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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
Preached At:Yarrow Canadian Reformed Church
 Yarrow, BC
Title:Paul proclaimed redemption for sinners through a revolting cross.
Text:1 Corinthians 1:18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:The foolishness of God

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 59:1,2
Ps 7:1,2
Ps 14:1,2,3,4,5
Ps 18:8
Hy 22

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
Isaiah 29:13,14

1 Corinthians 1:18
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!

Suppose a stranger walked into town proclaiming a gospel of redemption before God through the person and deeds of Karla Homolka. How would you react? You would, I am sure, disregard the message, and write the bearer of the message off as a nutcase, a moron, simply because the name ‘Karla Homolka’ fills every respectable Canadian with loathing and revulsion.

I mention this, congregation, because the concept of ‘crucifixion’ filled any decent Corinthian (Greek or Jew) with a similar sense of revulsion. Yet on the streets of Corinth there appeared one day a stranger declaring a gospel of redemption through a man who was crucified. Surely the herald of such a message was a nutcase, a moron; there can be no redemption through crucifixion….

Who, brothers and sisters, is God? Can He, does He, work salvation through means people consider acceptable, or through means people consider moronic? If moronic, why might that be? And: what do you think of committing your life to the care of such a God?

I summarize the sermon this morning with this theme:


    1. The revulsion of the cross,
    2. The power of God,
    3. The response of sinners.

1. The Revulsion of the Cross.

You and I, brothers and sisters, have heard of the cross thousands upon thousands of times, so much so that we take the cross and Christ’s death on it for granted. A cross is to us the road to redemption, and Jesus’ death on a cross has made the cross the central symbol of Christianity today. As a result, many Christians have taken to wearing a cross on a necklace, and many churches exhibit a cross somewhere on the building as a symbol of what they teach.

Given our context the word of the apostle Paul in our text does not resonate well in our ears. Paul declares that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” “Foolishness”, say our translations. We hear in the word ‘foolishness’ the notion of silliness, childishness. But that understanding fails to catch the depth of feeling Paul conveys in the word he uses here. We need instead to think of idiocy, madness; Paul speaks literally of being a ‘moron’. The thought here is that you’ve lost your marbles, that you haven’t got them all in a row, that you have a mental problem, even that you need psychiatric care. You need that psychiatric care, you’ve surely got a mental problem because you have an ounce of appreciation for “the message of the cross”. That message-of-the-cross, says Paul, is moronic to those who are perishing, that message makes the perishing conclude that you’re mentally askew – a nutcase.

Now, why would Paul say that? What’s there about the message of the cross that makes some members of (Corinthian) society think that other members of (Corinthian) society were morons, nutcases? To answer that question I need to attempt to peel away the sense of familiarity we have with the cross – and the comfortableness that follows from that familiarity. I can best do that by showing you what the average person of Paul’s day knew and thought about crucifixion.

People were generally aware of crucifixion, for the deed was commonly done publicly. The person condemned to crucifixion was invariably flogged first, flogged so much that he was a bleeding mess with strips of exposed flesh and open wounds. He was then made to drag his own cross to the place of execution, there laid upon a pole (with or without a crossbeam), fastened to that pole with ropes or nails, then the pole dropped into a hole prepared for it – with the crucified person left hanging right side up or upside down or cross ways, depending on the mood of the soldiers. The crucified person was also striped of his clothes so that he hung there in utter humiliation, defenselessly exposed to the heat of the day and the cold of the night. The crowds were encouraged to mock and revile, to throw physical and verbal garbage at the crucified, to poke at him too with words and with sticks. Normally a crucified person did not slip quickly into a coma or death; that could take two days, three, even four.

That brief description makes clear to us already that crucifixion was a most agonizing of tortures. Consensus was that no death was more cruel than crucifixion. That’s why Roman law permitted crucifixion only for slaves who had run away (and slaves were considered scarcely human…) and for state criminals, persons who sought to overthrow Roman rule – let’s say terrorists. That’s also why there was enormous embarrassment for the families of the crucified; that you’re family member had done something so evil as to deserve the penalty of crucifixion was shameful. And that in turn explains why decent society did not even talk about crucifixion; decent folk simply ignored this horrible topic.

Add to this public Gentile disgust of crucifixion an additional element for the Jews. Their Old Testament told them what the Lord God had said about hanging. Dt 21:23: no dead body was to be left on a tree overnight “because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The Jews understood: the curse was applicable not only to those who were hung when they were dead (say, after stoning), but applied also to those who were hung in order to die. That includes the crucified…. The revulsion decent folk had at the thought of crucifixion was then compounded to the Jew who knew that God had cursed the crucified….

Now there’s Paul, traveling the countryside with one message, and that’s “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Jesus: the term means ‘Savior’, and by Paul’s explanation the term means that one is saved from the judgment of holy God that must come upon sin. Christ: that’s simply the Greek word for ‘Anointed’, and again, by Paul’s explanation the term catches the notion that holy God has anointed someone to pay for sin. Now Paul sets the name ‘Jesus Christ’ beside the disgusting concept of ‘crucifixion’; Paul was saying that there’s benefit, there’s salvation through the crucifixion of this Anointed One….

Think it through, beloved: here’s a message of the most absurd dimension! A Deity anoints a man on earth, that man gets classed with terrorists and runaway slaves and is therefore crucified, undergoes that most humiliating and disgusting death possible –and the Deity hasn’t the wherewithal to prevent it- and now that man is somehow a Savior from the Deity’s judgment?? Surely, the bearer of such a message is mad! This is foolishness, this is moronic, Paul is obviously a nutcase! And those who agree with Paul, who agree that there’s benefit, salvation through one crucified (an obvious criminal; otherwise he wouldn’t be crucified) are nuts also. So Gentile writers from Paul’s day (and some of their writings have survived till today) did not hesitate to call Christianity a “senseless and crazy superstition” and their teachings “sick delusions”. Another writer said Christians were amentia, a term that means ‘without reason’, senseless, mad.1

Congregation, we’re so used to the notion of crucifixion being central to the Christian faith. But Paul writes what he writes in 1 Corinthians 1 exactly because of the universal reaction of decent society to the concept of crucifixion (let alone salvation through crucifixion!). Let it be fixed in our minds: the notion of crucifixion aroused in the public of those days the same reaction as a serial sex-offender does in ours: revulsion. Paul’s message that there was salvation through crucifixion was as offensive to the people of his day as a preacher today proclaiming salvation through the likes of Karla Homolka.

Look with me at vs 22 & 23. “Jews demand miraculous signs,” writes Paul, “and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” That Jews demanded signs was something Jesus experienced time and again. Repeatedly He was asked to produce a sign because the Jews had an expectation of what the promised Messiah would do; He’d restore the kingdom of David, run the Romans out of the country. So they want a sign from Jesus, material that will let them judge from His works whether Jesus is actually the promised Messiah. But the Jews don’t get the sign they seek; the best they can have, says Jesus, is “the sign of Jonah”; as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man would be three days and nights in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:38ff). How Jesus would get into the heart of the earth, would die? It’s through crucifixion…. And that thought, says Paul, is “a stumbling block to Jews” – literally, is a scandal to Jews. What: a crucified Messiah? Perish the thought! It’s blasphemy to the upright Jew…, offensive, madness.

The same is true, says Paul, for the Greek. “Greeks look for wisdom,” says Paul, and with that phrase he catches the mentality of typical Greek thinking. It was this: you need to use your head to determine what’s true. Think it through, reason it out…. And when you do that, then it’s clear: a message of redemption through crucifixion is obviously wrong. Hence their condemning judgment of Paul and his message: that’s foolishness…. For both Jews and Greeks alike, the cross was too revolting for a message about salvation through crucifixion to be acceptable. They all wrote it off as moronic.

That brings us to our second point:

2. The Power of God.

If the Lord God knew well, brothers and sisters, what the public reaction was to crucifixion, why did He send the apostles into the world with this message? Why ask decent Jews and Gentiles, folk who were so disgusted by the notion of crucifixion, to believe and confess that the man crucified outside Jerusalem on Good Friday was the Savior of the world? Could God not have found a more acceptable message, a more popular message, one less revolting than the thought of a crucified Christ?

Indeed, congregation, God is almighty and knows all things, and so was certainly able to prepare a message that was more agreeable to man. Yet He did not do so because of Who He is.

You see: by virtue of our fall into sin people like to place themselves on the top of the ladder and pronounce judgment on all things around us, including God. We have expectations of how God ought to act, what God ought to be like. The Jews demanded a sign, a sign by which Jesus would show that He was the Messiah they expected Him to be. Implicit in that demand is a posture of placing oneself over God and His messengers; it’s the posture of: we will judge whether God’s plan and God’s actions in Jesus of Nazareth are acceptable to our expectations. The Gentiles did the same with their search for wisdom. They subjected all they heard to their powers of reasoning, sought to judge whether Paul’s report about God’s work in Jesus Christ made sense. Here’s a posture of placing oneself over God, passing judgment on God’s deeds. Both Jews and Greeks agree: God has failed the test, a “crucified Messiah” is a contradiction in terms, makes as much sense as “hot ice”.

It’s with this thought in mind that Paul writes what he says in our text. He says that “the message of the cross” is “the power of God,” and then he explains with a quote from the Old Testament. Vs 19: “it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’”

The quote comes from Isaiah 29, a chapter that describes the attitude and behavior of the people of Jerusalem, and God’s reaction to it. The people of Israel –God’s people by covenant- were happy to say the right things about God (vs 13a), but their hearts were far from God (vs 13b); their’s was a worship of outward forms only. Yet the very fact that these Israelites maintained this practice is evidence that to their minds such worship of God was satisfactory; they figured that God was content once you said the right things, sang the right songs, prayed the right prayers…. They had God all figured out, they subjected God to their expectations…, they worshipped Him as they thought correct (vs 13c).

But God did not agree. Hence His reaction in vs 14: “I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder,” with more miracles than I did in the past, during the Exodus from Egypt. Specifically, instead of doing miracles of deliverance the Lord would do miracles of judgment. In the process “the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” That is: through His miracles of judgment (things like the devastation of the city of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, the exile of the people) the Lord would show up the wisdom and intelligence of the Israelites to be the folly it actually was. What wisdom and intelligence? This, that the people of Israel thought that they could place themselves above God and determine what was a reasonable and acceptable way to worship Him. That posture of people-determining-what-God-should-require, that’s what God would destroy. By destroying that attitude the Lord would knock people off their pedestal and place them again in the position they need to take - under God.

That’s the passage Paul quotes here in 1 Corinthians 1. His point is the same as that of Isaiah: the Lord knocks people of their conceited pedestal, as if people could determine what is acceptable to God. Here we need to note too that Paul uses at the end of vs 18 the phrase “power of God” and not the phrase “wisdom of God”. It’s the latter phrase that we’d expect; if the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, we would expect Paul to say that his message is “wisdom”, is “the wisdom of God” to those who are being saved. For the opposite of foolishness is wisdom, not power. Yet Paul speaks in vs 18 not of wisdom but of power, and he does that because he wants to make the point that with the cross (and a crucified Christ) God is at work, at work destroying the wisdom of the wise, frustrating the intelligence of the intelligent, deliberately knocking people off their arrogant pedestal, putting people in their right place under God.

That in turn is also why Paul asks those rhetorical questions of vs 20. “Where,” he says, “is the wise man? Where is the scribe (ie, the theologians, those who know the Scriptures so well)? Where is the philosopher of this age?” Paul’s point: all these learned gentlemen haven’t a thing to say over against God’s work of destroying human wisdom, man’s intelligence. With the gospel of salvation through a crucified Christ, redemption through something so gross and revolting as a cross, the Lord God has left the world’s wise men speechless. There is no reply – except scorn, ridicule, write off the bearers of such a message and the believers in such a message as mad, fools, nutcases.

But all that scorn and ridicule can take nothing away from the success of God’s work: a crucified Christ actually does produce salvation, does reconcile sinners to God. Vs 30: Christ “has become for us wisdom from God”, God’s answer to how sinners can be made righteousness before Him, made holy also – redeemed from bondage to sin. That is God: He gets things done, powerfully, marvelously – even when His methods do not meet up to human expectations and standards.

That last thought –that His methods do not meet up to human expectations and standards- is true not just of the way God redeems sinners (through a crucified Christ!), but is true also of who God redeems. Vss 26-31: precious few in the church of Corinth had any stature in human opinion. Among the saved were not many rich, were not many from the upper crust of society, not many who wielded power and influence. Instead, the people God saved through Jesus’ blood, those who believed the gospel of crucifixion, were largely the scum of Corinthian society: the slaves, the poor, the weak (cf Mt 22:10). But these were the people who were saved – and therefore were streets ahead of the nobles and the rich and the influential, for these little people are reconciled to God while those heavyweights are not. In the words of vs 28: “He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things –and the things that are not- to nullify the things that are” – the influential and the rich, those who have their reward in this life….

Again, God’s methods do not meet up to human expectations and standards not only concerning the way God redeems sinners, nor only which sinners God redeems, but also how the message is brought. Chap 2: “When I came to you, brothers,” says Paul in vs 1, “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” There were more preachers around than Paul, people who walked around teaching the Greeks this or that; in fact, the people of Athens –a city next door to Corinth- did nothing else than listen to new things day after day (Acts 17:21). To captivate their audience, these preachers developed their skills in rhetoric and public speaking and debating, so that through their eloquence or superior wisdom they might persuade their hearers to their point of view. But, says Paul, I did none of that. Instead, I did the unacceptable, I brought up publicly the topic of crucifixion, that blood-curdling subject no decent folk will talk about. More, when I spoke of crucifixion, I spoke of a crucified Messiah, I insisted that there’s salvation through crucifixion. I didn’t flower that message up with rhetoric or polished gifts of public speaking; I just told you the hard, plain facts. And why? Vs 4: Paul spoke this way so that the power of the Holy Spirit might be evident, the power of the God-who-works. For the fact of the matter is that some people of Corinth came to faith as a result of hearing this ridiculous message! They came to faith not because the message of Christ crucified was so appealing –it wasn’t; it was laughable, foolish, the preacher was mad!- they came to faith because God made them believe a message as offensive as this. Vs 5: “your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

What are we left with then? This: people in their arrogance look down upon the message of a crucified Christ as offensive and unacceptable; people don’t want a God who works salvation that way – it’s foolishness. But exactly what people reject is the perfect answer to man’s biggest problem; Christ crucified is the way of salvation. What a God to come with such an answer to our lostness; this is His wisdom! What a God, to turn man’s wisdom upside down, to knock people off their pedestal so that it’s the little folk, the humble, who can be saved through something so offensive as a cross. That is the power of God, and His wisdom.

Now yet our last point:

3. The Response of Sinners.

There are those who reject the message of Christ crucified; they can’t stomach salvation through something as offensive as the cross. These are the people Paul describes in our text as “those who are perishing.” There’s also those who accept the message of Christ crucified, who come to delight in something as offensive as salvation through the cross. These are the people Paul describes in our text as “those who are being saved.”

Mankind, then, is divided into two groups: “those who are perishing” and “those who are being saved”. It’s not that the second group, “those who are being saved”, are better than the first, the perishing, better because they embrace the offensive message of salvation through the cross. In fact, if it were simply up to man to have to decide what to do with the message of the cross, one would have to have a screw lose to embrace such a message! Remember: the cross was a most offensive concept, the notion of salvation through the cross was utterly ludicrous – as revolting to Paul’s first hearers as salvation through Homolka’s deeds is today. That is why we need to note the wording of vs 26, how Paul speaks of being “called”. How come people can respond positively to a message of salvation through a crucified Messiah? What makes a response of faith possible? Only, brothers and sisters, only the fact that God works that faith! Those who are called, those whom God has chosen from before the foundation of the world: these are the ones who don’t stumble over the scandalous message of Christ crucified. These are they who accept as true what every normal, sinful human mind would reject as preposterous – and they even delight in Christ crucified. That response of sinners in the face of the revulsion of the cross: it points up the power of God!

Shall anyone in Corinth, then, put his finger behind his suspender on account of his believing the message of Paul? There is place only for humility, for looking away from self – and therefore delighting in the work of God. Vs 31: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

It is equally true for us today. The concept of a crucified Christ is monstrous, grotesque to any decent sensibilities. Yet we believe it! How come? Here is the power of God, God at work in our midst. To see Him at work: that’s what fills us with awe and gratitude.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2007, Rev. C. Bouwman

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