The Foolish Wisdom of the Cross

Ash Wednesday


1 Corinthians 1:18-25

For 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. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

Have you ever heard someone make this case against God: “If God is all powerful, and can do anything, can he create a rock so big that He couldn’t lift it?” How clever! The creature seems to have outwitted the Creator. Man has turned God against God. He has invented a scenario in which God’s greatest strength is his greatest weakness. In that stroke, God seems to be undone. God is outwitted and made to look like a fool by man. Right ---?

But for those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, such seeming contradictions are nothing new. God even has a name for them: “mysteries of faith.” They are the divine things that defy human logic and reason. If we Christians are startled for a moment when we hear a new one, it is because we need a moment to process the fact that all matters of faith are strange to our way of thinking and, therefore, complete nonsense to those who live apart from God. Give us a few moments, and we can add a whole list of impossibilities to the one just mentioned:

·  How can God be three and yet one at the same time? The mystery of God is bad math to the world’s way of thinking.

·  How can Jesus, the Son of Mary, be completely God (spirit) (John 4:24) and completely man (flesh) (Luke 2:12) at the same time?

·  How can Jesus be born in time and space (Luke 2) and still be “the Lord” who has no beginning in time (Luke 2:11)?

·  How can Jesus fill the entire universe (2 Chronicles 6:18) and lie in a manger (Luke 2:12) at the same time?

·  How can Jesus never slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:4) and sleep in the stern of a boat (Luke 8:23) at the same time?

Or, more to the point of our Lenten pilgrimage:

·  How can God not die (1 Timothy 6:16) and at the same time die on the cross (Mark 15:37)?

In the school of the Holy Spirit, we have learned to be at peace with these and a thousand other apparent contradictions in the Bible. And we accept them, not because we checked our brains in at the door when we walk into church. But because, by the power of the Word, the Holy Spirit has enlightened us to sit quietly and bask in the eternal comfort of a God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are so superior to our thoughts that, without Spirit-given faith in the Holy Scriptures, it would all be nonsense. And so it is to the unbeliever.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. . . . Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolishness the wisdom of this world?”

Let us place before the world the highest contradiction of all, and it’s not a case where God creates an inanimate object. Nor is it a case where God has the task of lifting something inert. The higher case is this: Can God lift a burden created by his creatures—his rebellious creatures? Is it possible—is it possible that the God, who lives in unapproachable light, “who does not change like the shifting shadows” (James 1:17), who is holy and in whose presence no unholy person can stand—bears the guilt and punishment of our sins?

During our commemoration of the Lord’s 40-day fast, we see how the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ solves this mystery. Here, in the foolishness of the cross, we find God’s wisdom and comfort in the sure promise of the forgiveness of our sins and escape from the hell our rebellion deserves.

At times we will find our puny, fleshly wisdom to be the foolishness reflected in those who surrounded our Savior. For instance:

“Where is the wise man?” Pontius Pilate, the savvy politician that he was, saw our Savior’s claims as a foolish distraction from his life’s ambitions. Even though he declared Jesus free of any blame, he chose to be muddled by what he considered the petty, moral bickering of the Jewish nation. As he stared into the face of him who is the truth, Pilate waxed philosophical: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). In spite of the dire warnings of his wife, the seasoned politician did what comes so naturally to the carnal mind: he sold his soul for a moment of political expediency: “Something, anything, to keep the mob from rioting.”

“Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Scholars store up knowledge they have learned from men wiser than themselves. Philosophers draw on their intellect to speculate about God and man and why their universe works as it does. Both depend on fallen human intelligence. Is it any wonder none of the great man-made religions offer us a sure confidence of salvation? When confronted with Jesus of Nazareth, Caiaphas, the high priest, could not allow the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah. The forgiveness of sins—the eternal kingdom of God—could not be achieved by a man such as Jesus. The best Caiaphas could hope for was the survival of Israel as a nation. And so, plumbing the depths of his carnal mind, Caiaphas was very sure that he was doing God a favor by condemning Jesus to death: “It is better that one man die than that the nation perish” (John 11:50).

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

 “Jews demand miraculous signs.” Then there was Herod, who had been waiting to see Jesus for a long time. And he hoped to see Jesus perform a miraculous sign like some dog and pony show. But Jesus didn’t even speak a word. Who of us, when we were young in the faith, weren’t intrigued by the clamor of the soldiers and thieves for a similar miracle? “Come down from the cross if you are the Christ of God! Come down and we will believe you!” (Mark 15:32).

But to the shame of our foolish thinking, Jesus didn’t come down. Up until then, none of the Jews were convinced by any miracles: the miraculous feedings, the exorcisms, the healing of lifelong illnesses, or the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Besides, your salvation is dependent on His refusal to satisfy their childish desires for a miracle. Aren’t you glad that Jesus didn’t give in to those who desired  He come down from the cross?

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

Consider the ultimate mystery: God himself. This is how God described himself to Moses on Mount Sinai: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6,7). There you have it. God is completely merciful. By His unsearchable compassion, He chooses to forgive everything that would damn you to hell for eternity.

But that’s not all! God continues, “Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). God is not only compassionate; He is also just. Therefore, He has no choice but to punish the sinful.

And here is the stone of offense that the unconverted world trips over every time: God is perfectly merciful, forgiving every sin, and at the same time perfectly just, punishing every sin. Humanly speaking, God is an oxymoron—two irreconcilable things at the same time—a contradiction too big for the human mind to comprehend.

Can the almighty God create a stone so large that he cannot lift it? That question is child’s play in comparison to the question, “Can God punish all sin and at the same time forgive all sin?” These two contradictory facts can only be reconciled on the cross of Jesus. “We preach Christ crucified”—because God laid all of the punishment for our sins upon His holy, innocent Son on that cross. On the cross God treated His sinless Son as we sinners should have been treated. “We preach Christ crucified”—because the perfect mercy and love of God came to us poor sinners from Jesus’ cross. Because of Jesus’ cross, God treated rebels, like you and me, as He should only have treated His holy Son!

The foolish wisdom of the cross gives us the confidence to say, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31,32).

Armed with the wisdom that we are God’s own dear children because of Jesus’ cross, we can face any of the adversities of life or even the adversities of death.

No doubt the greatest burden we must wrestle with in our lives is our own struggle with sin and an evil conscience. Whenever our hearts condemn us, the wisdom of the cross says, “It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:33-35).

If we are ridiculed for telling others about the power of the cross, we don’t need to be shaken. Until people are led by the Holy Spirit to see themselves as God sees them, they can not see how wise and essential the cross is for their salvation. We pray that they may see God’s justice against their sin on that cross, so that it may be the loveliest, most desired tree of all, the Tree of Life. Again, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution of famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35).

When division and false doctrine threaten God’s people, the wisdom and power of the cross lift us from pride and self-promotion to the humility of childlike faith. The cross makes us humble learners who sit at the feet of their Savior.

When death approaches, the wisdom and power of the cross lifts our eyes to the Lord’s mercy and compassion that guarantee us safe passage to the new heaven and the new earth, the home of God’s elect. Together with the apostle Paul, we can stake our eternal happiness on the wisdom of Jesus’ cross: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

For the Cross of Christ is foolishness to the perishing, but to you who believe it is the power of God. In Jesus Holy name. Amen and amen.