When Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1:17) “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power”, he was slowly lifting the veil from the majesty and beauty of the wisdom of God as revealed in the Cross.
Paul was holding up the beauty of the cross to a people who had been conditioned to not even speak of the crucifixion which it signified. Crucifixion was so horrible, it was not even mentioned among polite society. Yet here Paul is, displaying the cross as the ‘wisdom of God!’ This Wisdom of God was being held up as a means of uniting a church that had become weakened through fleshly divisions. The message of the Cross is the means to uniting and empowering a divided church. Unless we fail to see the wisdom of it.
The power of the cross can be made null and void when we ignore it, or when we try to dress it up, or when we minimize it. Here Paul is, fully aware that this church has been so influenced by the world that it is fractured, fumbling and failing. His advice to them is to glory in the raw, uncensored message of the cross. That which causes the world to shudder and turn away is the very wisdom and glory of God!
We are so removed from the culture of Paul’s world that we have no conception of how obscene it was to tell people that your “God” had been crucified on a Roman cross. The wisdom of God was for Paul to preach using an object lesson so obscene that most intelligent Gentile’s would consider utterly ridiculous. Imagine an evangelist coming to Farmland, USA and telling them to believe in a convicted pedophile as their Savior. You might get a sense of the reactions Paul’s preaching produced.
Rome and have been so exposed to the crucifixion that we cannot fathom how ridiculous the Empire’s policies on crucifixion conditioned Roman citizens to view crucified men with universal contempt. The crucified were either rebellious slaves, the lowest of criminals, or defeated and humiliated foes of the empire.
In light of the crucified’s degraded status and the heinous nature of the punishment, Gentiles understandably and not surprisingly viewed the victim with the utmost contempt. Indeed, “crucifixion” was a virtual obscenity not to be discussed in polite company. The cultured world did not want to hear about crucifixion, and consequently, as a rule, they kept quiet about it.
Indeed, the noted orator, Cicero, once plead for his client before the jury, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”
We can see in graphic form, what Gentiles thought of worshipping a god who had been crucified. A drawing titled “graffito blasfemo” is ancient graffito dating back to the Roman Empire inscribed on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, discovered again in 1857. It is the first known depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ, and notably, in mockery. The inscription depicts the crucified Jesus with the head of an ass, and reads “Alexamenos sebete theon”, meaning either “Alexamenos worships his god” or perhaps a command “Alexamenos, worship your god!”
The Offensive Beauty of the Cross is the Wisdom of God
Paul doesn’t dress the cross up with eloquent words, nor water down its message with something more “people pleasing”. That would make the power of the cross empty and void.
Instead Paul writes “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!”
Then Paul lifts the veil on the wisdom of God:
(19) For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (20) 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? (21) 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.
Wisdom is never man-centered. Mankind had plenty of opportunities to know God through ‘wisdom’. Still mankind did not come to know God. Indeed, God had made the wisdom of man to be foolish, time after time.
Solomon wrote: “Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding”. Proverbs 10:23. In the wisdom of man, Jesus is displayed as a crucified ass. In the wisdom of God, the crucified Jesus is the power of salvation!
God established the Societies of the Earth through His wisdom.
It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. Jeremiah 10:12 (ESV)
When men reject His wisdom, standards of behavior breakdown, and that which is wrong is OK, it’s funny, it’s “horse-play”. When men reject His wisdom, they laugh and cheer when a ‘thug’ beats an old man unconscious on a crowded Chicago subway platform.
Paul proudly proclaims the message of the cross, for He knows it is the wisdom of God that has established this world, and will save this world. His message is confrontational. It is not “seeker-friendly”. It is neither inclusive nor politically correct. He acknowledges the difficulty of his message,
(22) For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, (23) but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles
“Stumbling block” comes from the Greek term σκάνδαλον. (skandalon), which refers to a “temptation to sin” or “an enticement to apostasy and unbelief.” A stumbling block was “an obstacle in coming to faith and a cause of going astray in it.”
For a Jew to believe in the crucified Jesus as Messiah, he would have to “stray” from his faith. Since their faith was their identity, it was scandalous for a Jew to confess a crucified Jesus as Messiah. The offense of the cross was seen as the means of stripping a Jew of his cultural and religious identity. The crucifixion hindered Jews from coming to saving faith. They simply could not overcome their preconceived notions about what the crucifixion signified. The words of Deuteronomy were too contradictory:
(22) “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, (23) his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 (ESV)
Jesus could never be the Messiah, for he was a man cursed by God! God would never curse the Messiah to Hades! As one writer states, “He who is placed there for faith Himself becomes an obstacle to faith.” The very content of Paul’s message caused Jews to turn away.
When Paul boasted in 1 Cor 1:23 that he preached “Christ crucified,” he understood that his message cut deeply against the grain of his culture. Yet the apostle was undeterred. Paul understood that cultural expectations did not alter his responsibility to preach the truth, nor did those expectations hinder the power of the gospel to save.
Despite these cultural obstacles, Paul never altered the message of the cross to be more palatable or less socially and religiously offensive. Rather that cloak the cross in seeker-friendliness, he boldly displayed it even though it often turned hearers away.
So the wisdom of God was a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles. And yet the wisdom of God as preached in the Cross changes the world, and saves sinners from hell.
“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”. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV)
As Donald Green wrote:
“this verse shows the church of Jesus Christ that it must return to cultural confrontation with its gospel preaching instead of pursuing cultural accommodation. “Christ crucified” was not a “seeker-friendly” message in the first century. It was an absurd obscenity to Gentiles and a scandalous oxymoron to Jews. The gospel guaranteed offense.
1 Cor 1:23 shows that allegiance to the truth supersedes any desire to please men. Far better to live under the smile of God than to dilute the gospel for the approval of men and thereby empty the cross of its power (1 Cor 1:17).
The Wisdom of God is seen in the offensive Cross.
- God alone knows where wisdom dwells and where it originates (Job 28:12, 20);
- No other living being possesses this knowledge about wisdom (see Job 28:21).
- For humans, the beginning of wisdom and the supreme wisdom is to properly fear and reverence God (Job 28:28; Prov. 1:7; cf. Prov. 8:13);
- God is the master, creator, and giver of wisdom (see Job 28:27; Prov. 8:22, 23).
- He employed wisdom as His master craftsman to create all things (Ps. 104:24; Jer. 10:12).
- Rulers govern wisely by means of wisdom provided by God (1 Ki. 3:28; cf. Prov. 8:15, 16).
- Wisdom keeps company with all the other virtues: prudence, knowledge, and discretion (Prov. 8:12).
- The portrayal of wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-24 lies behind Paul’s magnificent picture of Christ in Colossians 1:15, 16, for all the treasures of wisdom are lodged in Christ (cf. Col. 2:3).
I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. Proverbs 4:11 (ESV)
1. Wisdom of the Cross Exalts God
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Revelation 5:12 (ESV)
Philippians 2:8-9 (ESV) And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…
2. The Wisdom of the Cross Humbles Us
Paul presents the cross to a church that is divided and worldly. Instead of glorying in the offensive message of the Cross, they are wrapping themselves in the corrupted wisdom of the world. Paul tells them to look around and consider who they really are…
1 Cor 1:26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,
Look who God uses: Foolish,Weak, Despised, and ‘are Nots’. These are the ones who come to this offensive cross. People who have nothing else to lose, people who have everything to gain. The cross is not offensive to the nothings, to the ‘are nots’, for they can relate to its message. They understand the message of a God who became as they are. This God loved them so much that He became like them, even worse than them. He became cursed for them.
This is the wisdom of God that was before the foundation of the world! God would hang His own son on a tree, and there Jesus would be cursed with all the sin and ugliness of mankind. His son would become lower than a worm, hardly a man. Yes, Jesus became a nothing, an ‘are not’, in order to reveal to the world the wisdom of God. That wisdom is about humbling ourselves to the cross, the place where the pride of man is stripped away. The place where there is no glory for man. The place where we can only behold the beauty of the crucified one!
We must be brought to nothing to receive the wisdom of God! We must kneel as nothings before the cross of shame and folly.
When the Lord’s people embrace the “nothing” message, the world views them as nothing. But in the next age God will shame the wise and the strong and bring to nothing the things that in this age are viewed as something.
The Cry of the Wisdom of the Cross is:
“so that no human being might boast in the presence of God”. (1 Cor 1:29)
We must humble ourselves before the cross, for the cross is the mercy seat, the place where Christ’s blood was shed before His Father, and where our sins are forgiven. But we must realize our need first, and then we must humble ourselves before the cross. There is no salvation without the Cross!
2 Corinthians 4:7 (ESV) But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
3. The Wisdom of the Cross Transforms Us.
Through the wisdom of the Cross, we have access to all that is Christ’s. The Cross allows God to place us IN CHRIST. The Cross gives us His wisdom. The Cross is the gateway for the righteousness, sanctification and redemption of Christ to be ours!
30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
By the Father’s doing, believers are placed in Jesus Christ. Because of this we possess the wisdom of God—Christ crucified, the very essence of God’s wisdom. Through this wisdom, we have justification at God’s court, sanctification before His presence, and total redemption. More than that, we have all the wealth and power and beauty of Jesus Christ. It is as if the kneeling at the Cross entitles us to this huge blank check that will provide us everything that is Christ’s. It is a check that never expires. If only those Jews could see what is on the other side of the cross!
The Cross is to be gloried in daily as we present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. God delights in the ‘are not’s! God uses ‘are not’s to accomplish His will in this world!
(1) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (2) Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)
We Must Keep our Focus on the Cross
(10) We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. (11) For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. (12) So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (13) Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. (14) For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (15) Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (16) Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Hebrews 13:10-16 (ESV)
The folly, reproach and shame of the Cross is to be our guide for service! We are not to embrace a culturally acceptable cross, but to follow Christ outside the camp, where the dirty, the despised and dangerous dwell. We are to take the message of the Cross to the “Are Nots!” It is not the popular ministry. But it is the Ministry of the Cross!
 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadephia: Fortress, 1977) 38.
 Cicero, “The Speech In Defence of Gaius Rabirius,” sec. 16, in The Speeches of Cicero, trans. H. Grose Hodge, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927) 467.
 Gustav Stahlin, “σκάνδαλον” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) 7:352.
 Hengel, Crucifixion, 5.
 Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary – Old Testament, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 337.