The wisdom of the cross -- It is a phrase in Christian circles which probably passes unnoticed to our ears. To Paul’s audience in Corinth, though, it would have sounded absolutely ridiculous. The Jews associated wisdom with the torah . Wisdom, for them, expressed the mind of God. Wisdom for the Greeks, on the other hand, was the fruit of philosophy which explained the way things were in the world. Those of Greek heritage prided themselves on their ability to reason well. Want to understand the order of the universe? Study it. Both groups were likely well represented in the early church in Corinth.
Corinth, as I have taught in the past, may have been the town best like modern America in the Roman Empire. It was a cosmopolitan city, located on an isthmus. On one side of the isthmus was the Aegean Sea; on the other side was the Adriatic Sea. The town had been founded by Caesar. He had given citizenship to soldiers loyal to him and ceded them the land that came to be known as Corinth. It was a shrewd move. The veterans were given honor and privilege, but they were given that honor and privilege at quite a distance from Rome. If they got together to wander around a bit in their uniforms, it would be at a distance from Rome.
As you know, there were few deep water ships in those days, and fewer men willing to captain them. In nautical vernacular, the overwhelming majority of ships in the Roman empire were coast huggers or land huggers. Ships would travel from port to port following the coastland. Next time you are in front of a map or globe, think about how long it would take to travel between Rome and the cities of the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Corinth, with a harbor on both sides, developed quite a business of transporting goods and ships overland, for a fee of course. Depending upon prevailing winds and currents, one could shave as much as two to three weeks off the journey, by transferring ships at Corinth (and later letting them pull the entire ship in a harness across land and setting it in the other harbor).
Naturally, a number of attendant businesses opened up. There were pubs and hotels and other service related industries. There were carpenters, shipwrights, and other tradesmen. There were all kinds of governmental jobs (taxes and licenses, you know!), and there had to be peacekeepers for the travelers and sailors. Among the Roman cities, Corinth was prosperous. In addition to the citizens, an almost middle class formed. And it was from this cosmopolitan center that the church at Corinth was called by God.
Apparently the people in the church at Corinth had become somewhat like the Jews at various points in their history. At certain times in Jewish history, God had reminded the Jews that He had not chosen them because they were special. They were not the strongest, they were not the prettiest, they were not the wealthiest, they were not the most deserving. What made them special was that He valued His covenant with them. Corinth, which also fostered a worldly sense of entitlement, had caused those in its early church to believe that they were special in God’s eyes. Paul, writing this letter nineteen centuries earlier, reminds them that what makes them special is God.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters. Paul relates to them, and then he reminds them that not many of them were truly privileged, truly powerful, by the world’s standards. No doubt a few wealthy people had helped to found the church, but they seem to have been far outnumbered by those who came from “lesser” backgrounds. Paul is able to prove to the Corinthians that the difference between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom is an order of magnitude. God’s foolishness is greater than the world’s wisdom. God’s weakness is stronger than the world’s strength. God’s seeming lowliness is greater than the influential valued by the world. We cannot know for sure the makeup of the congregation at Corinth. But we can infer that they were not that different from us. Not many were wealthy; not many were politically influential; not many were strong. If God were going to build a church according the world’s standards. He seems to have totally missed the mark. Just as God chose the way of the Cross to redeem His people, He chose those less respected by the world to demonstrate His power in the world around them.
Why? God wanted it clear that apart from Him there is no salvation, no sanctification, and no redemption. Apart from Him, there is no life. The church in Corinth had been seduced by the world into believing that they deserved to be chosen. Paul wanted to correct that hubris. What made them special was the fact that God has chosen them. It was His character, His honor, and His glory which made their selection significant. His grace, and only His grace, could take such ordinary men and women and children and transform them into a beautiful Bride, worthy of His Son.
Sometimes, in the modern Church, there is a sense of triumphalism. Sometimes, we like to think that we are deserving of the grace He has given us. That thought is fraught with danger. Not only does it cause us to forget our place in salvation history, but it often lead us to think that others are not a part of the Church because they deserve so to be. Paul’s argument in this passage reminds us that our lives have to be merged into the Cross of Christ for us to begin to achieve the honor and glory and strength and power which we should desire to demonstrate to the world on His behalf, and to which He calls us for the sake of others. Like the Jew of Corinth, we seek to live as He has revealed to us in the world. Like the Greek of Corinth, we seek to understand the meaning of the world around us and our own lives. Properly understood, though, we are His foolishness, we are His weakness, we are His children, utterly dependent upon Him, our Father in heaven. It is that sense of triumphalism which causes us to look down at other churches or at people not a part of our congregation. I don’t want that kind of person to be a part of my church. We forget that it is His Church. We forget that just as He used our weaknesses to glorify Himself in the world, He will use the seeming weaknesses of others to exhibit His power in their lives. He will use their humility to show forth His glory in the world, if they will but claim Him as Lord and Savior. To prevent that sense of entitlement in our lives, according to St. Paul, we just need to remember that it was His power, His grace, which redeemed all our faults. Better still, it is that power, that grace, which reminds us that the best is still ahead of us! As Paul will write the church in Ephesus or in Davenport, His power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ever ask or imagine! The wisdom of the Cross and the power of the Resurrection were just the barest hint that He wants to do for all!