Studies in I Corinthians
“The Danger of Looking at the Outward Appearance”
I Corinthians 1:20-31
Several months ago a young woman who had been a member of one of the churches I pastored went home to be with the Lord. And one of the things that people loved about her was that she had a real talent for finding things that people had thrown away or lost – old paper clips or thimbles, and pieces of lace and small coins or pieces of string, or key chains, hair rollers, just pieces of junk, really – virtually worthless. But combined in the hands of a skilled artisan like she was they made beautiful pieces of art. At her funeral various friends stood up and talked about some of her adventures, some of them pretty funny, in gathering those items. But in those pieces of artwork there is a tremendous lesson for Christians.
Apart from Christ, human beings are just “spiritual Junk” – good for practically nothing, really, but God delights in taking pieces of “junk” like you and me and using them to make something beautiful and useful for His purposes. That “makeover” is usually a slow process – but in time His handiwork can be seen, even in the eyes of those around us. But right at that point a potential problem arises: we can easily begin to take credit for the change and the results of it. And when we do, we begin to act just like the Corinthians did. The Corinthians were making a mistake that is very easy to make – exalting the “artwork” instead of the artist. So in this chapter the Apostle Paul sets the record straight.
Now this last section of the chapter he deals with a “clarification” for the Corinthians” about the danger of exalting human wisdom as they were doing. In verses 17 and 18 he had reminded them of the fallacies of human wisdom. And in verses 19 through 22 “the failures of human wisdom”. So now, in verses 23 through 31 he is going to turn our attention to the focus of Godly wisdom and the message of this section is just two-fold: God’s is simple, and he chooses simple messengers.
And the first thing he establishes in that regard is the basis of Godly wisdom in verses 23 and 24
For Jews request a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom; (23) But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness (24) But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The philosophy of the unsaved is expressed in verse 22 – wisdom and “signs” to “prove” their various theories about life and living. But, even though it seems foolish to the unsaved, the whole basis of wisdom is the crucifixion of Christ, according to verse 23. Now that statement needs a little elaboration – there are preachers who take this verse to mean that we should never preach anything but the gospel every Sunday. And to try to disagree with that sounds like heresy! But think about it this way: What did Paul preach when he preached Christ crucified? Even a brief survey of his teachings in this one book will show that he preached about all aspects of the Christian life – spiritual gifts, husband-wife relationships, child training, church discipline, prophecy, financial principles – all kinds of things! But if you read all of those things in their context, you will see that they all form the beautiful setting for the even more beautiful jewel of the gospel. And what is the beautiful setting without the jewel it is built to display. But there is another application too: It is possible to carry Bible teaching to an extreme as well. One critic of expository preaching said that Bible teaching churches are “worshipping the word” rather than the God of the word. And that is certainly something to be guarded against. It is easy to slip into a situation in which Bible teaching becomes just an accumulation of technical knowledge. And this passage tells us that all of our study should have as its purpose the exaltation of Christ. If your study of the Bible doesn’t in one way or another lead you to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Him, you are doing it for the wrong reasons and missing the whole point.
There are Christians who can name each one of the pre-exilic prophets and all the kings of Israel and Judah, and speculate in depth on who the anti-Christ’s grandmother will probably be, but who don’t know the first thing about relationships with other believers, or even how to lead someone to Christ. And there are churches that major in that kind of preaching. But those believers are also missing the whole point of Bible study. So the whole basis of Godly wisdom is the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and all that it accomplished. But to preach that creates real problems. Look at verse 22 again:
To the Jews Christ (and any who demand proof) is a stumbling block. And He throws a monkey wrench into their machinery, because you can’t prove the doctrine of salvation. And to the Greeks (and any who depend on philosophy – foolishness. There are those who judge the value by how hard it is to understand. Along the same line, Eugene Carson Blake, former president of the World Council of Churches said, “we must take the Bible seriously, but we cannot take it literally.”
So Paul’s point for the Corinthians (and for us) is that to gather around a man on the basis of his human wisdom is to miss the whole point of spiritual things. No matter how eloquent or educated a preacher may be, they really are just God’s delivery boys. And we delivery boys have an obligation to be the best that we can be, but at the same time, we all need to remember that is what we are.
And so, in summary he says in verse 24:
But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God.”
God’s wisdom is very simple – don’t get sidetracked into a lot of ramifications.
Now, going back to our outline, we are thinking about “the focus of godly wisdom.”
So now, as we come to verses 23 and 24, we will see the blessings of godly wisdom. And there are two: One of the places where the differences between God and man shows up most is in His priorities in the exercise of His wisdom. And verse 25 summarizes:
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of god is stronger than men.
This is similar to saying “so-and-so has forgotten more about this or that subject than I will ever learn.” That which seems to be God’s foolishness (the gospel)is actually a statement of His wisdom. And that which seems to be His weakness (the death of Christ) produced what man in all of his strength could not produce.
Now having established God’s priorities (how much higher God’s standards are than ours) he goes on in verses 28 and 29 to show His preferences in the use of that wisdom.
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and god has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (28) and base things of the world, and things which are despised, has god chosen, yes and things which are not, to bring to nothing things which are. (29) that no flesh should glory in His presence.
In His wisdom, most of His accomplishments are done through ordinary, everyday people – even those whom the world would think are just nothing. And even those few who are “wise” and “noble” and “mighty” realize that those things come from God and are used by God – they know that they are nothing in themselves. And yet our focus is usually the opposite! Many people don’t know that Queen Victoria of England was a devout Christian. The story has been told of a conversation she had with her pastor about this very passage in which she said “I was saved by” an “M” and her pastor said, “What do you mean? And she pointed him to this passage and said “it says “not many”; it doesn’t say “not any” noble are called.”
We admire and appreciate the Billy Grahams and the James Dobsons and the Chuck Swindolls of the world, don’t we? But why do they have what it takes to be a spiritual leader? Because they have been sanctified and redeemed and strengthened by Jesus Christ! And here is the most amazing part: You and I are in that same category. Now you might say, “I could never do anything for God the way those men do.” But if you are sincere in saying that, you are exactly where He wants you to be! You see, it is not the people who are literally “nothing” but those who feel that they are nothing that God can use.
I believe that the judgement seat of Christ will reveal that the major accomplishments of God’s work will have been done not by those famous men (as much as we appreciate them), but by sincere dedicated men and women just like you who are willing to do just whatever God gives them to do for His honor and glory.
The purpose of these studies is to move you closer to Jesus Christ. If you do not know Him it is our prayer that the studies will help you understand that Romans 3:23 says that you, like all of us, have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and that Romans 6:23 says that the result of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. And Acts 16:32 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” If you are already a believer in Christ we hope that the studies will help you to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”