Chad B. Van Dixhoorn
In the mid-nineteenth century, archaeologists digging around the Palatine Hill in Rome unearthed a house that formed one part of the palace of the emperor Caligula, an unpleasant man who reigned in Rome from AD 37 until he was murdered in AD 41.
In the years following Caligula’s death, the imperial palace continued to grow, and over time this house became hidden, entombed within the foundations of the larger palace complex, and so it was preserved until its discovery in 1857.
Ironically, the unearthed house soon became best known for a bit of graffiti that was found on one of its walls. Scholars discovered a kind of ancient cartoon: it showed an image of a young man looking up in admiration at a crucified figure—a figure of a man with a donkey’s head stretched out upon a cross. Underneath the picture, this was written: “Alexamenos worships his God.”
Now it is possible that there was an obscure religion in Rome whose adherents worshipped a crucified donkey-man. But the Romans put crucified convicts at about the level of animals, and this sketch is no work of art: the caption is badly spelled, and the picture is crudely drawn. So this is not likely to be pious religious art. There is no real doubt that we see in this graffito a mocking laugh at the strange new religion that was spreading across the Roman Empire—a seemingly ridiculous religion that started in Jerusalem and required its followers to worship a crucified God.
You see, from the beginning, whether in Rome or in Corinth, it was true that “the word of the cross is folly,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18. Actually, the Corinthians, even more than other urban people, prized the smooth talkers of their day. If you were to stop at a Corinthian convenience store and pick up, say, a copy of The Aegean Monthly, or maybe the weekly newsmagazine, Chronos, you would find essays and reports from prominent professors, scientists, and economists—and the one thing that they would all have in common would be that they could sound clever and write well. The Greek intelligentsia cared at least as much about how something sounded as they did about what was actually said. Naturally, Christians in Corinth and Rome were exposed to this wise, sensible, witty talk all the time. It trickled into their discussions about their preferences for preachers.
But much more importantly, all this emphasis on clever talk could also undermine the foundation of these Christians’ faith. One of the things that wise people said—and they could sure say it well!—was that the cross of Christianity was foolishness. They could create much better cartoons with their words than Roman graffiti artists could with their chisels. They were smart, they were clever, and you couldn’t help seeing the funny side of a crucified redeemer!
From the beginning, the most common view of the cross has been that it is crazy. But the problem with this perspective is that it is held by people with a tragic destiny. The cross is foolishness—but it is foolishness to those who are perishing. Paul was not deaf to the laughter of the world, directed at the cross. On the contrary, he listened very carefully and noted its sound. He detected the hollow laugh of the dying man who needs to be saved, but is being lost; the empty crow of those who think they are wise, but have rejected the power of God for their salvation. These are the sick patients who laugh at their doctor as he offers a cure. They are the accused criminals who reject the only good defense that their lawyer can give them. In other words, this perspective on the cross, this worldly wisdom, belongs to a dying breed.
Unhappily it is also the case, as Paul explains in verses 19–21, that this worldly wisdom is a joke to the One who is wisest of all. Paraphrasing Isaiah 29, Paul reminds Christians that God turns upside down this so-called “wisdom of the wise.” He destroys and thwarts it. The Lord is like a professional wrestler laughing at a group of schoolboys who think they can take him down: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” God effortlessly makes foolish the wisdom of the world, as Paul says in verse 20.
In fact, since the world values fancy talk, big ideas, and proud solutions to life’s biggest problems, God could not save through wisdom—or anything the world would think is wise. Do you see what Paul is saying? God ignores worldly wisdom; actually, he does not esteem it; he declares it useless in the quest for salvation. For what matters most, this kind of wisdom is least useful. Human learning over the centuries has had many shining moments and has been used (and abused) in more ways than can be counted. But it is also the case, as John Calvin remarks in one of his most unflattering lines, that “man with all his shrewdness is as stupid about understanding, by himself, the mysteries of God as [a donkey] is incapable of understanding musical harmony” (Commentary on 1 Cor. 1:20).
As Paul says in verse 21, this foolish message about a Savior on a cross is actually what we need. The death of this man actually saves all those who believe it. And when people discover this, they find themselves, with young Alexamenos, gazing at the man upon the cross, seeing the God-man of the biblical gospels, rather than the donkey-man of the mocking world. Knowing Jesus gives us a whole new perspective on the wisdom of the wise.
In verses 18–21, when considering the supposed wisdom of the wise, Paul has his eye on the Greeks. But when he continues his thought in verses 22–25, he now glances at both Gentiles and Jews.
You see, the cross is unimpressive in more than one way. For the Greeks, the cross did not appear clever; it could not appeal to the influential and the intelligent. But for the Jews, the cross did not appear powerful. The Jews liked signs and miracles, not a symbol of weakness and shame. Where the cross was a signpost of folly for the Greeks, it was a theological roadblock in the path of Jewish people, because Deuteronomy 21:23 pronounced a curse on anyone who hung on a tree, and the Jews understood this to include executions on a cross. How could the promised one be a crucified one?
And so Paul could capture in these two words the objections of all his hearers, and of many skeptics thereafter: foolishness and weakness. These two words are the world’s synonyms, or substitute words, for the cross. For them, the crucified Christ represents the foolishness of the Christian God and the weakness of the Christian God. But Christians have two different synonyms for the cross: power and wisdom. For us, the crucified Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).
When we are told that the Christian gospel is not very impressive, we face the temptation to give it a face-lift. But verse 25 tells us not to bother, because God wants us to learn to look at the gospel his way, rather than refashion it in some other way.
I used to think that verse 25 was making a comment about God, using impossible hypothetical scenarios. Only recently did I finally see that verse 25 is making a point about the cross itself. When Paul talks about “the foolishness of God,” he is using the unbeliever’s term for the cross. When he talks about “the weakness of God,” he is borrowing another unbelieving description of the cross. And his message here is not about the divine power and wisdom of Christ, but the surprising power and wisdom of the cross.
The wise of this world will always anoint the head of our Savior with their eloquent scorn. But as Paul told the Corinthians, and as he is telling us now, we have no reason to be ashamed of the gospel, no reason to update it or refurbish it, and every reason to stand with admiration and wonder at the foot of the cross.
But being a Christian must come at a cost, and we must count that cost. For of course what is true of Christ and the cross will also be true for all who trust in that cross. If the gospel we confess seems weak and foolish, then you and I will seem weak and foolish too. That is not comfortable for us. At times it is painful. In spite of appearances, I don’t like to look weak or foolish. I doubt you do either. And we will be tempted to avoid a way of life, or a confession of Christ, that leaves us exposed to the disapproval or mockery of others. But it is part of God’s plan that obedient Christians will look as silly as the gospel sounds silly.
In fact, that has been God’s plan from the beginning, as the apostle Paul explains in verses 26–29. We can see that, if we consider our callings. Not many of us are rated as wise men by the world’s standards. Not many of the faithful are powerful. Not many of us belong to the upper crust of society.
Just the opposite is true. God chose people like he chose his gospel: those who are failures and outsiders—foolish and weak by the standards of the wise and powerful. He chose to magnify his own name and plan. That’s the basic point of verse 28, where Paul is saying that God chose this world’s nothings because he wanted the somebodies to see that they are really nobodies.
In other words, we unimportant people are prime examples of the principle that God uses the weak and foolish things in the world. God uses Christians more in spite of who we are than because of who we are. As an unknown third-century Christian once said when meditating on this passage, “God is not elitist in his choice of believers.” That’s humbling. And that’s OK.
We are not to boast in the presence of God (as Paul says in verse 29), because of what God has done (as Paul says in verse 30). God has forged a unique relationship between Christ and the Christian.
Christ transforms his own weakness, and shows his real strength; he unveils his own foolishness, and reveals his true wisdom. Similarly, when God unveils our foolishness, our sinfulness, our dirtiness, and the weakness of our bondage, he also reveals the real wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption that we can obtain through Christ alone.
Paul teaches in verse 30 that God takes all those who believe in Christ and places them in Christ. There they find true wisdom, discovering that the Christ who appears to be nothing is in fact everything: he is the wisdom of God’s provision.
In Jesus we find our righteousness: we are justified and forgiven before the throne of God. In Christ Jesus we find our sanctification: we grow in holiness as we grow closer to and more like him. In Christ we find our redemption: our full and final deliverance from sin and guilt, from punishment and curse, from final death and hell.
So here is the fine point about Christ and the Christian, as well expressed by Reformed theologian Michael Horton: “There are no gifts that we receive from God apart from Christ, and his work is inseparable from his person. It is impossible to receive the benefits of Christ apart from Christ himself” (The Christian Faith, 598–99). Does that make sense to you? Everything that we are and have comes from Christ alone and in Christ alone. We must be connected to him to benefit from anything that he has done.
But there is another point to make. Just as every grace given to a Christian is connected to Christ, so too is each grace connected to every other grace. For example, one cannot receive justification without sanctification. As John Calvin puts it, “These graces are connected together, as it were, by an indissoluble tie, so that he who attempts to sever them does in a manner tear Christ in pieces” (Commentary on 1 Cor. 1:30). When we receive Christ, we receive every good gift in him. Each gift is different from the others, but forgiveness, the gift of Christ’s righteousness, and at least some growth in holiness are received together in Christ. These gifts are not like a series of birthday presents, received in different years, but like an inheritance, with everything given all at once.
Because the great preachers of the Protestant Reformation realized this twin truth about Christ and his union with the Christian, they insisted that salvation is of Christ alone! All that we have comes from Christ, and in Christ we have all that we need.
It is God’s provision of an entirely sufficient Savior in Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit wants us to see in this passage, so that, as I paraphrase, we who tend to boast, will boast in the Lord. In 1731, a young colonial preacher was persuaded to preach at the commencement of Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. He had noted early in his ministry that the main weapon used by opponents of the full gospel was laughter and mockery. The wise men and debaters of his age, the skeptics and deists, labored to make the cross of Christ and the gospel of Christ look weak and foolish.
This young man, perhaps more than any other man in his century, would labor for the whole of his life to show, in his own unique way, how the gospel is wise and powerful. But he was not doing this to make people think more highly of himself or of his friends. He wasn’t trying to make believers in the gospel respectable. And that is why he delivered a sermon at Yale College entitled “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption.”
The preacher’s name was Jonathan Edwards, and he is not known for writing the most elegant sentences in the English language. But the truth of what he said that day is worth remembering for all of our days. At the beginning of his sermon, he insisted that “what God aims at in the arrangement [i.e., disposition] of things in the affair of redemption” is that “man should not glory in himself, but in God alone” (Edwards, Works, 2:2). Is this not what Paul was saying in verses 29 and 31?
And at the end of his sermon, he declared that “whatever scheme” of salvation there may be that “is inconsistent with our entire dependence on God for all, and of having all through him, and in him, it is repugnant to the design ... of the gospel, and it robs it of that which God accounts its ... glory” (Works, 2:7). Is this not what God teaches in the whole of the Scriptures? We have understood the plan of salvation properly only if the whole system offers God the glory.
Edwards was preaching on the conclusion of 1 Corinthians 1, and I think we can see that he understood what is at its very heart. There is a God-glorifying wisdom and power to the cross. The Christian gospel calls us to trust in the Christ, the crucified one, who came as a substitute for sinners who place their hope in him, instead of in themselves. Do you hear this call? If so, you will find that, united to this Savior, you will have all that you ever need for this life and for the next. And you will also find it your irresistible joy to join the famous Jonathan Edwards in glorying in Christ alone, and join the unknown Alexamenos in worshipping his God.
The author is associate pastor of Grace OPC in Vienna, Va. New Horizons, April 2014.