Christ the Wisdom and Power of God
18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written:
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
Many people look back now and realize that Abraham Lincoln was one of the great public speakers in American history. Yet, Lincoln himself often poked fun at his own speaking abilities. He made great hay with the technique of pointing out how learned and eloquent his debating or political opponent was, while he, as he often pointed out, was not nearly as eloquent. He spoke a simple message and did not try to sway anyone with flash and dash. The irony of all that, however, was that he could turn out a beautifully eloquent and timeless speech better than nearly anyone. Perhaps the big difference was that, although he was capable of doing that, this is not what he put his trust in. What was important to Lincoln was the truth and sincerity of his message.
This is precisely what Paul is doing here. Paul sets about to contrast the wisdom of the world, wisdom that was so admired in Corinth, with the wisdom of God. In doing so, he perhaps has a bit of fun. In denouncing worldly wisdom and fancy speaking techniques, Paul demonstrates that he is every bit as capable as any sophist of delivering a finely crafted phrase. Truly, Paul is capable of producing a wonderful work of flowing and balanced rhetoric, but that is not where he hangs his hat. For Paul, the message that Christ was crucified and defeated death through resurrection was his gospel. That was the power of his message and his ministry.
This passage may be flowing and beautiful, but his original message when he first came to the Corinthians was not. His message was the simple, unadulterated message of the gospel. The Corinthians would have quickly realized, though, that this wasn’t a brilliant new philosophy. This was madness. He wasn’t speaking about something that would stimulate the intellect, Paul was preaching about an executed criminal from a race that everyone despised. This is not a message that would appeal to the Gentiles, but it didn’t do much for the Jews either. The word translated ‘stumbling block’ here, means something that would entrap them in sin, a scandal. Paul’s point was that this was not a message that was going to impress anyone who was listening from a worldly point of view. It was foolishness to Gentiles, and scandalous blasphemy to the Jews. But the foolishness and scandalous message didn’t stop at a crucified Messiah. It got even crazier from a worldly perspective. This crucified Messiah was resurrected by the power of God, making the power of his resurrected life and his path of suffering for the benefit others available to those who would die to themselves and enter into his life. This was sheer madness to both Jew and Gentile alike.
Notice that Paul says, in verse 18, those who are being saved. The New Testament picture of salvation is not a moment of new birth that happens in a once-for-all instance. It is a process that will continue through our lives and only end at the glorious resurrection of the saints. This is why Paul could say, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, that we “are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” The Christian process of salvation is the gradual restoration and transformation of human beings into the image of God, a process that continues throughout our lives and will only be culminated in the resurrection of those who are in Christ. The hope of the resurrection is key for Paul as it distinguished the Christian faith from the pagan religions whose hope in their religion lied solely in this life in the form of health, wealth, prosperity, and rescue from peril and then culminated in release of their soul from the evil physical world. Resurrection put the things of this present age in proper perspective but also retained the reality that what we do in the present age matters because God will restore His creation one day (Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:21; Rev. 21:1-5).
When Paul got up to speak the message of the Cross, he let it do its own work. He didn’t try to trick or manipulate anyone into listening to his message by using fancy words or the latest speaking techniques. He spoke the simple story of Jesus and let the truth of it stand on its own. Sure, he can spin a few fancy sentences together like any of the great speakers, and he does so now to make a bit of a teasing point. He didn’t do that when he first came to them, though. He spoke nothing but the raw message of Christ crucified. Preaching that message released a different kind of power than the one the world was familiar with. It was the power of God. It may have seemed like ridiculous scandal through the eyes of the world, but it was the very power of God to those that would hear with spiritual ears. This doesn’t mean that Paul simply told the story of the crucifixion and nothing else. He is, in a shorthand sort of way, referring to the gospel message that Christ, the Davidic Messiah, was crucified, resurrected defeating death and making that resurrection available to all those who would lay down claims to their own lives and trust in his (cf. Rom. 1:1-6; 1 Cor. 15:1-10; Col. 1:23; 2 Tim. 2:8-11).
Paul could have made the point that God’s wisdom and power would blow away that of the world, but he doesn’t. He makes his point even stronger by saying that God’s foolishness is wiser than any human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than any human power or strength. Paul wasn’t speaking an appealing announcement of some mighty king that was establishing an impressive kingdom, although in a sense that is exactly what he was doing. He was speaking the absurd message of God dying at the hands of the Romans in a backwater, insignificant part of the world. This crucified criminal was supposedly beginning a kingdom that did not derive its power from anything that could be perceived in this world. It was a kingdom in which the weak and foolish were just as welcome, if not more so, than the wise, powerful, and impressive. The foolishness was, in the world’s perspective, the life of Christ. It seemed an absurd concept to the world, and still does, but it is the only way to resurrection and to God (Jn. 11:25; 14:6).
As he said in Romans 1:16, this message of the resurrection of Christ and its availability to those who would enter into and trust in his life (cf. Rom. 1:3-6), was one of which Paul was not ashamed. He would preach this sort of foolishness because he knew that this kingdom had the power to change the world. When people listened to this message it changed things. It changed people, it changed their perceptions, it changed their priorities, it created new communities and a new reality.
Paul says that “to us who are being saved,” the message of the cross is “the power of God.” Have you truly unleashed the power of God in your life. Have you completely surrendered and turned over every aspect of your life to God, or have you tried to cling to the wisdom of the world? The problem is that when we try to hang on to worldly wisdom, it limits the ability to truly unleash the power of God in our lives. What piece of worldly ‘wisdom’ do you need to let go of in order to fully realize the power of the message of the cross in your life?