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1 Corinthians: The Church the World Needs: Stranger than Fiction
1 Corinthians 1:17 - 1:25
September 26, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
In “Stranger than Fiction,” we explore the contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God and how through this contrast Paul seeks to flip everything around to show us true wisdom.
View Sermon Transcript
Let me begin by asking you a question: What does it mean to be a thinking person today? I suspect that many New Yorkers would say that, at some point in the past, it might have made sense to believe in God, but those days are gone. Our understanding of the world has grown through extraordinary advances in science and technology, and therefore, we no longer need a god of the gaps. We don't need God to fill in the gaps in our understanding when it comes to things that we previously couldn't explain. There's a natural explanation for everything; and therefore, we no longer require the “god hypothesis.” Science has simply made religion irrelevant. The responsibility is on all of us to use our own power of reason to make sense of the world, and to help roll back the tide of ignorance and superstition.
The physicist Stephen Hawking once wrote,
“We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”
That just about sums it up, doesn't it? What is the conventional wisdom? Most people would probably say that if you give it enough time, science will eventually explain everything. Science will explain everything we need to know. Therefore, you shouldn't believe anything that cannot be scientifically tested or empirically proven. There's no God, no judgment, no heaven and hell. You've only got one life to live, so you better make the most of it. You don't need God in order to experience wonder because this world alone offers enough beauty and enough mystery to enthrall us for a lifetime. That's why many people would say today, if you do believe in God, you're a fool. You're delusional. You’ve given into some kind of escapist fantasy because you can't deal with reality. If you've ever been made to feel that way, I've got good news for you. You're actually in good company because the same exact thing happened to the Apostle Paul, and Paul knew precisely how to deal with it.
We're engaged in a very close study of the opening four chapters of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In this section of the letter, Paul draws a contrast between what he calls the wisdom of the world on the one hand, and the wisdom of God on the other. Through this contrast, he seeks to flip everything around, and show us that what we previously might have thought was foolish turns out to be wise, and what we might have thought to be wise, turns out to be quite foolish. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to 1 Corinthians 1, or you can follow along in the program. I'll be reading 1 Corinthians 1:17-25.
17For 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.
18For 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. 19For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20Where 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? 21For 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. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
The Wisdom Of The World
Paul draws this contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. First, let's consider what he has to tell us about the wisdom of the world. What you need to understand is that the Greek city of Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, and then rebuilt in 44 BC by Julius Caesar. It was rebuilt as a Roman colony, and so the Corinthians at this time, about a 100 years after that, prided themselves on being a Roman colony on Greek soil. That meant embracing everything Roman. They loved Roman culture. They loved Roman architecture, and they loved Roman entertainment. What were one of the ways in which the Romans entertained themselves? It might seem strange to us, but in an ancient city like Corinth, people would show up in droves, they would flock to hear some travelling speakers present new, fascinating ideas. The closest parallel to us today might be perhaps a podcast or a TED talk or a YouTube video that goes viral, not only because of the quality of the content, but also because of the sophistication and polish of the speaker, or the high production values of the video itself.
When the pandemic first hit 18 months ago, a friend forwarded me a video by Mark Rober, the former NASA engineer who has become a YouTube sensation. He’s got over 10 million subscribers who watch his videos about popular science. How did Mark Rober spend his time during the lockdown? He created an obstacle course for the squirrels in his backyard. He filmed the whole thing and then explained the physics behind how the squirrels can hop from one post to another and do these twists in the air and land on their feet. I have to admit that I received this video and I was hooked. I was sucked in. I watched Gus the squirrel chase nuts for 25 minutes. This is what would happen in an ancient city like Corinth.
Any good communicator knows that you have to figure out not only what you're going to say, but also how you're going to say it. In the ancient world, the what was human philosophy and the how was human rhetoric. It might be hard for us to wrap our minds around the importance of rhetoric, but this was one of the most sought after skills. People would pay huge sums of money to become trained in public speaking or to be able to make a persuasive argument in written form. Many of the people who made a living as public speakers, who would travel from town to town, were called Sophists. Listen to that word—the word Sophia, in Greek, is the word for wisdom. That's where the Sophists took their name. The only thing is, the Sophists were not really all that interested in wisdom. They prided themselves on their ability to win any argument, regardless of whether they knew anything about the subject at hand or not. They put all of their emphasis on their ability to speak with polish and sophistication. They tried to win people over through their clever word plays, or through their flowery imagery. They focused far more on style, rather than substance—often at the very expense of truth. That's all necessary background for us to understand what Paul is talking about when he speaks about the wisdom of the world, because he's thinking of the wisdom of the world in at least two different senses, both of which are negative. One form of wisdom is human rhetoric, and the second is human philosophy.
Let's take the so-called wisdom of human rhetoric first. The rhetoricians would emphasize style over substance, form over content. Paul, when he first came to the city of Corinth around the year 50 AD, unlike all those Sophists who had come before him, did not focus on a slick delivery. Instead, Paul tells us in v.17, he was sent by Christ “not to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom.” Right there he's taking aim at this ancient focus on rhetoric—the ancient focus on form rather than content. That's not to say that Paul didn't believe in the power of persuasion. He certainly did. We see that time and time again, Paul will use arguments and reason in order to try to persuade people to embrace the truth of Christianity. In fact, this letter is a perfect demonstration of Paul's ability to be quite sophisticated in his rhetoric. There's nothing wrong with relying on the powers of persuasion to try to help people embrace the truth, but Paul's point here is that when he came to Corinth, he did not rely on a slick delivery. He didn't rely on rhetorical tricks or gimmicks. He didn't try to manipulate people's emotions by pulling on their heartstrings, as so many speakers know how to do. Instead, Paul focused on the what, not merely the how of what he had to say. Otherwise, he feared that he would empty the cross of its power.
I've always taken some comfort from Paul's words here because I never studied philosophy. I was never very good at debate. If you have spent a little time with me, you know, I don't really have the gift of gab. It often takes me a long time to figure out what I want to say. When I was a child, I had a rather significant lisp, so no one would have ever thought I would grow up to be a public speaker. When I was in college, I sought career advice from one of the professors whom most loved and admired. You know what he told me? He said, “Whatever you do Jason, don't do anything that requires writing because you're not very good at it.” Here I am essentially writing a term paper every week, so there you go. But you know what? None of this matters because it's not ultimately about style. It's about substance. It's not about form. It's about content. Yes, of course, I work hard. Trust me, I work very hard to make sure that I communicate as clearly and effectively as I can, but at the end of the day, my goal is not to try to impress you with my words. My goal is to impress you with Jesus. And that's what Paul is talking about here.
So first, he takes aim at human rhetoric, but the second form of human wisdom, the wisdom of the world that he critiques, is human philosophy itself. Think about this. For centuries, the Greeks had established this long tradition of brilliant philosophy. Socrates. Plato. Aristotle. All of these great philosophers believed in the power of human reason to reach God, or the transcendent—what Aristotle might call the unmoved mover, or what Plato might call the ideal world of forms. But Paul says that God turns everything upside down, and renders the wisdom of the world foolish. So what is he driving at? Here in v.20 he says, “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?” Then he backs up this claim with this reference to Isaiah 29:14, which literally says that "the wisdom of their wise men shall perish.” It's also important to remember that Paul does not reject wholesale all forms of human philosophy. In fact, quite the opposite. Immediately before Paul arrived in Corinth, he visited the city of Athens, the intellectual capital of Greece. There, according to Acts 17, Paul makes a case for Jesus and the resurrection. It's fascinating how he does it because if you carefully look at that address that is summarized for us in Acts 17, Paul will quote some of the Athenian's poets and philosophers in order to make his case for Jesus. That's amazing. He's quoting pagan poets and philosophers in order to argue for Jesus and the resurrection. It's not as if he rejects human philosophy altogether, and nor should we.
There's a great story told about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They were very close friends. One night, after dinner, they went for a late night walk. As they were walking the grounds of Oxford, the conversation turned to the topic of myths. Now at this point, C.S. Lewis was not yet a Christian. He was open to the possibility of God but not ready to embrace Christianity because he believed Christianity was nothing more than an ancient myth. Lewis and Tolkien loved mythology. That was one of the things that brought them together. They had a deep affection for Northern mythology in particular, but Lewis explains to Tolkien that ultimately, myths are lies. They may be lies breathed through silver, but they are nevertheless lies. At that moment Tolkien responded by saying, “No, they're not lies.” Just then the wind blew, and the breeze rustled the leaves on the path upon which they were walking. That was a significant moment for Lewis, and later Tolkien would explain to him that Christianity may be in some ways similar to all those ancient myths except for this one critical fact: It is the true myth because it's based on actual events. That doesn't render all the other myths meaningless. Instead, Tolkien would write,
“We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”
Christianity is the myth that became fact. The one true myth. But all the other myths that we human beings have woven together—though they contain error because they're made by us—they nevertheless contain splintered fragments of the truth. That's why these stories that we humans tell ourselves can nevertheless be pointers to the reality of God. That is what Paul demonstrates in his address to the Athenians. Paul understood this. He's not afraid to use the poets and the philosophers in order to point to the reality of God. If that's the case, then what exactly is the problem with human wisdom or human philosophy? The problem is that you cannot argue your way up to God. You can't argue anyone into belief, including yourself. Even if you could somehow prove that God exists—that Aristotle is right, there must be some supreme being who is the unmoved mover, the first cause of every other cause, the one who set everything in motion—even if you could prove that argument, you still haven't described anything about what that supreme being, what that god might be like, or how you might relate to that god. We could never know anything about a supreme being who is beyond the natural world in which we live, unless that god chose to reveal himself to us, in the same way that you could never know what I'm thinking right now, unless I were to disclose it. But that is what God has done. The supernatural God, who stands behind the universe, has stepped out from behind the curtain, and made himself known to us specifically in the person of Jesus. Paul says that, that is the wisdom of God, in contrast to the wisdom of this world. Through the wisdom of this world, you can't climb your way up to God, but in the wisdom of God, he has come down and made himself known to us in the person of Jesus.
The Wisdom Of God
Let's take a closer look at what Paul has to say about the wisdom of God compared to the wisdom of the world. Paul thinks of the wisdom of this world in these two senses, both of which are negative—human rhetoric and human philosophy. Likewise, he thinks of the wisdom of God in two senses, although in this case, they're both positive. On the one hand, the wisdom of God refers to God's whole plan of salvation. His whole plan of making himself known and rescuing human beings, drawing us back into relationship with himself. The wisdom of God is the whole plan of salvation. Secondly, the wisdom of God refers to the very substance of that revelation, which is Jesus himself. The revelation of God finds its focal point in Christ and his cross. That in a nutshell is the wisdom of God. That's what Paul says in v.24 “Christ is the wisdom of God.” The primary way in which Jesus is communicated to us is not through flashy rhetoric, but through the rather ordinary mundane, sometimes boring, even terrible form of preaching. In contrast to the wisdom of the world, in v.17, Paul says he presents the word of the cross, and in contrast to words of eloquent wisdom, Paul tells us, he preaches Christ crucified. This is what sets up this great reversal regarding what we think is truly wise versus what we think is truly foolish.
Paul is fully aware that, given the background of his audience, the gospel is going to sound completely crazy. The message of the gospel is going to sound completely nuts to both people from a Jewish as well as from a Greek background. He says, “Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom.” What does he mean by that? First century Jews were hoping for a political Messiah. They were hoping that God was going to raise up another leader, like the prophets, the priests, the kings of centuries past and drive out the Romans, and make Israel a great nation again. If anyone claimed to be a Messiah, they wanted proof. They demanded evidence. The kind of hardcore evidence they wanted was miraculous signs. We want to see miracles. That's how we know that God is working through this leader like he worked through Moses in the past. As we see with the Greeks, they were not so interested in miraculous signs, but wisdom. They were looking for some kind of convincing, airtight philosophical argument that would sound smart and erudite, and that would prove beyond the shadow of a doubt who God really is, and how we enter into relationship with him. Jews demand signs, miraculous power. Greeks seek wisdom. Then Paul comes to Corinth. What does he do? He shows up in the synagogue and in the public square, and he says, listen, I want to tell you about a man who died on a Roman cross—and that is God in the flesh. He knows that it would sound completely insane. He comes and he tells them that the Creator God who has made this world and everything in it became a human being, but the Romans crucified him. They put him to death, not only in a way that maximized pain, but maximized shame. The cross was such a horror in the ancient world that no Roman citizen would ever look at a cross. Very few would even give thought to a cross. Yet despite the degradation of crucifixion, Paul says that God raised this crucified man from the dead. Crucifixion was reserved for the dregs of society, only criminals and slaves, and Paul says, not only did this man die, but God raised him from the dead, and even now he is reigning as the world's true king—even though not everyone sees that yet, but one day they will. Now Jesus, the true king is summoning all people everywhere to reorient their lives completely around him because he is ushering in a whole new creation and introducing a whole new way of being human. The Corinthians would have had every reason to hear that message and think this guy has completely lost his marbles. Where's your dramatic sign to back this up? Where's your airtight philosophical argument? This just sounds like madness.
That's not the kind of proof that the Jews were looking for. A Messiah was supposed to destroy the Romans not be killed by the Romans. A dead Messiah was a failed Messiah. A crucified Messiah would be a contradiction in terms. That's an oxymoron. No one would have thought that this sounded like some smart new philosophy. No, they would have thought that it was insane. That's why in v.23, Paul says the message of the cross is a scandal. It's “a stumbling block to Jews, and it is foolishness to the Greeks.” He's well aware that the truth about God sounds strange. But truth is often stranger than fiction. When C.S. Lewis eventually embraced Christianity, this is one of the reasons why he put his trust in Jesus. He would later say,
“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys' philosophies--these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either."
In other words: Reality is often stranger than fiction. Of course, people still reject Christianity as ridiculous today and say that you've got to be an idiot to believe it. Stephen Hawking once said that belief in God and the afterlife is a fairy tale. “It's a fairy tale for people who are afraid of the dark.” Oxford Professor John Lennox flipped that argument on its head and said, well, perhaps, perhaps atheism, the belief that there is no God, is "a fairy tale for people who are afraid of the light.” In a very similar way, that's exactly what Paul is trying to do here. He's trying to flip on its head, our expectations of what is truly wise and what is truly foolish.
Let me go back to the issue with which we began. Many people believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive. That science has rendered religion irrelevant, and therefore, we don't need it anymore. So the two are pitted against one another, but I don't see it that way at all. Science and religion are perfectly compatible with one another, as long as we realize that they both set out to answer different questions. They set out to answer two very different questions.
Perhaps I could give you an analogy. When I was in college, my mother would often send me a cake in the mail. She would send it every couple of weeks, and this wasn't an ice cream cake, because that would obviously melt. Nor was it a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, because that would be a mess by the time it got there. It was a different kind of cake. Let's say some of my classmates at school intercepted this package, and took the cake for themselves. Let's assume that they were budding young scientists. They wanted to find out, well, what kind of cake is this that could survive a trip in the mail? So they take it down to one of the chemistry labs and they run some tests. They run some experiments. They could probably figure out what this cake was made out of. Perhaps, they could even determine how it was made. They realize that the ingredients are flour and butter and sugar, but also sour cream, cinnamon and pecans. They realize this is some kind of coffee cake. So they can figure out what the cake was made of, and perhaps how it was constructed, but they could never figure out through those experiments who made the cake, or why. They could never know, especially if there was no return address on the package or note inside. They could never know who made the cake or why—that my mom made it because she loved me because she cared about me, she wanted me to know that she was thinking of me and perhaps because she sent so many cakes, she was worried I was a little too thin.
That's just how it is with the universe. Science can answer questions of: What is this world like? How does it operate? When did it come into being? But science can never tell us who is responsible for the world in which we live, and why we are here in the first place. Science is an incredible gift. The only issue is that it's limited by its own methodology. Science proceeds by observation and experiment. That's what it sets out to do, to tell us all about the observable world. But there are some questions that science can never answer. Science cannot tell us if there is a supernatural being or realm beyond the natural world, beyond the world that we can see and touch and measure. Science can never tell us why there's a universe rather than nothing at all. It can never tell us why there's something rather than nothing, or why the universe has the order that it has.
Science is an incredible gift. It can tell us answers to those questions of how and what and when but it cannot answer the questions of who or why. In other words, science cannot address questions of purpose or intent, and that is why this matters. Where is true wisdom to be found? Am I really wise, if I know all the ingredients in that coffee cake, but I don't know why it was sent to me? Am I really wise if I don't realize that my mom was trying to communicate her love and her care, through every cake that she baked and shipped and mailed to me? Are we really wise, if we don't know who is responsible for the world in which we live, and what he's trying to communicate to us? If we didn't know, wouldn’t we say that we were truly foolish? If we refuse to know, wouldn't that be even more foolish indeed?
When it comes to knowing God, the problem of discerning his reality, and even more important, his love for us is doubly difficult because God is not only an infinite being, and we are finite, but God is holy, and we are sinners. God is perfect and just, and we are flawed and rebellious. Not only can we not climb our way up to God through our own powers of human reason, we could never know who God is, unless God revealed himself to us. Even more, our sins have formed a barrier between us, preventing us from knowing him, even if we wanted to. Yet God in his wisdom, has chosen not only to make himself known in the person of Jesus, but also to address the problem of sin. So God, in his wisdom, becomes a human being who dies in our place as our substitute on a cross in order to pay our debt in order to remove the barrier of sin, so that we might know him and experience his love for us.
By grace, God has done everything that is necessary. He has taken the initiative to bridge the gulf between us, and by doing so, he has not only solved our problem, he has also solved his problem too. God also faced a dilemma. If God is holy, how can God express his holiness by punishing evil without compromising his love? And yet, if God is love, how can he express his love by forgiving sinners without compromising his justice? The answer is the cross because the cross is the place where God's perfect love and perfect justice meet. God is so holy, so holy, and you really are so sinful, that Jesus had to die for you. There was no other way for our sins to be wiped away so that God might be restored in relationship to us. And yet, God is so loving, and you are so valuable in his eyes, that Jesus was willing to die for you. He gladly went to the cross, in order to embrace you as his own. The answer is always the cross. The cross of Jesus is the true wisdom of God. It might sound like foolishness. Paul says in v.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.” Or v.21, he says, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom.” We cannot know God through human philosophy, but in the wisdom of God, he has made himself known, and “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach, to save those who believe.” You see that the cross is the wisdom of God. It might seem completely insane and crazy that God would become a human being and die on a cross for us. It might seem equally ridiculous that the primary way in which God would choose to make this message, this word of the cross known would be through the stupid act of preaching. I mean, how dumb is this? We come together every week to hear another human being talk for 30 minutes, sometimes more. It's foolishness and weakness. Yet God says, through his own power, it becomes the wisdom and the power of God. So the only question is, have you received that wisdom for yourself and have you experienced its power in your life? Because Jesus—and Jesus crucified—is the wisdom of God.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we acknowledge that the conventional wisdom today tells us that the message of the cross is utter foolishness. And yet we pray that you might help us to see how you in your wisdom flip everything around, so that what seems ridiculous is in fact very wise, and what seems so weak and futile and ineffective is actually remarkably powerful because you choose to work through this message, the word of the cross, the wisdom of God. Help us to receive it for ourselves so that we might experience its power. We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.