1 Corinthians 1:18-31 (NRSV) – “For the message about 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 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, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”
Understanding the Cross involves understanding that God’s plan for humanity is not something that humans designed or engineered. For one thing, the fall of humanity into sin and mortality was not something that any of us had personal involvement in. Nevertheless, despite humanity’s problems after Adam’s transgression, humans still had a conscience that knew what was right according to God (Romans 2:14-15). It was there, ultimately, because of God, not human ability to determine what was right. Because of mortality, nobody can follow the conscience perfectly, which is why, through the Cross and Resurrection, God created a new humanity. Again, that work was done without our involvement. That’s our story; it was just something that happened to us.
Why does Paul call it “foolishness to those who are perishing?” He continues, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24).
When relating Paul’s writing about “Jews” and “Greeks” to the contemporary world, I think it is helpful to think of “Jews” as people associated with the Judeo-Christian culture, and “Greeks” as people outside of that culture.
Some people in the Judeo-Christian culture stumble over the Gospel because, while they may accept the concept of being a sinner and needing a Savior, they are simultaneous fixated on their choice to believe and their works to prove salvation. But these people’s spiritual zeal can burn out and then their faith is derailed. On the other hand, if our faith in salvation is rooted in Christ’s transformative work and His calling to us, then we have a foundation that stands whether or not we are feeling the zeal.
For those outside the Judeo-Christian culture, the Gospel message does not jive with the prominent philosophical schools of thought, political ideologies, or popular worldviews. All of these systems, despite sometimes having legitimate merits, are focused on what humanity can do to engineer a better future. The idea of mankind going from an old creation to a new creation, apart from individuals’ involvement, does not necessarily fit into these systems, and is thus often disregarded by those who build their lives around these systems.
Paul says the Gospel is “foolishness to those who are perishing.” On one hand, both believers and unbelievers are perishing because of mortality. But believers, who will be vivified at Christ’s return and fully experience the new humanity in the coming eons, have this vision for their future as a guiding faith that brings inspiration and energy to their present lives. Not having this inspiration in the midst of mortality, or this future with regards to the eons, is what Paul refers to as perishing.
Paul continues, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:26-31).
I do not want for people to get the idea that intelligence is a hindrance to faith. Believers can be intellectually brilliant and successful in many ways, including philosophy on life, science, finance, and creative pursuits. And these talents can get attention and respect from people in the world, including nonbelievers who have a healthy appreciation of life and the individuality of others. But you may be opposed by the established systems out there, potentially both secular and religious ones. You might be told that you do not have the right priorities and attitudes, or that you are not proficient or knowledgeable enough, simply because you do not fit in with the worldviews and values systems that are popular at your time of history.
We know, however, that we have some deficiencies. If we really think about how we accomplish everything that we do despite these deficiencies, it reminds us of the wisdom of God, and this is His design so that we admire His working rather than boasting in ourselves.