Sermon preached on 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Good Friday worship service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/19/19 in Novato.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
Christ Crucified: The Power and Wisdom of God
In God’s amazing plan he ordained the cross of Christ to harden some and save others. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that the gospel of Jesus Christ, which includes the cross, is the power of God unto salvation, Romans 1:16. Proclaiming the cross of Christ does indeed have the power to convert. But we know that apart from the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit, that same gospel message does not convert, it only hardens the unregenerate. We have the opportunity this evening to reflect on this dual effect of gospel preaching. We will see what the unregenerate seek and therefore what the cross of Jesus incorrectly appears like to them. But we’ll also see what the cross of Christ truly is, as those with eyes for the truth.
Paul describes the position of unbelief here from two perspectives, the Jewish and the Greek. The location of Paul’s ministry meant that these were the two main people groups that he would have evangelized, with the reference to Greeks not referring specifically to just people from Greece. Paul lived in the aftermath of Hellenization in the which the Greeks had imposed their culture, religion, and language on much of the western world. And so, when he refers to Greeks it would have encapsulated quite a number of different people groups.
Observe with me first, then, the Jewish perspective. We see in verse 22 what the Jews sought after. It says that they sought signs. There are several references in the gospels that show just that. Often it speaks of skeptics coming to Jesus to test him – that’s why they sought signs from him (e.g. Mt 16:1). Other times it shows they sought signs really as a matter of greed, like in John 6 when some of them came back the next day after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand looking for more free food. Jesus was not generally pleased with their infatuation with signs. In John 4:48, he lamented how people generally wouldn’t believe unless they saw signs and wonders. And in Matthew 16:39 we see Jesus declare that it is an evil and adulterous generation that craves signs. To be fair, it’s not that Jesus didn’t do signs. He did very many signs. In fact, the cross of Christ is ultimately the biggest sign of all, when he rose from the dead afterwards. But Jesus did the signs in his own time and in his own way and according to his own agenda. It seems much of Jesus’ lamenting concerning their seeking of signs was that the Jews had plenty of signs already before them. They had so many things that already should have commended their belief in him. Yet, by their continuing to ask for more and more signs, it shows that they were really just seeking signs and not seeking the Lord.
Realize that part of the idea behind this seeking of signs is about power. That’s why we see various references in this passage to both power and weakness. Too often in Jewish history they had experienced weakness before their foes. Their greatest moments in their history had been the power of God working miraculously to save them. Just think of the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus or of the walls falling down in Jericho in the Conquest. Their history was rich and full of God saving them with divine power. So, this Jewish sign seeking was power seeking. They were wanting to find a Messiah that would be a miracle worker to wield divine power in victory over all their enemies. That’s why they sought such signs ultimately. They craved such supernatural power, especially if they could direct it toward their enemies.
And so, think of what the cross looks like to such unbelieving Jews. It looks like weakness to them. Jesus didn’t wield divine power to destroy the Romans. He was put to death by the Romans. Furthermore, verse 23 says that Jews see the cross of Christ as a stumbling block. That’s because the Old Testament said that someone who is hanged is cursed by God. So, when Jesus dies on the cross, these unbelieving Jews who sought a sign actually thought they got the opposite. Instead of seeing in Jesus a victorious savior who wields divine power and comes in the blessing of God, they saw a weak failure who was cursed by God. Remember the passersby who mocked Jesus as he hung there. That was their basic attitude toward Jesus. If anything, the cross to them was a sign that Jesus wasn’t the Christ.
So that was the perspective of the unbelieving Jew. Notice now what Paul says about the unbelieving Greek. Verse 22 also tells us what these Greek sought. They sought after wisdom. You might recall all the classic Greek philosophers and their long and continued impact on western thinking: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others. That’s even what the word philosopher means – “lover of wisdom.” There were Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Skeptics, and various other schools of thought. Or remember what’s described in Acts 17 about the Areopagus at Athens – that there everyone would spend all day doing nothing but talking about the latest ideas. The Greeks loved to philosophize. They prided themselves in reason and rational thinking. They claimed Zeus as their god, but their own mind was their real god. And so, their chief end was a quest for knowledge and wisdom, and, humanly speaking, they did acquire much.
And so, Paul tells us what these unbelieving Greeks thought of the cross of Jesus. It was foolishness to them. Remember how much the Proverbs contrast the wise man versus the fool. Wisdom is opposite of foolishness. Such Greeks see the cross of Christ as the exact opposite of what they were looking for. How could a criminal on a cross really be the son of God? How could the death of a man bring eternal life to those who believe in him? How could the shed blood of someone who is crucified wash away sin? How could gospel preaching of the cross of Christ change hearts? “Show me proof,” they would demand! “Give me rationalistic certainty, then I’ll believe,” – or so they claim. Of course, to some of the Greek philosophies, the very notion that God would come in the flesh was foolish because they believed human flesh to be inferior to the spiritual or divine order. And so, for various reasons, their wisdom didn’t have a place for the cross.
And so, Paul reminds us of how the unbelieving Jews and Greeks respond to the cross of Christ. Instead of finding salvation, they reject Christ to their own demise. Their hearts become hardened to Jesus and the gospel because they perceive him as the very opposite of what they are looking for in life. But this is not the case for those who are effectually called by the Spirit through the preaching of Christ. Verse 24, “But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The very things the unbelieving Jews and Greeks seek, that’s actually what Christ-crucified is, in a way far better than they could realize. That’s what verse 25 asserts about both wisdom and power. Verse 25 says that the foolishness of God is wiser than men. In other words, what unbelieving Greeks call foolishness – the cross of Christ – is actually God’s wisdom which is far above the wisdom of men. Basically, these so-called wise Greeks aren’t wise enough to understand that! Likewise, verse 25 says that the weakness of God is stronger than men. In other words, what Jews calls weakness – the cross of Christ – is actually God’s power which is far stronger than the power of men.
Think then how the cross of Christ is this wisdom of God, this wisdom that makes man’s wisdom look like foolishness in comparison. As Paul says in Romans 3:26, the means of the cross provides the way for God to be both just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus. In other words, this is God’s wise solution for how to be both merciful and just at the same time. In the cross, he gives a fully righteous punishment for the sin of his chosen ones, but that is meted out upon Jesus who is able to endure it. In this, he can then show mercy to his elect without disregarding the righteous demands of justice. Furthermore, this wisdom serves to simultaneously humble the pride of man and cause him to rejoice in the goodness of God – for he realizes that he doesn’t and can’t save himself. Rather, the horror of the cross only serves to remind him of what he deserved for his guilt and to take joy in what blessing he has received as a gift from God. All this wisdom is yet further to be seen in that only his chosen ones recognize this, so that the objects of his mercy are saved while the objects of his wrath are left in their sin. He opens the eyes of his elect to see the wisdom in the cross, while he leaves the reprobate in their blindness to see the cross as but folly. This is the wisdom we recognize today and declare:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! “For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?” “Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?” For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
Think then how the cross of Christ is this power of God, this power which makes man’s power look like weakness. Ever since the fall, man has been powerless to make peace with God, but through Jesus’ sacrifice, God has brought reconciliation to heaven and earth, making peace through the blood of the cross. Man has repeatedly fallen prey to the power of the devil, but through Jesus being struck on the cross, God through Jesus crushed the head of the serpent, destroying the works of the devil. Despite man’s efforts, we’ve not found a way to cheat death, but through the cross, God shows his power over that last enemy, securing eternal life for those under the verdict of death.
And it was by God’s power that Jesus was even able to endure the cross. For which man, by his own strength, could have endured the wrath of God? None, save Christ, could bear the penalty for sin and yet overcome it. Think about it. If we had to individually bear the punishment for just our own sins, it would require an eternity in hell. Let alone to pay for the sin of all God’s elect! If we don’t have power to pay off in the full our own debt of sin, how much power is demonstrated by Christ’s relatively short time on the cross and in the grave to pay for all our sin. By his might he fully and completely satisfied all our debt. When he declared, “it is finished,” he meant it!
And it was by God’s power that Jesus rose from the dead. Think about that as a sign. That is the sign of all signs. Jesus even said that when they asked for a sign in John 2 – “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, as predicted, was the sign that he truly was the Son of God. It was the sign that he really was sent from the father in power and might to save God’s people from their sins. It was the sign that he had overcome death. It was the sign that showed that God’s power is greater than all.
And it’s this great power that continues to work whenever gospel preaching converts sinners. As Paul goes on to say in the next chapter here, gospel preaching doesn’t convert people because of human eloquence or persuasion. No, when people are converted by the preaching of Christ-crucified, it’s because God’s Spirit is working in power. As 2:5 says, God works our salvation this way so that our “faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Today, we’ve thought of both the right and wrong perspectives toward the cross of Christ. Of the wrong perspectives, we can still find similar expressions today. Like the Jews back then, still today you can find people who crave supernatural power to make improvements in their current life circumstances. They make their religion about the pursuit of such “miracles” and “experiences”. But the cross of Christ says we need to pursue the power to conquer our biggest problem, sin and its consequences. That’s the power that’s in the cross. And like the Greeks back then, still today you find people who in their claim of rational think they are too wise to believe in Jesus. But the cross of Christ stands as the wisdom of God that found a way to show mercy to all us “fools” by the willing sacrifice of the one and only righteous human being. And so, the right perspective of the cross holds out the very sort of things that the unbelieving world craves, yet in their spiritual blindness they overlook. There is great power and wisdom in the cross. Not as the world wants, expects, or demands. But to those with eyes to see and minds to understand: the wisdom and power of God! May the Lord grant you today, through the preaching of the Word, and by the power of the Spirit, to see the cross as such and to trust in it as such, to the very saving of your soul.
So then, for us who have such faith, we find the exhortation that comes from all this in verse 31. In light of all that we’ve considered today, the application in verse 31 is this, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” May the cross of Christ be our glory and boast again this evening! The wisdom and power of God that has come in the cross should humble man so that we glory and boast in the Lord. That is our confession again today! Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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