Summary: The wisdom of the wise versus the foolishness of preaching.
A WORD TO THE WISE
The common consensus in the world of Paul’s day was that God exists. The Jews knew the identity of the true and living God from their past encounters with Him; but the Greeks were floundering about in the dark, seeking ways of access to God through the pursuit of wisdom. To both, it was only ‘fools’ who would say that there is no God (Psalm 14:1; Psalm 53:1).
In the world of our day we oscillate between not believing in God at all, and then believing that ‘all roads’ lead to God. The latter is blatantly untrue, often motivated by a misplaced sense of political correctness.
Christianity is not tolerated – even by some who would call themselves Christians – when we sing about there being ‘no other way to get to heaven: Jesus is the only way’ (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12). However, we are not ashamed of this truth because it has brought, and is bringing, salvation to many (Romans 1:16).
Before we get too high and mighty about the correctness of our cause, perhaps we should consider that there is an element of this ‘wisdom of the world’ even in the church, when we are too embarrassed to preach “Christ having-been-crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). In Isaiah’s day the LORD bemoaned the fact that ‘religious’ people drew near to Him with their mouths, using their lips no doubt to sing His praises, but followed nothing more than the precepts of men in their lives (Isaiah 29:13). Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Corinthians 1:19 - stating that the wisdom of the wise shall perish, and the understanding of the prudent shall be brought to nought.
From Paul’s own experience he asks the questions (1 Corinthians 1:20), “Where is the wise” - in Athens, or perhaps even Corinth? “Where is the scribe” – in Jerusalem perhaps? “Where is the debater” then - on Mars Hill, or even in the synagogue – either would do? Yet ask them all, “Has God not rendered foolish the wisdom of this world?” All paths do not lead to God and - professing themselves to be wise - men become fools, following the vain imaginations of their own hearts (cf. Romans 1:21-23).
From all eternity God had determined to bring about man’s salvation by the seeming ‘foolishness’ of preaching (1 Corinthians 1:21) – and specifically the preaching of the cross of Jesus. Paul confesses to his own lack of eloquence, so that the faith of his readers should not seem to stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24). Without making too much of a pun of it, the crux of the matter - the central, crucial feature of all sound Bible teaching - is the Cross of Christ.
After Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, the Jewish authorities asked Him to show them a sign to legitimise the authority by which He was doing these things (John 2:15-19). Thus, even to His own people, and in answer to the prophecies of their own Scripture, Jesus had become a stumbling block (Matthew 21:42-44). Paul says that the Jews still sought such a sign in his day (1 Corinthians 1:22) - yet a sign had indeed been given, but rejected: the death and resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 12:38-40)!
In like manner, the Greeks (who stand for all Gentiles) found the idea of a crucified Saviour foolish and repulsive. To them, God is above such things: have we not heard the same argument in our own day? Yet to those who are called (1 Corinthians 1:24) - a calling which is based in Christ, and has been from before time (Ephesians 1:4) – Christ is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Thus we find that the foolishness of God (the preaching of the cross) is wiser than men; and that the weakness of God (His manifestation in Jesus, who died on that awful gibbet to bear away our sins) is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25). As the Lord told Paul in another context, ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good conduct, by deeds done in the meekness (humility) which comes from (God’s true) wisdom’ (James 3:13).