I think most of us are familiar with Paul's letters to the Corinthian church. This was a congregation that had been blessed with many talented ministers and teachers, some of whom had received the power to exercise miraculous gifts (i.e. speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc.). Unfortunately, they were using these very gifts to elevate themselves and compete for position and power in the church. In his letter to them, Paul compares the results these brethren were having in solving various problems in the church to the results God had achieved in caring for man's concerns through His wisdom and power in Christ.
In doing so, the Apostle was encouraging these brethren to use their gifts of wisdom and power in the pursuit of peace and unity rather than personal glory and position. His hope was that once they saw how puny their results were in comparison to God's, they would refocus their attention and reliance on what God had done, and not what they had accomplished.
This is an important lesson for us today as well because there are still those in the church who think that they can do something to impress God or save themselves. Worse still, there are those who are burdened by the thought that they will never be able to do enough in order to feel right with God and thus be at peace with Him and themselves.
This passage is a reminder of what God has done on our behalf and how He has accomplished it. Paul begins by reviewing in very general terms the cumulative results of man's wisdom and power.
For the word of the cross is foolishness 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 cleverness of the clever I will set aside." Where is the wise man? 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 through wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
- I Corinthians 1:18-21
The Apostle contrasts the sum of man's wisdom to the revealed wisdom of God as seen in the gospel of Christ. In all of his wisdom, he says, man has failed in the true test of wisdom which consists of recognizing the Christ of God. This failure shuts the mouths of the ones who claim knowledge, the scholars as well as the skilled orators of the age.
As a matter of fact, God's wisdom is so great in comparison to man's that He even declared in advance, through prophecy, that this is where man's wisdom would ultimately fail. Here, Paul briefly mentions a group that has recognized God's wisdom over man's, but sets these aside for now in order to focus on those who rely on man's wisdom exclusively.
For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
- I Corinthians 1:22-25
In this passage Paul goes into specifics concerning man's failure in using human wisdom:
A. The Jews Ask for Signs
It is not that Jesus refrained from giving the Jews signs in the form of miracles, fulfilled prophecy, teachings and the ultimate sign of the resurrection. The Jews wanted signs according to their liking (astrological phenomena; miracles on personal request; political and economic liberation from Rome). They dismissed the signs that the Scriptures pointed to in favor of signs that suited their own aspirations and terms. Intertestamental Judaism (the time between the prophet Malachi and John the Baptist - 400 years) was divided as to the nature and purpose of the Messiah with various groups configuring Him to suit their own personal agenda. The Jews ignored the signs promised by the prophets and given through Christ in favor of their own vision as to who the Christ should be.
…On the other hand…
B. The Gentiles/Greeks Search for Wisdom.
The world, at that time, was ruled by Rome but the intellectual influence was still that of Greece. The search for meaning and the quest for knowledge of a higher order was not based on revelation (like the Jews) but on reason, thought and deduction. The great philosophers had explained man's existence and purpose in various formulas, and the common man was left to apply these in his everyday life. However, death was still the barrier that philosophy could not cross, therefore, how to live one's life was the center of discussion. When all was said and done, there were only two conclusions:
- Live to the fullest for tomorrow you may die.
- Deny yourself to the fullest and cheat death before it comes.
Such was the wisdom of man that in all his inquiry he could not breach the limits of his own mortality.
And so, both the Jews and the Greeks rejected Christ because they could not assimilate Him into their narrow worldview. Of course, not all Jews and Greeks did so. Some accepted Him because they recognized that He was not sent according to human wisdom and power, but was the embodiment of God's wisdom and power. Paul does not go into detail here about what this wisdom and power accomplished and how it was superior to man's wisdom and power. He merely separates those who accepted Christ as God's wisdom and power from those who rejected this notion, and he qualifies the nature of God's wisdom and power in comparison to man's, declaring that it is superior from beginning to end.
The Wisdom and Power of the Corinthians — vs. 26-29
In the following passage, Paul goes from the general to the specific; from the experience of the many who rejected Christ to the reality of those who believed and who were living out that reality in Corinth.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
- I Corinthians 1:26-29
The problem at Corinth was not the fact that these people had rejected Jesus, they were believers; but some of them were mimicking the worldly attitude that was espoused by those who considered themselves wise and powerful. Some were using their gifts to elevate themselves over others. Some were creating division by gathering disciples around themselves as was the custom of both Jewish rabbis and Greek teachers of the day.
Paul reminds all of them, the gifted and others, about their original condition before becoming Christians. Yes, the wisdom and power of God in Christ has been entrusted to them for their personal salvation; Yes, they are handling the words of life in the power of the Spirit; Yes, their knowledge of God in revealed wisdom and experienced power was clearly superior to the wisest of Jew or Greek, but…He asks them to look back at their own beginnings, their own personal histories and note that they themselves are not the source of revelation or this experience of power. They did not study or debate their way into the knowledge they now have; they did not develop by any physical, psychological or mystic way the power they now see and exercise within the church. On the contrary, even by the standards of the world they were of no consequence intellectually or dynamically. Paul says that by worldly standards, they were foolish, weak and of no consequence in the eyes of those who mattered, who judged these things among men. As a matter of fact, they were the perfect witnesses to demonstrate to the world God's wisdom and power because these were more clearly seen in ones who had none themselves. And all of this was done for the following reasons:
- That non-believers would be silenced
- That believers would give glory only to God
Paul does not actually come out and say it, but the admonition is clear to those who were causing division and polarization in the church. You who boast of leadership, of power, of wisdom have nothing that was not given to you by God. And if it was given to you by God, the result should be humility not boasting. We know that boasting is of pride and pride is a false sense of personal worth. If you had nothing and all you have now comes from God, there is no cause for pride or boasting, only the giving of thanks in humble gratitude.
Later, Paul will go on to outline how the gifts given the Corinthians ought to be used in the building up of the church, but he will finish this section by describing the nature of the wisdom and power that God expressed in Christ
The Wisdom and Power of God — vs. 30-31
Paul has described the emptiness of the wisdom and power relied upon by unbelievers as well as the misuse of the wisdom and power given to the Christians at Corinth. Now, in one succinct verse, he summarizes the visible expression of this wisdom and power in Christ and how it ultimately affects those who believe.
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, "He who glories, let him glory in the Lord."
- I Corinthians 1:30-31
Paul describes God's wisdom and power in terms of what it accomplishes rather than what it is made of or what motivates it. For example:
- We can describe the power of a tornado my measuring its wind velocity and direction using various scientific instruments.
- We can show you a picture of a Wal Mart store completely leveled by this tornado to the point where even the asphalt is completely sucked out of the ground. That one photograph gives you a visceral understanding of how powerful the tornado was.
This is Paul's approach to describing God's power and wisdom, a quick picture of what these accomplish in a foolish and weak person considered base by worldly standards. Paul says that through God's wisdom and power, this same person receives the following:
A Relationship with God in Christ
Worldly wisdom could not even produce a clear image of God, nor could it perceive His will or His mind. God's wisdom and power devised a way for an ordinary person to not only know the true God as well as His will and purpose, but also have an intimate relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.
In Romans chapter 8, Paul further explains that this relationship is nothing less than actual sonship.
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father." The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
- Romans 8:15-16
How's that for wisdom? How's that for power? Man could not even think of such a thing, let alone accomplish it. Man's primal yearning satisfied by God - The molding of his spirit and soul into a conscious (and it is conscious because we cry out Abba, Father) relationship with our creator.
God's wisdom is seen in the fact that He reveals to us the thing we desire most, a conscious spiritual existence in a realm where neither sin nor death exists (This is what we really want, and God reveals it to us). God's power is seen in the way He accomplishes this for all men through a process of imputation (we are granted a value not earned). Paul says that God's wisdom is not only expressed in granting man what he innately needs (a relationship with God) but it is also seen in the way God uses His power to accomplish this thing by imputing to man all that he needs in order to achieve this desired state:
- He knows what we need.
- He reveals what we need.
- He equips us to have what we need.
The word impute means to credit someone with something whether they deserve it or not. One in authority, by imputation, empowers someone else with position or a measure of power (i.e. An honorary university degree is bestowed/imputed to honor someone who is not educationally qualified to receive it).
The Apostle mentions four things that God imputes to man through Christ in order to enable him to have a relationship with Himself:
1. Imputes Wisdom
- Man could not have perceived or discovered God's plan and goal without direct revelation.
- The gospel preached to the Corinthians was not a product of man, but a direct revelation of God.
- The message they received and now declare is God's own wisdom imputed to them by Christ and the Apostles.
They are now wise with the wisdom of God.
2. Imputes Righteousness
A relationship with a righteous God requires that one be righteous like God. Man cannot achieve this by any act of will or system of law or practice of religion (This is where man's wisdom falls short). God imputes the righteousness of Christ (which is equal to His own) to man based on his faith in Jesus ("..having been justified by faith." - Romans 5:1).
And so, man now possesses the righteousness required to have a relationship with God because he actually has the righteousness of Christ.
3. Imputed Sanctification
In the Old Testament, only those who came from the correct tribe and then only those who were socially and physically acceptable (no divorce, no marrying outside the tribe, no physical handicaps) could be set aside (sanctified) for service as a priest at the Tabernacle and later, the Temple.
Because of Christ, God imputes to us a holiness equal to Christ's who Himself, because of His own holiness, is able to go into the very Holy of Holies of heaven in order to atone for sin and plead for sinners (Hebrews 9:23-24).
The quality of our own sanctification is equal to that of Christ having been imputed to us by God.
4. Imputed Redemption
We have nothing to offer God, even if we are clothed in the royal robes of heavenly priests. We have no gifts, no sacrifice, no payment for our sins, no suitable thank-offering. God imputes the perfect sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, not only for our sins, but every time we confess His name and remember Him in communion, we offer the perfect sacrifice of faith.
Those who had nothing to offer have been given the perfect sacrifice to offer in order to please God forever. And all of these things imputed to us…wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption…All of them were prepared in His wisdom before the earth was formed, and accomplished through His power expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If this be so, there must be boasting, rejoicing and glorifying. For this plan and its execution along with its result is indeed awe-inspiring. However, let the boasting be done in truth. Let all who must boast in these things (and they must boast or they will burst), boast in the Lord Jesus Christ because it is His wisdom and His power that we receive and will glory in forever.
Summary / Lessons
Of course, Paul will go on in his letter to deal with other issues and problems, and for our purposes we will stop here on this thought. This thought, however, continues to teach us important lessons even to this day.
Lesson #1 — We Still Have the Same Tension
The world continues to offer up its version of the truth, its explanation of life, death and what lies beyond. Two thousand years of history have not changed the tension that the church feels in this world. We are still marginalized and scoffed at by the "so called" wise ones in this world. Even though human wisdom has devised any number of philosophies that are soon dismissed and replaced by new ones, the gospel remains the same century in and century out. We are still considered fools, naive and irrelevant because of our faith.
Let us not, however, judge our effectiveness and value by what the world thinks of us. The wise ones in this world did not believe then and have continued in disbelief until now. We were never meant to be in the majority (Matthew 7:13).
Lesson #2 — We still Have the Same Solution
God calling all people to be His sons and daughters in Christ by imputing Christ's wisdom, righteousness, holiness and sacrifice freely to them by faith in Him. This is still God's answer to man's greatest problem of sin and death.
Let the world come up with new philosophies and solutions. We have the Good News of the risen Christ and all those who believe in Him are already experiencing the power of regeneration in their lives (John 3:16; Acts 2:38).
The power of God has always been in the gospel (Romans 1:16) not in the ideas of men.
Lesson #3 — We Still Have the Same Boast
- Yes, the world is exploring outer space.
- Yes, I can talk to someone in Russia through a little machine without wires that fits into my pocket.
- Yes, there are new medicines that will help me to live to be 100, maybe.
But today, in the quiet of my room, I have spoken directly to the Being who created the Universe, and He has spoken to me through His word. And I have peace in my heart because regardless of the condition and length of my life here, I have the promise from the resurrected Savior that I too will rise and be with God forever to know and praise Him because I am in Christ.
This is the boast of the ages. This is the boast that reaches heaven. And so, boast in the wisdom and power of God in Christ because this boast will never make you ashamed.