Summary: This sermon outlines the two main ideas of 1 Cor 1:18-25 as (1) The Cross divides and Unifies; (2) The Cross fulfills God’s plan to outwit human wisdom.

1 Cor 1:18-25


[Illustration] I would like you all to play make believe with me for a moment. Pretend that my name is Jose Samblanco and I have just arrived off the boat from Peru and I’m proclaiming to you the good news that a Peruvian peasant by the name Carlos Hernandez was electrocuted on the electric chair for your sins. I’ve even written a hymn:

Carlos was there on that horrible chair

They tied him down with bolts and then zapped him with 40 000 volts

It was for you that our saviour fried and died

Despite the fact that his hair caught on fire, this one is God’s Messiah.

The wisdom of the world has been refuted because Carlos was electrocuted

He is my saviour and my lamp, because he absorbed every deadly amp

Now I know that God does care, ‘cause he sent Carlos Hernandez to the electric chair

I’ve also written other hymns like, “In the chair of Carlos I Glory” and “When I cling to that old rugged electric chair”. Now imagine if people caught on to this religion and they started wearing gold electric chairs on their necklace or if they put chairs on top of building. What if the Red Cross changed their named to the Red Chair

Prior to a big race, athletes, instead of making the sign of the cross made the sign of the electric chair as a gesture of good luck. Instead of hotcross buns you got hot chair buns.

Now what would your response to that be. You’d probably say that was the most stupid religion anyone had ever invented. But really, the offence that it causes, the images of idiocy that surround it would not be wholly different to the way a lot of people regard the scandal of the cross. And it is a scandal: a crucified Jew who died for my sins, in my place, it is utterly scandalous. But how do we get around that, how do we evangelise the people who think a crucified and resurrected man is an offence to reason and common sense.

[Illustration] I’ll give one proposed solution. An visiting American Preacher gave some advice to a congregation about Evangelism. He said, “Don’t tell people about the cross, it doesn’t work. That’s why the Franklin Graham crusades are no longer effective. Just tell them that God loves them and has a plan for them.” The proof that allegedly validated his approach was that he had big Church. But note his point: The message of a crucified Jew is ridiculous to the modern mind and an ineffective tool for Church Growth. So move on to something better. A crucified Messiah is stupid, but promise them prosperity, give them emotional experiences, provide them with self esteem – then you’ll fill the pews. But this encounters two problems. First, it fails to do justice to the centrality of the cross in the New Testament

Lk 18:31: Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again." The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

Galatians 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.

1 Corinthians 2:2: For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Jesus defined his own purpose and mission in going to the cross. Paul defined his existence as having the crucified Jesus indwell him. Paul defined his ministry as a proclamation of the cross itself.

Secondly they give away too much. Keep in mind that people like this are not attempting to destroy Christianity, what they are doing is trying to save it from being irrelevant by making it acceptable to secular people on secular terms. The only way they can do that is to jettison the cross. But we must recognise the temptation that we all face, and that is to abandon the cross for what is more acceptable, more practical, more noble or even wiser in the eyes of the world. You can heaven and more even without a crucified saviour.

It is the same temptation being faced at Corinth.

The Situation in Corinth

Imagine the situation of those at Corinth. In their world in the first century crucifixion was a thing of shame, scorn and derision. It was reserved for only the most lowly of crimes and the most viscous of criminals. To Jews it was a hateful thing. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, Anyone hung on a tree is a under God’s curse.

The Roman lawyer Cicero called crucifixion, “The most cruel and hideous of tortures.” The Jewish historian Josephus observed many crucifixions and he said it was, “The most wretched deaths.” There is the “Alexamenos Graffito”, which comprises some of the first ever anti-Christian graffiti from Rome and it depicts a picture of a man worshipping a man on a cross with a donkey for a head. Jews were charged with worshipping an ass and this insult was transferred to Christians. Furthermore, in this kind of world there was no Christian art. Here nobody who had ever seen a crucifixion ever even thought about making it a piece of art or a token piece of jewellery. The image it evoked was too horrid.

Sensing the shame, humiliation and scandal of the cross, the Corinthians evidently thought it best to forget about the cross and move onto higher things. They were enamoured with displays of spiritual power, the kind of power they could boast about, like prophecy, tongues, miracles and earthly wisdom. They didn’t want news of a dead Jew, but instead relished in any display of spiritual power that would elevate and exalt them to some super-religious state. They wanted a Christ without a cross to feed their pre-occupation with power, fame, ecstatic experience, wisdom and status.

Paul’s Response

Paul response is that to go beyond the cross is not to move on but is to abandon Christ altogether. The message of the cross is absolute and stands above all human wisdom.

The Cross Divides and Unifies: v. 18, 24

The message of the cross creates a division within humanity. The entire world can be categorised into either one of two groups: those who are perishing and those who are being saved. You are either one or the other, there is no half way house, no demilitarised zone, no neutrality. In the cross the present age is judged and condemned. The immorality and idolatry of the world are brought to account and its final fate is decreed.

Yes, Jesus comes to save the world but it is a world that is already condemned and in the cross the verdict is pronounced. At the same time the cross is also God’s instrument of salvation for those who believe. It is where God deals with us by dealing with our sin.

That is the power of God for salvation: not education, not wisdom, not science, not medicine, not meditation, nor crystals, or a thousand “isms” in the market place of ideas.

Ironically, the same cross that divided people is the same one that can unite them. God is still at working calling out a people for his name. They are the ones who are called and the believe; note the order. In Romans 8:30 says, “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” The cross is the power of God not because people recognise that it is powerful but its powerful because of what it achieves: the salvation of sinners. The cross is the power of God that takes hold of us even though we were powerless to save ourselves. It is this same cross that breaks down the traditional barriers between human beings. In a world where countries are fragmenting, ethnic violence is at an all time high, there are those who would like to polarise the world between Western and Islamic countries, the cross is what can unite us all together. Those who are in Christ are new creations, which means that, as it says in Col 3:11 “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” The inhumanity of humanity can be restored, its differences set aside, rascial tension erased and international conflicts resolved through, of all things, the cross. In the cross God creates a new people, a people of many colours.

The Cross Fulfils God’s Plan to Outwit Human Wisdom (vv. 19-23)

Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14. There Israel thinks that they can outwit God, that is their foolishness. We can make plans and God will be surprised when they succeed. God in the same chapter promises that he will not be fooled and to prove it by his power he will bring judgement and save Israel without their wisdom. It is this very promise which is fulfilled in Christ. In the cross, God not only defeats human wisdom but he turns the tables on it so that it actually becomes foolishness. That book called Y2K Survival Guide was a wise book to buy before Jan 01 2000 but now its a waste of paper. What was once consider wise over the course of time has become foolish. That’s why God can say where are your wise men, scribes, philosophers. Our modern day equivalent might be the Scientist or Professor. That is not to say that all wisdom is bad, just read the book of Proverbs, but wisdom must be God centred: In Jeremiah 9 it says:

This is what the LORD says:

"Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength

or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this:

that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,

justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,"

declares the LORD.

The problem with human wisdom is three things:

First, it is darkened by sin. Consequently there is no neutral thinking, no absolute rationality and no objectivity, as all reasoning is influenced by moral factors. Rom 1:21 says: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” The result was idolatry and rank immorality – the dehumanisation of humanity. One of the evangelist of biological evolution, T.H. Huxley, said that one of the main attractions he had to theory was that it permitted a liberation from Christian sexual ethics.

Second, the world in its own wisdom cannot know God. You cannot find out who God is in a test tube, discover his attributes with a calculus formulae, or derive his thoughts from a syllogism. There is no experiment and no formulae that can lead you to the God of the Bible. We cannot find God through purely human reason, the God’s we find in this way are usually the idols that we create for ourselves. God created man in his image, and some philosopher like to try to return the favour. The Scientific or Philosophical Babel’s we construct are doomed to failure. Ironically, we were never meant to discover God in this way. God so ordered the universe that we are dependent upon him to reveal himself to us. Since God is “Lofty one who sits enthroned in the heavens” the initiative must come from him to traverse the great chasm between God and man. It is God who must reveal himself and make himself known: through both nature and his word. It is nature who cries out that there is a omnipotent and creative God. It is the Word that disclosed to us who this God is and how we are to relate to him. It is the word of the cross which makes God’s plan of salvation known to us.

Third, human wisdom fails because we try to put God into pre-conceived categories.

A crucified hero to Greeks and Jews is a lot like Fried Icecream – a contradiction.

The Greeks who loved learning, wisdom and would gather around to hear any new philosophy and entertain its ideas. But all ideas were evaluated on how well they conformed to what they thought was reasonable. They believed in a God of reason, but it must be a god who was reasonable on their terms. That’s why the Roman historian Tacitus called Christianity a “pernicious superstition”. To them the cross is not merely an intellectual defect, but it was rank madness. A person who claims the cross needs a room with rubber walls and a sleeveless jacket. This view is not so dissimilar from attitudes today. Freud believed that religious belief was a psychotic illness.

Janet Reno, Attorney General of the United States as interviewed on "60 Minutes" on June 26, 1999.

"A cultist is one who has a strong belief in the Bible and the Second Coming of Christ; who frequently attends Bible studies; who have a high level of financial giving to a Christian cause; who home schools their children; who has accumulated survival foods and has a strong belief in the Second Amendment; and who distrusts big government. Any of these may qualify a person as a cultist but certainly more than one of these would cause us to look at this person as a threat and his family as being in a risk situation that qualifies for government interference.”

The Jews were no different in this regard. They had a preconceived ideas how God would act. Maybe a New Exodus, a military Messiah. A Messiah who displayed power, glory and might, not a crucified peasant.


The temptation is for us, as it has always been for the Church, is to empty the cross of its power by adding to it. The danger is in our zest to make Jesus known we try to commend him by blunting the offence that his cross causes. We cannot promise others the joy of the Holy Spirit unless we remember that it is the crucified, risen and exalted Christ who sends the Spirit to us. But how can you empty the cross of its power to save? “Well, you empty the Cross of its power by adding words of human wisdom. The Cross plus human wisdom equals nothing. It becomes an empty philosophy. This is what so-called liberal Christianity does for us. We are told that modern men and women cannot believe in miracles. We must explain away all supernatural elements in the Bible, to make the gospel easier for people to believe in. But when you do that, you end up with nothing that is actually worth believing. And nothing that can save you or give you real answers to the big questions of life.”


Jesus doesn’t offer us the right reasoning which will lead us to some vague impersonal God. He doesn’t tell us the way to God for himself is the Way. Instead he offers us a revelation of who God is and what he is like. He does not offer us reason as a means of escape but rather a relationship with our Creator and Redeemer. And this revelation and relationship comes to its most concrete expression through the cross.

[Illustration] When the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal was buried it was discovered in his coat a piece of paper saying, “My God is not the god of the philosophers. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” So remember this: (1) Since philosophy is the love of wisdom, true philosophy is one that loves God’s wisdom, wisdom that subverts the wisdom of the world because it is manifest through, of all things, a cross. (2) If we are to be ambassadors of the cross that means we must be willing to be a fool for Christ and an idiot to everybody.


* Gordon D. Fee, 1 Corinthians (NICNT)

* Anthony C. Thieselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC)

* Greg Munro, “Introduction: Skeptics and the Soft Gospel” Panania Anglican Church, 9:30am Sunday April 26th, 1998.