Last week we saw how it had been reported to Paul that in the church in Corinth there was squabbling and division: That the church was divided into groupings that identified with one or other Christian leader. Some followed Paul, who Christ had used to originally plant the church at Corinth. Others followed Apollos, a gifted orator who had come to the city after Paul and helped it grow. Yet others followed Cephas, or Peter, who we have no record of ever visiting Corinth, but whom was a key figure in the early church mainly amongst Jewish believers. Another group simply said they followed Christ, and while we may want to say amen to that, Paul challenged them on this. They were not doing this out of a humble trust in Jesus but rather as a claim of spiritual superiority to those in other factions. And in the passage we had read out to us this morning Paul begins to respond to this situation. In actual fact the first four chapters of this letter deal with this very issue. Paul starts by pointing us back to the grace of God, shown in such a crazy way that for those who are not being saved it is utter foolishness… but it is the foolishness of God, with the power to save.
Paul saw this squabbling and division at Corinth as a symptom of some deeper issues.
Some cultural issues that had affected the church… The city of Corinth was a city where freed slaves could go and by associating with patrons, rich and powerful people in the city, find status and wealth. It was a city that was part of a culture that valued wisdom, that as a cross roads was a place where ‘sophists’ would come and share their new understanding of the world and people would shop in the market place of ideas and philosophies and choose what they wanted. Some would follow the different sophists and they would debate and argue about which philosophy, which human wisdom was correct and better. The believers were treating their Christian leaders in the same way. They wanted status and power and to be considered wise, just like the other people in the city. It’s a challenge to believers of all times and places … the challenge of how do we view our success and self-worth is it the same as the world around us, we want to be considered wise and important and valued, or are we to find those thing solely in trusting in God’s grace, what are we going to boast about?
There were also some theological and spiritual issues as well… The believers were treating the gospel as if it were simply human wisdom. They were spiritual and mature enough, they had arrived and got it all together and so they could quantify it, quibble over it, question others grasp of it, quite legitimately say their understanding was better than others. Yes there is a place for correcting false doctrine and countering false teaching, but it is about gracious love and wanting people to know Christ, rather than a grappling for spiritual supremacy, wanting power and prestige.
Paul challenges there thinking, he refutes the fact that the gospel is human wisdom, he says that in human terms the gospel is foolishness, but it is the foolishness of God which is wiser than any human wisdom. It is the weakness of God but it’s more powerful than human strength. In fact says Paul God chose to act in this way so that none of us could boast that we had anything to do with our own salvation, with getting it and understanding it, it is all God… it is all grace.
Firstly he says in the wisdom of the world the message of Christ crucified does not make sense. “It is hard for us in the Christianised west” says Gordon fee, “where the cross for nearly nineteen centuries has been the primary symbol of the faith to appreciate how utterly mad the message of a God who got himself crucified by his enemies must have seemed to the first century Greek or Roman.”
Paul asks where all the wise people in the world who could have come up with that. He focuses on the two groupings within his wold: The Jews who sort signs and the Greeks who look for wisdom. Both he says do not comprehend the cross of Christ. For the Jews it was scandalous to think of a crucified messiah, they were looking for an all-powerful God to come and restore the fortunes of Israel. The messiah was supposed to defeat their enemies not allow them to kill him. In the Old Testament it had said that it was shameful to be hung on a cross, but here it was that God chose this very thing as the means by which he would restore people to himself. For the Greeks, they believed that human understanding was the way in which you made sense of the world; it is the philosophical basis of much of our western thought it lead them and leads us away from more traditional and religious understandings of the world. So salvation coming from an act of God in history was not something they thought wise, let alone putting their trust in a criminal who was executed at the wrong end of the empire. It didn’t make sense it was simply pernicious superstition. Sound familiar.
But says Paul it’s the power of God for those who are being saved. When this message that Jesus is Lord is proclaimed lives change situations changed, new communities came into being. In all our different human ways of understanding it does not make sense so we can’t boast in our own wisdom, it’s all God, its all grace.
Paul then challenges the thinking of the Corinthians by inviting them to look at themselves.
They were seeking prominence and position, status and superior wisdom, but Paul says well actually guys, not many of you were wise, not many of you were of noble birth or wealthy and important, yet God called you to himself in Christ. They wanted to see themselves as someone’s but the amazing thing is that God chose the nobodies to be his people. In Deuteronomy 7 Moses had to remind Israel before they took possession of the land that they were not God’s people because they were the greatest or the most powerful or the most numerous, but rather he had chosen them because of his Love and grace. Paul here has to do the same thing. While there were some from the upper stara of society the reality is God did not call them because they were the best and the brightest, he calls them because of his love and grace. Sometimes I am tempted to thing I’m doing God a favour by being a Christian, But we like the Corinthian need to remember Jesus invitation, blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs isthe Kingdom of God’. Gordon fee again sums it up well by saying “the wisdom of God is that he saves the poor and the weak and those who the affluent tend to write off… he concludes in a very challenging way by saying “this does not sit well with the suburban captivity of the church.”
In the end says Paul it’s all God and it’s all grace, we can’t boast that we are doing God a favour it is the foolishness of God the weakness of God that he calls us and we find our self-value in what Christ has done for us… Paul takes three metaphors about salvation to express that… we are made righteous justified, by Christ’s death on the cross, we are made holy set aside for God… by Christ’s death… we are redeemed… freed from slavery, by the price Christ paid for us. So if we are going to boast and say what we have confidence in, says Paul we can only place our trust in Christ. In Christ alone.
Then Paul goes on to say that unlike with the sophists with their human wisdom, that he did not come to them with fancy words, or human wisdom, rather he chose to simply preach Christ Crucified. That it was the message not the messenger that had power. One of the reasons behind the various faction in Corinth, and you have to remember that three out of the four were anti Paul was that he wasn’t that impressive. I’m sure from his letters that he was able to put a good argument together, but he wasn’t as good an orator as Apollos. Cephas had status and mana being one of the close friends of Jesus, Paul will later have to defend his apostleship with the Corinthians, in chapter 15 he says that he met Christ risen from the dead, refereeing to his Damascus road experience, but he says it was as if he was one untimely born. He does not have the prestige that they would have looked for. Paul had worked as a tent maker when he first came to Corinth, unlike the sophists who would make a living from their speaking. Despite all these weaknesses about who I am says Paul, the gospel was proclaimed with power, now Some have seen this to mean miracles, we don’t have any mention of that in Acts 18, but it’s more likely Paul is saying that the proof of the gospel’s power was in the fact that the believers in Corinth had responded. Again Paul says it was all God… it was all grace.
The night I became A Christian I remember thinking that the guy who was preaching was rather boring and long-winded as only a fifteen year old can. But when he gave an altar call at the end God showed up and I know God was real and I had to go forward and give my life to Christ. My mentor Jim Wallace had done some study on the welsh revival, a move of God that swept the world at the beginning of the 19th century, and I asked him one time why had it seeming just run out and stop. He said the main reason was that the preachers began to believe it was because of their preaching that people were getting saved and so the focus became on them and not on Christ.
Then in the last paragraph we had read to us today. Paul will maintain that it wasn’t human wisdom that enabled them to respond it was the Spirit of God at work in them that enabled them to understand the foolishness and wisdom of God, and come to trust in Jesus Christ. It is all God and it is all grace.
Some people have seen Pauls message here as a sort of call to anti-intellectualism in Christianity. That’s not the case Paul in his letters is a great example of the use of rhetoric and rigorous intellectual arguments. Paul would have worked hard on his messages to present a persuasive argument for the gospel. There is an important place for such arguments and apologetics has an important place in gospel proclamation that is presenting a logical argument for what we believe. But we need to realise that in the end it is the Holy Spirit working in people’s lives that will bring people to faith. It’s all God… it’s all grace.
Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians as they look for position and prestige in their society and within the Church is to remind them that we do not get our worth or value from human endeavours and human standards but rather that we get it from the fact that we are loved by God. It is all the grace of God… shown in the death of Christ on the cross… by the call of God to those who are spiritually poor and… that we have responded to that message because of the spirit at work within us. That all we can do is to put our trust in Jesus Christ, squabbling and divisions come when are tempted to focus on other things, on our own position and our own wisdom rather than the foolishness of God in Christ crucified.