The Message of the Cross — 1 Corinthians 1: 17-25

Is the Gospel lame nonsense? Does it need help from clever, well-connected people to do its work?

No. In this passage the apostle is in fact asserting the absolute sufficiency of the gospel message to do the work of building the church.

So why does Paul talk about the gospel, and gospel preaching, as foolishness?

Paul has to deal with one of the many problems that the Corinthians were happily creating for themselves. In too many ways these people, whom the apostle loved, were seriously out of control. They knew the gospel, but their mistaken views of the liberty that the gospel brings was weakening their church and their church’s witness.

At Corinth, divisions, boastful immorality, disdain for fellow believers, and spiritual pride were tearing the church apart. Paul begins in these verses to deal with their pride.

Firstly he brushes aside water baptism. He did not belittle the sacrament, far from it. But some people, it seems, were engaging in one-up-man-ship. The more important the baptiser, the more important the baptised, or so they claimed.

Paul had no interest in playing such games. He had not been sent to make water baptism the big issue, but rather to preach the gospel. It is not water baptism that determines a person’s place in the kingdom, but the gospel work of Jesus Christ.

The gospel is the great leveller. We all had rebelled against our creator and are all worthy of nothing except condemnation. Every Christian was once dead in trespasses and sins–without God and without hope in the world.

We were lost and would have perished in our sins, but it pleased God to save. God saved, not by sending an instruction book for self-improvement, but by sending his only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who for the salvation of his people, was born a human being, lived a perfectly good life to replace the bad lives of his people, and he died taking responsibility for the sins of his people. He rose to life again to give eternal life to his people.

Having done all that, he then gives repentance and faith to these people in order to ensure that they would trust him and be justified before God.

Nothing was left to chance; nothing was left for our sinful selves to achieve. Salvation comes to sinful people by the love of God, through the work of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel excludes boasting — unless it is boasting in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is why Paul says that Christ sent him to make the gospel known, not in the wisdom of mere human reasoning, less the cross of Christ be made void,… of no effect,… empty.

There is a form of ‘wisdom’ that would make the gospel empty. Paul is not against preachers using their brains. He is not against carefully and prayerfully prepared sermons.

Paul is not against a thorough academic training for preachers. The ‘wisdom of reasoning’ that he rejects is that sort of reasoning that people value when they do not trust Jesus Christ.

As he writes:

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.

The problem of evangelism is not the intellectual quality of the message. It is not the fact that the message is really foolish. The problem of evangelism is the un-renewed minds of those who hear the message.

Paul later refers to this situation when he says that the unregenerate mind is at war with God (1 Cor. 2:14), and cannot and will not receive the gospel because the gospel is only accepted by a sinner when the Spirit of God changes the heart and mind of that sinner.

When this work of grace — this work of regeneration — comes to a sinner, they have the saving work of Christ applied to them. God accepts Christ’s death as their death, his good life a replacement for their bad life, and Christ’s resurrection ensures that they will a raised from the dead and acquitted on the day of judgment.

This is very important. We do not fix the problem of unbelief by trying to make the gospel more appealing to the mind of the unbeliever. We are not to force the message of the church to the mould of the world.

That would be to empty out the message of the cross of Christ. We cannot make the gospel more acceptable to the non-Christian by our clever ideas to improve the message, because the cross of Christ is necessarily offensive to anyone who is not born again. Any change we make to the message empties it.

Now, this was the trap into which the church at Corinth was in danger of falling.

Many in Corinth at that time thought the message of Jesus was too bland, too plain, too last week (compare 1 Cor. 10:7-10). They wanted the message of the church to be intellectually impressive for the outsider. They wanted it to fit the spirit of their age.

Now, this is a very different attitude to that of Paul when he says that he becomes all things to all men (1 Cor. 9) . Paul worked hard to understand the people to whom he took the gospel. His approach in presenting the gospel might vary according to the background of the people he met. But the gospel message he did not change at all.

Presbyterianism has experienced this gospel-emptying unfaithfulness in its own history. Many Presbyterian churches in the past have become Unitarian through their accommodation to the wisdom of the age. How did this happen?

After the gospel had brought salvation to sinners, it also began the work of conforming people to the mind of Christ. Over the years, public morals were improved, and good morals were encouraged. When moral people saw the difference between themselves (good Presbyterians) and the less moral, they begin to think that they were not the ones who needed Jesus as saviour but only needed to follow him as an example. With the growth of education (Presbyterians love education) they also began to doubt miracles as a hangover from a less informed, superstitious age.

The result was that they no longer saw the need for a saviour who is both God and man, neither did they see a need for his substitutionary death, nor his rising from the dead to deal with sin. The Corinthians were heading this way as 1 Cor. 15 suggests.

The Church of England also suffered from this attitude in the nineteenth century. The Rev. Frederick William Robertson hated the gospel of Jesus. He worked hard to empty the cross of Christ. He spoke on this passage in July 1851 and did so in order to conceal the message of the cross. He taught from this passage that Jesus is our human example, and a human example is better than impersonal signs and abstract philosophies. That’s all.

So Paul attacked this gospel-emptying-attitude with ironic force. He uses the words ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’, ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ to convey deliberately opposite meanings.

Where is the wise, where is the scribe, where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of world. For by the wisdom of God, the world by its wisdom did not know God, but it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.

The wisdom of this age is foolishness. Scholars are pretty good at describing the disaster of the human condition, but they have no real idea of its origin or its cure.

  • Psychology tell sufferers to stop believing the lies that they tell themselves, and to believe the lies that the psychologist tells them instead.
  • World religions, even some that go under the name of Christian, offer programs for self-improvement (life is suffering, suffering comes from desire, reduce desire) or promote the benefits of community support.
  • Some scientists tells us that life came about by a process of time and chance and that all human emotions, human will and human development came as a result of environmental conditioning and chemical reactions.
  • Some educationists claim that, if people are sufficiently informed about drug use, or domestic violence, or sexually transmitted diseases, then all will be well.

Every failure of these sorts of programs is met with calls for more money for further research and education.

All human programs for self-improvement fail, because they all begin with the mistaken view that people are basically good. The only problem is their economic, political, social circumstances or their poor education.

Foolishness. The ‘wise’ of this world will not and cannot arrive at the solution by their own wisdom.

What these wise theories and programs could not do, God did by sending his Son to rescue the hopeless.

Jesus came into the worse of circumstances, suffered the abuse of sinners, was falsely accused and condemned, was subjected to a criminal’s death by public execution, and yet by these means and by this person, God made foolish the wisdom of this age.

The rebel world thought it had sorted the problem of Jesus and had removed the inconvenient preacher. But God overturned that ‘wisdom’ by raising the Lord Jesus from the dead. The resurrection means that the sins of those for whom Jesus died are dead and gone.

God also made many of his enemies his friends by Jesus Christ. By the resurrection of Jesus, God brings renewed life to those who trust Christ. He gives new attitudes to bad people. By Jesus people receive a new relationship with our creator, freedom from condemnation, and everlasting life.

What we could not and would not do by our wisdom, God accomplished in wisdom by his Son.

The Jews were offended by the cross–cursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree.

The Greeks thought that the resurrection from the dead was a joke.

But God saves those whom his calls by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is the message of the cross. God forgives sins in the name and authority of Jesus Christ on the basis of the things that Jesus alone did. In this way God destroys the wisdom of the wise and the understanding of the prudent. He brings some to repentance and faith through the gospel message, thereby changing their minds and attitudes. Others reject that message, stay in their sin and reap the consequences of rebellion.

So why does Paul call the preaching of this message, ‘foolishness’?

He is using the attitude of some in Corinth against them.

They had called preaching foolishness, but Paul shows that this alleged foolishness is God’s way of achieving what all the wise ones of the world continually failed to do. Gospel preaching gives hope and safety to sinful, condemned people.

Paul tells us that the alleged foolishness of God—gospel preaching—is wiser than the wisdom of this age. The weakness of God that is allegedly seen in the message of the cross is stronger than the might of this age.

The church must not get too clever or sophisticated for itself. It must not say to itself that no one will listen to gospel preaching today and suggest that we must replace it with stories, or personal testimonies, or film nights, or social advice.

The word that Paul uses for ‘preaching’ is that which denotes a herald. A herald was the messenger of the king. The herald was to deliver the message that the king entrusted to him, and the herald was to deliver that message with all the authority of the one who sent him.

Woe to that herald who messed with the King’s message. Woe to the people who refused to hear that message.

Jews demand a sign, Greeks seek for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified … the wisdom of God and the power of God.

Aaron’s golden calf and New Testament practice

In writing to the Corinthians, Paul had a number of problems to deal with. Although the church held to the gospel teaching of the apostles, it was nevertheless out of control in serious ways.

By the time the tenth chapter is reached, Paul had addressed their divisions, spiritual pride, open approval of sexual immorality, their willingness to sue one another and their unwillingness to deny themselves for the sake of weaker fellow Christians.

At the tenth chapter, Paul brings a warning: don’t presume that you are a Christian simply because you are a church member and enjoy the outward benefits of a gospel ministry.

To illustrate his point, Paul refers to the church in the wilderness — the church that was established when God saved the children of Abraham from Egyptian slavery by the Passover event, and He then brought them through the Red Sea by miracle. God then kept them alive in the desert by means of ‘manna’ and water produced from a rock, which also were saving miracles.

All these events, though real and historical, point those who read of them to that great rescue that Jesus provided when he came as a human being to live for his people, die for his people and rise again for his people.

Paul indicates this by referring to some of these Old Testament events in New Testament terms. The crossing of the Red Sea he likened to baptism. The eating of the manna and drinking the rock-water Paul likened to the Lord’s supper. These Old Testament events, implies Paul, were Covenant affirming events. Further, the implication is that the Old Testament and the New Testament churches were in fact one church whose shared hope was the covenant of God.

In Genesis 3 God promised fallen Adam and Eve a saviour who would re-establish a right relationship between God and human beings, which relationship Adam had messed up by his sin. God’s covenant was that He would act to reclaim a people for Himself, and that the people whom He saves would acknowledge Him as their God and live as His people.

Back to the church in the desert. They had been saved from the Angel of Death by the blood of a lamb, they had been brought safely through the Red Sea, and they heard God’s law that was for his people. They were publicly associated with God by several outward ties, but many of them were not pleasing to Him.

Many were not pleasing to God because they rejected Christ, whom Paul says ‘followed them’. Only Jesus Christ lived a human life that was pleasing to God. Those who trust Jesus Christ are associated with him by the new birth. These people become pleasing to God when they trust Christ.

How did these Old Testament people reject Christ? Many took the outward benefits without the inward change of regeneration. They did not see themselves as lost sinners. They did not believe God’s word. They did not look beyond the outward ritual of the sacrifices that they brought to God. They were playing ‘church’ rather than trusting the saviour who was represented to them in the sacrifices that God had instituted.

Paul’s warning to the Corinthians was that they too might possess all the outward benefits of a church (gospel preaching, the sacraments, fellowship, prayer) and yet not really be trusting the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel. They too might be playing church while rejecting Christ.

Paul then gives a number of negative examples from the church in the desert that the church in Corinth would do well to avoid. He refers to them all as exhibiting the reality of evil desires. The first evil desire was Idolatry. I’ll just talk about this one today.

To illustrate the danger of idolatry, Paul refers to the Old Testament incident of the golden calf. Moses was away receiving the law that was to guide the church to Christ. Aaron had a crowd pressing him to give them gods (Exodus 32:1 and Acts 7:40) to lead them because Moses, to their mind, had abandoned them. So Aaron causes a golden calf to be made.

Two separate things seem to be happening here. The people wanted ‘gods’ (elohim), which might imply gods other than the covenant God of Israel. This was contrary to the First Commandment that the people had already heard from the God who had rescued them from Egypt.

Aaron, however, was aiming to bring the people to focus on Yahweh, the true God by means of the calf. When the calf was finished, Aaron said, ‘This is your God (Elohim) who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ and he appointed a feast to Yahweh for the following day. This broke the Second Commandment which forbids the worship of the true God by idols.

The Hebrew language uses the same plural word to mean ‘gods’ or ‘God’ depending on the context. The people wanted ‘gods’, and Aaron used the same word to point them to ‘God’ who revealed Himself to Moses as Yahweh.

Idolatry is a two-edged sword. It can be the worship of false gods. It can also be the worship of the true God by inappropriate means.

Aaron’s aim in using a golden calf was perhaps ‘noble’, but making a calf to direct people to Yahweh was utterly wrong. We could say that Aaron was trying to be ‘seeker-sensitive’, and he thought that the calf would be an aid to worship. But, to introduce matter into the worship of God contrary to His word simply because it is appealing to people in the church (to keep them there) and might be attractive to people outside, is wrong.

We are not to be inventive in managing the public worship of God. God’s worship is His. It is His word, not our changing preferences, that ought to determine the content and means of worship. The golden calf incident was a failure of leadership on Aaron’s part. It is a failure that the New Testament church needs to avoid if things are not to end badly.