Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. — 1 Corinthians 1:20-25
Paul’s question seems to imply that the “wise man” is nowhere when it comes to understanding what God has done through the cross of Christ. It would be easy to take this passage as a denigration of any attempt to apply the intellect to the understanding of the Christian faith. And sometimes we do suffer the rant of unreflective preachers who put down the value of higher learning.
But this passage wasn’t written by an uneducated ignoramus. Paul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, a university town, and received an intense rabbinic education in Jerusalem at the feet of the esteemed Gamaliel. It took a brilliant mind to reach the insight expressed in these words. Paul’s intellectual achievement in discerning the core of the Christian gospel for his culture was exceeded only by the brilliance of Jesus, in His reshaping of Israel’s story around Himself so that God’s people might be renewed in their Abrahamic calling to bless all of humanity. Among all the apostles it was Paul who most effectively built upon Jesus’ masterful insight.
Paul, here, contrasts two ancient cultures, the Semitic and the Hellenistic: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” In other words, Jews want something spectacular, something with a “wow!” factor. And Greeks want something they can speculate about, catalogue and document with footnotes. A man dying a criminal’s death on a Roman torture instrument doesn’t fit either expectation. Instead, Paul asserts, Christ on His cross takes the issue to another level, the level of calling and commitment. Jesus’ resurrection makes it plain that God is involved in what He did. Either you buy into God’s plan, recognizing the true power and wisdom of God, or you sidestep it with lame excuses when it doesn’t mesh with your cultural norms.
There are plenty of “Jews” and “Greeks” around today, people who look for the Christian faith to do something for them in terms of priorities imposed by non-Christian sources. We might be among them, attempting to cram the faith into the parameters of our own agenda and presuppositions. Is Christianity a tool we use to achieve our ends, or are we God’s instruments in the plan He has revealed in the cross?
As long as our self is the center of our concern, we partake of the foolishness Paul describes—a foolishness that passes for wisdom in the contemporary scene. Let’s examine our own thinking about the gospel to see whether we adequately appreciate its mysterious, but powerful, irony. For the story it tells calls into question the twisted worldview that so insidiously warps our perspective and makes us into the arbiters of coherence and effectiveness. May we have the grace to restrain our self-centered efforts to control the story, and to align ourselves with God's story that breaks free of our outworn cultural constraints.