Unwise Wisdom

Studies in First Corinthians

by Bob Burridge ©2016

Lesson 4: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (ESV)

Unwise Wisdom

Growing up isn’t easy. It’s not hard to get older, taller, heavier, or even smarter. Just staying alive accomplishes these things without much effort. But it takes effort to stay healthy and to mature in our wisdom and behavior. The challenges God brings into our lives are there to help us learn how to deal with things more maturely. We can always improve in how we handle our challenges, and better live up to our responsibilities and potentials.

Spiritual maturity is a challenge every Christian faces. Corinth was a church that had not shown the spiritual growth it should have. (We will see more of that as we continue our study of this letter.)

Maturity includes learning how to deal with differences we have with other people’s beliefs and behaviors. The immature deal with them very poorly, in ways that conflict with how God made things to work.

  • – The immature often shift back and forth trying to find the more comfortable middle-ground. They keep blending ideas together hoping to find something that seems to please everybody. But when you mix unbiblical theories and behaviors with truth, you end up with uncertainty, insincerity, and error.
  • – The spiritually immature might try to deny that there are any real differences with other beliefs. They imagine that deep down inside we are all really the same and believe the same core truths. They use words with vague meanings so it seems like we are saying the same things when we are not.
  • – Some who are spiritually immature become aggressively defensive, angrily attacking every difference. But attacking does not always communicate truth. It often shows a lack of patience and kindness. If our hearts fail to show the fruit of the Holy Spirit the gospel is disgraced in the eyes of others.

The mature person has a firm confidence in what he believes. He does not need to pretend that other views don’t really exist. He doesn’t see a need to compromise with wrong things, or to viciously attack every different idea. He does not let it upset him when others disagree with him, or have different beliefs and values. His wisdom comes from a confident knowledge of what God says in his word. He trusts in the power of the real truth and in the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than in his own skills to win arguments, or to make the gospel appear more acceptable.

From the world’s point of view its best to adjust your views and practices to be accepted. We are surrounded by that principle every day.

  • – Entertainment often provides whatever the audience wants, even beyond moral limits.
  • – Many politicians adjust their positions by the polls, rather than by what they think is right.
  • – People lie, adjusting the truth to keep out of trouble, to avoid inconvenience, or to impress others.
  • – Some churches adjust their worship to whatever attracts the biggest crowds, regardless of God’s own instructions about what makes worship acceptable to him.

Spiritual immaturity was causing a serious problem of disunity in the church of Corinth. Confusion and compromise with error had led to bickerings and a party spirit. In 1 Corinthians 1:11-17 Paul showed his concern that the church there had divided into factions. The Gospel was not meant to be enhanced by clever words and trendy gimmicks. Those things make the Cross of Christ into something empty and void of importance.

The bickering factions in Corinth were being taken in by foolish theories and false expectations. The Jews had a distorted idea of what the Messiah would be. The Gentiles (influenced by Helenism) loved humanistic intellectualism. The deceived believers who followed these popular trends had decentralized the cross of Christ, and were tearing apart God’s church.

The lost should not become our trend-setters.

18. 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.

The ones who do not trust God’s truth see useless foolishness or folly where there is really effectual power.

Paul is not saying that those in the Corinthian Church were the ones who were perishing. He had just called them saints and brothers in Christ. But the message of the cross was being endangered in the church because they were being influenced by some who were indeed perishing. When God’s wisdom is abandoned for worldly ideas that appeal to man-centered values the power that saves us is ignored.

In Galatians 3:1, Paul wrote, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”

Those who are perishing can not see the great value of the gospel. They do not want to. So we should not listen to them. And we certainly should not adjust the gospel to please them. They see God’s truth as something foolish. The Greek word for folly or foolish is “moria” (μωρία) from which we get our words moron, and moronic. The perishing ridicule the one thing that could transform their lives. It makes no sense to them. So they add ideas to what they see as Christianity to make it more acceptable to their fallen hearts. But when wrong ideas are mixed with truth, the meaning is twisted and it becomes a lie.

Those who are saved know the gospel’s power. The message of the Cross saves fallen humans from their sin infected outlook, and from eternal judgment. It accomplishes what worldly wisdom fails to do. It changes hearts and delivers. It brings meaning to life and real purpose to why we are here.

To support his message, Paul quotes from God’s word.

19. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Many times the advisors of Israel gave poor advice to God’s people. Claiming to be wise they made foolish treaties with ungodly nations, and encouragd the worship of idols. But their wisdom only caused more disobedience against God. Though they were sometimes delivered from foreign aggressors, they took the credit for themselves. They failed to give God the glory. Their wisdom was actually ignorant foolishness that impressed men, but God was offended. The lasting effect of foolish advice was only more condemnation from their Creator. Eventually unwise wisdom is exposed for what it was. Israel’s foolish advisors guided them into captivities and defeat, and finally brought about the end of National Israel as God’s People.

Similarly in Corinth, all the ideas and theories of human thinkers amount to nothing. It’s the wisdom of God that has lasting value, and is credited with our deliverance.

The word “wisdom” appears many times in this passage. It was probably at the root of the disputes that caused the divisions. Most generally, wisdom is the ability to piece information together, interpret it’s meaning, and put it into practice effectively. Fallen people who take pride in their ability to interpret and apply the facts mix wrong theories with distorted truths so their conclusions are wrong and dangerous. God’s wisdom is the only system of truth that takes things into account as they really are.

Worldly-wisdom fails to do what it aims to do.

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?
21. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

History and experience confirm the failure of the world’s approach to wisdom. Again, Paul refers to passages in the Book of Isaiah (19:12 and 33:18). The advisor who claimed to be wise, and the skilled scribes are all gone. Their plans and skills changed nothing. To these examples he adds the debater who argued in the forums for the Helenistic philosophies.

The plans and programs which the world sees as wisdom are just foolishness. They lack one important element: they don’t know the One True God. Their speculations and theories are based upon misconceptions. They fail to consider what the Scriptures present as truth.

The Gentiles had the testimony of God’s creation and providence surrounding them day and night. Their own conscience was a monument to the fact of moral responsibility. But they refused to accept what these witnesses clearly say.

The Jews had the Old Testament which many of the leaders had modified by adding the writings of the Rabbis along with the pagan beliefs and values of the world. But because of their lost condition, they did not know the truth God had revealed. They were willfully blind and hopelessly confused. Yet they came across as so confident, arrogantly sure of themselves. But they never saved anyone. The problems they tackled continued. They had no real answers.

Today, the situation is about the same. The world around us irradiates us constantly with its pagan outlook. It’s more prideful than ever with its advanced information technology and accomplishments. But without the truth of God to set the boundaries and give meaning to things, the lost world distracts us from the real goal and purpose of the lives God graciously gave us. When we bring wrong values and beliefs into our lives God’s ways are twisted around. Since sinful ideas come in various ways, factions form and divisions take place. Prejudice, intolerance, anger, and violence rip people apart from one another.

As believers we need to keep our eyes on God’s truth which brings us together. We need to avoid the distractions and temptations that undermine the work of Christ. Without the solid standard of God’s word, people’s differing beliefs only stir arguments. They may win debates or build large associations, but they accomplish nothing.

God exposes worldly wisdom for what it really is: foolishness — it doesn’t fit with reality. Lost people do not even grasp their real problem. They are separated from God because of sin. By all their advanced knowledge they can not discover their need for grace. The smartest of men can not change their own nature. The minds they use in doing their investigations and in forming their theories are distorted by their moral isolation from God and the barrier of sin.

What pleased God was something disarmingly simple. He uses the mere declaration of his word to change what all the world’s wisdom can not change. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, which appears foolish to them, believers are saved. The word translated as “preach” is not limited to pulpit sermons. The word was commonly used in Paul’s time the way we use the words: “declaring, announcing”. Without gimmicks or rhetoric the message itself is used by the Holy Spirit to regenerate. The Word of God in the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit transforms lives, and through the work of Jesus on the Cross reunites us with God.

There is astounding power in the message of the cross.

22. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,
23. but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,
24. but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
25. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The unbelief that drives the lost souls looks for the wrong path to being made right with God. At the root is unbelief in God’s truth. That’s the standard philosophy of every lost soul.

The Corinthians were being influenced by two major views.

1. The Jews wanted signs, ones that fit with their own expectations, not the ones Jesus did. They expected a Messiah to defeat Rome and to make the Jews dominate over the Gentiles. So the idea of a Messiah who suffered and died for sin was a stumbling block to them.

God had said through Moses in Deuteronomy 21:23 that a person who was killed hanging on a tree was cursed.
The cross was that same kind of execution. Jesus took the curse his people deserve and paid it in their place. That was not the kind of Messiah the Jews expected or wanted.

Dr. Haldane said, “A free salvation becomes an offence to men on account of their pride.” They will not admit their corruption by sin, their guilt, their inability to merit God’s favor. They will not submit to a God who is sovereign and just.

So Israel stumbled at this truth in their unbelief. They showed evidence that there was no saving faith implanted in their hearts. It exposed them as enemies of God, as not being part of the remnant by grace.

2. The Greeks want wisdom that fits their definition of knowledge, not what God says it is. The unbelieving Greeks see a dying Savior as folly, foolishness, not meeting their standards of wisdom. It was moronic to the Gentiles. They looked for a kind of wisdom that fit their own arrogance.

But to the believers, the message of the cross is the power and wisdom of God. Jesus was crucified to settle God’s justice for all his people, Jews and Gentiles. His one act of atonement reversed the curse of Adam.

The simple, unadorned gospel works.

It has converted souls and done what the world’s ideas could never accomplish.

The message should not be adjusted or enhanced to cater to the world’s expectations. We are not united by pretending we all agree when we don’t. We are not called to argue and debate with slick words and manipulative emotions to win followers. We are not to blend false ideas and innovative programs into some compromised mix that attempts to create the illusion of unity and success.

Religious groups who call themselves “Christian” are divided today over such compromises. Some modify worship into a spectacular show to entertain and please their audiences. Some change evangelism into a watered down message to appease those still lost. Some use means contrary to God’s ways to raise money, attract interest, and build great movements.

God’s truth and the power of the Cross itself are judged as troublesome and foolish by the lost world. But by this simple means, God has purposed to gather his true believers into a family. By this gospel way he redeems his lost world and builds his church.

There is no actual foolishness or weakness in God. God’s wisdom, which they call foolishness, is wiser than the world’s wisdom. God’s power, which they see as weakness, is stronger than all God has created. The gospel which they attack exposes the foolishness of man’s wisdom and the weakness of his power.

We are wise and strong when we humbly adhere to God’s truth. In it there is power to achieve what the world around us can’t even imagine.

(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)

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