Living Water Community Church - Sunday Morning Worship
1 Cor 1.18-31 - “The Wisdom of the Cross”
In today’s passage, 1 Cor 1.18-31, Paul tells the Corinthian saints that God saves us
through the foolishness and the weakness of a Messiah who is executed on a cross in order that
we, the ones who are being saved, will hear the emptiness of all the claims of power and
privilege that distract us from the hard work of love. Paul says, “God chose the lowly things of
the world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so
that no one may boast before him.” That’s the theme of today’s passage.
In sixth grade I was in the Montana Middle School Science Fair. I was really proud of my
project. I seriously expected to get ﬁrst place. But here’s the dirty little secret--my dad had
actually done most the work on the project. He came up with the idea; he led me step by step
through the experiments; he showed me how to organize the data. I put in some time on the
project, but, in reality, if my presentation board won the gold ribbon, my dad would be the one
who should put it up on his wall, not me. As things turned out, my science project had plenty of
holes in it (I was never too good at following my dad’s instructions step-by-step), and the judges
rated me quite low.
Now, I want you to picture my awkward sixth grade self pompously bragging about my
science fair project to all my science fair friends. It’s pretty ridiculous, right? First, I was
bragging about work that I hadn’t done, work that my father, not I, had done. Second, my project
wasn’t even any good. I was bragging about a project that really wasn’t worth all that much.
Paul accuses the saints in Corinth of bragging like misguided sixth graders. Last week
Kristin told us about the division that plagued the saints in Corinth. No unity in their church.
Instead there were factions, each claiming for itself one of the early teachers to pass through their
community--Paul, Apollos, Peter, or some, those really “spiritual” ones, claimed to follow no one
but Jesus. In the passage that we’re studying this week, Paul confronts the empty, deceitful ways
of thinking that motivate such factions, such divisions. He exposes them to the tragic and
glorious light of the Messiah executed on a cross, and he directs the saints to stop seeking
human honors and to seek the God who saves and redeems them. Paul’s words speak to us today
also. He calls us to change our hearts and to change our actions. So open your Bible, if you
While you ﬁnd 1 Cor 1.18, I want to refresh your memory of what Paul says just before
our passage. First Corinthians is a letter, so we need to read it like a letter. Each paragraph ﬂows
out of and carries forward what the previous paragraph says.
First Corinthians 1.18 ﬂows out of and carries forward the conversation Paul begins in 1
Cor 1.10. Paul announces that he’s heard the shocking news that the Corinthain saints aren’t
loving one another; instead, they’re quarreling with one another, feeding rivalry and fostering
division. In vv 12 and 13, Paul exclaims, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow
Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul
cruciﬁed for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” Paul is appalled at these divisions--
they run absolutely contrary to the preferential love for one another that Jesus taught his
followers to show. He sums up his disgust with these divisions in v 17: “Christ did not send me
to baptize”--Christ did not send Paul to build the cult of Paul--“but to preach the gospel--not
with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Here is where v 18 picks up. If you have a Bible, put your ﬁnger on the page and follow
along as I read v 18: “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.” The message of the cross is foolishness.
The message of the cross is the power of God.
Where you stand can really change how you see some things. I used to hate the city. I
grew up in the mountains in Montana. My parents moved there to get away from the city. Cities,
I heard, were sites of violence, drug abuse, poverty, racial conﬂict, and corruption. Cities were
things to ﬂee. But things change--I changed. I moved. I used to live in Montana, but later I lived
in the cities of Skopje, Macedonia, and Chicago. And moving to these different places changed
the way I saw the city. Is the city a site of violence, substance abuse, poverty, racialized injustice,
corruption, heartbreak, all things falling apart? On most days, yes. But now I see this place where
we live as a mission on which God has sent us. Since I’ve moved, I’ve also begun to see the
beauty, the glimpses of the kingdom in our neighborhood, the grass pushing up through concrete.
In v 18, Paul tells us that the cross is like that. Where one stands in regard to the cross
affects deeply the way in which you see the cross--and not only the cross, but as Paul goes on to
make clear, everything. To most people, nothing could be more absurd than a cruciﬁed savior.
But to those of us who see Jesus’ obedient death on a cross as the door to salvation, God’s power
is nowhere more present. Those who do not walk through that door, who remain in bondage to
sin and death, know our cruciﬁed messiah as a failure. But those of us who are following Jesus to
freedom discover that those who mourn really are comforted, those who righteously suffer do
receive God’s kingdom.
When we’re standing--no, better--when we’re following Jesus in the way of the cross, it
changes how we see everything. It’s like moving to the city, or moving out of your parents’
house, or, I’m told, like having your ﬁrst child. From this new location, this new path, everything
This change of perspective is what Paul emphasizes in vv 19 and 20 by citing a bit of the
Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Paul quotes, “For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the
wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ He continues, “Where is the wise sage?
Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish
the wisdom of the world?”
I was surprised when I looked up the passage Paul quotes from Isaiah. It’s Isaiah 29.14. It
falls near the end of a prophecy about Yahweh’s impending judgment on Jerusalem and just
before the beginning of a prophecy of Yahweh’s later restoration of the city. Isaiah shouts out
Yahweh’s message: “Once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the
wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” What is the
astounding thing that Isaiah promises Yahweh will do? Is it judgment? Is it restoration? The
prophecy isn’t quite clear. It leaves us wondering.
There’s also something in the message about the cross that should leave us feeling this
way--ambiguous, a bit uneasy, a bit off balance, at least at ﬁrst. You see, this world--this age, this
culture--it has its own wisdom. From its perspective, there are things that are worthwhile,
valuable, effective, and there are things that are not. Ask any of the teenagers sitting in the room;
they’ll tell you. Some things are cool, and some things are not. Don’t ask why. Don’t try to ﬁgure
it out. It’s just the way it is.
To be honest, as a junior higher and a high schooler, I was always quite concerned about
what was cool, about what I’d have to do be one of the popular kids. In junior high, I spent hours
ﬁddling with my hair in front of the mirror. I paid close attention to what brands the other kids
were wearing. I wanted to ﬁt in. Though I didn’t have a name for it at the time, what I was doing
was trying to press myself into the world’s wisdom. I was trying to become what the world
wanted, what it valued, what it thought acceptable, worthwhile, sensible, cool.
Some time in high school, everything changed for me. Something wonderful, something
astounding happened to me, and, all of a sudden, what all my peers at Belgrade High thought
was cool and what was not didn’t matter to ne anymore. What happened to me? What changed
the way I saw things? The summer after my freshman year, I discovered through two youth
group trips and many conversations with my youth pastor that Christianity is not just about
who’s in and who’s out--that’s it’s not just about buying in on a deal with God to get my soul to
heaven. I learned and came to believe that Christianity is about following Jesus on the mission
that led him to the cross. Once I started walking on the missionary path of the cross, I began to
see that I had been chasing after lies, mirages, misleading appearances up until that point. The
cross changes everything.
Jesus’ cross is wonderful, astounding. It’s something that we would never predict. Why
would God choose to redeem the world this way? It’s not efﬁcient, it’s not sensible, it certainly
isn’t cool. Is it judgment? Is it restoration? Theologians have argued in circles over what to make
of the cross. All we do know is that it is beautiful, beautiful and scandalous, and it sets us free.
Paul knew that the glorious beauty of Jesus’ cross--of a cruciﬁed messiah--is offensive to
the sensibilities of most people. Look at what he says in vv 21 through 23: “For since in the
wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the
foolishness of the message we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and
Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach a cruciﬁed messiah: a stumbling block to Jews and
foolishness to Gentiles.” The world is looking for a savior in its own image. The Jews in the ﬁrst
century were looking for someone to deliver them from Roman oppression. We today look for
experts to give us the information we need, technology to solve the problems we can’t, witty
people to entertain us, celebrities to inject our lives with a sense of signiﬁcance. Maybe we’re
waiting on better, more just government programs. Maybe we’re waiting for education to give us
the competitive edge in a tough job market.
But Jesus comes to us and says, “Blessed are you poor. Blessed are you when you’re
mourning. Blessed are you when you’re treated unfairly. Blessed are you when you’re laid off.
Blessed are you when your kids tell you they’re hungry and you’re not sure what you’ll feed
them. Blessed are you when your plans are frustrated. Blessed are you when you feel all alone.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against
you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same
way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” To the world, Jesus makes no sense. It’s
ridiculous to call the cross and the cruciform way of life that led Jesus to it “blessed”--at least
from the world’s perspective.
But then Paul ﬁnishes his idea in vv 24 and 25: “But to those whom God has called, both
Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God
is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Praise
God, because God turns everything around. If the cross is true--if Jesus’ execution is in fact the
way that God is ﬁxing the world--then it is the world, not the cross, that doesn’t make sense.
Popularity, efﬁciency, a sense of what is fair and ﬁtting--Jesus’ cross invalidates all of these and
redeﬁnes all of these.
At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus explains his upside-down blessings by referring to the
prophets. He says, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” At
the beginning of this sermon, I said that Paul’s message about the wisdom of the cross asks us to
change our hearts, to change our deepest values and expectations. If the cross--if a cruciﬁed
messiah--is wise and powerful and beautiful, we must train our hearts to love the cross and to
love the cross-shaped presence of God in our lives. What I mean is this: As Jesus states plainly,
God’s way in the world is and has always been a way of weakness, of foolishness, of
persecution. Pharaoh scoffed at Moses, the Israelites stoned the prophets, and Jesus was put to
death on a two pieces of wood. Jesus leads us to this same God. This is the God whose Spirit ﬁlls
us. And this is the God, the God of the persecuted and the oppressed, the God of weakness and
foolishness, that we must love.
Retraining our hearts, reshaping our desires and expectations, is deep-down kind of work.
We’re pressing right up against the boundary where what we have words for fades off into where
our language dissolves into realities too deep for words. But if we continue to listen to Paul’s
letter, he makes clear and concrete what now sounds murky and abstract. Listen to vv 26 through
29: “Brothers and sisters, 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 born into privilege. But God
chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world
to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things--and the
things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
This is where Paul gets personal. He says to the Corinthians, “You want proof that God
works through weakness? I’ll give you proof. Look around you. Look in the mirror.” Paul comes
awfully close to insulting the saints in Corinth to press home the critical point that God saves us
through the weakness and foolishness of Jesus’ cross.
Look at us! Are we celebrities? Are we wealthy? Are we the envy of our neighbors? If we
think we are, listen to Paul’s words later in chapter 3, verse 18: “If any of you think you are wise
by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you maybe become wise. For the
wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” We are foolish, we are weak, we are the
lowly, we are those who the world counts as nothing. Our bank accounts, they mean nothing. Our
college degrees, they mean nothing. Our well-decorated homes, they mean nothing. Our witty
Facebook conversations, they mean nothing. Our reputations, they mean nothing. Paul says it in
Philippians and we sing it on Sunday: “All I once held dear, built my life upon, all this world
reveres and wars to own, all I once thought gain I have counted loss, spent and worthless now
compared to knowing you . . . To know you in your suffering, to become like you in your
death . . . so with you to live and never die.”
These words sounded harsh to the church at Corinth, to all those saints quarreling over
who was the best teacher. They chose to identify themselves with Paul or Apollos or Cephas in
order to claim some of the honor associated with that particular person. They wanted to be in the
privileged group of their teacher’s star pupils. They wanted ﬁrst shot at the gold star stickers. But
Paul’s words are a slap in the face to this kind of thinking. It’s like Paul puts a hand on the
shoulder of my sixth grade self and says, “No matter how long you ﬁddle with your hair, you’re
still not going to be popular. And this is okay; popularity isn’t the race God’s set before you.”
The saints at Corinth are running as hard as they can in the wrong race. Privilege is not the prize
Jesus sets before us.
Paul concludes his meditation on the wisdom of the cross by pointing to what our heart
should be set on. He says, “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for
us wisdom, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in
the Lord.’” Paul tells the saints to take pride in the God who works powerfully through
weakness. He tells them to give up the race for privilege, power, and prestige. Instead they are to
receive all of their wisdom, their holiness, their redemption--in short, whatever is of worth in
their lives--as a gift which God gives to those who are weak. Let the one who boasts boast in the
This sort of change of heart will change the way we act. We are called by a God who does
not respect the powerful, the clever, the wise, but instead chooses to work resurrection with
lowly, normal people like you and me. The work this God calls us to is not a job for celebrities.
There’s no glamor, no respect in the mission that Jesus leads us in. It’s a way of self-sacriﬁce,
caring for those who don’t care back. It’s a way of vulnerability. We must boldly do what seems
truly foolish: to set aside our own concerns and busy ourselves with what’s in the interest of
others. We must boldly follow Jesus into situations that make no sense, situations where only
God can work things out. We must follow Jesus in the way of love.
I was sitting around a dining hall table with some of the students at the winter youth
retreat last week. We were talking about God’s desires. I was waxing eloquent about how God
wants each of us to follow the path that Jesus walked. One of the teens interrupted me with a
concerned question: “Josh, don’t you know where Jesus ended up? He was killed on a cross.”
Jesus, our cruciﬁed messiah, leads us in the way of love, and the way of love is the way of the