Theme Editorial

The Foolishness of Preaching

“For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, ASV).

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, NKJV).

While it is indisputable that there is much foolish preaching, we must not allow this to detract from the emphasis placed in these passages by the apostle Paul upon “the foolishness of preaching” or “the foolishness of the message preached” as used by the Holy Spirit.

Comparison between the two versions (as listed above), and others, will elicit the fact that it is not preaching, per se, that is under consideration here, but the message that is being preached. Preaching, like all forms of communication, uses words, which are but vehicles of thought. Whether or not preaching is foolish depends more upon the subject matter than upon the decorum of the speaker. In the case before us, it is the message itself being considered, not the preacher.

Foolishness of The Preacher

The preacher is foolish when he fails to “hide behind the cross of Christ,” seeking to present himself rather than Jesus. He is foolish when he presents philosophy instead of truth. He is foolish when antics in the pulpit are designed to tickle the funny bone of those in the audience rather than appeal to their heart. He is foolish when he supposes himself to be a comedian and entertains people instead of pointing them to salvation. He is foolish when he supposes that the message of the cross can be presented as the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in 10-15 minute snippets rather than in measured doses of Bible study. (One may excise a cuticle from a finger nail in a few seconds, but it takes longer to perform heart surgery. A church that demands “sermonettes” from “preacherettes” does not understand the difference between a manicure and heart surgery! Such a church will more likely be a “churchette.”) A preacher is foolish who sees himself as a representative of Norman Vincent Peale or of the school of those who would “Win Friends and Influence People” or utilize only “The Power of Positive Preaching.” He is foolish when he fails to speak out against sin, dealing only in positive messages. A preacher is foolish when he does not live what he preaches, being guilty of immorality, indecency, or unchaste behavior.

In other words, preachers themselves can be foolish in their approach to their work, failing in personal habits or conduct that is demeaning to the message they carry. Preachers must realize that we are clay vessels with an exceeding precious content: the gospel of Christ. As Paul stated: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Foolishness of the Message

While all of this is true, this is not the subject being discussed in 1 Corinthians 1:21. A weightier thought is being placed before us: the difference between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man. Paul is warning that human philosophy, so admired in the Golden Age of Greece in which he lived, is inadequate for man’s needs, unable to guide his thinking or to save his soul from sin. Indeed, philosophy cannot even properly define sin or its existence, much less provide for its cure. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (and their disciples and schools of thought), renowned in their time and ever after, are fallible themselves and unable to provide answers to vital questions: is there a God, what is man, where did he come from, what are his needs, and where is he going after death? As an example, Protogoras declared that “man is the measure of all things,” giving rise to the system known as “Humanism” which denies the existence of God. Situation Ethics and all its evils (springing from Humanism, cf: Humanist Manifesto I and II) proves the truthfulness of Paul’s warning that men who give up the knowledge of God turn to evil themselves. “...although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor where thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves...” (Rom. 1:21ff).

Mankind, apart from the knowledge of God, descends into immorality. History, if none other, should teach us this fact. The wisdom of man is inadequate to provide the answers we need. Meeting this failure of philosophy head-on, Paul presented the wisdom of God, revealed in the gospel message, as the unique, specific and superior message from God that should be the moral compass to guide man through life to eternity. Unashamed, Paul stood in the shadow of one of the greatest temples of idolatry on Mar’s Hill in the city of Athens, one of the premier cities of the ancient Greek world and declared:

“Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).

It is in the one God that “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28), therefore “we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (v. 29).

Because “He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained,” men ought “everywhere to repent” (v. 30-31).

The validity of all this is attested by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead: “He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (v. 31).

Among those who heard Paul’s inspired message on that occasion were those listed as being among the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, representatives of two of the main sects of human wisdom alive in that age. Epicureans made famous the philosophy which later became famous in our day as a bumper sticker: “If it feels good, do it.” Stoics produced the philosophy of “What will be, will be.” The foolishness of Epicureanism can be seen in the endemic promiscuous sex in our age, sexually transmitted diseases, the AIDS epidemic, easy divorce, broken homes and abandoned children. Stoicism can be seen in man’s inability to cure these problems of mankind and the resultant acceptance of non-judgmental permissiveness and lack of moral standards. Clearly, philosophy is inadequate to the task of providing man with a blue-print for life.

Wisdom: A Good Thing

Philosophy is the “love of wisdom.” Loving wisdom, in and of itself, is not bad. In fact, the writer of Proverbs personified wisdom and advised: “Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding. Exalt her, and she will promote you; she will bring you honor when you embrace her. She will place on your head an ornament of grace; a crown of glory she will deliver to you” (4:7-9).

Solomon, better at giving advice about wisdom than exemplifying it in his own life, exhorted: “My son, if you receive my words and treasure my commands within you so that you incline your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment and lift up your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (2:1-5).

Inherent, however, in the wisdom literature before us is the basic understanding that true knowledge leading to wisdom includes the belief in God. He is the source of true wisdom and displayed wisdom even in Creation. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; by his knowledge the depths were broken up, and clouds drop down the dew” (3:19).

Failure to follow true wisdom leads to foolishness, as Solomon knew too well. Without wisdom, a man is susceptible to terrible pitfalls. “My son, pay attention to my wisdom; lend your ear to my understanding that you may preserve discretion and that your lips may keep knowledge. For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey and her mouth is smoother than oil; but in the end she is better as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword” (5:1-4).

Ask President Bill Clinton about these words of wisdom, now that the sordid and immoral behavior that has characterized his life has become public knowledge! Though genuine repentance has yet to be demonstrated (pleading forgiveness on one hand, he has authorized his lawyers to attack the report that lays out the facts for all to see), it all could have been avoided if wisdom had led his paths instead of foolishness and lust.

Human Wisdom vs. God’s Wisdom

Our text (1 Cor. 1:21) extols the wisdom that comes from God, not just generic wisdom or wisdom that has its origin in a source no higher than the thoughts of man. Protogoras was wrong! In fact, there is an antagonism between human wisdom and Godly wisdom. Wisdom that originates from man alone is inadequate and antithetical to Godly wisdom since it seeks to exclude the existence of, and revelation from, God. Since “the fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God,’” (Ps. 14:1), any preaching rising from the source of man (apart from God) is foolish preaching. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness;’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile’” (1 Cor. 3:19, 20).

In Paul’s second letter to Corinth, he chided the brethren for their boasting and asked them to “Bear with me in a little foolishness” (11:1, ASV). This use of “foolishness” is a play on words, intended to prove, in fact, the very opposite of foolishness. It was not really foolish boasting on Paul’s part when he reminded the Corinthians of the sacrifices he had made on their behalf.

In this same fashion, Paul used “the foolishness of the message preached” (1:21), to contrast the true foolishness of human wisdom. What is considered foolish by human standards is the very thing that God has chosen to provide the message of salvation. “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom...” “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1:22-23).

The Jewish nation had, in fact, rejected their own prophets (Psalms 2, 22; Isa. 53, etc.) who foretold of the Messiah and His sufferings and demanded a sign from Jesus to confirm by sight and not by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). Jesus responded to the Jews: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:39-40). Seeking a Messiah who would restore a secular nation, the Jews stumbled over Jesus as foolish, yet the true Messiah who did establish a spiritual nation.

Gentiles scoffed at the idea that a Jewish man who is nailed on a cross can save the world. They glorified human strength (note the Olympic games and the ideal human form displayed) and human wisdom (the established philosophers). To Gentiles, a weak, uneducated Jew who claimed to be the One God and who could not keep from being crucified was foolish. Who could believe in such a “weak” and “ignorant” God?

Yet, “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise, according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1:24-29).

And here we have it! God has deliberately rejected things in which humans might glory (human wisdom, strength and might) in order to have men place trust in God rather than self. “We walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).

Folks, this is nothing new. When God called Abram, he commanded him to go out to a place which God promised for an inheritance. Of this, the Hebrew writer said: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would afterward receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). This is faith in action. Foolish by human standards, but wise to those who trust in God by faith.

When the Jews came into the Promised Land, God gave them Jericho by the “foolish” military procedure of marching around the city and blowing on rams’ horns (Joshua 6). What military tactician or commander-in-chief would hatch such a scheme to take a walled city? Yet it worked! Before Joshua died, God reminded all Israel that it was not their arms, strength or might that conquered Canaan. God said: “But I delivered them into your hand. I sent the hornet before you which drove them out from before you, also the two kings of the Amorites, but not with your sword or with your bow. I have given you a land for which you did not labor, and cities which you did not build, and you dwell in them; you eat of the vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant” (Josh. 24:10b-13). The lesson in this, as acknowledged later by David, was that God would receive the glory and not the strength of the human arm: “For they did not gain possession of the land by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them, but it was Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your countenance, because You favored them” (Ps. 44:3). This is faith in action.

When the man who was blind from birth had his sight given to him by Jesus, it was not by traditional medical procedures (John 9:1ff). When interrogated about this miracle later by those who wanted to destroy Jesus, they asked, “How were your eyes opened? He answered and said, ‘A Man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, “Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.” So I went and washed and I received sight.’” Again, this is faith in action. So far as the field of medicine is concerned, there is no validity to the procedure and though it should be performed a thousand times today, it would not restore sight to a single person. Medically, it foolishness. Biblically, it is faith.

What Paul is teaching so clearly in our text is that the world will rely upon different standards than God’s people for direction and wisdom. The world will label as “foolish” the things of God (faith). But the things labeled as foolish by the world are the very things God will use to provide us with the wisdom sought after and rejected by the world. All the great libraries of the world, with all their accumulated wisdom of all the philosophers of all time, cannot tell us about God, eternity or the human soul. For all his intellect, Socrates knew no more about the plan of salvation than the youngest child in the church who has been taught Acts 2:38. A babe in Christ is wiser than Plato for, as David said, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation” (Ps. 119:97-99).

The Application Today

 In faith and practice, members of the church of Christ rely upon “the foolishness of the message preached” to tell us how we should live. Our plea is “we speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.” We plead for “book, chapter and verse” in all matters of religion. We understand that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). In every age, God has demanded that His people be people of faith and not dependent upon human sight, wisdom or strength. One cannot understand the Bible, our relationship with God, the doctrines of the Bible or the morality of God’s people apart from this principle. The world will always depend upon itself for direction - though it be truly a case of the “blind leading the blind” (Mt. 15:14). God’s people will lean upon the scriptures for direction. Hollywood and other centers of influence promote promiscuous sex and illicit marriage relationships (whether homo- or hetero-sexual). Schools from kindergarten to graduate schools extol Humanism and Situation Ethics. Denominations rely upon creedal systems to guide them in organization, work and worship. Politicians look to popularity polls to tell them how they should shape policy and public morality. There is a better way to determine right or wrong.

If you are led to wonder why members of the church of Christ teach against immorality and immodesty, read the Bible.

If you have questions about our worship (acapella music, the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week, contributions on the Lord’s day only, etc.,), read the Bible.

If you are puzzled by our lack of denominational hierarchy and question why we have elders whose authority is restricted to each local church, read the Bible.

It really is not that hard to understand. We actually do rely on the integrity of the word of God, “the message” that is preached. In every case of discussion and dispute, our supreme court is the word of God. Inspired of God, the authority of the Bible is no less than the authority of God in our lives. We are led by the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit leads through the living message. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12-13).

The greatest distinction of all between those who would follow Jesus and those who rely upon human wisdom for guidance is our attitude toward Jesus Christ and His word. In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3) We are warned: “Beware let anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (vv. 8-10).

This issue of Watchman Magazine is brought to you with the intent of encouraging all who read to turn in trust to the word of God, foolishness indeed to people of this world, but the wisdom of God to those who seek Heaven. It is our desire, as that of David’s, to be “a companion of all those who fear You, and of those who keep Your precepts” (Ps. 119:63).

Email Tom Roberts

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