Join Pastor Dan Bidwell for the second part in our Wisdom series, exploring wisdom as presented in the New Testament.
New Year Special
2. The Wisdom of the Cross Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor 1 Corinthians 1:18-30 2 January 2022
Back in the early days of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford had a problem with the electrical generators for his factory. One day the generators ground to a halt, and his repairmen couldn’t find the problem.
So Ford called electrical genius Charles Steinmetz. Just for reference, Steinmetz was friends with Albert Einstein, Nikolas Tesla and Thomas Edison. He was one of the great mathematical and scientific minds of the time.
Anyway Steinmetz tinkered with the machines for a few hours and then threw the switch. The generators whirred to life.
Ford was delighted, until he received the bill from Steinmetz. It was for $10,000. Flabbergasted, the rather tightfisted car maker asked for an itemized bill.
Steinmetz’s reply: For tinkering with the generators, $10. For knowing where to tinker, $9,990. Henry Ford paid the bill.
Today in church we are thinking about wisdom, and how to be wise. Sometimes the wisest thing you can do is go to the person who knows where to tinker. To go to the expert.
We’ll find that to be true as we open the New Testament this week to see what it says about wisdom. So why don’t we pray and ask God to make us wise as we open the Bible now?
Our heavenly Father, give us wisdom as we open your word today. Help us to know how to live wisely in the world, as we go about our everyday lives, and as we seek to follow Jesus. Grant us wisdom, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen
Well last week we began this little series about Wisdom in the Old Testament, in the book of Proverbs, where it said:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)
The Old Testament taught us that even to begin to be wise in this world, we need to acknowledge that there is a God, and know him. And it is by knowing him that we begin to know about ourselves, and our purpose in this world.
But the Bible doesn’t stop with the Old Testament. And what we know about God doesn’t stop with the Old Testament. The New Testament continues the story that the Old begun, and it takes the promises and prophecies and purposes of God and focuses them all onto one person: Jesus.
And so my first big idea is that to understand wisdom from the New Testament, you need to know Jesus.
New Testament wisdom is centered on Christ.
If wisdom comes from knowing God (as Proverbs 9:10 said) then we need to know Jesus. The Christmas season reminds us that Jesus is God’s own Son: Immanuel – God with us, God born in human flesh. Jesus himself tells us that if we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father (John 14:9).
Jesus reveals God to us. And that means that Jesus reveals God’s wisdom to us. Look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:24 (on your handout).
It says (at the end of v24):
Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:24)
We’ll come back and unpack that a bit more in a moment, but first come down to v30 with me, because Paul says the same thing again.
Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30)
If we want the key to godly wisdom, then we need to look at Jesus.
Now plenty of people would see Jesus as a wise teacher – perhaps even one of the greatest teachers and philosophers of all time. And Jesus did teach all kinds of practical wisdom. But is that the heart of who Jesus was, just a good teacher? If so, then what distinguishes him from a thousand other teachers and philosophers and voices of wisdom across the centuries?
To find the answer to that question, I want to look at 1 Corinthians 1, because it shows us that Jesus’ wisdom and worldly wisdom don’t have the same outcome. Jesus’ wisdom upturns everything that this world would define as wise. But in doing so, he reveals the most important wisdom we could attain. And that wisdom is captured in the message of the cross.
1 Corinthians 1:18 says:
18 For 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.
What is the message of the cross? The cross is the heart of God’s plan to bring righteousness, holiness and redemption to the world (1:30).
The story of the Bible in a nutshell is that God lovingly created the world, and everything in it. In his loving wisdom, God created it such that everything was good, and he designed it so that every element of creation would flourish as it existed in perfect harmony with its creator.
But sin shattered that perfection. Adam and Eve thought that God was holding back a blessing from them, and so they ate from the tree that God had forbidden them to eat of. It’s a powerful metaphor for the way that we all treat God – seeking to define what we think life should be like, shaping the world around us so that we get what we want, with little regard for the larger consequences.
Well Adam and Eve’s sin had larger consequences. It damaged the relationship between Adam and Eve as husband and wife, and that relational damage has played out in every human relationship since. More significantly, it damaged the relationship between humanity and God. It set us up as suspicious of God’s motives, and it made us wary of listening to his voice of wisdom in our lives. God’s wisdom tells us the best way to live in this world, the way he created us to live, but we’re like stubborn toddlers who don’t listen to reason.
Now toddlers are cute, even when they are misbehaving. But sin is not cute. It’s not insignificant. It is much more like the destructive behavior that breaks up relationships permanently, and sin has fundamentally broken our relationship with God. And that broken relationship with our Creator brings spiritual death, as we cut ourselves off from him, in this lifetime and into all eternity. Sin matters, because sin separates us from God’s blessing of life, now and forever.
I know this is an unpopular topic to speak about. But if we seek wisdom, this message can’t be avoided. It can’t be downplayed. As unpalatable as it is, understanding our sinfulness is the first step to gaining wisdom.
Because when we understand the problem, we can begin to understand why the cross was necessary.
You see God doesn’t want us to remain in sin. He doesn’t want us to remain separated from him, nor does he want us to face the eternal consequences of our sin. And so God sends Jesus to stand in our place.
On the cross, Jesus receives that damnation that we deserved. God’s justified anger at human sin was poured out on Jesus, until God’s wrath was satisfied, and Jesus was dead. Jesus bore the penalty for our sin in his body, the righteous for the unrighteous to make us right with God once more.
1 Corinthians 1:30 says that:
Christ Jesus [...] has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
On the cross, Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours. He transfers it to us. Like a loan satisfaction letter, that says we owe nothing more. The debt is paid. Jesus declares us righteous through his death on the cross. His holiness is credited to us. He makes us holy in God’s sight. And he brings redemption, where before there was only condemnation. On the cross, Jesus gives us a second chance with God.
This is the incredible message of the cross, the message of Christianity. That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). The cross displays God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness. The cross captures the essence of God’s wisdom.
Is this (the cross) where you find your wisdom for life?
Because to many, the cross does not look like wisdom at all. It looks like foolishness.
Come back to 1 Corinthians 1:18 with me. It says:
18 For 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.
Many people look at the cross and all they see is foolishness. Weakness. Defeat. Shame. And they look on Christians the same way – foolish, weak, deluded, pitiful.
And I don’t think that’s anything new. Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth just 20 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, and we can see that already the ‘wise’ of this world looked upon Christianity as foolishness.
In Corinth, there were two main streams of wisdom that came up against Christianity: the Jews and the Greeks.
Of course, Christianity grew out of Judaism, the Jewish religion. Jesus was Jewish, and the 12 apostles were Jewish also, along with many of the first followers of Jesus. But where Christianity and Judaism have remained separate for 2000 years is over the identity of Jesus. Judaism doesn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and the fulfilment of the OT. They are still waiting for the Messiah today. In Paul’s time, they were looking for signs. They wanted to see proof of who Jesus was. Their reason for rejecting the Christian faith is that it didn’t provide enough evidence. We still hear that same objection today, don’t we?
The Greek objection to Christianity was more philosophical. Greek culture prided itself on its philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle... The Greeks loved to argue, and the argument itself was perhaps more important even than being right or wrong. We all know people like that too, don’t we? With eloquent arguments, they make the Christian message sound weak and powerless.
And that’s the point of Paul’s argument here. The message of the cross does look like foolishness in the eyes of the world. But God has made it so deliberately. Follow the logic with me from v19:
19 For it is written:
[God says:] “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For 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.
As wise as the philosophers of this world are, their wisdom cannot lead us to salvation. We can’t reason our way to salvation. We can’t think our way to salvation, or come up with a mathematical equation that brings salvation. There is no quantum theory or economic theory that leads us into the presence of God. All those philosophies are good, but they can’t overcome the fundamental human issue which is sin.
And so instead, God provides an alternative wisdom, one that looks weak and sounds foolish as we speak it into a world that believes we are doing OK without God.
God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (v21)
Read on with me at v22:
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
We preach Christ crucified.
If you want to know Christian wisdom, it will always be rooted in the preaching of Jesus and the cross. Whenever we seek to apply the Bible to our lives, it must always be shaped by Jesus and the cross. Our wisdom, God’s wisdom, is shown supremely in Christ crucified. And that’s why we preach Christ crucified, even when that message is touted as foolishness by our neighbors and friends. Because as v21 says, God is pleased through the foolishness of what is preached to save those who believe.
The foolishness of the cross also means that the church itself will be seen as foolish in the eyes of the world.
I read an article in the NY Times this week entitled: Is the West Becoming Pagan Again?1 It was a reminder of declining church attendance in Western nations, and the way that Christian values no longer shape societal norms and government policy in the way they once did. It also said that the Millennial generation – which includes most adult Americans under 40 – is the first generation in which Christians are a minority.
We know it all too well in the area where we live – the San Francisco Bay Area is the least religious part of the entire United States. We have the highest number of people who are unchurched (never been part of a church) and the highest number of people who are dechurched – people who used to go to church but don’t go anymore.
The church is not impressive! And again, Paul says that is all part of God’s plan to overturn the wisdom of the world. In the perceived weakness of the church, and in the foolish message of the cross, God displays his power!
Paul writes this about the church in Corinth:
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose
1 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/29/opinion/christianity-paganism-woke.html 6
the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.
The Corinthians prided themselves on their social hierarchy. Wealth, position, influence, eloquence, all these were valued by Corinthian society and determined a person’s status in the social rankings. The Corinthian church, it seems, was not impressive by Corinthian standards. In a city filled with elaborate temples to the pagan gods, the first Christians met in peoples’ homes. And those first converts, not many of them occupied the upper strata of Corinthian society.
Actually when you think of the early church, it brought together all kinds of people with no societal status: women who had few or no rights in their society, slaves who were considered property not people, and all kinds of people who would not normally mix socially. In the gospel, God takes those lowly people and makes them his children, his people, his treasured possession, heirs of his kingdom. He tells the worthless things of this world that they are worth the death of his Son, he lifts them out of the dust and honors them.
That is how God shows his wisdom. He says that the trappings of worldly success mean nothing in the kingdom of God.
There is a particular lesson for us to learn from this little passage. As I read verse 26, I realize we are different from the Corinthian church because many of us here are wise by human standards, many are influential, many are of noble birth. God has assembled some very impressive people in this room, and it is quite humbling to stand here as your pastor. And every part of me wants to imagine that God will do impressive things amongst us. And I pray that he will.
But whatever impressive things we achieve together, we need to make sure that we stay rooted in the wisdom of the cross. That is, we need to keep preaching Christ crucified, and we need to keep focused on the message of the cross, no matter how foolish it might sound to the wise of this world. We need to keep rejecting the wisdom of the world that honors some people over others, and we need to follow the wisdom of Jesus who associated with people from every station of society. He honored the weak, he healed the sick, he loved the outcast, he rejected the kind of leadership that lords it over others, he forgave those who had made a mess of their lives, and he made a family out of those who followed him. That’s what the church should look like. If it doesn’t, it means we haven’t followed the wisdom of the cross.
There’s so much more to say about wisdom from the Bible, but this is a great place to start. How do we bring the wisdom of the cross to the front and center of everything we do as a
church? How do we pursue cross-shaped lives? And how do we follow the path that Jesus has set out for us?
Why don’t we pray about that now?