Summary: What the cross means.
We return to our letter this morning. Paul has been addressing the matter of divisions in the church (v. 10). It was bad enough that they were identifying themselves under the names of church leaders, but even worse was that Christ was being treated as just another leader with these men. Paul is shocked at the suggestion that they should be placed on the same level as Christ: Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (v. 13). He closes his reprimand with verse 17: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Our text develops the latter half of his statement: to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. Paul presents his job description – preach the gospel. He also indicates the content of the gospel and the rationale for his methodology. That content is the work and message of the cross, which he not merely acknowledges, but even boasts, is a foolish message to the world. Indeed, he seems to revel in the folly that encompasses the gospel. Verses 18-25 present the folly of the cross; verses 26-31 the folly of the church; and 2:1-5 the folly of preaching. This morning we will consider the cross.
Paul says in verse 17 that his job is to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. According to him, the gospel is about the cross, i.e. the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He indicates, furthermore, that the message of the cross contradicts human wisdom, so much so that to cloak it with what passes for eloquent wisdom is to empty it of its power.
In verse 18 he explains he means: 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. Here is Paul’s thesis. The effect of the message of the cross ultimately resides not in the ability of the preacher (in this case, Paul) to present it well, nor in the intellectual level of the hearer, but in the hearer’s status with God. We will consider more fully the preacher and the hearer in the next two sermons. Our text would have us focus now on the message itself and the status of those who hear.
That phrase in verse 17 – eloquent wisdom¬ – is literally “wisdom of logos, i.e. word.” The “word of the cross” in verse 18 is the “logos of the cross.” Do you see what Paul is doing? Against the word of man’s wisdom stands the word of the cross which represents God’s wisdom. To those who are perishing, who are enmeshed in the thinking of the world, yes, the cross is folly; but to those who are being saved, who are given the mind of God, the cross is the epitome of God’s power. For in the message of the cross is the power to save.
He quotes from Isaiah 19:12 to emphasize this power of the cross over natural wisdom.
19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
What he does next is something that would impress modern football and basketball players. Paul becomes a trash-talking preacher for God! 20 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?
You think you wise? Hey, you scribe, you think you smart? Where’s that smooth talking debater? You ready to tangle with God? You think you guys got some wisdom? Man, my God has made your wisdom look the plain stupid that it is!
First of all, in all your wisdom you have not been able to figure out God: 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. Paul could have then taken a stroll with his debaters through Corinth to the two dozen and more temples and sacred places with their idols to emphasize his point. He agrees with the point made by agnostics that the existence of so many religions and spiritual perspectives demonstrates no one has the right view of God. No argument from Paul on that matter.
Indeed, Paul contends that God planned it that way. It was in the wisdom of God that the world did not know him through its own wisdom. Why? Most likely because of our pride. We’ve talked about this in Proverbs. God cannot stand pride in us. It really irritates him. Whatever the reason, the fact of the matter is, use what wisdom we will, we will miss the mark when it comes to understanding God and having a right relationship with him.