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1 Corinthians 1:20 says,
20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Paul was painting a picture of a debate between philosophers, where none of them dared to debate with God lest they appear foolish. In those days, debates either exalted one’s reputation or destroyed it.
1 Corinthians 1:21 continues,
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
In other words, the philosophies and wisdom of the world failed in their self-appointed mission to show people who God truly is, so that men might be saved. But God then set forth a message that seemed foolish to men. That message, Paul asserts, succeeded in saving those who believe it.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25 says,
22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Philosophers worked hard to set forth their arguments in a logical fashion, for each lived in dread of a competing philosopher showing flaws in his logic. Such was the wisdom of the Greeks. The Jews, on the other hand, based their culture and thinking upon the principles of law. The law of God demanded a double or triple witness to establish truth, and in many cases the Jews sought for supernatural (but external) signs to prove truth.
The gospel, however, came neither with Greek logic nor Jewish signs. First of all, the idea of a good God being incarnated in a body made of evil flesh was foolishness to Greek philosophers. Their culture was rooted in the dualistic idea that spirit was good and matter was evil. Secondly, the idea that God could die seemed contradictory to their very definition of an immortal god.
Thirdly, the Greeks did not believe in resurrection, but in reincarnation. Reincarnation was for those who had not achieved perfection, for it was said that immortal souls were condemned to return to another body of death in order to pay karma and to become more perfect. A spiritual soul trapped again and again in a material (and evil) body indicated that the person was still trying to achieve perfection (by his own effort, will, and works).
The gospel, on the other hand, presented the Greeks with an apparently foolish notion that perfection (or “salvation”) was not based upon men’s efforts, but upon the work of Christ, the only perfect One. This perfect One came from heaven and was incarnated in human flesh, which, though limited, was not evil in itself. He came to earth specifically to die for the sin of the world, a perfect Lamb for an imperfect world. The Greeks, like most other people, offered sacrifice, but their sacrifices were offered as gifts to appease the gods or as rewards for their deliverance. If they sacrificed as a form of self-punishment for some sin, it was not with the idea that the animal was a prophetic type representing Christ.
The concept of vicarious atonement was specifically a Hebrew concept derived from the divine law. Hence, the Greeks were unprepared to hear a gospel teaching that the God of heaven had intervened in human history to save mankind by His own works and to save men who could not possibly save themselves.
Jewish thought was largely based upon the Hebrew Scriptures, although they misunderstood some of the most important truths set forth in the word. To the extent that they misunderstood, there is a discrepancy between Hebrew and Jewish thought. I use the term Hebrew to indicate the actual truth of the Scriptures, whereas Jewish traditional thought deviates to some extent from the truth.
Paul makes it clear that Hebrew truth was a stumbling block to the Jews whose thought patterns were rooted in Judaism (i.e., Jewish belief). He tells us that “Jews ask for signs,” which prevented them from seeing the truth in the very Scriptures that they claimed to believe. They had some understanding of vicarious atonement, but it was limited to animal sacrifice. Their concept of a conquering messiah prevented many of them from seeing the suffering Messiah.
Though they debated among themselves whether He would come as Messiah ben Judah or as Messiah ben Joseph, they did not realize that He was to come twice—the first time of Judah and the second time of Joseph.
Their desire for a great military messiah, who could work miracles to conquer the world and enrich all Jews with Gentile slaves, was a carnal desire that blinded their eyes to the humble Prince of Peace who actually came to set all men free and rule over a Universal Kingdom.
The idea that the Messiah might die or that He was a final Sacrifice pictured in all of the animal sacrifices was foolishness to them.
Both Jews and Greeks taught salvation by works—that is, by the will of man and by self-discipline. For Jews, changing one’s behavior to do good works (conformity to God’s righteous standard set forth in His law), was the path toward changing their hearts. The Greeks also advocated good works, but laid greater emphasis on overcoming passions, or fleshly desires. If they could not be moved or tempted by human passions, they considered themselves to be righteous.
Both Jews and Greeks, however, based their religion on the will of man and upon works. Paul sets forth an alternate plan, one that is based upon the will of God (as John says in John 1:13). Paul calls it “the power of God” in 1 Cor. 1:24, because His power is not only His intervening actions, but also His will which conceived the plan and has directed it from the beginning.
Hence, while Paul’s alternative view was foolish to the Greeks, it overthrew the Jewish view of the coming messiah, their narrow view of God’s plan for the world, and the exclusive nature of the Jewish kingdom. Jews very much wanted a kingdom in which they would enslave all others and rule the world. This was their concept of a chosen people in an ideal world yet to come. They had placed their faith in a messiah that did not exist, and so they rejected the true Messiah when He did not meet their soulish expectations.
The Jews seek signs, Paul says. And indeed, a sign was given to them, although they refused to believe its witness. We are told in Matt. 1:18,
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
Joseph decided to put her away quietly, but “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying… that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). In other words, Jesus was begotten by the Holy Spirit, not by the seed of man. Matt. 1:22, 23 says,
22 Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”
Matthew was quoting from Isaiah 7:14, a verse which begins by saying, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a SIGN…” In other words, the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ was the sign given to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14. The sign fulfilled in his own time was the birth of his son Hezekiah, born of an almah, “young woman or virgin.” Hezekiah was not conceived by the Holy Spirit, but he was a type of Christ. As a prophetic type, he was a SIGN to Ahaz. Hence also, Jesus’ conception was a greater sign to Judah.
In both cases, if Judah did not believe this sign, the nation was to be destroyed. The prophet told King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:9, “If you will not believe, you surely shall not last.” The KJV reads, “surely ye shall not be established.” The context shows that this was a prophecy about the coming destruction of both Israel and Judah. So also, Jesus’ conception was a sign, which, if the chief rulers did not believe, would result in the destruction of Judah.
God does indeed give signs, but if men’s hearts are unprepared to hear the truth, they will also fail to see and understand the signs that are given. The issue is not whether or not God is speaking. The issue is whether or not men have the ability to hear God’s voice. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Signs are good, but they also depend upon men’s ability to hear the original word. Signs cannot confirm what men cannot hear.
Signs confirm truth. Signs do not impart faith. Faith comes only by hearing, and if one does not hear, signs can only persuade. But persuasion is soulish, whereas faith is spiritual. Persuasion is only good until it is tested. When God tests the hearts of men by the divine touchstone, then faith is distinguished from persuasion.
Jesus Himself recognized the futility of signs, although He performed many miracles which ought to have been sufficient for all to believe—if, indeed, miraculous signs could overcome one’s inability to hear. There were believers among the people in the crowds, of course, but the majority of the people were merely impressed by the miracles and convinced in their soulish minds that He was the Messiah.
Yet such people did not truly hear, nor was it genuine faith, for when the moment of truth arrived, those who had been convinced by signs disavowed Him when their leaders crucified Him. They could not hear God’s voice. They heard only the voice of men—their leaders—whom they believed in spite of the word of truth and the miraculous signs that had proved the word that He had preached for three years.
Finally, in Matt. 12:39 Jesus told them that “no sign shall be given to it [i.e., that generation] but the sign of Jonah the prophet.” The death and resurrection of Christ was the great sign of Jonah. But the people did not understand the story of Jonah, for the rabbis did not know the meaning of the story, nor did they apply it to the coming Messiah. They saw it only in nationalistic terms, Israel going into captivity to Assyria and being restored in the end.
And so, without hearing God’s voice for themselves, the people could only hear the limited voice of the rabbis. This produced faith in their rabbis, but not faith in God. We place our faith in the one whose voice we hear, whether it is God or men.
But Paul presents the gospel as the word of God, requiring ears to hear in order to produce faith that is then evidenced by a change in one’s manner of life. This gospel is not established upon Greek wisdom, nor does it require Jewish signs.