1 Cor. 1:18_31 – How to be Smart and Powerful

Translation and Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 19 Oct 2008


17. For Christ did not commission me to baptize, but rather to evangelize –

                   [and that] not by sophistication of words,

                   so that the cross of Christ would not be nullified.

18. For the word – the one of the cross –

to those who are being destroyed is stupidity,

but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,

19. for it has been written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise men, and the intelligence of the intelligent I will replace.”

20. Where is the wise man? Where is the lettered man? Where is the rhetorician of this age?

Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world stupid?

21. For since in the wisdom of God, the world though its wisdom did not know God,

God was pleased though the stupidity of what was preached to save those who believe.

22. Since Jews are also requiring signs,

and Greeks are seeking wisdom,

23. but, as for us, we are preaching a Christ who has been crucified

– to Jews a stumbling-block,

and stupidity to Gentiles,

24. but to them – the called ones (both Jews and Greeks) –

Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God,

25. because the stupidity of God is wiser than men,

and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26. For y’all see your calling, brothers,

that not many were wise according to the flesh,

not many were powerful,

not many were upper-class.

27. But it was the stupid ones of the world God chose for Himself

in order that He might put down the strength of the wise men,

and it was the weak ones of the world God chose for Himself

in order that He might put down the strength of the strong,

28. and the ones without class of the world

and the ones that have been despised God chose for Himself

 and the ones who do not exist

in order that He might make the ones that do exist to cease.

29. so that all flesh might not boast before the face of God.

30. Now it is from Him that you have existence in Christ Jesus,

who became wisdom to us from God and also righteousness, holiness, and redemption.

31. in order that, just as it has been written,

“The one who boasts in the Lord, let him keep boasting!”

INTRODUCTION: Monkey Wisdom leads to death

We all like it when people think we are really smart. We all like it when we feel that we are powerful enough to influence other people. I’m going to tell you about how to get the wisdom and power you want, but first I must warn you about the kind of wisdom and power that will hurt you. It comes in the form of a parable about a monkey from Paul White’s book, The Jungle Doctor’s Fables:

“Perembi the hunter, set a trap. The trap was an oil can with a hole cut in the top. First the hunter put in sand and stones; then he covered this with a layer of peanuts. He placed it underneath a buyu tree in the jungle and went quietly away and sat in the shade and watched.


“Soon many of the tribe of Nyani, the monkey, appeared. The smell of peanuts was food for their noses. They chattered among themselves and then one, Toto by name, came close to look at the can.


“He shook it. He peered through the hole, then put his nose to it and smelled. Ahhh! How good it was! His monkey mind told him, ‘All you have to do is to put your paw through the hole and the peanuts are yours!’ ... He listened to the insistent voice of his nose. His paw went rapidly through the small hole and grabbed all the peanuts he could hold. Toto pulled his paw away quickly, but it stopped with pain at the wrist.


“The grasped peanuts in his paw would not come through. Toto squealed loudly and the other members of his tribe chattered and squealed as well, giving much monkey advice in a variety of tones. Toto strove with great vigor to pull his paw out, but it would not come. Truly the wisdom of Perembi, the hunter, was great in making the size of the hole.


“Twiga, the giraffe, peered over a thornbush. ‘Let go of the peanuts, monkey,’ he advised kindly, ‘and your paw will come out.’


“But it was not the habit of the tribe of Nyani to let go of peanuts.


“Again Twiga spoke. ‘It is the peanuts that trap you; let them go and you are free.’


“In the shade, the hunter smiled to himself. He picked up a bag made from baobab fiber, gripped his knobbed stick, and walked slowly toward the monkey. Toto in fear upset the can and dragged it with him a little way, but still his paw would not come out. Nyani and his relatives scurried to the top branches of the buyu tree, chattering.


“‘Let go of the nuts and you’re safe,’ again called Twiga, backing away.


“But it is not the custom of monkeys to let go of what they hold (such is the wisdom of monkeys).

Tot squealed and drew back, but the trap held him.


“Prembi, the hunter, swung his stick. Kerwhomp! Toto fell back, stunned. His paw relaxed, the peanuts fell back into the can, and Toto himself was soon in the bag. He had been trapped as he had followed this way of monkey wisdom.”


We laugh at the foolishness of that poor monkey, but we humans do the same thing. It is not the custom of humans to let go of the sin that they desire. Our human wisdom leads just as surely to death as Toto’s monkey wisdom led him to death. The Bible says in Proverbs 14:12 “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is death.”

1. The wisdom you need cannot be arrived at by human reason (vs. 18-20)

·         Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the Roman Catholic church, wrote in his Suma Theologica that any man who was smart enough could understand the ways of God if he thought hard enough about it. However, Aquinas said, most people are too stupid or too lazy to figure it out on their own, so God provided a second way by which we might know of Him, and that was to give us the Bible

·         This is not true. Sin has bent all of our minds so that we cannot reason our way to God. No world religion outside the Bible has ever come up with the astonishing doctrine of the cross of Christ.

·         v.18 speaks of the “word of the cross” – the Greek word for “preaching” or “message” is NOT used here, rather it’s the word “logos/word.” It is the same “logos” from v.17 that Paul used to “evangelize,” not as worldly “wisdom words” or “sophisticated speech.” This “word of the cross is folly/ stupidity/ nonsense/ moronic to those who are perishing.”

·         The cross was a grotesque and repugnant symbol of execution of scummy criminals from the dark underbelly of society. It was not an elegant fashionable symbol like it is today.

·         Its main message is how dreadfully wrong sin is and how important it is that sinners get executed according to the letter of the law:

o       Rom 5:18a “…through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men...”

o       Rom 3:23  “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

o       Rom 6:23a  “the wages of sin is death…”

·         But the message of the cross is also about the awesome substitution of Jesus for us on the very instrument of justice we deserve:

o       Romans 5:8-9  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  9  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”

o       1Th 5:9  “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us”

·         Last week we looked at divisions in the church. Here we see that God’s dividing line puts those who follow His word on one side – those who are saved, and on the other side are those who follow the wisdom of the world – the monkey wisdom – and who perish.

·         There is a contrast between the “wisdom of the world” (v.20) and the “wisdom of God” (v.21).

·         John Calvin wrote of this passage “[W]hatever knowledge a man may come to have without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, is included in the expression, the wisdom of this world This he says God has utterly made foolish, that is, He has convicted it of folly… [W]hatever a man knows and understands, is mere vanity, if it is not grounded in true wisdom; and it is in no degree better fitted for the apprehension of spiritual doctrine than the eye of a blind man is for discriminating colors. We must carefully notice these two things — that a knowledge of all the sciences is mere smoke, where the heavenly science of Christ is wanting; and man, with all his acuteness, is as stupid for obtaining of himself a knowledge of the mysteries of God, as an ass is unqualified for understanding musical harmonies… [T]his world is like a theater, in which the Lord presents to us a clear manifestation of his glory, and yet, notwithstanding that we have such a spectacle placed before our eyes, we are stone-blind, not because the manifestation is furnished obscurely, but because we are alienated in mind, (Col. 1:21)”

·         Quoting Isaiah 29:14, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God has already kept leaders from thinking straight in the past. “Therefore, look…wisdom of its wisemen will perish and the understanding of its understanding men will hide itself.”

o       Result of v. 13 “Because they drew near with the lips but not their heart…”

o       Under Ahaz, men thought it would be wise to form an alliance with Assyria to save Judah from Israel and Syria, but this ended up being a bad move. Likewise, later under Hezekiah and his successors, it seemed the best part of wisdom to seek Egypt’s help to save them from the aggression of Assyria. Once more God would expose the folly of looking to human wisdom rather than to God’s wisdom, by having Assyria defeat Egypt and besiege Jerusalem. “The wondrous work of the Lord was to bring the people into such a condition that all confidence in human wisdom would be demonstrated as foolish.” (Young)

o       God does this by removing wisdom and understanding from His people!

o       11:2 the Spirit of the Lord is the source of wisdom & understanding

o       The people turned and hid from God, the source of wisdom and discernment, and so God hid from them and they had no more understanding / discernment / intelligence

§         44:24-25 “the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb… turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish”

§         Isa 19:12 “Where then are your wise men? … 13 The princes of Zoan have become fools, and the princes of Memphis are deluded… 14  Jehovah has mingled within her a spirit of confusion…”

§         59:2 “your iniquities have made a separation between you & your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you”

§         27:11 a people of no understanding (cf. Isa 6:9, 28:9, etc.)

·         “God designs in the first place to make us see ourselves to be fools before He makes us wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:15)” ~Calvin

·         Steve Ratlife “Paul is arguing against people who think they know better than God what it mans to be good… ‘We have out own ideas about life in this world and life after death, and it has nothing to do with a man dying on a cross!’”

·         This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to learn wisdom or that we shouldn’t try to use reason. Paul is freely using logic in this passage. The “wisdom of this world” that I’m warning you not to use is any system of thought that is not based on God’s word. The wisdom of the world is not capable of knowing God.

2. The wisdom you need comes through Christian preaching (vs. 21-23)

v.21 “God was pleased though the stupidity of what was preached to save those who believe.

1.      It does NOT come through your own human wisdom, as we have seen in the previous point.

a.       “Greeks consider the preaching of a Christ who has been crucified to be foolishness, and they keep seeking after wisdom in some other direction (v.22-23)

b.      They’re barking up the wrong tree; the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. v.24

c.       Isaiah 55: 7. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and a man of iniquity his thoughts, and let him turn to Jehovah and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will be great to pardon. 8. For y’all’s thoughts are not my thoughts, and my way is not y’all’s way, declares Jehovah. 9. As the heavens are exalted from the earth, thus my ways are exalted from y’all’s ways, and my thoughts from y’all’s thoughts.”

2.      Just because the wisdom you need doesn’t come through natural reason, it does not mean that you should look outside the realm of reason into some irrational, mystical, sign of power.

a.       “Jews require a sign” (v. 22)

b.      D.A. Carson comments that this is not a humble request for mercy, but rather a proud demand to manipulate God’s power. It is as though the person is saying, “I will offer God the privilege of my company IF He will first heal my child, or IF He will turn the pastor into an armadillo…

c.       Demanding a display of God’s power for a selfish reason and not being content with the amazing displays of power God has already given throughout history are wicked responses to God.

d.      The sign that God gave the Jews was “Christ crucified” (v. 23) How was it a “stumbling-block”?

                                                  i.      Imagine if I started telling you that Osama Bin Laden has the answer to world peace. You would think I was nuts. That’s what the Jews thought when the Christians started telling them that this crucified criminal named Jesus could make them righteous!

                                                ii.      The Messiah – Hebrew for the Greek “Christ” – was  the “Blessed one” (Ps. 118:26, Mat. 21:9), how could he be hung on a tree and become a cursed one (Deut. 21:23)?

                                              iii.      Inconceivable. Muslims have difficulty with this too. They believe that Jesus only appeared to have died on the cross – that someone else was crucified instead of Jesus, because God’s messengers cannot be shamed.

3.      Maybe wisdom and signs and people dying on crosses are not real relevant to American society. What we post-modern Americans look for in wisdom is, “Will everybody else approve of it?”

a.       The American way of determining wisdom is just as sure to lead you away from true wisdom as the old Greek and Jewish ways.

b.      We are conditioned to worry about what everyone else will think. I was intrigued to see how one of the local candidates for office used this as his major argument to convince voters of why he should be chosen over his opponent. He is running for the schoolboard position against someone who believes that creation and evolution should be presented side-by-side in science classrooms as possible theories of the origin of life. Listen to what he says in the first two paragraphs of his web page on the topic (highlighting mine):

I support the current science standards, especially in regard to the teaching of mainstream evolutionary science–a scientific theory that is well-accepted in the scientific community and which impacts our daily lives in numerous ways. I do not find Intelligent Design, nor young-earth creationism, to be scientifically credible. The U.S. Constitution provides that everyone has the right to believe in whatever form of religion they choose. However, the First Amendment also protects all of us from the zealotry of religious intolerance that wishes to impose itself on all the citizenry. Since my return to Kansas ten years ago I have watched the drama over our science standards as a small, well-organized minority has tried to impose their religious views on our children in the guise of science. This effort made Kansas a national and international laughing-stock and raised serious issues about the manipulation of the democratic process.

4.      The wisdom from God cuts across the grain of Jewish, Greek, and American ways of capturing wisdom in the “preaching of Christ crucified.”

a.       Don’t be afraid to talk about the cross. It will offend some people, but it is the only way that we can get the wisdom and power of God.

b.      What if a doctor had a patient whose heart had stopped beating and he pulled out the electric shock paddles to get the patient’s heart started again, then he said. “Well, I know they say to plug the machine into the wall, but maybe it will work without plugging it in! One of you nurses, how about log on to SurveyMonkey and make up a poll to see how people feel about operating the defribulator without plugging it in. Or perhaps there is some alternate power source that we could hope to be developed.” NO! He will plug it in where he knows there is a power source and quickly save the life of his patient!

c.       “The cross,” wrote D.A. Carson, “is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of replacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry.”

d.      Preach the cross – Christ Crucified!


You can’t arrive at God’s wisdom using human wisdom, it must come through preaching the cross. Furthermore:

3. Only those who are Called can get the Wisdom and Power of God (vs. 24-27)

v24. but to them – the called ones (both Jews and Greeks) – Christ, the power of God & the wisdom of God,

·         How do you get the Wisdom and the Power that we’re talking about? The truth is that there’s nothing you can do to get it. You have to be “chosen” (v.27-28) to get it.

·         So, how does God choose?

o       When you start a pick-up game of basketball, you start with a captain who chooses who he/she wants for the team. And the ones who get picked first are the ones who are the most skillful players, the best friends of the captain, or the tallest, or maybe just the one who is waving the most excitedly to the captain.

o       God says in v.26-27 that He doesn’t chose the most powerful and smart people to be the ones who get His wisdom and power. Most of the people He chooses are “not wise” by worldly standards, not socially “powerful,” and not very “well-born/upper class/noble.” Not many great athletes, media personalities, and pop singers. But lots of “lower-class” people, “despised people,” and “no-name” people, perhaps even future children yet to be born who will displace those who think they have all the brains and power in the world.

o       James 2:5 “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?”

o        “God is not impressed by what the world admires” (Carson) Degrees, money, rank, status, none of this will matter on Judgment day.

o       Low-life Shepherds were the first in to see Jesus, then eventually the wise men made it.
Uneducated fishermen were the first to follow Jesus; Pharisees came later.

o       It doesn’t say there won’t be ANY smart or powerful people in this world’s economy who are called into fellowship with Christ Jesus, just that there won’t be MANY. The Countess of Huntingdon liked to say that she was saved by that “M.”

o       Matthew 11:25-27  Jesus said, "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.  26  Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.  27  All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.”

·         If there is no flattering reason why you were chosen by God to have faith in Christ Jesus, then you have no reason to boast, says Paul in v.29.

o       Song by Steve Taylor “Jesus is for losers”
“…If I was groping, groping around for some ladder to fame, I am ashamed. If I was hoping, hoping respect would make a sturdy footstool, I am a fool. Bone-weary every climb, blindsided every time. Just as I am, I am needy and dry. Jesus is for losers, the self-made need not apply… They don’t grade here on the curve. We both know what we deserve. Just as you are, just a wretch like me. Jesus is for losers, grace from the blood on a tree. Just as we are – at a total loss, Jesus is for losers, broken at the foot of the cross…

o       It Jesus becomes for us wisdom and righteousness sanctification and redemption, that means we started out foolish, unrighteous, unholy, and enslaved to sin, but Jesus substituted Himself for our place, took on our sin, took on Himself the punishment for sin by dying on the cross, redeeming us – buying us out of slavery to sin – and giving us His righteousness.

o       Romans 3:23-27  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24  being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;  25  whom God displayed publicly [on the cross] as a propitiation [appeasement of wrath] by His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;  26  for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.  27  Where then is boasting? It is excluded…

o       If you believe this is true, then you have been called by God and are no longer operating in the world’s wisdom; you have the wisdom and power of God. And that’s what you want, right?


Ecclesiastes 5:1-2  Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.  2  Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.

2.      ACKNOWLEDGE God’s providence for everything good that comes your way.
James 1:17 – every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of light
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  Rejoice always;  17  pray without ceasing;  18  in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

3.      KEEP Boasting! v.31 Literally says, “The one who boasts in the Lord, let him keep boasting! It is a quote of Jeremiah 9:23-24  Thus says the LORD, "Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches;  24  but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things," declares the LORD.


“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross. The emblem of suffering and shame.

But I love that old cross, where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I’ll cherish that old, rugged cross, ‘till my trophies as last I lay down.

I will cling to the old, rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown!”