The Foolishness of Preaching

FFF 11:7 (Aug - Sept 1965)

The Foolishness of Preaching

John S. Robertson

The above title would seem to suggest that the art of public discourse on sacred subjects is worthless and devoid of reason and judgment, but an examination of the words in their context (1 Cor. 1:21) will show that exactly the opposite is intended. Indeed, the whole passage from verse 18 onward is a vigorous and thoughtful defence of this much despised and maligned practice.

Deeply grieved by reports of spreading division and increasing contention in the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote to the saints his inspired epistle in which he called upon the believers to “Be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (v. 10). In the midst of his call for unity he turns to the subject of wisdom, the various conceptions of which lay at the root of the divisions and growth of parties within the local church. Reiterating his commission, “Christ sent me, not to baptize but to preach the gospel” (v. 17), Paul launched into a discussion of the relation between wisdom and the gospel.

In support of their stand each group at Corinth had linked its cause with a name which identified the particular doctrine or practice it admired. One of the more clamorous parties was swayed by rhetorical artistry as it was employed in the use of words and style that appealed to the ear at the expense of the heart, and Paul realized that there was a real danger that the external and superficial “wisdom of words” would take over, and the deeper and more meaningful “words of the Cross would be “made void.” Exulting in human wisdom they were failing to fulfill the purpose of God in their individual lives and collective testimony. Paul had to show these misguided saints that the way to an understanding of God was not through the wisdom of man whose intellectual speculation could never bring him to a knowledge of God. The wisdom of God is found in the Cross, the preaching of which is the only way man can learn His mind and purpose for him.

The word translated foolishness (v. 18) is the word from which the English word “moron,” of low mental capacity, is derived. Hence, its use to mean something stupid, silly and worthless. It is in such terms that the warped and twisted mind of man views the preaching of the Cross. While this is the estimate of those who perish, to those who are saved or more correctly “being saved” (A. V.), it is the power of God. Since the death of Christ exceeds the limits of human credibility, to the natural mind it seems incapable of accomplishing the salvation of mankind. Hence, to such thinking it is foolishness.

Pursuing the theme, the wisdom of God as expressed in the Cross, the beloved Apostle selects from the history of the Children of Israel an incident where the wisdom of man failed and Judah was reduced to a condition of helplessness that they might learn to depend upon God alone (v. 19 Rf. Isa. 29: 14 et al). To the natural mind, an alliance with Egypt against Sennacherib seemed a wise and shrewd poltical move; to God it was an act of rebellion and a disavowal of faith in His promises. From the particular Paul carries his argument to the general and discusses the futility of man’s efforts to understand God through religion, the Jew; or, through speculative introspection, the Greek (v. 22).

The Jews were, and still are, a highly religious people. Their aspirations and hopes are earthly. They are a highly privileged people for unto them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2). But in all the writings of the prophets they could only see a Messiah who, as King, would deliver them from their bondage and establish them in His Kingdom. A crucified Christ was the very antithesis of what they had expected and so they rejected Him.

Those today who follow after the same error, religion, are taken up with signs and symbols translated into ritual and ceremony which they hope will be well-pleasing to God and merit His favour. They have a zeal, bordering on the fanatic in the more extreme sects and in their confused state of mind they cling to precepts and concerns which are the product of their own natural inclinations and years of teaching, but the “end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12). While religion may serve to placate the yearnings of the human heart, only Christ can meet the need of fallen man.

The Greeks through philosophy sought to understand God but Paul’s answer is “man by wisdom knew not God” (v. 21). Xenophanes was the first Greek philosopher to point out the moral defects of the popular

Greek gods who had as many vices as virtues. His followers replaced polytheism with pantheism which identified nature and God as one, a view held by many today, but God has revealed not only His nature but His character and purposes in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Plato’s ideas of God seemed to undergo changes as he advanced in the realm of philosophy and Aristotle his most brilliant pupil saw God as the Prime Mover, the Uncaused Cause and Non Contingent One but neither man understood the great theme of redemption which culminated in the Cross of Christ. While both showed a deep appreciation of righteousness, wisdom, fortitude and temperance, they knew nothing of the actual possession of righteousness which is the inalienable treasure of the redeemed.

The mere observance of religious ritual failed the Jew and wisdom as the product of man’s intellect left the Greek struggling in the mire of self-righteousness, but “Christ crucified” which was to the Jew a “stumbling block” and to the Greek “foolishness” is to them who are called both the “wisdom of God” and “the power of God” (v. 24). God’s answer to the Human Quest was a Divine Plan, formulated in the mind and determined counsels of the Godhead before time was. Any attempt by man to attain righteousness was bound to fail because it was founded upon a false premise, the futile hope that he could by his own means merit salvation. Man is powerless to extricate himself from the bondage of sin, but Christ is God’s power in the lives of those who respond to the gospel because of all that was accomplished by His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection. He Himself is the personal instrument of their salvation and the very sustenance of their life and activity. Failure of man to acknowledge his impotence in the face of sin has been the great barrier that has shut him out from God, and it has been the particular privilege of the saints down through the ages to breach this wall of unbelief through the simple presentation of the gospel. It must result in a complete surrender to God’s will with the consequent implanting of a new life in Christ Jesus to whom all praise, honour and glory rightly belong (v. 31).

Following His resurrection, the Lord Jesus appeared to the eleven in Galilee and gave to his chosen ones the great commission which was to change the whole course of history, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”(Mark 15:15). These were His final marching orders and they have never been withdrawn. For nearly two thousand years this commission has been carried out, and while many have rejected it as foolish, it remains the irrefutable proof of God’s wisdom and grace. Thousands will attest to this in a day not too far future when with the redeemed throughout the ages they will join the heavenly chorus to sing; “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; for Thou wast slain and hast redeemed us unto God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).