a running leap in the dark, you can make it to the other side. That running leap in total darkness illustrates faith in Christ. You do not have proof. It is absurd to believe. Believe anyway. That is real faith.
But let us play with this leap in the dark illustration a little bit. Some would say that you can use human reason to light up the darkness, so to speak, so that you can see that the other side of the canyon is actually there. In other words, they say that reason aids faith, or faith is the logical consequence of reason. Thus, we can have faith and reason, or to return to our friend Tertullian, whom I mentioned earlier, we can have Jerusalem and Athens. Both Tertullian and Paul assure us that it does not work that way. Reason does not aid faith. Reason makes faith more difficult.
There is nothing wrong with reason, we should always apply logic and reason to the things of daily life. Reason can answer questions about how things work, but reason cannot answer questions about why things work. If you are asking ultimate questions about life, about meaning, about purpose, reason has no answers and if we try to make reason answer those questions we are defeated before we begin.
The ultimate question Paul is dealing with is our relationship with God. The meaning of my life, the purpose of my life, hinges on my relationship with God, but the only way I can have any relationship with God is through “Christ crucified”—which again does not make any sense at all. God has hidden salvation in foolishness, so that we cannot get to it in any way except by faith.
So yes, the gospel is absurd. Who could believe that we are saved by such a cruel process as crucifixion? Crucifixion is the way of death. How can there be life in death? There is no logic in that? But Paul says in v25, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Corinthians 1:25 ESV). I almost think Paul is playing with us a little bit. He knows very well that we all like to think we are smart. We want to be in the know. Our whole society is organized around knowing and applying knowledge. All our science and technology, all our material progress, has come from wisdom and here is the apostle Paul saying, not once but over and over, that ultimate knowledge can come only through faith in absurdity.
In v21 he says, “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.” Believe then. Have faith in God, Have faith in Christ. Walk in faith, live in faith, and you will see God.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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