1 Corinthians 1:18–31 (ESV)
“And that has made all the difference.”
Some of you probably recognize that last line from the poem, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. Perhaps you could fill in the penultimate line, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” We won’t be interpreting Frost today, though I’m sure that would be a lovely exercise.
I would like us to consider his final line, however. When we get to the end of our lives, and we look back at what made all the difference, what will that be? When we consider what gave our lives meaning and purpose, what made us successes or failures, what has motivated us toward godliness (or not), how would we fill in the blank?
“And BLANK has made all the difference”
We might come up with a variety of answers:
Another way to ask this question would be, “What do you value?” Do you ultimately value prestige or financial success or influence or man’s praise?
Or I might ask you, “what do you brag or boast about?”
We are still near the beginning of our series through the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Daniel introduced the series last week, and if you missed that message, I encourage you to go back and get acclimated in his sermon and his blog post at cornerstoneapex.org.
In our passage today, Paul is still setting the stage for all of the content that is coming later in his letter. Earlier in Chapter One, Paul brought up one of the issues that they were having within their church—namely that there were divisions among them. They seemed to disagree about which spiritual leaders should be the most influential among them, or which leaders most embodied their own cultural values of eloquence, wisdom, and powerful rhetoric.
In our text today, Paul will challenge us to consider what really makes the difference in our lives. He will contrast the wisdom of the world with the power of God.
We will explore the passage through three points:
Psalm 107:8 (ESV) — Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!
There was no shortage of philosophers or teachers in Corinth. They loved a persuasive, eloquent, powerful speech. Let’s back up and read v. 17 again.
1 Corinthians 1:17 (ESV)
Paul is going to contrast the kind of message that the Corinthians would esteem in their culture with his own message. He uses the word, “wisdom” to portray this. I count at least 6, maybe 7 occurrences of “wisdom” or “wise” in our passage where it refers to worldly or earthly wisdom that is folly to God. Don’t be confused in our passage as if God is actually saying true wisdom should not be our pursuit, that is not the case at all. Paul is, rather, pointing out the limitations of our worldly philosophy.
In verse 19, Paul alludes to Isaiah 29:14.
Isaiah 29:14 (ESV) — therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”
Pay close attention to the first half of verse 21 in our passage. It is very profound, and it’s quite easy to just skip over it.
In God’s perfect plan for his creation, he made everything in such a way that one cannot find and know God directly through the pursuit of wisdom (philosophy, knowledge, logic, science, etc.). This should humble us—it puts our intellect and insight in its place. This is helpful to remember in our pursuit of evangelism and apologetics. Apart from God’s self-revelation, we cannot truly know him. This is why the Gospel message, and the scriptures are so important.
Biblical wisdom must begin with the fear of God and with his own revelation.
Proverbs 9:10 (ESV) — The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Paul brings in an additional insufficient means of knowing and obeying God in v. 22.
The Jews of Jesus’ day (and it appears Paul’s day as well) wanted some kind of proof by signs in order to be believed. The demanded the miraculous to confirm the message.
In the case of the Greeks and the Jews, they were putting themselves in the place of the judge or critic to pass judgment on God himself.
In our own day, the types of criticism or demands may have changed, but the basic posture of many unbelievers toward God is the same. We demand to be convinced by the scientific method, or some new philosophical system, or by a certain religious experience, or by a social media poll.
In contrast to Greeks seeking wisdom or Jews demanding signs, Paul offers something entirely different.
Paul refers to this slightly differently in verse 18.
What is this “Word of the cross” or “Christ crucified” message? Paul describes this “Gospel” or good news in Chapter 15.
1 Corinthians 15:3–4 (ESV) — For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
If we go outside Paul’s letter the the Corinthian church, we can read other descriptions. Here is Colossians.
Colossians 1:21–22 (ESV) — And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,
Here is Romans 3, which Phil preached on two weeks ago.
Romans 3:23–24 (ESV) — for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
To say this a little differently, the message that makes all the difference is not one of philosophy or a promise of religious ceremony or miracle. It is a Spirit-revealed interpretation of actual historical events that happened in the first century. God sent his own son as a human child to be born by the Virgin Mary. He lived a sinless, righteous life. He died a shameful criminal’s death to pay the penalty for the sins of all those who put their faith in him. After three days, he rose from the dead. These are historical events. They really happened. They are not mere metaphors for how to be made right with God. We are not putting our faith in some idea, but in the very concrete actions of the Son of God.
This message is offensive to the Jews and folly to the Greeks, but it is the only message that can save us from our biggest problem—the penalty for our sins—eternal punishment.
There is a stark reality in our passage about this message of the cross. Look back at verse 18.
This message divides humanity into two groups—those who are perishing and those who are being saved. We could translate the two groups—those on their way to destruction and those on their way to salvation. We are perhaps more used to speaking of salvation in the past or in the future: you were saved or you will be saved. But, it is helpful to remember that the Bible uses all three tenses to describe God’s activity in rescuing us from judgment.
The ancient world deployed various polarities for describing humanity: Romans and barbarians, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free. But Paul here sets forth the only polarity that is of ultimate importance: he distinguishes between those who are perishing and those who are being saved. The dividing line between these two groups is the message of the cross: “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18).
- D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 14.
It is interesting that in verse 18, the opposite of folly is not wisdom but power. A couple of times, Paul refers to the word of the cross as “the power of God.” We see this at the end of v. 18 and again in verse 24.
Where is the power for change? Where do we look for the power that makes the difference? The Corinthians, it seems, looked for powerful, persuasive speeches that moved them. We may not put it in those words for where we expect change today. We might depend on better, slicker marketing, or a multi-media experience, or perhaps we think the real power to affect and impact people comes from science or psychology or a think-tank.
We all need to remember where the real power is.
God was pleased to make the universe in such a way that the real power for salvation—for righteousness, sanctification, and redemption—comes through the message of the cross.
However, it’s not merely the message of the cross (or revelation from God) that makes the difference. As we saw in verses 18 and 23, this message is folly and a stumbling block to many.
If that is the case, what good is the message of Christ crucified? If it is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, who is left?
Our text gives us two descriptions of those that the word of the cross helps. First we saw in verse 21 that this effective salvation comes to those who believe.
Who is saved by the message of the cross? Those who believe? It’s not enough to just hear the gospel message—you must believe it. It’s not just enough to own a bible and know what’s in it—you must believe it. It’s not enough to merely be inspired by the works or teachings of Jesus—you must put your faith in him. It’s not enough to be born into a Christian family—you must believe for yourself. It’s not enough to be baptized—you have to believe the gospel for that to even mean anything. It is not enough to try to obey God’s commandments—many have tried—you must believe—you must put your faith in the one who gave his life on the cross for you—it’s the only way.
But saying that those who believe are saved doesn’t go far enough to describe what has made all the difference.
Now look at vv. 23-24.
These are two ways to describe the same group of people. Those who believe are the same group as those who have been called. Paul’s argument here is that Jews and Gentiles reject the cross—who is left? That covers everyone. The message that makes the difference must be combined with the calling that makes the difference.
Remember that we speak of “calling” in two different ways. The sharing of the gospel itself is a general call—an invitation to believe. But, as we know from Jesus’ parable of the soils (Mark 4), many hear the word that do not receive it or bear any fruit.
The calling that Paul mentions here in 1 Corinthians is different—it is effective. Sometimes we use the terms effectual or irresistible because through this call, God accomplishes—not just offers—his salvation.
Romans 8:30 (ESV) — And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Paul is not telling the Corinthians this just to give them visibility into the hidden, mysterious ways of God. He wants them to be sufficiently humbled and sufficiently confident in their own calling.
1 Corinthians 1:26–28 (ESV)
Please don’t read this without the “m.” Paul doesn’t say that God doesn’t save “any” who are wise, powerful, or of noble birth. We heard last week that the church in Corinth did actually have some politically influential and powerful people in it. Paul’s point isn’t that God can’t save kings or the rich or the well-educated. His point is that he doesn’t save them because of those characteristics. Our inclusion in the people of God is not a stamp that says, “you were worthy” but one that says “saved by grace alone.”
Paul wanted the Corinthians to stop elevating certain “gifted” leaders in ways that caused division in the body. We would do well to remember his warning in our own day. We can easily elevate certain Christian leaders or influencers. We gravitate toward the powerful preachers, the prolific authors, the high profile sports personalities, or the evangelical political figures. Paul would remind us that that’s not his strategy for building his kingdom. Not many wise, not many powerful, not many of noble birth…God uses ordinary, not-that-special people to build his church.
This is an invitation for us to ask ourselves, “Why me?” Why did God save me? Does your answer include all of the ways you deserved salvation more than the next guy, or all the ways you can benefit the kingdom of God? “It’s a good thing God saved me, because I can…; I’m good at…” NO! God saved you to display his mercy and to magnify his own power and grace. This has always been the way that God has chosen his people.
Deuteronomy 7:6–8 (ESV) — “…The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers…
So far, we have seen that two things are required to make all the difference in our lives—the difference between heaven and hell, life and death, true wisdom and folly.
We need the word of the cross—the message of the gospel, and we need the calling of God on our lives that brings about faith.
Now let’s turn to the purpose and evidence of those two realities.
Why did God orchestrate the universe this way? Why not save the wealthy, the wise, or the noble? God gives us two reasons in the text.
The first is in verse 21.
1 Corinthians 1:21 (ESV) — …it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
Don’t skip over this as if it’s insignificant. It pleases God. We so easily slip into living as if our desires and wants should be the center of the universe. They often function as the center of our own universe, which explains so many of our sins.
But God is rightly the center of the universe, and doing what pleases him is the highest good. It should be our highest goal.
Psalm 115:3 (ESV) — Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
God’s plan of salvation, including how and whom he saves is for his own pleasure. This pleasure is centered in the Father’s love for his Son.
Colossians 1:19 (ESV) — For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
Or from the Transfiguration in Matthew:
Matthew 17:5 (ESV) — …“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
There is a second reason given in our text for why God applies salvation in this way.
There are two “so that” phrases in our passage.
This is one of the overarching messages of the Bible. God has accomplished salvation in such a way that he gets all the glory. No single human being will be able to say on judgment day, “I deserve this.” This is one of the reasons the word of the cross is such a stumbling block and folly to those who hear it. It chafes against our pride. We want to earn it. We want to deserve it. We want to contribute to our own salvation. We don’t want to depend wholly on another. We don’t want to acknowledge that we are helpless, weak, and undeserving.
But God has made salvation only available by grace through faith.
Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV) — For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
But Paul doesn’t tell them not to boast at all. First he tells them not to boast in themselves, but he also tells them to boast in the Lord.
1 Corinthians 1:30–31 (ESV)
Just in case we are still thinking that we had something to do with our salvation, he makes it crystal clear in verse 30, “because of him you are in Christ Jesus.” All the benefits of being in union with Christ are “because of him.”
Here, Paul redefines wisdom for the Corinthians. Wisdom is not fundamentally eloquent rhetoric, impeccable logic, or a fully formed worldview. Wisdom from God is personified by Jesus. He is the wisdom we need. God’s wisdom is displayed through Christ’s righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
One of the practical ways we glorify God is by the nature of our boasting. When we tell our story, are we at the center? To what do do we attribute our successes? To our heritage, our hard work, or our wisdom?
Do we fight against the temptation to boast like the world?
Do we consistently and purposefully notice and call attention to the mercy and grace of God in our lives?
I wonder if Paul had Jeremiah 9:23-24 in his mind as he penned verse 31?
Jeremiah 9:23–24 (ESV) — Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”
The message of the cross is still polarizing today, but it is the only message that has the power to save. May the Lord deliver us from putting our hope in things that cannot save ourselves or others.
How should we respond today?
Believe the word of the Cross. Realize it is the only message that saves. Put your trust in the savior who left heaven to enter our history to live and die to fulfill all righteousness so that those who put their trust in him are saved.
Isaiah 55:6–7 (ESV) — “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Call upon the Lord like the Corinthians did.
1 Corinthians 1:2 (ESV) — To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Boast in the Lord. Tell of his saving works in your life. Sing about God’s abundant mercies. Proclaim the goodness and lovingkindness of God. Make God the center of your story. Tell your children. Tell your neighbor. Invite them to believe.
When we get to the end, what will have made all the difference?
It won’t be merely that you took the road less travelled, or that you were religious or loving or successful.
May we say at the end of our lives that we heard the word of the Cross, that God called us to believe, and that that has made all the difference!
Closing Song: “All I Have Is Christ”
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