First Corinthians 1--Wisdom and Foolishness
Feb 23, 2017
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, 19,
18 For the word [logos] of the cross is to those who are perishing [apollumi] foolishness [moria], but to us who are being saved it is the power [dunamis] of God.
Here Paul begins to contrast the wisdom of this world to the wisdom of God, showing how true believers think differently. Each, in fact, would consider the other to be deluded at best and mentally ill at the worst.
The Word of the Cross
The Greek word logos, translated “word,” has a rich range of meaning, as we see from John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Logos.” It is more than a word or message. It includes the idea of intelligent thought, logic, and creativity. To those who are of the world that is lost and perishing, the intelligence and logic of God is foolishness, because the human mind cannot comprehend the thoughts and ways of God.
The word of the cross is seen in the story of Moses, who was told to cast a tree into the bitter waters of Marah to make the waters sweet. Exodus 15:25 says,
25 Then he [Moses] cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree [ets, “tree, wood, timber”]; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them.
This was a test of Israel’s faith. It also taught them—if they had ears to hear—that the bitterness in the hearts of mortal men could be made sweet only through the word of the cross. The “tree” represented the cross of Christ. There was no human logic that would indicate that the nearby tree could sweeten the waters of Marah. For years that tree had stood near the waters, and no one had received the revelation of divine logic.
Perhaps the tree would have done nothing to the water if anyone else had cast it into bitter waters, for only as an act of faith did it have value. But Moses heard the word and was obedient, proving his faith, and his faith changed the situation for Israel, while providing us with an example of the spiritual logic of the cross that surpasses that of human reasoning.
Another example is found in the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 6:1-7. The prophets had gone down to the Jordan River to cut trees in order to build more living quarters. While one of the men was chopping down a tree next to the river, the axe head flew off into the river. 2 Kings 6:5, 6 says,
5 But as one was felling a beam, the axe head fell into the water; and he cried out and said, “Alas, my master! For it was borrowed.” 6 Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” And when he showed him the place, he cut off a stick [ets] and threw it in there, and made the iron float.
No unbeliever in his “right mind” would believe such a story. But to those who of us who have the mind of God, it is perfectly believable. Restoring the iron axe head prophesied of the restoration of the fourth kingdom of Daniel—and, indeed, all of the nations represented by the various metals in the image (Daniel 2:32, 33).
The man who had lost the iron axe head had borrowed it. He was not its owner, and as a good steward, he wanted to return it to the rightful owner. God is the Maker and Owner of all the nations, and He has given them to stewards on earth. True stewards are called to rule the nations in a way that is productive in building the Kingdom—in this case, the living quarters of the school of prophets. But when the nations are “lost” or “perishing” (apollumi), the cross (“tree”) is the only way to restore them back to their owner.
The logic of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. If the axe head had been able to think with human logic, it would have considered Elisha’s instruction to be quite foolish. The axe head would have said to himself, “If that is the best solution that this foolish prophet can find, then I will be dead and lost forever at the bottom of the Jordan River.”
But the axe head floated. Faith was rewarded for believing that which was foolish to men. Faith understands that the cross “is the power of God.” When Jesus was crucified, it was not just a tragic blow to the cause of truth. It was the plan of God from the beginning, the solution to the problem of death itself. Moses, Elijah, and many others prophesied of His death by their faith-obedience. By death He conquered death and saved the world. By losing everything, He restored all things back to their original Owner.
God Destroys Human Wisdom
The Apostle Paul cites Isaiah 29:14 in support of the logic of the cross, saying in 1 Corinthians 1:19,
19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”
This citation is of interest to us when we see its context. Isaiah 29:1-8 prophesies of Jerusalem’s destruction, calling the city “Ariel, the city where David once camped.” It shows how God Himself was to lay siege to the city (Isaiah 29:3), using foreigners as His army, in order to bring judgment (death) upon the city.
The poetic name, Ariel, has a double meaning in this passage: (1) “lion of God,” and (2) “hearth of God.” Under David, the city was like a lion, but in her rebelliousness, the city was to become God’s hearth, a place of burning and divine judgment. The rebellious people had become God’s enemies, legally speaking, and so God had become their enemy (Isaiah 63:10; Leviticus 26:40-42). In Isaiah 29:5, God speaks to Ariel-Jerusalem, identifying its inhabitants as “your enemies,” that is, the enemies of the true Ariel, the “lion of God.”
These enemies, God says in Isaiah 29:5, 6 were to be judged severely with what appears to be a nuclear explosion, complete with an instantaneous consuming fire, tempest, and earthquake. As for the nations forming God’s army, they will not achieve their goal either, God says. In Isaiah 29:7, 8 we find that it will be like a man having a dream of eating or drinking, and when he awakes, he finds himself still hungry and thirsty.
This seems to describe the world situation today. When Jeremiah 19:10, 11 is fulfilled, and Jerusalem is destroyed so completely that it can never again be repaired, the nuclear fallout will prevent the nations from occupying the land as well.
In that context, God speaks to the people of Judah in the days of the prophet. Isaiah 29:9, 10 says,
9 Be delayed and wait. Blind yourselves and be blind. They become drunk, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. 10 For the Lord has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep; He has shut your eyes, the prophets; and He has covered your heads, the seers.
This is one of the many prophecies about the spiritual blindness of both Israel and Judah. Whenever men reject the word of the Lord, they are blinded so that they cannot hear or understand that word. Because the people rejected the word of the Lord through Isaiah, God blinded the eyes of nation as a whole, as it is to this day. The implication is that their eyes will remain closed until the prophesied disaster takes place.
The prophet continues in Isaiah 29:11, 12,
11 And the entire vision shall be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, “Please read this,” he will say, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate, saying, “Please read this.” And he will say, “I cannot read.”
Such is the hopeless condition of those who are blind. They have the word in their possession, but they cannot read it or understand its contents. Hence, the people of Jerusalem even today cannot understand the danger that lies at their doorstep, for they do not understand this prophecy. They think that God will save Jerusalem at the last minute, though He says clearly in verse 4, “you shall be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust where you are prostrate, your words shall come.” It is a picture of a destroyed city lying in the dust.
This is the background leading up to Isaiah 29:13, 14, which Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 1:19.
13 Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, 14 Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be concealed.”
Jesus applied this to the religious leaders in his day. He quoted verse 13 in Matthew 15:8, 9. The verse applies to those who reject the word of the Lord, and God’s solution is to “deal marvelously with this people.” It is to destroy the wisdom of their wise men (rabbis). Isaiah does not say specifically how God will do this, but the Apostle Paul tells us that their wisdom was destroyed by the logic of the cross, which they deemed to be foolishness.
In other words, as long as they rely upon human logic and reject the word of the Lord, God does not open their eyes to the truth. He acts in ways that are foolish to their sight. He brings about a solution that is illogical to them. The cross, therefore, was a stumbling block to them, as Paul says later in 1 Corinthians 1:23. The solution was revealed right in front of them, but they did not have the spiritual eyes to see it.
For this reason, God hired the Romans to destroy the city, for in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 22:7, he says,
7 But the king was enraged and sent his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and set their city on fire.
Of course, Jerusalem was later repaired (rebuilt), but Jeremiah 19:10, 11 has yet to be fulfilled for the last time. Yet the destruction in 70 A.D. at the hand of the Roman army was a partial fulfillment of the prophecy, even as earlier it had been fulfilled in a partial manner when the Babylonian army destroyed the city in 586 B.C.
When men think (in their pride) that God’s logic is foolishness, they join the company of “those who are perishing.” The prime illustration of this throughout history has been those of Jerusalem who rejected the word of the Lord and who remained blind until the day of their destruction.
Paul lays this foundation of foolish truth before explaining the manner in which we must learn truth. As we will see, truth is learned, not through the soul (carnal mind), but through one’s spirit (spiritual mind). In essence, this is the path by which we may overcome spiritual blindness and hear the voice of truth.
This is part 7 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones