Looks are everything.
That’s the thinking of Western culture today. We live in a society centered on branding and slick advertising where organizations and even individuals swim in the deep water of social media image maintenance. Perception is key. How you look is what you are. Only you can define your own identity. You are the master of your own fate. Excellence is everything.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that in many cases this type of thinking has filtered into the church—and of course, that isn’t a bad thing completely. Churches should make it easy for outsiders to figure out what the Christian faith is all about and why a church does what it does. We must, within reason, make the basics of church accessible enough for outsiders so that God can, by his grace, turn them into insiders (see 1 Corinthians 14:16, 23-25).
But we often forget that God is all about displaying his power amidst our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Our frailties and failures are the dark backdrops that extenuate God’s grace painted over our lives. That’s true for individual Christians, and that’s true for whole churches as well.
That’s why the Apostle Paul was so adamant with the Corinthians, who were so enamored with floury rhetoric that they fought over which celebrity pastor was best, when he exhorted them:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? 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 1:18-25)
Then, in verse 27, Paul makes the sobering claim that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
We put-together Westerners ought to slow down as we read this chapter so as not to trip over these words. There’s an ironic beauty to how God uses lowly, weak things to demonstrate his power, but if we focus on only what is hip, new, appealing, and comfortable, we will miss God himself.
So what are some of these foolish things that God has chosen to use in his grand scheme to save the world from sin.
1. The Cross
Paul is zeroed in on the cross in this chapter. For those who believe, it’s the epicenter of God’s power, but for those who don’t believe, it’s ridiculous (see 1 Corinthians 1:18). Have you ever stopped and pondered the foolishness of the cross?
The center of the Christian message is this: your salvation from Hell and your eternal life with God depends fully on the shameful, public execution of a Jewish rabbi who by the Romans in the first century A.D.
Now there’s more to the cross than that. Christ was the God-man, the eternal Son of God. And though the Jewish leaders and Romans physically killed him, God in Heaven was pouring out his holy anger on his innocent Son. He did this as a substitute for us so that we, natural-born sinners and rebels against God, could be rescued from Hell.
Are we ashamed of the cross, or do rejoice in seeing God’s glory through it?
In the year 2015, we don’t learn about the cross by visiting Jerusalem and looking directly at the bloody wood. We hear that life-giving message through something perhaps just as foolish from a worldly standpoint: preaching.
So Paul writes that, 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” (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Perhaps there’s no worse social sin in the 21st century than to be perceived as “preachy.” Preaching is simply bad. It is equated with judgment and harshness.
But the word “preaching” as used in the New Testament simply refers to proclamation. Preaching the message of salvation through Jesus is simply to make an announcement—not to necessarily persuade through logic, emotional appeals, coercion, or even physical evidence, but to simply proclaim. That’s why the life of the church revolves around proclaiming what’s in the Bible.
Buddhist ideals can exist without Buddha. Several Islamic ideas about the nature of God can be inferred using the classic theistic arguments. Secular humanism is entirely based on natural arguments. But Christianity is not remotely philosophical in the sense that one can derive it from personal reflection or the study of nature alone. Nature and human thinking are wholly inadequate in Christianity. Christianity is perhaps the only religion that is actually falsifiable—it stakes everything on the literal historic events of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, crucifixion, and bodily resurrection (and the Bible admits that).
Imagine: God designed this whole world in such a way that natural reasoning and wisdom would never get people to him. Instead, he wanted the glory to rest on his saving power displayed in Jesus, not in man’s ability to think (albeit a God-given ability). So he made the way to the Christ found in the written and heard proclamation of Scripture—a silly thing we call preaching.
Like someone shouting “fire!” in a public place, preaching the message of Christ isn’t always fancy, dignified, or even logical. It requires the preacher to look a little silly and be misunderstood by many. But the foolishness of preaching points to something stronger and greater: the power of God to save. Have we forgotten the counterintuitive power of preaching.
3. The Ordinances
The ordinances of the church, or sacraments, are simply those practices ordained by God to mark off his people, the community of believers called the church. They give the physical world a visible picture of spiritual realities.
These ordinances are, of course, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (communion). But think of what these ordinances are saying.
The believer is united spiritually with Christ in a deep, invisible way. We must receive deeply into our hearts the fact of Christ’s death for our sins, which counts as our death for our sins. Christ’s resurrection counts as our entrance into a new life and perfect standing with God and guarantees our physical resurrection someday as well.
Though this is all a result of faith, God picked visible symbols to display these concepts to the world. So what symbols did he pick? Some fancy sort of meditation where we levitate and glow? Some exotic display of shouting, dancing, music, and pyrotechnics?
Nope. Bread, wine, and water. These silly-seeming group activities involving everyday objects brilliantly communicate the glory of Christ’s death for us and our safety within him. Have we forgotten the simply beauty of these commonplace ordinances and replaced them with hyper-emotional performances?
If being preachy is the ultimate sin of American society, then being penitent is the ultimate shame. We simply have no concept any more of the value of humility, submission, meekness, or repentance. Consider how counter-cultural Scripture is in this regard:
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:7-10)
Most of the Bible’s teaching on human brokenness can be summed up with one verse: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).
Brokenness has little place in our culture. But in the Bible, it’s the most obvious, visible characteristic of someone who knows God. A true child of God realizes how small he is before his Creator, how sinful he is, and runs to the cross to find forgiveness and mercy. Yet to be openly mournful over one’s sin is plain foolishness today, even within the church. As Matt Chandler recently tweeted, “The drug of choice in the modern age is levity.”
Have we missed the critical step of brokenness in approaching God?
Rounding out the list of the most foolish things God uses: you and I. That’s the right hook of 1 Corinthians 1. Paul says, in effect, “Do you want to know what kind of lowly things God uses in the world to show his power? Take a look in the mirror!”
God’s love pops against the canvas of human un-loveliness (see Romans 5:8). God’s nearness is within reaching distance for the weak, fatherless, and helpless (see Psalm 68:5). God hides his will from the boastful and reveals them to those who humble themselves like children (see Matthew 11:25-26). God’s mercy is magnified in saving—and using—the worst sinners imaginable (see 1 Timothy 1:12-16).
Have we forgotten that we’re not that awesome? That God’s glory is most visible in this sinful world through the simplest, silliest things—namely, us Christians?
Image credit: Mark O’Rourke (CC 2.0)