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. — 1 Cor. 1:17
With these words, Paul gets at the heart of the Gospel’s power. Paul states that Jesus sent him to preach, not with words of eloquence and human wisdom, which according to Paul would deplete the cross of its power. The Gospel’s power (literally, dunamis) is demonstrated in the cross.
But the cross poses some serious problems. Many scholars agree that “the cross” is Paul’s shorthand for the Gospel. It is his way of summarizing the “matters of first importance” he talks about in 1 Cor. 15: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Cor. 1, Paul affirms that the message of the cross is considered nothing more than foolishness in the eyes of many. The Greek word for “foolishness” is moria, from which we get our English word “moronic.” Paul is using strong language here. To some, the Christian message is simply moronic.
But to those who believe, the cross is both the wisdom and the power of God.
Some questions emerge as we read this text. What is human wisdom? I don’t believe Paul is disparaging the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, Jesus teaches that part of loving God completely means loving Him with our whole minds (Mark 12:30). Rather, it seems that Paul is speaking against what we would call “worldly wisdom.” And what is worldly wisdom? Among other things, we could define worldly wisdom as the pursuit of happiness, the accumulation of possessions, and the lust for status and success. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” According to worldly wisdom, to live well is to pursue such a lifestyle. If so, then anything resembling failure and unhappiness would be considered “foolish.”
Why does Paul speak so negatively about worldly wisdom? I think it’s because in the name of human wisdom, Jesus was condemned to death. Jesus disturbed the established order. He questioned the social hierarchies of His day. He was politically dangerous to the Jewish religious leaders. Remember, “human wisdom” found him deserving of death.
Where can we find true wisdom? Paul’s answer is startling: the cross.
By extolling the cross as the source of true power, Paul offers a prophetic word against the prevailing culture of our day. In no uncertain terms, Paul says that the message of the cross is either foolishness or the power of God. These words leave no room for middle ground. Paul’s contrast presents two different ways of understanding life, the world, etc. Paul argues that the cross has now become the criterion, the benchmark, for understanding reality. The “foolishness of the cross” redefines the entire world for us.
To put it another way: the cross has become our story. We all live out of a particular story. Following his conversion after Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Paul’s story became the story of the cross. He’ll say as much in 1 Cor. 2:2, For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. For Paul, the cross has become normative; it is the lens through which he understands everything. And the same is true for us.
The message of the cross produces a cruciform life, a cross-shaped life.
- A cruciform life rejects worldly wisdom in favor of God’s wisdom.
- A cruciform life rejects the unabashed selfishness the world preaches in favor of the second mile-service Jesus preaches.
- A cruciform life rejects “He who dies with the most toys wins” in favor of “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Paul’s summarizes the entirety of the Christian worldview with his teaching on “the cross.”
Paul goes on to say in v22-24, Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The word for “stumbling block” is skandalon, from which we get our English word “scandal.” The Gospel message is scandalous, shocking. Nothing could be more unlikely than this: redemption comes through the humiliating crucifixion of a Jewish rabbi 2,000 years ago.
But it seems that the cross has lost some of its scandal these days. We see it as a positive religious symbol, as decoration, as jewelry. But it was not always like this. The Romans used crucifixion to make an example of those who disturbed the Roman peace. It was a public display of Roman law and order. Roman citizens who committed crimes were not crucified. This punishment was reserved for revolutionaries, insurrectionists, the worst criminals, and people without status, like slaves. To speak of the cross was to speak a word of torture, shame, degradation, weakness, and failure.
And the cross is precisely the instrument God chooses to bring about our redemption. The story of the cross makes the preposterous claim that God came to earth and took the form of a lowly human. It tells the story of a poor Galilean born in a manger, raised in a nowhere town. More than that, the cross claims that the Eternal God subjected himself to the most humiliating and excruciating kind of death. And His motivation for all of this is love.
No matter how you try, the scandalous message of the cross cannot be watered down or domesticated. The cross tells of the scandal of foolish love. The cross challenges all rival value systems. We live in a world in which success is as important as it has ever been and we tend to measure success with basically the same metrics as the Corinthians: by power, by grades, by promotions, by recognition, by possessions. We measure success by the number of friends we have, the number of followers we accumulate, the number of likes our posts garner. And all of this “worldly wisdom” regarding success is seductive.
- It can land you in a powerful but soul-draining job.
- It tempts us to ignore real human encounters as we continue to climb the ladder of success.
- Worst of all, it can lead us to think that God’s ways really are foolish.
And it has always been this way. In the 1940s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger.” Such an image was strange in the 1st century, the 20th century, and even today.
But hear these words again: God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is lowly and despised so that no one may boast. This is the message of the cross: foolishness to the world but the power of God to those being saved.
According to worldly wisdom, it makes no sense that salvation comes through the death of a convicted felon in the Middle East.
Just as it makes no sense to give up what I have so another can get ahead.
It makes no sense to love those who have hurt me.
It makes no sense to turn the other cheek when someone strikes me.
It makes no sense to go the second mile when all that is required is one.
It makes no sense to offer forgiveness in the way Jesus teaches, to forgive seven times seventy.
God’s ways indeed sound foolish when we’ve been well versed in the ways of worldly wisdom.
As we participate in the mission of God, we should remember that our message is scandalous. But this message, considered “foolish” by so many, reveals the power and wisdom of God to us.
I agree with William Edwin Orchard, a British author who wrote these words nearly 100 years ago, “It may take a crucified church to bring a crucified Christ before the eyes of the world.” May our lives bear witness to the power and the wisdom of God that we have encountered in the cross of Christ.