The Foolishness of the Cross
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (2:1-5).
Paul did not preach anything except Christ and His cross. That’s all that any faithful preacher can bring to an audience of eternity-bound souls. Paul did not want the Christians in Corinth to glory in Apollos, Cephas, or even in Paul. He ended chapter 1 by quoting Jeremiah, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” He means that one should not boast about any human teacher but only about what God has done for the salvation of mankind.
What has God done? God has devised a plan that no human would ever have thought about. That plan was to send His Son to the cross of Calvary. No one could have conceived the idea of sending God’s Son to suffer on that old, rugged cross. In all of our dreams, thinking, comprehension, and understanding, we would never have been able to devise such a means for saving sinful man through the power of the cross. But someone may ask, “Why not? Is it not true that some noble people do, from time to time, take on themselves the penalty that is due to another?” That is what Jesus did on the cross. And have not others done the same thing in principle, both in real life and fiction?
Read about the holocaust that was brought about by the activities of the leaders of Nazi Germany. Have you read Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place? It relates to some of the sacrifices made by some individuals during that period. They were willing to suffer imprisonment and even the death of two members of that family, who took on themselves the treatment that otherwise would have been visited by their Jewish neighbors. This is not fiction. But there is well-written fiction that presents the same concept. Very few people have graduated from high school without reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Remember the storyline? It is about a man named Sydney Carlton, who gave his life in place of a French nobleman whose appearance was similar to his own. He substituted himself and went to the guillotine instead of the man who had been condemned to die in that fashion. So, to make such a sacrifice on behalf of others is not something that human beings do not think about or do.
What, then, is different about the cross of Christ? Verse 21 tells us that God did draw a plan that human beings would not have considered: For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. The message preached is the cross of Christ (verse 23). The world, in its wisdom, did not know God, so God was pleased to present a plan of salvation. The Jew could not have conceived such a plan because the cross was a scandal to him. The Greeks, in general, could not have conceived it because it was absurd to them. Paul discusses these facts in verses 22 through 24.
The Jewish people knew their Scriptures –what we call the Old Testament. They knew Deuteronomy 21 says, “He who is hanged is accursed of God.” To their minds, Jesus, having been hanged on the cross, was accursed of God. In Galatians chapter 3, Paul explains that Jesus did indeed become a curse to free those who were under the curse of the Law –everybody who did not keep the Law perfectly, meaning everybody who was under the Law. So, the Jew could not look at the cross and recognize the wisdom of God.
The Gentiles regarded the plan of God for His Son to die on the cross as foolishness. It was just plain absurd. They were enamored of their philosophies, and there was no place in any Grecian system of philosophy for the cross of Christ. The word “philosophy” is from phileo, love, and sophia, wisdom. It means love of wisdom. God’s plan did not fit in with the wisdom of Zeno (Stoicism) or Epicurus (Epicureanism or Cynicism). It was the wisdom of God that brought about the suffering of our Savior at Golgotha. And that is what is meant in verse 21. The message of the cross was foolish to the Greeks, but it was the good pleasure of God to save the believer of the message by that means. So far, then, as it pertains to man’s salvation, God, in this way, destroyed the wisdom of the wise.
In verse 19, Paul writes, For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” The point here is that by making our salvation dependent on His wisdom, He caused human wisdom to amount to absolutely nothing so far as our eternal welfare is concerned. The passage Paul quotes here is in the 29th chapter of Isaiah. It would, I think, be good for us to turn to that chapter and find the context in which the passage occurs. Often in the New Testament, when a passage is quoted from the Old Testament, it is not the language quoted that is of primary importance; instead, it is the context of that passage. Sometimes, when a passage is quoted, it carries with it the entire context in which it is found. If we do not understand that, we may often wonder why a New Testament writer quoted a particular verse. It may seem at first blush to have nothing to do with the point the writer is making. Still, when we look at the verse within its Old Testament setting and realize that all of that setting is a commentary on the use made of the verse by the New Testament writer, it makes sense. That is the case with Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 29:14, so let’s look at the context of the verse.
I hope you are over in Isaiah with me. But keep your finger in 1 Corinthians; we’ll return to it. The entire pericope has two paragraphs before we get to verse 14. Read first verses 9 and 10:
Pause and wonder! Blind yourselves and be blind! They are drunk, but not with wine; They stagger, not with intoxicating drink.
For the LORD has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, namely, the prophets; And has covered your heads, namely, the seers.
What is the prophet talking about? In the previous chapter, some of the prophets had been charged with drunkenness. Prophets were not always the godly men they should have been. So, they were said to be too drunk to prophesy accurately. But not all of the prophets were wicked men. God still had some prophets who told the truth, some who still received visions from the Lord and preached the word of God to the people of Israel. So when we come to the 29th chapter, attention turns from the wicked prophets to the people themselves.
Because of their attitude toward the word of God, God had made them like drunken people. That is the passage we have just read. What does it say again? They were drunken but not with wine. They stagger, but not with strong drink. Here, the hearers of the prophets, also referred to as seers, are staggering around. But it is not literal intoxication caused by drinking literal wine or alcoholic beverages. What made them act that way then? It is explained like this: Their spirit was one of deep sleep, in which they had covered their heads and blocked all light from their eyes. Here, we have poetic or figurative language used, in which the prophets, or seers, are called the eyes, or heads, of the people being addressed. Why did God bring them a deep sleep? Because they were not interested in hearing His word as spoken by His prophets. So God poured out on them the spirit of deep sleep so they would not know the teaching of the prophets.
Some people cannot easily be awakened from a deep sleep because they have covered their eyes and maybe plugged up their ears.
That is how it was with the people to whom Isaiah spoke. The prophets could come and proclaim to them the word of the Lord, and they knew nothing about it because they did not want to know. So God had put into them a spirit of deep sleep. That is the first illustration the prophet uses. The next one is found in verses 11 and 12:
The whole vision has become to you like the words of a sealed book, which men deliver to one who is literate, saying, “Read this, please.” And he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”
Then the book is delivered to one who is illiterate, saying, “Read this, please.” And he says, “I am not literate.”
Books in those days were not like the books that opened up. They were scrolls. One would write on papyrus or sometimes on animal skins. These would be rolled up, and a seal might be placed on them. The prophets’ visions were God’s word, but they were like a sealed scroll to the people. Now, you ask an educated person to read from the book, and he will say, “I can’t read it because it is sealed.” You ask an illiterate person to read it, and he too will have to decline because he can’t read any book, sealed or not. So, the words of the prophets were not heard by the people; that is, not heard in the sense of understanding. This is further explained in verse 13:
Therefore, the LORD said:
“Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths, And honor Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men,… I’ll stop here in the middle of the sentence to call attention to the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ made reference to this passage in Mark 7:6, 7. He quotes from Isaiah and says that the people of His time were like those of Isaiah. But Jesus apparently quotes from the Greek version of the Old Testament rather than the Hebrew (or Mark chose to render it so). He says the Pharisees and scribes were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Preachers sometimes misapply this passage. They point out that if we depart from the teaching of Christ, the inspired Scriptures, our worship is vain. I do not doubt this is the case, but that is not what this passage is saying. Jesus meant the same thing that Isaiah meant. These people knew the right words but had learned them only by rote memory. The prophets spoke the word of God, and the people learned it by memory, but the teaching never got into their hearts. What people learn may indeed be only human traditions. Or they may in fact be the words of divine revelation. But the teaching has failed to penetrate their hearts.
That illustrates the way unbelieving people were in Isaiah’s day. They were staggering around like they were drunk, though they were really asleep and had covered their eyes, so they could not accept the word spoken by God’s prophets. They were like people to whom the word of the Lord was a sealed book they could not read. They knew well enough what the Lord required of them, but what they knew did not make them love God and give their whole heart to Him. They were not attuned to doing right and living out the truth. Now we come to the last verse in the pericope we are looking at –the verse that Paul quoted in part in 1 Corinthians chapter 1:
Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, A marvelous work and a wonder; For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, And the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden.
The marvelous work and wonder that God promises is the cross of Christ. It was a marvel and wonder to both Jew and Gentile, for human wisdom could never have conceived such a plan for the redemption of sinful mankind. But God set at naught the wisdom of men. It amounts to nothing. If one does not know and believe in his heart that the cross is the wisdom and power of God, that this is the way one is saved, he may consider the cross a scandal and an absurdity. But it remains an eternal truth that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Who is genuinely foolish? Is a person who has covered his eyes with a sleep mask and is staggering around like a drunk person wise or foolish? Who is truly wise? Is it the person handed a book but can’t read it? Is God’s plan one that appeals to the worldly-wise, or is its appeal to the humble and honest of heart? Paul presents practical evidence of this point in verse 27 when he tells the Corinthians to look at themselves: “Not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called. But God has called the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty.”
Whatever your status in life, whether significant or minor in the eyes of men, the gospel’s invitation is the same to all. That invitation is to come to the cross. Let your heart bow down before the cross on which Jesus died for your sins. That old, rugged cross was planted deep within the earth but reached upward as though pointing to heaven. Its arms were outstretched, even as the arms of our loving Father are now outstretched to embrace those who will come and kneel at the cross.