Summary: Is there any value to using worldly wisdom to present the gospel to the unbeliever?
Wisdom, Wisdom, Everywhere
The television world is full of philosophers and pop psychologists. Oprah, Dr. Phil, and many others have their shows filled with guests who will try to tell you what the meaning of life is, how to live the good life, gain wealth, raise good kids, improve one’s marriage, get the dream job, etc. The Christian church apes this search for meaning and tries to put their “spin” on life. Some use the bible to show you how to invest money for maximum profit, advice on how “to live your best life, now” (Joel Olsteen). Others like Rick Warren writes that we should have a “purpose filled life.”
There is nothing new about the search for wisdom. It occurs in all cultures throughout human history. The Greeks whose industry freed a few great minds to contemplate. They produced great philosophers like Thales, Pythagoras, Anaximander, Parmenides, Zeno, Diogenes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many, many others. The whole Roman world of Paul’s day was full of philosophers. And there were many want to be philosophers who tried to attract followers on the street corners and the marketplace in much the same way as people use Facebook and Twitter to attract followers.
Wisdom and philosophy, then, was practically worshiped by the world of Paul’s day. And Corinth was no exception. When Paul and others came to the church at Corinth, they were evaluated by the congregation and surrounding community in terms of their rhetorical skill and how their philosophy lined up compared to others. This, or course, caused a major division in the church there. Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew sent there by Paul to refute the Jewish polemical attacks against the new church. He was a man of much learning and was a skilled orator which the Book of Acts says so skillful that he silenced the opposition. The wisdom lovers in the congregation would love Apollos, but not for the right reasons. Others were loyal to Paul who founded the church. For all of Paul’s knowledge, he apparently lacked polish in his preaching, at least compared to Apollos. Yet as founder, he had his followers. Then others who had come out of Judaism preferred the preaching of Peter who was perceived, probably wrongly, as being more sympathetic to Judaism, Others who were the super spiritual rightly understood that the message brought by all the aforementioned evangelists centered on Jesus Christ. But Jesus was more than the consummate teacher of wisdom, so even the “Christ-followers” in the congregation were off base. The result was chaos.
Paul, having heard reports from Ephesus of what was going on, wrote this very stern letter to the Corinthians. Certain issues needed to be dealt with immediately. First and foremost, the split in the church needed to be addressed. After a short greeting, he dived right in in verse 10 to address this division. He mentions the factions directly and begins to set the record straight. The message which he preached was not his, but came from God. All of the leaders they were “following” were actually servants of God. There was one message which they all preached which came from God and not from worldly wisdom.
In this morning’s text, Paul addresses the topic of wisdom. The “for” develops the rationale for why Paul preached what he did and why which was introduced in the previous passage, It answers why he did not use human wisdom to shape the message he brought to them. He begins by admitting that the message of the cross which he preached as considered by the wisdom of this world utterly foolish. The Greek word here for “foolishness” is the word we get “moron” from. Paul admitted as did Tertullian later who summed this up as “I believe in what you call absurd”. But this same world that considered Paul’s message to be offensive to knowledge was perishing. What good was all the world’s wisdom when death and destruction comes to all? Worldly wisdom has no answer to death which would be seen as the end of all things. It could be summed up as: “If you are born with nothing and die to nothing, and life is short, what difference does it make in how high you rise or how low you fall in life?” Death is the end of worldly wisdom.
This is the logical conclusion to the meaning of life. Death cancels all meaning. However, the bible says that the situation is even worse than just dissolving into nothingness. The Bible says it is appointed to man once to die. But it also adds that after death there is a judgment. As meaningless as is the search of the philosophers is, the end is far worse than the meaninglessness of death.
The Bible is full of what the theologians call “two way” theology. There is a way of death and there is a way that leads to death. Jesus employed such theology in the Sermon on the Mount when He compares the broad way to destruction and the narrow way to life. And Paul follows up the way of death and destruction the philosophers offer which is widely travelled in this age to the way of life. For those who are being saved, the word of the foolish weakness of the cross is the very power of God. He goes on to quote a prophecy from the Old Testament book of Isaiah to make his point. In it, God promises to destroy the wisdom of the wise man and set aside the understanding of the intelligent. This, Paul infers is fulfilled in the preaching of the Gospel.