First Corinthians: The Wisdom of God

January 3, 2008

1Co 1:18 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.

1Co 1:22-24 Jews demand miraculous 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.

To first century Greeks, being well educated meant to study under one of the great Greek philosophers. Paul had encountered Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in nearby Athens shortly before entering Corinth (Acts 17:18). Many other branches of Helenistic philosophy competed for the minds of educated Greeks in Paul’s time. Each leading philosopher had a following, and debates among the factions were the order of the day.

Out of this community, many were converted to Christianity during Paul’s initial visit to Corinth (Acts 18:8). Although they had become Christians, they retained a strong dose of the philosophies that permeated their city. During the first few years after Paul left, the Corinthian church began dividing into factions behind prominent church leaders, much as the pagan Corinthians around them had formed factions behind different prominent philosophers.

One of the hardest things for any group of Christians to do is to avoid mixing the philosophies of their world with the teachings of Christ. It is easy for us to be critical of the Corinthians for forming factions behind men. But that was the natural thing for them to do. It was all that they knew. Similarly, it is easy for us to view the scriptures through the philosophy of our modern (or post-modern) world. And it is incredibly difficult for us to separate the two.

The early Restoration Movement bears the unmistakable imprint of the world in which it emerged. Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address brings to mind the American Declaration of Independence which preceded it by a mere 33 years. The philosophy that is evident through the early Restoration Movement is deeply rooted in the Age of Reason and Enlightenment thinking. They believed that we could all arrive at complete agreement on doctrinal questions through logical study of the scriptures, by making accurate inferences and deductions based solely on evidence found in the scriptures. Like the Corinthians, we have brought the philosophy of our time into the church. And the church often misses the mark as a result.

Although it is always difficult to keep human philosophy out of the gospel message, that does not make it ok to mingle the two. Paul did not just accept the way the Corinthians were mixing the gospel with Greek philosophy. The philosophy of their age had polluted the pure message, so Paul called the Corinthians back to the simple gospel. Unlike the message of the Greek philosophers, the gospel was simple: Christ was crucified for our sins. The Greek philosophers despised that notion as irrational. They reasoned that a god could not be controlled by a mortal. So they believed that a god could not love a mortal, could not grieve over mortal failings, would never stoop to becoming mortal, and could not suffer. To them, the gospel was foolishness.

But the power of the gospel is evident only when it is seen in its pure simplicity.

1Co 1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel–not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1Co 2:1-5 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

The simple gospel can move the heart of the simplest person, or of a king. God sent his son to die for me. It is that simple. The story is not made more convincing by sophisticated reasoning. It is not made more compelling by human illustrations and stories. It is not made more precious by the greatest musicians and artists. God sent his son to die for me. That is the gospel.

Paul did point out that there are deeper teachings of wisdom for the mature. But the Corinthians were not mature, and therefore could not yet receive that teaching. Until they understood the foundation of the gospel, they were not ready to move on to the deeper truths. They needed to weed out the philosophies of men. Likewise, the church today needs to weed out the philosophies of our age from our understanding of the gospel. Then we can move on to the deeper truths.

Note that what Paul taught was not the product of human wisdom. He did not make anything up.

1Co 2:12-13 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.

Here Paul makes a very clear that his message was given to him by the Spirit of God. He describes the message as “words taught by the Spirit.” Paul’s message was verbally inspired. God’s Spirit told him what to say and how to say it. Paul took no credit for the wisdom in the message. Every word came directly from the Spirit of God. That will become very significant later in the letter, as Paul delivers commands and instructions from God to the Corinthian church.

Not only was Paul writing to the Corinthian church, but to us as well:

1Co 1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours:

When Paul wrote “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he included Christians today. When we read 1 Corinthians, we are not reading someone else’s mail. It is a letter from God, to us, delivered by the apostle Paul.

As we proceed through 1 Corinthians, we need to resist the urge to inject our modern and post-modern philosophies into the scriptures. The teachings of scripture should not be adapted to the values of our time. Instead, our values should be modified to conform to the wisdom we have from God, in these verbally inspired scriptures. The wisdom of our culture is foolishness to God.

1Co 1:25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

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