1 1 Corinthians 1:22-25
Have you ever had the unsettling feeling of being the only Christian in the room? I can remember sitting in a room of ten people where the discussion topic had to do with morality. It was during my vicar year in Puerto Rico, and at the language school where I was studying Spanish the teacher decided this would be a good conversation topic. So, we began discussing—in Spanish—what we thought about various moral issues and who determines whether something is good or bad.
Well, it soon became apparent that my Christian beliefs were quite different than everyone else’s. To say it was an uncomfortable situation is an understatement, especially when during the course of conversation, the teacher asked me whether I thought he was a bad person. Now, if you have ever been made to feel that you are the uneducated one because of your faith in Christ, this was one of those situations.
Of course, it’s not just a secular culture that takes offense at the Christian teaching. Many religious cultures do as well. On one memorable occasion a lady asked if I could pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe so that a relative of hers could be healed. Understand that I was a guest in her house. There were also 25 other guests staring silently at me waiting to see how I would respond. So, I said, “Well, I can pray to Jesus for your relative, but I cannot pray to Mary. You see, the Bible says we are only to pray to God.”
That’s why I ask you, “Has your faith in Christ ever caused you an embarrassing moment?”
Because it did for the 1st century Christians who lived in Corinth. Imagine, if you can, living in a culture where most of the people you interact with think that the Christian message is the daftest thing they have ever heard. It’s not that they dislike you personally, although some may. But as they come across the Christian message as people inevitably do, they scratch their heads and genuinely wonder to themselves, “How can anyone possibly believe that? It makes no sense!” Some of them even become angry that there are people out there like you who believe it. They resent the fact that a large number of people in our country are attracted to the message.
So, there are a number of emotions present in this text that we can relate to: embarrassment, anger, resentment, offense—you see that the bridge which connects us to our first century Christian counterparts is much shorter than we often think.
Take, for example, the cultural setting of 1st century Corinth. Corinth, as you may already know, was the equivalent of any large metropolitan area today. There was commerce, and therefore there was a lot of greed. There was a melting pot of cultures and belief systems, and there was sexual promiscuity—lots of it. In fact, over time the name “Corinthian” had become slang within the Greco-Roman world for a sexually immoral person; such was city’s reputation in its day.
Do you think the city council of Corinth ever had to wrestle with civil and moral issues? Do you think the citizens themselves suffered from an emotional emptiness and purposelessness that an atheistic worldview inevitably creates?
For the religious Jew of that era the answer to the problems of Corinth was found in the promised Messiah. “Well, that’s good”, you say. Well, yes and no. It was good because the answer is found in the promised Messiah; it was bad because the Jews didn’t accept Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. As Paul says, Christ was a “stumbling block” to them. In other words, they couldn’t get their minds wrapped around the notion that the Messiah whom God had sent to them wound up dying on a cross. Jews saw weakness in the cross. Jews still see weakness in the cross. There was no more disgraceful symbol in all the Roman Empire than the cross.
Put yourself in the shoes of an Old Testament Jew. Wasn’t their greatest salvation story that of being rescued from Egypt? How did God save them then? Through power. Through miracles. And so it went throughout the Old Testament. Moses, he was powerful. Elijah, he was powerful. David, he was a mighty man, but Jesus? Jesus died. “God can’t die”, the pious Jew said. Moreover, the cross…that was for bad people. The Messiah can’t be a bad person. The Messiah will enjoy God’s favor to the highest degree.
What was wrong with their thinking? Why did the average Jew have such a misunderstanding of who the Messiah was going to be? I want you to listen to this carefully: the answer is because they had a previous misunderstanding of what salvation really is.
You see, the Jews saw the Promised Land only in earthly terms. It was freedom from their oppressors. It was the freedom to live however they wanted. And what one needs to deal with oppression is power, not weakness. You notice that salvation in their minds had nothing at all to do with one’s sin. But the reality was that God had never intended the physical country of Israel to be the true Promised Land. Israel was simply a picture of the true Promised Land that can only be found in heaven. But, you see, if you’re under the notion that the good life is to be found in the here and now, then whatever salvation you’re looking for will also have to be tied to the here and now.
The Greeks had the same misunderstanding, albeit for different reasons. Neither did they understand salvation in terms of salvation from sin. “That wasn’t the problem,” the Greeks said. “The problem is that we just don’t understand enough about the way this world works. That’s the problem! If we can just understand more about the human body, the human mind, the laws of nature—science—then we can right all the wrongs of society and have the good life now, not later. Not in heaven, on earth!
Ask yourself, is life in this world ever going to get better and finally be good? And what, precisely, is the definition of good? See, now we are asking the right question: what does it even mean for life to be good?
For the Jews it was a strong, independent nation, one that could conquer rather than be conquered. For the Greeks it was the unlocking of human knowledge and understanding that could solve the evils of the day. But then came along a Christian message that said, “Actually, none of that will work, and the reason it won’t work is because your definition of good is fundamentally flawed. This current world can never be good.” You see, that’s the bible’s teaching. This world is and always will be fundamentally flawed—no matter how much understanding or strength one nation may have.
Now Christ came to this world and for three years he went around publicly saying, “The problem isn’t this or that; the problem is sin.” Actually, he made it more pointed than that. He went around proclaiming, “The problem isn’t this or that; the problem is sin, and that means that the problem with this world is actually you because you have sin, and you are the one that does the sin.”
Can you see why the Christian message wasn’t popular in first Century Corinth? Can you understand why it’s not popular today? The Christian message says that the problem with this world is sin. And then it says, “All of us have sin. All of us do the sin, and therefore, the problem with this world is you and me.”
And so, the Christian message basically said to both the Jews and the Greeks of Paul’s day, “You’re fighting the wrong battles.” And the message of the cross continues saying the same thing today: “You’re fighting all the wrong battles! I mean you’re fighting, but that’s not where they enemy is at. It’s here! It’s at the cross! It’s sin! It’s death! “For the wages of sin is death!”
That’s what’s wrong with life here on earth, and what we need to understand is that as long as there is sin, life will always be wrong here on earth. So we need to deal with sin. And that’s what the message of the cross does. It takes a perfect Lamb and places it on the altar of the cross, and as a substitute, the Lamb takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And that’s not foolish. Rather, it’s Good News.
But it’s only Good News to the one who believes it. That’s the kicker. You see, if your default way of thinking is that the good life is obtainable now, well then the message of the cross will always be ho-hum. Then the message of power, success, and prestige will always be more attractive, will always be more exciting. And if your thinking, albeit subconsciously, tends to minimize the reality and seriousness of sin, then the message that the human being is the answer to life’s problems will sound pretty good, and we’ll start to wonder: “Is it that we just need to know more? Is it true that education is the answer to this world’s problems?”
Well, that’s a good discussion topic. But it’s not the reason Christ came. Christ didn’t come to educate, but to take the place of the sinner before God. To redeem the world of its sin. And he is coming a second time to do away with this world of sin. It’s true. He’s coming to create a new heaven and a new earth, but if your worldview doesn’t allow for that, then what other choice do you have than to think that this world is the best that there is?
But what if there is something better? What if there truly is something beyond what we can see with our own eyes and understand with our finite minds? What if there really is a heaven and that heaven is beyond what we are capable of fully understanding because it is a place free of sin? Well, then forsaking this life for the next wouldn’t be so foolish now would it? Then dying in this life wouldn’t be so sad because of the resurrection to eternal life.
Now here’s the thing: You know that, and you believe that, and so it is not foolish to you. You believe that message of the cross is the message of the Messiah dying in your place because the only way to take care of the problem of sin is through the shedding of blood. Now how is it that you know and believe that? It came to you through the preaching of Christ crucified. Isn’t that what Paul is saying in these verses? It’s not silly what you believe. It’s not silly because it’s true. “Well,” says someone, “why can I see that it is true and other people can’t?” “Oh”, says the apostle Paul, “well, that’s because it doesn’t come through human wisdom or human logic. In other words, it doesn’t come through human words. It comes through God’s words, and so it can only come through the preaching of the cross.” [Read vv. 21-24].
May God make you proud of this Christ as you wait at the foot of his cross. Amen.