Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Proverbs 16:25 says the exact same thing. Is that significant? How can something that seems so right be so wrong and have such terrible consequences?
The passage of Scripture I’m sharing today, I Corinthians 1:18-25, gives us an instance in which the reverse principle is also true: “There is a way that seems wrong to a man, but its end is the way of life.” In I Corinthians 1:10-17 we read that the Corinthian church was being divided because of quarrels between groups in the Church. Today we will see that the problem was a reliance on human wisdom. There is one area where human wisdom plays absolutely no part, and that is the salvation of one’s soul.
I. THE SUPERIORITY OF GOD’S WISDOM (verse 18)
When man focuses on and glories in his own wisdom, he automatically tries to lower God’s wisdom, which seems like foolishness because it disagrees with his own thinking. In verse 18, “the word of the cross” includes the whole gospel message and Christ’s saving work. The thought of God becoming a human being and dying on a piece of wood on a small hill in a remote part of the world, and that this would determine the eternal destiny of every person who has ever lived, sounds foolish or stupid to the natural man. It leaves no room for man’s wisdom, man’s achievements, and man’s pride.
A Christian was made fun of by an athiest because of his faith in God. “The idea that the blood of Christ can wash away sin is foolishness”, said the atheist. “I don’t understand it or believe it.” The Christian, a student of the Bible, answered, “I think you’re telling the truth. In fact, you and the apostle Paul agree exactly on one thing.” “What do you mean?”, asked the atheist. The believer read I Corinthians 1:18 which says, “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness”. Then he witnessed to him and told him that Christ could change his life. But the atheist walked away unmoved. He was not willing to accept the Lord. The next time you share the Gospel with someone and the person responds by saying, “that’s’ ridiculous”, you might show that person I Corinthians 1:18 and say, “that’s just how God said you would respond!”
On the other hand, verse 18 goes on to say, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Another story illustrates the truth that those who believe the Gospel will experience the Lord’s saving power. A missionary told the story that he went to a western town to pastor a small church. He didn’t know that many of its members were antagonistic to “old-fashioned preaching”, and that some were practically atheists. As he spoke about sin and the atoning work of Christ, the irritation of his audience became obvious. In a few weeks the attendance had dwindled to 10. But the faithful preacher continued to give out the Word and the Holy Spirit brought sinners under conviction. At one service three entire families received the Lord, and the downward trend was reversed. The Gospel is indeed the power of God!
There’s a Chinese tale about a young man who captured a tiger cub, brought it home, and raised it in a cage. When it was full grown, the man loved to brag about how ferocious and powerful it was. “That tiger isn’t wild anymore,” scoffed his friends. “He’s as tame as an old house cat!” This went on until a wise old man overheard them and said, “There’s only one way to know whether this tiger is ferocious or not. Open the cage!” The young man smiled, placed his hand on the latch and challenged his friends, “Want to try out my tiger?” There was a moment of silence, and then one of the friends said, “We’ll believe you! Just don’t open that latch!”
A tiger’s strength, of course, is destructive and can bring death, but the power of the Gospel leads to life and freedom. It destroys guilt and breaks the stranglehold of sinful habits. If we have experienced this power ourselves, let’s challenge others to “try out our tiger!”
II. THE PERMANENCE OF GOD’S WISDOM (verses 19-20)
In verse 19, Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:14. It reads: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Paul’s purpose is to point out that the wisdom of men will be destroyed. The background of this verse is important to the understanding of it. In chapter 8 of Isaiah, God tells the people of Judah that Assyria is going to invade them. Instead of asking the Lord what they should do, they went to witches and sorcerers, and in Isaiah 30, following their advice, they make a treaty with Egypt, thinking that will protect them. But that treaty gets them into even more trouble! Their plans fail, but God shows them that He has a better plan. Judah would be saved completely by God’s power, with no human help. In Isaiah 37:36 God destroyed 185,000 men of the Assyrian army with just one angel! The complete account of this is given in II Kings 17. I encourage you to read it.
The apostle Paul teaches here in verse 20 that human wisdom is not only unreliable, it is also not permanent. Paul asks several questions. Each question is asking, “Where are all the smart people today that have all the answers?” How much closer to peace, in the world and in the heart, is man today than he was a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago?
Paul asks: “Where is the wise man?” He is paraphrasing Isaiah’s words, and the prophet Isaiah was referring to the wise men of Egypt – the sorcerers and magicians who made promises but gave bad advice that led Egypt astray. “Where are the scribes?” Paul is probably referring to the Assyrian scribes who went along with the soldiers to record the plunder that was taken in battle. But God saw to it, in this case, that they had nothing to record, and nothing to count or to weigh. What was left of the Assyrian army ran away empty-handed.
“Where is the debater of this age?” Paul is probably referring to the Greek philosophers of his day who spent most of their time arguing with each other! Throughout history human wisdom has never solved the basic problems of man. And nothing has really changed over the years, has it? Life has the same problems. People have the same struggles.
III. THE POWER OF GOD’S WISDOM (verses 21-25)
Verse 21 says that God planned it that way. Man cannot come to know Him by the wisdom of the world. In Acts 17, when Paul came to Athens, he noticed a shrine on which were written these words: “To an unknown God.” With all their learning and philosophies they made for themselves many gods, but the God who had made them, they did not know.
God does not expect people to come to Him through their own wisdom. He knows they cannot. But they can come to Him through His wisdom. And that wisdom has been given to us in the simple message of the Gospel. It is not through philosophy or human wisdom that salvation comes, but through believing God’s’ Word and His plan of salvation. God saves only those who believe. People cannot figure out salvation, they can only accept it in faith.
Unbelief is always the basic reason for not accepting God’s will and God’s way, but unbelief can be expressed in various ways. In verses 22 and 23, the Jews wanted supernatural signs before they would believe the Gospel. The Gentiles, represented by the Greeks, wanted proof through human wisdom, through ideas they could consider and debate over.
These two groups that Paul mentions here, the Jews and Greeks, are representative of all unbelieving mankind. Whether, like the typical Jew, they demand proof by a supernatural sign, or like the typical Greek, they want proof by natural wisdom, unbelievers will find an excuse for rejecting the Gospel. But God has called out a people for Himself from among the Jews and the Gentiles. These will believe and find that Jesus Christ is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Paul closes this portion of his letter by saying that, even if God could possess any sort of foolishness, it would be wiser than man’s greatest wisdom. And if God were able to have any weakness, it would be stronger than the greatest strength that man could muster. Jesus may have appeared to be foolish and weak as one imagines Him hanging on a Roman cross, suffering and dying. But by doing so, Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the world and opened the gates of heaven for all who would believe in Him. Christ’s death and His resurrection were actually His greatest demonstrations of His infinite wisdom and power.
I would like to give two different applications of what Paul has taught us in this passage of Scripture. First, God’s wisdom is opposed to man’s’ wisdom. We Christians make a great mistake when we water down the Gospel message to make it acceptable to people, and reasonable to them. The Gospel isn’t an argument, but an announcement. And this announcement is meant by God to be proclaimed clearly and accurately.
Secondly, if you still have your own personal philosophy about God and about life, and it doesn’t agree with the Bible, the wisest and most needful statement I can make to you is that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, died on the cross for your sins in your place, and shed His blood so that you could be acceptable to a holy God. And the wisest decision you could ever make in your life would be to believe that announcement, repent of your sins, and accept Jesus Christ into your life and your personal Savior and Lord. If God is calling you to make that decision, don’t delay or look for excuses, but respond to His call by receiving Him into your life; and let other Christians know what you have done so that they can rejoice with you and help you grow in your knowledge of Him.