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Ancient Wisdom or Modern Foolishness?

 

“Read the Bible, pray every day” is still the best New Year’s resolution. What book is there to give you heavenly wisdom?

Jeremiah 6:16; 8:8-9; 1 Corinthians 1:17-31 (texts)

January 1, 2017 • Download this sermon (PDF)

Dear Congregation of Christ: On this first Lord’s Day of the year 2017, our minds are definitely thinking about what God has in store for us. Is it prosperity or hardship? Sickness or health? Happiness or sorrow? Life or death? Is this the year I will find whom the Lord has for me as a wife or husband? Is this the year that God will increase the numbers in our church? Will there be peace and progress, or war and economic depression in our country and in the world? So much uncertainty and anxiety bother our minds.

artwork by ligonier.org

artwork by ligonier.org

The apostle James has a most excellent counsel for all of us as we plan for the coming year. We are not to say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring… Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (Jas 4:13-15).

“If the Lord wills”: this short saying must always be part of all our plans, big and small. We Reformed have a term for this, “D.V.” or “Deo volente.” James tells us that this is part of wisdom from heaven, from God himself. Any thought or plan that does not include a plea for God’s help is not wisdom from above: it is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Jas 3:15). And the result of this worldly wisdom is bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, falsehood, disorder and wickedness (Jas 3:13-16).

In our text, the Apostle Paul also contrasts two kinds of wisdom: wisdom of God, and wisdom of man, which he calls “foolishness.” These are infinitely different and diametrically opposed to each other. Even the Greek words used for wisdom and foolishness are very different. Wisdom is the word sophia, a beautiful girl’s name. And foolishness is the word moros, from which we get the English word “moron.”

Our theme this afternoon is Ancient Wisdom or Modern Foolishness under three headings: (1) Man: The Wisdom of the World; (2) Christ: The Wisdom of God; and (3) Boasting: In Worldly Wisdom or in the Lord.

Man: The Wisdom of the World

Why is the wisdom from God the all-important wisdom in our lives, whether in 2016 or in all the years of our lives? Paul transitions from rebuking the church in Corinth because of divisions to his discussion about wisdom and foolishness in verse 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.” Human eloquence, even the use of highfalutin words are of no use to God. Whether it is Paul, Apollos, or Cephas preaching, the only thing that matters is the good news of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for their sins. The power of God is in the message, the gospel of Christ’s perfect life, death and resurrection, not in the messenger. We know that there were many people among the Corinthians who prided in their speakers’ eloquence and rhetoric, so much so that they criticized Paul for his lack of speaking skills (2 Cor 10:10).

What are the characteristics of man’s so-called wisdom?

In contrast to unbelievers, Paul says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (verse 18). To unbelievers, the good news of the cross of Christ is foolishness. They ridicule the Christian faith as foolishness, when they themselves are “morons” or “fools” in the sight of God. The end of this rebellious fools is destruction. So in verse 19, Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14, who judges the Israelites for their evil hearts and deeds, pretending to be wise and discerning. Why are they judged? Because, as Isaiah says, they give lip service to God’s commandments (Isa 29:13). As James says, they are merely hearers of the Word, not doers.

Among these foolish people are the “scribe,” the “wise,” and the “debater” of this age (v 20). These are people who pride in their godless arguments. Even when they use Scripture, they twist it for their own shameful gain and claim to popularity. How often we see them in their blogs and Facebook posts, glorifying in their fame. If the motivation of the post is to edify and impart true knowledge in humility, then it is God’s wisdom. But they displease God in their arrogant claims, because they really have little knowledge of Scriptures and no wisdom from God (verse 21). How often do we hear unbelievers say, “There is no God” (Psa 14:1). Only the Holy Spirit can persuade them of their eternal destiny in hell. Therefore, the best thing to do is to pray that the Spirit will regenerate their hearts.

Like Jews, people who rely on their own “wisdom” demand signs. But even in most churches, many take most pleasure in spectacular signs and wonders, miracles, and speaking in tongues. All they want to get in their churches are fireworks, hip pastors, spectacles and other displays of human creativity. If you wanted your church to shrink, how about preaching the Word of God, the gospel of the cross, and salvation from sin and hell? These are “stumbling blocks” or “scandals” to their desires.

Those who visit our church will often say that our worship is old and obsolete. What kind of foolishness is the Reading of the Law and Confession of Sin? What are these boring songs we sing? How can the creeds written 500 years ago be relevant in this high-tech age? Aren’t the Psalms sung by people who lived 3,000 years ago, so how can they make me a better person, or find me a job, or make my relationships better?

But Paul’s sober warning against those who live according to worldly standards is this: if they think they are wise and strong and are boastful of their knowledge, their “wisdom” will be destroyed (19), and will be shamed by the power and wisdom of God in Christ (26-29). In Reformed circles, boasting in much knowledge of deep Bible doctrines is all too common. But Paul also warns against boasting in too much knowledge, “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor 8:1b-2).

Christ: The Power and Wisdom of God

In contrast to human wisdom—which is in reality foolishness—the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). It is by this wisdom of the gospel that believers do not perish, but are saved from sin and destruction in hell. Why? Because, even unbelievers’ ignorance of the gospel of Christ is from God. It is only because God has revealed Christ to believers—and not to unbelievers whom God passes by—that we are saved.

It is only through the preaching of Christ crucified that believers are called, regenerated, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. And how do unbelievers see this kind of preaching? They see it as a stumbling block to their pleasures, and worse, as foolishness! Who wants to hear about a bloody crucifixion, condemnation and eternal hell? The Jews looked at the crucified Jesus, and laughed, saying, “How can a dead Messiah save Israel from the yoke of the Roman oppressors?” But like Jews, many people today scoff at the doctrine of a powerful Messiah dying on the cross. Many even laugh at the idea of One person dying for the many.

And those who reject the gospel of Christ ridicule us Christians as weak and powerless. Only those who are weak and foolish, lowly and despised, and shameful can believe in a crucified Savior who died in the most shameful way invented by man. Some in the Corinthian church even boasted of their “noble birth”: ancestry, accomplishment, or even affiliation with the rich, powerful and famous.

But God chose to have nothing to do with the standards of the world, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (verse 27a). Who did Pharaoh choose to be his righthand man to lead Egypt during a great famine? It was Joseph, a humble slave who had wisdom given to him by the Spirit of God (Gen 41:39). To whom did God first reveal the birth of Jesus the Messiah? To lowly, despised shepherds, not the the wise men of Israel.

He chose the weak to shame the strong, just as the crucified Christ’s “weakness” shamed the “noble” and “strong” Jews and Romans when he arose from the grave. This theme of reversal of worldly status is a common theme in Scriptures. He chose the lowly shepherd David over a mighty war­rior to be king of Israel. The good news is preached to the poor in spirit, the broken­hearted, and the captives to sin (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18). The mighty will be brought low, but the humble will be exalted; the hungry will be satisfied, but the rich will be depraved (Luke 1:52-53).

In short, God uses those who are of no account and things that are of no significance for accomplishing his purpose: to save his people from their sins through a humble, insignificant, despised Jesus Christ. And to those who are called to believe, this Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (verse 24).

Boasting: In Worldly Wisdom or in the Lord

How is Christ the power and wisdom of God? Because he accomplished God’s wise counsel and purpose to save a people for himself. Therefore, Christ is our “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (verse 30). He is Wisdom personified, the Wisdom of the Book of Proverbs personified. He is not the “knowledge” that the Corinthians boast about, nor the “secret knowledge” of the Gnostics.

Christ is also our Righteousness. Because he lived a perfectly righteous life, his sinless life and his righteous works are counted to us. Christ the “righteous Branch” of David is called, “The LORD is our righteousness” (Jer 23:5-6). In Christ who, we became “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Therefore, God declares all believers in Christ as perfectly righteous, saving us from sin and destruction.

Christ was also raised from the dead for our Sanctification, so we “might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). The Spirit set us apart from all unbelievers, and as saints, the Spirit also transforms us daily into the image of Christ.

Therefore, Christ is called our Redemption. He bought us from slavery to sin in order that we may be righteous before him, and that we may become “a new creation” walking in righteousness and holiness.

The whole of salvation is from the wisdom of God in Christ who is also our Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification and Redemption. His work on the cross for our salvation is finished, complete and perfect. There is nothing we can add to it; nothing else needed. Can any human being say that he has any contribution to his salvation? Faith? Repentance? No, for even these are gifts from the Holy Spirit. Free will? No, for we were all slaves to sin, obeying only what our master Satan commands. God chose the humble and despised Christ “to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast” (verse 30).

Beloved friends: This year 2017, let us always be mindful that all our salvation is from the wisdom of God and Christ. Therefore, all our plans and goals are to be subject to God’s wisdom. We might get upset when our plans do not go through, but God is wiser and mightier than all of us. We can trust that in his wisdom that he will do all things for your good, no matter how bleak things might be at times.

God’s wisdom and power are found in his Word alone. Is there any other book in the world that gives us wisdom, even when it was written thousands of years ago? Is there any other book in the world that has the power to save people from sin and hell? None. This is why Jeremiah 6:16 says, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Only this ancient Word can direct us to the good way to walk in it.

Most of us don’t like New Year’s resolutions because we never fulfill them. But the best resolution to make is to read through the whole Bible this year. There are many such plans that are available. We also have daily devotional readings available. “Read the Bible, pray every day” is still the best resolution.

Trust in the wisdom of God and Christ. Believe and trust in Jesus alone and you will be saved from sin, from trusting in people who are not trustworthy, and in things that are not dependable. Only Jesus Christ is trustworthy and dependable because he alone is the wisdom and power of God. And this wisdom is found only in the Word of God.

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