The Foolishness of Preaching

By Chad R. Wadlington

“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, KJV).

There are times in our reading of the Bible we come upon a verse or phrase that gives us some difficulty. A first glance at the verse above has given some quite a jolt when they suppose Paul to say that preaching is foolishness. I imagine their confusion would be compounded when considering four verses earlier Paul said, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach” (v. 17). Taking both together one might conclude that Christ sent Paul out bent on foolishness. It seems at least there were some in Corinth that thought so.

The church at Corinth was fighting a culture dominated by intellectualism. The society around them had denounced the preaching of Paul as complete foolishness and their influence was permeating the Christian’s evaluation of the manner and message of gospel preaching. In the 1 Corinthian letter, Paul shows the true folly of those who think themselves wise enough to evaluate God’s ways.

He begins his admonition against the division paralyzing the church. As with the Greek philosophers and their disciples, the Christians were dividing among themselves according to their chosen teacher (1 Con 1:12). The pagan world was persuaded more by a teacher’s manner or style than by his message, but this was not to be the Christian’s standard of evaluation. To them he wrote, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1 Cor. 1:17). The Corinthians were to be impressed with the teaching rather than the teacher. The one of whom they were taught and baptized into was important. That is why Paul did not come to them with persuasive words of human wisdom lest their faith would be in wisdom and not the power of God (1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1-5). He later stressed that those who baptize or preach are nothing (1 Cor. 3:7). The division of the Corinthian church was simply a result of evaluating the manner of preaching as the pagans did, “For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:3).

The trouble with carnal behavior was that the natural man rejects the teachings of God, thinking them to be foolishness (1 Cor. 2:14). And that was the next step for the Corinthian church if they were trying to keep pace with culture. The intellectuals had already judged the message of preaching to be foolishness. Certainly the Christians did not want to follow that “wisdom” and jeopardize their salvation! So in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, Paul borrows the pagan accusation of “foolishness” to demonstrate that God in his “foolishness” is still wiser than the wisest of men. “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).

It is as if Paul is calling court, demanding testimony from the intellectuals who think themselves wise enough to evaluate God’s ways. And anytime God is-sues a challenge to man it is serious. Jesus challenged his enemies, “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). God challenged Job, “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man, I will question you and you will answer Me” (Job 38:2-3).

In our Corinthian text, Paul quotes God, who challenged Israel’s wisdom in attempting to save herself through alliances, rather than trust his power (Isa. 29:14). Now Paul challenges the intellectuals in Corinth, “Where have your philosophical pursuits ever led?” The answer was nowhere, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God” (1 Cor. 1:21).

Try as they might their pursuits were a dead end. Through their wisdom they were no closer to God, salvation was still out of their grasp, and they were doomed to perish. In their “wisdom” they rejected the only thing that would save, the message of the gospel. They judged that message to be foolish. The Jew had his idea of the Messiah, a physical reign on the throne of David and Jesus did not fulfill their expectations. The Greek had his idea of a Savior and it was not a Savior who could not save himself. However, it was not the Jewish or Greek idea that mattered. God’s ways are not subject to the ideas of men (Jer. 10:23; Isa. 55:8-9). God in his wisdom chose the cross and it was that “foolish” message that saved those who believed.

In all their scrutiny the intellectuals had overlooked the only reason they deemed the cross to be foolish  be-cause they would not have chosen it. Man became the end of his own reasoning and how enlightened is that? “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise … that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Here Paul has come full circle exposing the core of the problem, evaluating the manner and message of gospel preaching by worldly standards. The end of human wisdom is human and anytime man elevates himself he replaces God as supreme authority. “But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). All glory, honor, and worship are God’s and can be shared with no one (1 Cor. 1:31). “To God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for-ever, Amen” (Rom. 16:27).

The problem at Corinth stands as a warning to those today who criticize the manner and method of gospel preaching. The denominational “intellectuals” claim the gospel’s power has lost its effectiveness in the hands of incapable men whose style is archaic and whose content is unenlightened. Sadly that attitude has permeated the thinking of some Christians, who have tried to replace the edification of preaching with entertainment and the message of sin with psychology.

Christ did not send us out bent on foolishness. The gospel message is the same today as in the first century, pure and unadulterated by the wisdom of men. In it we should stand, steadfast and unashamed, knowing it is foolishness to the perishing, but salvation to us who believe (1 Cor. 15:58; Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18). Let us glory in being “fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor. 4:10)!

Guardian of Truth XLI: 4 p. 23-24
February 20, 1997