Deficient theology leads otherwise good, well-intentioned people to think they need to ‘help’ God by repackaging the Gospel in a way that attracts people.
- Entertaining, stylized, shallow services instead of substance
- Trying to ‘fit-in’ with culture (‘hipster’ dress/talk)
- Latching onto the latest fashionable media-driven issue
It’s not only inauthentic, but it trivializes Yeshua’s death!
This morning, let’s think about the contrast between earthly and heavenly wisdom, or conventional wisdom vs. transformational wisdom. We’ll be looking at 1 Corinthians chapter one.
As you find your place, let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the context. We frequently hear the expression “conventional wisdom” to refer to the common thinking on a given idea in a given culture. In the ancient world, when it came to how to define reality – the ultimate meaning of life, the ancient Greeks had their own brand of conventional wisdom, and the Jewish people another. How then would Jews and Greeks react to the preaching of the Good News? After all, it was a very mixed (and mixed-up) world into which the message of Messiah was to advance.
Rabbi Paul illustrates simply and convincingly in 1 Corinthians 1 how Jews and Greeks viewed the idea of a crucified Messiah, why so many found such an idea scandalous, and why it is the very thing we need to be preaching, despite today’s conventional wisdom. Let’s begin at verse 17.
For Messiah did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Messiah would not be made void (trivialized).
Rabbi Paul’s statement about baptism is evidence that, even very early on, baptism was carried out at the local level, and not by apostles. There is wisdom behind this practice. Baptism is the initiation ceremony into the Body of Messiah, and the new believer needs to be mentored, and discipleship is much more likely to take place with their local elder, not with a traveling evangelist.
But it’s what Paul says about how NOT to preach the Gospel that interests me. He disavows the use of sophistry – cleverness of speech (wordsmithing). Dating back to 4th century Greece, there were public speakers called ‘sophists’. The Greek word sofia (sophia) means ‘wisdom’. Some of these sophists would stand in a public area and gather a crowd and begin propounding a view; and these men were extremely persuasive! And no sooner would he have the crowd convinced, then he would chastise them for their gullibility and tear apart his own argument and thoroughly convince them of the opposite. And then he would upbraid them again and tear apart that argument and return to his first contention. And people ate it up. The Greeks took pride in the eloquence and ‘wisdom’ of some of their own. These public spectacles continued into the Roman era, and this is what he is referencing.
The Apostle employed no such cleverness in presenting the Good News. He argues that to do so would be to trivialize Yeshua’s suffering and death, and he’ll have none of that. And, I would remind us, he wrote through the influence of the Holy Spirit.
So why do so many Christian leaders think they need to finesse the Gospel? Or that the way to attract people is by orchestrating church services to be as entertaining as possible, or trying inauthentically to talk and look like a hipster or steering their congregations off-course by emphasizing ‘social justice’ activism?
Here are two iron-clad truths from Scripture:
Isaiah 59:1 – Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save…
Romans 1:16 – I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it (the Gospel) is the power of God for salvation to all who believe…
Consequently, there’s no need to employ marketing strategies, branding, finesse, sophistry, or worldly strategies to reach people. In fact, based on what Paul says about the trivializing of Messiah’s cross, to do so, even with sincerity and the best of intentions, comes dangerously close to a presumptuous sin. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have a good website (and Shema has a very good one!), or that having attractive business cards is wrong. Rather, it’s the erroneous idea that God needs our help to make the Good News appear more attractive to unbelievers. And such thinking leads to compromise of every sort.
For example, many Evangelical Christians have lost focus on our first calling to preach the Gospel and have been sidetracked into social justice activism. Now maybe it started out with the sincerest of motives – the idea that if the world sees that we are socially aware, it will be a step to our winning them to Yeshua. But it is a mistaken idea, because it is based on flawed theology – a deficient view of God. It is, after all, the Holy Spirit who draws people, not you and not me. Paul is telling us that all the eloquence in the world won’t make a dent apart from Him, and all the strategies for appealing to people won’t make a dent apart from Him, and that when we try to employ cleverness, we trivialize Messiah Yeshua’s suffering and death. Here’s good theology: God is powerful to save, and He does so through the preaching of the Gospel. We would do well not to complicate that.
And, as I said, man-pleasing leads to compromise. Many young believers have been influenced by Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, a left-leaning Christian organization that focuses on social justice issues. A few years back it was revealed that Mr. Wallis’ organization received funding from arch-leftist billionaire George Soros. But not before Mr. Wallis publicly called both Glen Beck and Marvin Olasky liars for reporting it. Wallis later admitted that he had accepted money from Soros, and apologized – to Mr. Olasky (he refused to apologize to Glen Beck).
As we come to verse 18, Paul paints a startling dichotomy.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to we who are being saved it is the power of God.
Talk about a dichotomy. One message, but two radically different reactions to it – from people with two dramatically different destinies. One group declares, mwri,a evsti,n “It is foolishness!” The other group says of the same message, du,namij qeou/ evstin “It is the power of God!” How could one message evoke two remarkably different and emphatic reactions? The answer lies in the realm of human will.
34 years ago, as a cancer patient in a Southern California hospital, I discovered for myself how people can respond in such contradictory ways to the same set of circumstances. Two or three weeks after major abdominal surgery, and having just started my first round of chemotherapy, the doctors and nurses kept nudging me to get up out of the hospital bed and walk. So I started taking walks, and one morning I walked over to a lounge where there were magazines and a television. And as I was sitting in the lounge reading a magazine, a lady walks in. She’s a cancer patient too. She’s hooked up to a rolling IV cart, too. And she sits down on the other side of the room… and proceeds to light up a cigarette! I’m fighting to survive and she seems to have already thrown in the towel.
So I ask again, how could one message, that of the cross, evoke two such contrary reactions? The answer lies in who’s saying what. Those who regard the Gospel as foolishness are presently Hell-bound. Those who regard it as the power of God are redeemed, and now Heaven-bound. One group reacts in a manner consistent with fallen human nature, and the other reacts as those who have a new nature.
You really see this principle at work when you’re doing evangelism. It’s amazing how in just the span of a few hours, you’ll receive both insult and encouragement, scorn and praise. One guy tells you to “get a life” and another thanks you. And every so often someone will say, “I know I’m not right with God. What should I do?” – all on the same street corner, all in the same afternoon. So, is the Gospel foolishness, or is it the power of God? It really depends on who you ask.
For it is written, “I will destroy the ‘wisdom’ of the (so-called) wise ones, and the ‘intelligence’ of the (so-called) enlightened ones I will reject. Where does that leave the wise one? Where does that leave the scribe/scholar? Where does that leave the expert debater of this age? Has not God rendered foolish the wisdom associated with the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its own wisdom did not know God, God was delighted, through the (perceived) ‘foolishness’ of the message proclaimed to save those who believe.
Paul quotes a prophecy of Isaiah, which originally concerned the apostasy of the southern kingdom of Judah and the future Babylonian invasion. Judah had a good religious veneer, but was spiritually bankrupt, and would fall to the Babylonians. Likewise, even the greatest wisdom this world has to offer will prove futile in the Day of the Lord.
A little theological housekeeping here… It’s God who saves. I know, it’s so elementary that I shouldn’t have to say it, but to listen to some ministry leaders you’d think you have to have just the right methodology for that to happen. According to these ‘experts’ we must present ourselves a certain way, and avoid being associated with certain unpopular groups in order for people to respond to the Gospel. That kind of thinking betrays a deficient theology.
There is a Creator who delights to turn our vast sum of worldly wisdom on its head; although I don’t think He needs to do anything for us to show ourselves foolish. Rabbi Paul’s point here is that the world’s wisdom didn’t cut it with God. The pinnacle of human wisdom falls miserably short. The world, through its own wisdom, did not know God. This world has its own brand of wisdom, yet man’s best shot at enlightenment utterly fails.
Let’s have a little fun with a sampling of some collective human wisdom in response to the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Aristotle: It is in the nature of chickens to cross the road.
Sir Isaac Newton: Chickens at rest tend to stay at rest. Chickens in motion tend to cross roads.
Albert Einstein: Did the chicken really cross the road, or did the road move beneath the chicken?
Ernest Hemingway: The chicken crossed the road to die in the rain. Alone.
Dr. King: I dream of a world where a chicken can cross the road without having its motives questioned.
Dr. Phil: The problem we have here is that this chicken won’t realize that he must first deal with the problem on this side of the road before it goes after the problem on the other side of the road.
Bob Dylan: How many roads must one chicken cross?
Bill Clinton: I did not cross the road with THAT chicken.
Hillary Clinton: What difference at this point does it make why the chicken crossed the road?
Al Gore: I invented the chicken.
Grandpa: When I was your age, we didn’t ask why the chicken crossed the road. Somebody told us the chicken crossed the road, and that was good enough.
In verse 21 we see that God was delighted to allow the perceived foolishness of the message we preach to be the very means by which people are saved. We’ll talk more about that shortly, but there’s another problem with the world’s wisdom. You see, man’s wisdom has almost always leads to self-exaltation. From the time we contrived to build the Tower of Babel down to our present flirtation with cloning, we are trying to harness the lie of the serpent in the Garden and make it reality. The world is ever directing its wisdom in a futile attempt to supplant the authority of God. The reason why is answered in verses 22-24.
And, indeed, Jews demand miraculous signs, and Greeks seek for wisdom (sophistication), but we proclaim Messiah crucified, to a Jews a stumbling block, and to Greeks foolishness. But to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Messiah the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The preaching of a crucified Messiah offended the religious sensibilities of the Jewish people of that day, who demanded proof – miraculous signs. The Jewish response to Yeshua: What kind of Messiah suffers silently and helplessly at the hands of godless pagans? Our people had rather one-dimensional expectations when it came to Messiah: the warrior who will destroy our enemies and be our next David (forgetting, of course, that even David at one point had to leave Jerusalem in humiliation, with only a small band of loyalists).
As far as Greeks were concerned, the preaching of a crucified Messiah offended their intellectual sensibilities. The Greeks demanded sophistication. Think about the way Bible-believers are portrayed in the media today. Why is it, whenever a reporter visits an Evangelical church or Messianic congregation, they managed to photograph the one person who is impassioned in prayer, with their face appearing contorted in pain, which, of course, comes off as weird. My point (Paul’s point) is that the Gospel is not very palatable to society’s sophisticates.
But the great Apostle to the Gentiles goes on to say that Yeshua is all the power and wisdom anyone could ever ask for, saying, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Messiah the power of God and the wisdom of God. If most people don’t seem to get it, it’s because they clamor for the wrong things. Those who are called will respond to the Good News without our having to embellish it or attempt to make it more palatable. We’ll talk more about that in a few moments. Paul concludes his remarks on the dichotomy of human wisdom and divine wisdom, writing in verse 25
Because the (presumed) foolishness of God is wiser than (that of) men and the (presumed) weakness of God is stronger than (that of) men.
If we took Yeshua’s sacrifice as an act of weakness, it’s because our wisdom fails us. And if men today regard the Good News as foolishness, it’s because man’s wisdom fails. So you can understand why it is a mistaken idea to repackage the Gospel by appealing to human wisdom and human prejudices.
Let’s look at the last few verses together:
For consider your calling, brothers, that by human standards not many of you were wise, not many mighty, not many of nobility. But God has chosen the (ostensibly) foolish (ones) of the world so that He might put the wise to shame, and God has chosen the (ostensibly) weak (ones) of the world so that He might put the mighty to shame, and the (ostensibly) insignificant (ones) of the world and those regarded with contempt God has chosen; the ‘nobodies’ that He might render the ‘somebodys’ moot, that no human being should boast in the sight of God.
How does it make you feel when you see someone who is obviously trying too hard to be something you just know they’re not? Like the guy who’s in his 50’s trying to be a cool skateboarder? Or the guy who’s now in his late 70’s and still sporting a ponytail, trying to be the rock and roller? Or someone my age trying to relate to teenagers by talking like one… It comes off as artificial, and desperate.
Don’t you want to say to that person, “You need to relax and just be yourself”?
Messiah Yeshua didn’t try to attract the highly-respected scholars of His day. He didn’t pursue the endorsement of the politically well-connected. He made no attempt to garner the support of the wealthy Patrician class. He summoned a group of earthy, unsophisticated, rough-around-the-edges men to be His disciples. Rabbi Paul reminds us of who we were. Most of us were not great scholars or celebrities or political movers-and-shakers or sophisticates. But God called just such as us to be His worshipers. Humble, not arrogant.
So when we think we need to ‘dress up’ the Gospel to make it more palatable, we err. When we go out of our way to make ourselves more acceptable to the world, even with good intentions, we are acting in worldly wisdom; but as we’ve seen, such wisdom fails in the end. It’s a bad strategy. More than that; when we employ sophistry or showmanship we trivialize the suffering of the One who redeemed us. And that is sin.
I think it’s good timing to be reminded of these things as we prepare for next week’s evangelistic outreach at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. If you’re worried about how people will perceive you – don’t. If you’re worried that you won’t be effective because you aren’t a scholar or a socialite or a sophisticate – don’t. Relax and be the person you are; the person God loved so much that He sent His Son to die for.
And leave all your concerns about results in His hands. He’s running the show.