SERIES: Christ is the Answer When the Church is in Crisis
The Power Behind the Powerless
Note: On September 17, 2000, Dr. Jerram Barrs from Covenant Theological Seminary preached at First Free St. Louis on “The Wisdom of God,” from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. This was a powerful message, but we do not have available a written copy of it. Pastor Andrus reviews some of that passage in this message.
Introduction: When was the last time you were absolutely convinced something was true or right; in fact, you would have bet your life on it? But then you found out you were wrong or mistaken. A couple of years ago I found a stock that was once flying high at $42 a share. It dropped to the point it was a real steal at $27. I bought it, convinced I was securing my future. MEMC, where a few of you work, bottomed out at $3; I got out at $5. (Note: today in January, 2023 it sells for $.01).
That’s not the first time I’ve been wrong when I was sure I was right. And as painful as that lesson was, I know people who are making much more serious mistakes trusting their own intuition, especially when it comes to the ultimate questions of life. How does a person come to know God? How can we find forgiveness of our sin? Where will we spend eternity? The prophet Isaiah wrote, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord, ‘for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”
No Scripture passage I know of illustrates Isaiah’s point more clearly than the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. This letter was written to a church in a city known for its paganism, its intellectualism, its humanism, and its gross materialism. The church Paul started there had not had the impact upon society its founder intended it to have. Instead of the church getting into the world and influencing it for Christ, the world had gotten into the church. One key evidence was the fact that divisive politics had invaded the Body, and its members were championing various human leaders rather than exalting Christ.
Furthermore, some were actually claiming to be more spiritual than other believers just because they had been baptized by Pastor So-and-so. The apostle Paul dismissed such status symbols as irrelevant, and he even expressed thanksgiving that he hadn’t baptized more people than he did. His task, as assigned by God, was not “to baptize but to preach the Gospel–not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” That was our message two weeks ago.
In the following verses, 18-25, Paul expands on this issue of the Cross, demonstrating how absolutely contrary to human standards is the Church’s principal message–namely that Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sin. In our passage today he shows how the members of the Church also fail to measure up to human standards. And finally, he explains that the ministry of Christ’s servant fails to measure up to human standards. But all that’s good, not bad, because God’s standards are the only ones that count.
I want us to read the entire section this morning from 1:18 through 2:5, and I’m going to read it from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, though I will preach from the NIV. Since it’s unlikely many of you carry that version, we’ll put it on the screen so you can follow silently as I read.
The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written,“I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.”
So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb–preaching, of all things!–to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.
While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle–and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself–both Jews and Greeks–Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.”
Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have–right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start–comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.”
You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did–Jesus crucified.
I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate–I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it–and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. But the Message came through anyway. God’s spirit and God’s power did it, which made it clear that your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else.
Jerram Barrs preached verses 18-25 with power and clarity last Sunday. But because this whole section fits so clearly together, I want to review some of his passage by way of setting the context for mine. The thrust of 18-25 is that …
The message of the Cross does not measure up to human standards. (1:18-25)
Talk about something that is counterintuitive to most people of every generation– salvation by a Cross takes the cake! Premodern man often looked to magic and superstition and authority figures to manipulate the gods and influence destiny. The modern generation has been inclined to see knowledge, power, influence, wealth, and reason as ways to move the world. And the postmodern generation that has come on the scene over the past few decades has substituted its own standards. For them, truth is whatever you choose it to be. Personal freedom and individual autonomy supersede all the power trips by those in authority, whether parents, pastors, or politicians. Inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness is their byword.
Human standards have changed down through the centuries, but to all of these–pre-moderns, moderns, and postmoderns—the Cross has always looked like a really foolish way to save a world.
Of course, I am not denying that the cross is a popular symbol today. We see it in stained glass windows and on top of churches of widely varying beliefs. It is found around the necks of the deeply religious, the thoroughly superstitious, and all shades in between. The sign of the cross is made by baseball players before they bat, by pilots before they take off, and by boxers before they fight. In fact, you may have heard of the gambler at the racetrack who happened to see a priest making the sign of a cross over a horse, and promptly bet his paycheck, rent money and car payment on that horse. When the horse came in last, he sought out the priest and demanded to know why the horse had done so poorly when he had just blessed it. With surprise the priest responded, “I wasn’t blessing that horse. I was giving it the last rites.”
The story aptly illustrates how the cross has largely been emptied of its content in our society today. The Cross as a symbol has been so sanitized that it has lost its original meaning. In the first century it was a clear symbol of death by torture and execution. The modern parallel would be more like having a hangman’s noose or a replica of an electric chair hanging over the baptistry or around one’s neck. The jeweler’s cross causes us to forget to connect the Cross to the agony of Jesus, who died on a cross, and to daily thank Him for freeing us from sin and releasing His power in us.
The Bible’s warning that sinful people are lost and on their way to hell unless they put their faith in a crucified Savior falls on so many deaf ears today. The story of the Titanic comes to mind as an illustration of the truth that Paul is seeking to convey. When the first warnings were broadcast about the collision with the iceberg, many of those on board refused to believe danger was imminent. “Aren’t we on the Titanic, the greatest ship ever built? Didn’t its builders declare it unsinkable? Doesn’t it have the latest navigational equipment available?” The word of warning sounded like foolishness to those about to die.
And how many there are today who feel the same way about the message of the Cross! “Aren’t we Americans, the strongest, richest country in the world? Isn’t science solving more and more of the problems of human existence? What can a cross add to all of that?” Well, science has given us a greater life expectancy, but it has not given us more to expect from life. And while the U.S. may be able to give us social security, it cannot give us moral or spiritual security. Only the Cross can provide that, because only in the Cross do we see the incomparable love of God–that He would send His one and only Son to suffer the cruelest death known to man, not just as an example of self-sacrifice, but as a substitute for us who deserved to die because of our disobedience to the basic moral law of God. Friends, if it were not for the Cross, we would have no message at all. It is thepower of God to save sinners.
And what exactly is the reason so many consider the Cross foolishness? The ultimate reason is that they are relying upon human wisdom in an area where human wisdom is totally bankrupt. I’m holding Oprah’s new magazine. The theme of this entire issue is found right here on the front cover: “Trust Yourself: The Truth Is in There.” If truth really did reside in us, if God made it possible for human wisdom to devise a way to Him, then heaven would be a reward for the brilliant and would be populated by those with high I.Q.’s and Type-A personalities. But that is far from the case. The fact is the Cross cuts a swath across I.Q.’s, across education, and across human achievement. It is understandable to the Ph.D. or the child, to the cultured or the crude, to the old or the young.
Not everyone can read Aristotle and understand him. Hardly anyone can read Jean Paul Sartre and understand him. But God has seen fit to make His message of redemption a simple thing that anyone can understand, by faith. And that message of redemption is this: “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son….” No one would have thought that up on his own as an appropriate way of salvation, and sadly, that’s exactly why so many refuse to accept it. It’s too easy, too simple, too naive.
Unbelieving skeptics have frequently ridiculed the Christian faith on the grounds that it turns a person into a gullible fanatic and emasculates his mind. We learned in the apologetics seminar last weekend that the opposite is actually true.
A preacher in England found himself constantly interrupted by the scornful challenges of a philosophical skeptic: “If your God is so great, why couldn’t he save all men without putting an innocent man to death? If Jesus really rose from the dead, why didn’t he appear to the authorities instead of just his disciples?” On and on he challenged. Finally, the preacher invited the skeptic to the front of the church and challenged him to present the case for skepticism–to show positively what his philosophy could do for the audience.
When the skeptic was finished talking, the pastor did not attempt to refute him; he simply asked if there was anyone in the audience who would like to testify as to what the Gospel had done for him. A man got up and said, “I was an alcoholic, but Jesus saved me and set me free.” A woman got up and with tears in her eyes professed to have had several affairs, but because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, she was now a devoted wife and mother. Another got up and claimed to have been a proud, haughty, obnoxious person, who, by God’s grace, could now love his fellowman.
There are literally scores, perhaps hundreds, here this morning who could give similar witness to how the power of God has changed your life. Yes, “to those whom God has called, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Now if the message of the Cross does not measure up to human standards, it is also true that the members of the Church do not measure up. In other words, those who make up the Family of God are not, generally, those that you or I would choose if it were left to us.
The members of the Church do not measure up to human standards. (1:26-31)
The first thing that stands out in verses 26-31 is that …
God is the One who chooses the members of His family. (26-28) After all, there are no naturally-born children of God; all are adopted. They are children by choice, never by accident. Our text clearly states again and again, “God chose.”
God is unique in the way He chooses. (26-28)
1. He doesn’t choose on the basis of knowledge, influence or rank, as we would. Verse 26: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” How contrary to human methodology! Today if a politician or movie star or famous athlete is converted to Christ, we fall all over ourselves making that person a Christian celebrity. If a surgeon or a university professor or a millionaire finds Christ, we go bananas with excitement. And I guess we should, but no more sothan if a grocery store stocker or an itinerant farmhand gets saved. The fact is God doesn’t choose a lot of cool dudes.
2. God does choose the foolish, the weak, the lowly, the despised, and the “nobodies.” Notice that in verse 27 Paul speaks of “foolish things” rather than “foolish people.” The Greek word is moron, but it refers to moronic things just as much as moronic people. Paul uses this term so that the principle applies to all of creation, not just the world of mankind.
When God wanted to speak to the prophet Balaam in the OT, He chose a donkey. What could seem more foolish than that? When He decided to bring His Son into the world, He chose a foolish instrument like a manger in a stable. When He decided to pick twelve men to turn the world upside down, He chose a motley crew of mostly uneducated ne’er-do-wells. When He provided salvation, He chose a foolish instrument like a Cross. God has always used men and things that were foolish by human standards to accomplish His great purposes.
But not only did God choose moronic things and people to do His work, He also chose the weak. What a moral weakling Jacob was! What a physical weakling Paul himself was! And Fanny Crosby, the great blind hymn writer, and Joni Eareckson Tada! But God chose them anyway.
And God chose the lowly. The word means literally, “not well-born,” the opposite of nobility. Examples like Rahab and Ruth and Mary Magdalen come to mind–women who were outcasts, yet God chose them to serve important purposes in His plan.
And God chose the despised. He took a hated Samaritan woman, and tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Matthew, a slave trader like John Newton, and a despised President’s most despised hatchet man, like Charles Colson. And He set His affections upon them and turned their lives into something useful.
And finally, God chose the things that are not, the nobodies, the nothings, and used them anyway. John the Baptizer was certainly a nobody; so was Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Dwight L. Moody, a shoe cobbler. God can do that because He is a Creator God. If He can create the universe out of nothing, He can make a choice servant out of a nobody.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was in a small group with five other men. We were sharing our faith stories with one another, and I was shocked to hear one of them say that his parents had 12 marriages between them–11 after he was born. He was raised by a grandmother, and the story went south from there. But God saved him, gave him a dear wife, and is using him powerfully in many people’s lives. His story reminds me so much of this very Scripture passage.
3. God is purposeful in His choices. (27-29) In verses 27-29 we are given both the immediate and the ultimate purposes of God in the kinds of choices He makes. His immediate purposes are listed in verse 27 & 28: “To shame the wise, to shame the strong, to nullify the things that are.” In other words, God is actively involved in making fools out of those who place their faith in human wisdom, human strength and human rank. I think of people like Carl Sagan, the late great worshiper of the Cosmos, Peter Singer, the notorious Yale professor who actively promotes infanticide, and Stephen Gould, the brilliant Harvard professor who preaches evolution and scorns God. They will not long be idolized. They will soon join the Voltaires, the Freuds, the Sartres, and the other brilliant but now discredited heroes of the past whose ideas lie on the ash heap of intellectual history. Their human wisdom is destined to be shamed.
But God’s immediate purposes are only steps toward His ultimate purpose: “that no one may boast before Him.” God hates pride and He hates boasting. When a man states (or even thinks) that he has saved himself or someone else, that he has arrived spiritually on his own, or even that he has achieved great things for God solely because of his intellect or his position or his efforts, God hates it. And He hates pride so much that His own choices are designed to prevent it.
But Paul also addresses the positive side of God’s purpose in choosing. Notice it in verse 30: “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” The believer is described here very simply as one who is “in Christ.” You know, you can’t be any closer to something than “in” it. That’s our position as born-again believers. But notice how a person becomes a Christian: “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.”
I am a believer today not because I was smart enough to see I had a need, but rather because God loved me enough to do something about my sin problem. He sent His Son to pay my penalty. He chose me. He pursued me. He allowed me to hear the Gospel. He gave me the faith to believe. And He saved me. It is because of Him that I am in Christ Jesus.
And what are the results? Christ has become to me wisdom from God, and my righteousness and holiness and redemption. All that the world tries to offer and can’t, Jesus provides. He gives wisdom and meaning to life, He gives me the righteousness I need in order to get right with God, He makes possible my growth in holy living, and He delivers me from the power and guilt of sin. When we realize that we, as members of the Church, are not chosen according to human standards, we are freed up to give God the glory. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Before we move to our final point this morning, I wonder if there might be someone here asking the question, “If God chooses down-and-outers, is there any place for the famous, the wealthy, or the brilliant in the family of God?” The answer is definitely, “Yes!” Notice carefully that verse 26 does not say, “Not any of you were wise, not any were influential, not any were of noble birth.” Rather it says, not many. Thank God for the letter “M.” Thank God for the J. C. Penneys, the C. S. Lewises, the John Ashcrofts, the Kurt Warners, the Georgie Thampys who have believed, but God’s word tells us we should never expect the Church to be filled with such people.
One of the “wise” whom God has called is a man who has always fascinated me. He was Robert Dick Wilson, brilliant professor at Princeton during the early decades of this century when Princeton was known for its biblical studies. Late in his life (he died in 1930) Dr. Wilson was asked to lecture on the subject of how he arrived at his conviction that the Bible is the Word of God. I want to read a few excerpts from that lecture, entitled, “What Is an Expert?”
If a man is called an expert, the first thing to be done is to establish the fact that he is such. One expert may be worth more than a million other witnesses that are not experts….
You will have observed that the critics of the Bible who go to it in order to find fault have a most singular way of claiming to themselves all knowledge and all virtue and all love of truth. One of their favourite phrases is, “All scholars agree.” When a man writes a book and seeks to gain a point by saying “All scholars agree,” I wish to know who the scholars are and why they agree. Where do they get their evidence from to start with?…
I have claimed to be an expert. Have I the right to do so? Well, when I was in the Seminary I used to read my New Testament in nine different languages (some of us were doing well to read it in nine different versions). I learned my Hebrew by heart, so that I could recite it without the intermission of a syllable…. When I got to Heidelberg, I made a decision. I decided–and I did it with prayer–to consecrate my life to the study of the Old Testament. I was twenty-five then; and I judged from the life of my ancestors that I should live to be seventy; so that I should have forty-five years to work. I divided the period into three parts. The first fifteen years I would devote to the study of the languages necessary. For the second fifteen I was going to devote myself to the study of the text of the Old Testament; and I reserved the last fifteen years for the work of writing the results of my previous studies and investigations, so as to give them to the world. And the Lord has enabled me to carry out that plan almost to a year.
Most of our students used to go to Germany, and they heard professors give lectures which were the results of their own labours. The students took everything because the professor said it. I went there to study so that there would be no professor on earth that could lay down the law for me, or say anything without my being able to investigate the evidence on which he said it….
I defy any man to make an attack upon the Old Testament on the grounds of evidence that I cannot investigate. I can get at the facts if they are linguistic. If you know any language that I do not know, I will learn it. Now I am going to show you some of the results.
After I had learned the necessary languages I set about the investigation of every consonant in the Hebrew Old Testament. There are about a million and a quarter of these; and it took me many years to achieve my task. I had to read the Old Testament through and look at every consonant in it…. (There is much fascinating material I must omit, but consider one final paragraph);
The result of those thirty years’ study which I have given to the text has been this: I can affirm that there is not a page of the Old Testament concerning which we need have any doubt. We can be absolutely certain that substantially we have the text of the Old Testament that Christ and the Apostles had, and which was in existence from the beginning.[i]
Is God anti-intellectual? Was Dr. Wilson a second-class citizen with God because he was brilliant? Of course not. He’s just rare, and even he had to realize that all his unusual mental powers were a gift from God, and God deserved all the glory. One of the most stirring moments in the experience of his students occurred when, after a dissertation on the complete trustworthiness of Scripture, the renowned scholar said, with tears, “Young men, there are many mysteries in this life I do not pretend to understand, many things hard to explain. But I can tell you this morning with the fullest assurance that ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”[ii]
Now quickly I want to say just a few words about my final point, namely …
The ministry of Christ’s servant does not measure up to human standards. (2:1-5)
Please note that the chapter break here is poorly placed. Paul is carrying on the thought of the previous section in the first 5 verses of chapter 2. And his point is this: “I live what I preach. My ministry matches God’s calling. If God didn’t seek out the cream of the crop, humanly speaking, then I shouldn’t gear my ministry for the cream of the crop, humanly speaking. It’s my job to put the cookies on the lower shelf.”
Describing the Christian ministry in terms of how he handled himself when he founded the church in Corinth, the apostle says, first of all …
His style is unadorned. (1,4) “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God …. (drop down to verse 4) My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” Paul is simply saying that the Christian minister, lay or professional, should not draw attention to his brilliance, his rhetoric, his learned vocabulary, or his knowledge, but to Christ. There is no place for putting on the dog, trying to impress the audience, or drawing attention to ourselves.
James Denney spoke a great truth when he said, “No one can give at once the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.”[iii] The message of the Gospel, in order to have a lasting effect, must come with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, not the preacher’s power. That’s why most of you didn’t come to faith in Christ because of a sermon you heard, but because a friend told you about Jesus–that’s God using ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
His content is unadulterated. (2) Verse 2 reads, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The apostle does not mean for us to understand this statement with wooden literalism, for it is quite obvious that in this very letter he taught many different truths regarding the Christian faith. What he means is that his priority and his focal point were always Jesus Christ and His Cross.
His heart attitude is unpretentious. (3) He states in verse 3, “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” There was no overconfidence in his own ability when he came to Corinth. He had a very realistic view of his helplessness in the face of the monumental task of starting a church in such a pagan city. And there needs to be the same realism of our helplessness in order to accomplish anything of eternal value on our own.
His goal is uncompromising. (5) Throughout his ministry Paul’s goal was this: “That your faith should not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” If a ministry is built around a man and his wisdom, his brilliance, or his personality, it is a tragic day for that ministry when that man leaves or dies or goes down the tubes morally. But if a ministry is built on a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, that man’s absence may be mourned, but it will not prevent or even hinder the ongoing of the work.
Friends, today we have seen that the message of the Cross does not measure up to human standards. When you see a cross, what does it mean to you? Is it just stained glass or pretty gold jewelry, or is it the source of your forgiveness and your power for living?
We have seen also that the members of the Church do not measure up to human standards. Do you at times denigrate yourself because you aren’t rich or famous or a great athlete? Friend, you are a King’s Kid! God created you, He loved you, He sent His one and only Son to die for you, He gifted you, and He gave you the opportunity to be part of His eternal family. Are you willing to set aside your own standards of what you should be and trust God to work in you to do His will?
And finally, we have seen that the ministry of Christ’s servant does not measure up to human standards. Are you one who says, “I have nothing to offer. I’m not eloquent. I don’t know how to teach. I’m too young, too old, too dumb, whatever.” Well, Paul, one of the greatest servants of the Gospel ever, found that his greatest effectiveness was when he was weakest, because then the Spirit of God could take over. “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord.”
That means a lot to me right now. I’m facing a lot of weakness and I don’t know what the future holds. But I know absolutely that God’s power is not limited by my weakness. I’ve been so encouraged by the commitments of some of you to pray for me that I believe God is going to do something surprising for all of us.
If the message of the Cross, the members of the Church, and the ministry of Christ’s servants do not measure up to human standards, my conclusion is simply this:
So much for human standards!
Man is not the measure of all things, as much as he would like to be. The Church, the family of God, is in no way a human institution. We must quit trying to figure out the eternal with our temporal perspectives. It’s time to adopt God’s standards. We must accept His way of salvation if we would be saved at all. And His way is the way of the Cross.
Does this make sense to the world? NO!
Does it make sense to you? I pray so.
Prayer: Father, help us to go out this morning to accomplish extraordinary things for you, though we know we are very ordinary. Help us to go out in power though we are powerless. Help us to realize that our availability is more important than our ability. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
DATE: September 25, 2000
[i] Robert Dick Wilson, Bible League Quarterly, 1955, quoted in David Otis Fuller, Which Bible?, 41-45.
[ii] Fuller, 41