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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
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? 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. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 ESV
The concept of death by crucifixion, while not invented by the Romans, was certainly perfected by them. It was a horrific means of death, intended as much for crime prevention as it was for punishment. To those living under the jurisdiction of Roman rule, crucifixion was viewed as a hideous way to die, reserved for the vilest of criminals and the scum of the earth. And yet, Paul reminds his readers, it was the God-ordained means of death for Jesus Christ. The death of Christ on the cross was at the heart of the gospel message preached by Paul, Apollos and Cephas. Paul insisted, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23a ESV). What made that message even more “foolish” to the ears of those who heard it was the fact that Christ’s death was followed by His resurrection. It was His death, followed by His miraculous Spirit-empowered resurrection, that made the message “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23b ESV).
And yet, the message of the cross revealed the very wisdom of God. It was His chosen means of providing justification for sinful men and women. It was through the “foolishness” of the cross that sinners could be restored to a right relationship with a holy God. But as Paul points out, “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” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). There is nothing about the message of the cross that makes sense to the sinful men. It sounds ludicrous, far-fetched and unbelievable. It is written off as a fable or myth by many. It is laughed off by others as nothing more than the wishful thinking of the uneducated. But Paul insists that it is the very “power of God.” As Paul wrote in his letter to the believers in Rome, “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). And God was using this message to “destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent” (1 Corinthians 1:19 NLT).
By arguing over who followed who and which leader was more impressive than the other, the Corinthians believers were diminishing the true message of the gospel. They were making the wisdom of man more important than the wisdom of God. They were elevating eloquent speech and impressive oratory skills over the simple, yet profound message of Christ crucified. The ability to debate theology or impress others with your knowledge of the Scriptures meant nothing without the cross. Which is what led Paul to ask, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” (1 Corinthians 1:20 ESV). The wise and religious didn’t come up with the idea of the cross. God did. The Jewish scholars didn’t recognize the prophecies concerning the suffering Savior. In fact, Jesus told the religious leaders of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40 ESV). They were unable to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, because He didn’t appear as the kind of Messiah they were expecting. They had been looking for a conquering king, not a suffering servant. The crown the envisioned Him wearing was made of gold, not thorns. They expected Him to free them from bondage to Roman rule, not sin.
The “wisdom of the world” to which Paul refers has little to do with knowledge or book knowledge. He is speaking of the philosophical insights of men designed to explain the world and our place in it. It is man’s attempt to understand and explain the presence of evil, suffering, and pain, as well as present an acceptable, rational path to hope and happiness. But nothing man has come up with has worked. Materialism, religion, hedonism, pacifism, pleasure, wealth, love – mankind has tried it all. But as Solomon said so well, “But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere” (Ecclesiastes 2:11 NLT).
As believers, we are to be followers of Christ, not men. We are to place our hope in the cross, not the clever arguments or convincing messages of this world. Like Paul, we are to believe that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25 ESV). Our salvation was the result of the cross, not the words of men. Our sanctification or ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ is based on the message of the cross, not human wisdom. And it is the cross that will make possible our ultimate glorification, the resurrection of our bodies and our final transformation into the image of Christ. To some, it all sounds like foolishness. To others, it acts as a stumbling block, preventing them from embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and experiencing the power and wisdom of God as found in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. For Paul, the message of the cross was more than enough. He didn’t feel compelled to trick it up, tone it down, make it more palatable or acceptable, or gloss it over with clever-sounding words or sophisticated philosophical arguments. As he told the Corinthians later in his letter, “when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2 ESV). For him, the message of the cross of Christ was enough, because it revealed the wisdom and the power of God. And if the simplicity of the cross was good enough for God, it was good enough for Paul.