The Gospel of Jesus Christ
Handout / Small Group Questions:
Before we get into our discussion of 1 Corinthians 5 next week, it’s very important that we look back to the context.
Remember the Context
The Apostles Paul is writing to a church he had planted in the Greek city of Corinth about three years prior to writing this letter.
Corinth was one of the bigger, more important cities of its day and was full to the brim with trade, politics, money, and religion. When you think of Corinth, think of it as an amalgamation of a twenty-first century inner city like downtown Ottawa and all the worst parts of the internet come to life. It was overcrowded, materialistic, urban, and bursting with world class intellects, upper-class professionals, and poor, uneducated street people.
One big difference between inner city Ottawa and Corinth was that Corinth was incredibly religious. They had as many places of worship as Ottawa has coffee shops. Because it was such a strong commercial and political centre, they attracted people from everywhere, many who were only there for a few nights to do business and have fun. So they had temples to the gods of Egypt, Rome, Greece, and even a Jewish Synagogue.
Modern Canadian cities have a lot in common with ancient city of Corinth. They were modern, liberal, commercial, self-indulgent, and morally decadent – and they had one overriding obsession: sex. It was such a part of the culture that the term “Corinthian Girl” became shorthand for prostitute. If you met someone who was a sexually out of control, you would say they were “living like a Corinthian”. No other city came even close to having this kind of reputation. To walk down the streets of Corinth or worship in their temples was to experience the most explicitly pornographic parts of the internet come to life.
Paul planted a church there and pastored them for about a year and a half before leaving to plant churches in different cities. While he was gone, the corruption of the city started to creep in, and a whole lot of bad things started to happen in this church. Some of the Christians were worried, so they sent a delegation of people to find Paul (who was then in Ephesus) to tell him what was going on and get some help. Around the same time this official delegation found Paul, it seems that an unofficial group was sent on behalf of a person named “Chloe” (1 Cor 1:11) who had concerns of her own. On top of that, it seems that Paul was already getting news from other people who had been through Corinth, visited the church, and were telling him all manner of unsettling things.
Paul presumably prayed about the situation and realized he couldn’t go to Corinth right away so God inspired him to write a letter to them, but he doesn’t start with laying down accusations and correcting their behaviour. Instead, he starts by preaching the gospel to them again.
For us it’s kind of a weird reaction. Imagine you left on a missions trip somewhere and left the kids at home, only to start getting reports that your kids had invited the Hell’s Angels for dinner where they ate the family cat, your daughter had married your uncle, were filming adult movies in your bedroom, had joined a cult, and burnt down half the house. How do you think you would have started a letter to them? Would it start with , “To my kids who have been cleaned up by Jesus, saints of God, I give thanks to my God always for you!”
That’s how Paul started! Why? Because he knew that God’s plan for that church wasn’t merely to changing their behaviour, but to rescue their souls. The issue wasn’t just what they were doing wrong, but that the sin they had allowed to take over their hearts and their church was destroying them, which meant they had forgotten about Jesus.
Remember the Gospel
So the letter begins by reminding them that even though they are messing up, they are still saved, because Jesus loves them and they believe in Jesus. Their behaviour, though dangerous, deplorable and disappointing, hasn’t disqualified them from heaven. It is not they who have to hold on to Jesus, but Jesus who is holding on to them, even as they try to slither away.
He’s disappointed that there are such terrible divisions among them, but not only because it hurts them and reflects badly upon God, but because it demonstrates such a lack of understanding and appreciation for the grace and love that Jesus has shown them.
He says in 1:26-31:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
He doesn’t jump into correcting all of their theological errors and ways they have messed up their worship service, but instead begins by reminding of the true, pure, and powerful message of the gospel that they had experienced and believed.
He says in 2:2-5:
“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
The main thrust of the first chapters is to bring them back to the love, grace, and power they had experienced when they first believed. He’s not calling them back to a proper doctrine or religious practice, but back to the One, true Saviour, Jesus Christ.
He reminds them that even though they were a totally messed up, sinful, wretched group of people who not only didn’t know Jesus, but couldn’t care less about Him, Paul was sent to them anyway so they might hear the message of salvation. But more than this… that God had worked a miracle in their hearts so they could actually hear the message in the first place.
In 2:14 he says:“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” He’s reminding them from where they
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
He’s reminding them from where they came, and forcing them to remember that it wasn’t they who had chosen to worship God, but Jesus who had chosen them to be saved.
Over and over he reminds them what they believed at first. He doesn’t start with accusation, but with the gospel.
If I could summarize the first part of the letter, I’d say it this way: “My dear children, I love you. I thank God for you. Why? Because I’ve seen God in you. You are a miracle. You, in the most messed up, pagan,
“My dear children, I love you. I thank God for you. Why? Because I’ve seen God in you. You are a miracle. You, in the most messed up, pagan, sinful city I’ve ever seen, are part of my spiritual family because of Jesus. He loved you when you were lost. He sent me to tell about forgiveness, and changed your hearts so you could hear Him. And He still loves you. Why have you forgotten this? Why did you change the message you received? Why have you mixed lies with the truth? Why are you seeking sinful pleasure instead of the joy of the Lord? Why are you fighting about who is greater, when you should know that we are all just wretches saved by Jesus? I love you guys, and Jesus loves you too. I had to leave you for a little while, but Jesus is still with you. I’m very disappointed God’s love has left you so quickly. But I’m going to come back to you and help you as soon as I can.” This is a love letter!
This is a love letter!
What the Gospel Isn’t
This is the most important thing we need to remember before we get into the next sections of the letter. From this point on Paul is going to be very specific about the kinds of sins that have messed up these people, but we cannot forget that it is all built upon the foundation of the Gospel.
This is something too many of us get terribly wrong. We jump straight to accusing sinners and trying to fix people’s behaviour without starting with the gospel. We see people doing things that go against the Bible and are disappointed, angry, frightened, or disgusted, and we immediately want them to stop their behaviour – as though that’s somehow going to fix their deepest issues, bring light to their heart and restore them to God.
We tell our children that swearing is bad, cheating is bad, gambling is bad, unkind words are bad, stealing is bad, premarital sex is bad – and we try to get them to stop.
We watch people in our nation doing bad things – murder, rape, fraud, theft, kidnapping, and all kinds of messed up sexual sin – and we want the police and government to get them to stop.
We watch the news about terrible things happening in the world – starvation, child labour, human trafficking, oppression of women, political corruption, evil dictators, nuclear armament, economic disaster – and we want the other nations to rise up and make it stop.
We look inside ourselves and see all kinds of things we want to change – bad thoughts, bad habits, anger issues, pride, anxiety, sadness – and we want someone to do something that will make it stop.
But is stopping bad things the whole of the gospel? When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” did He simply mean that he’d make everyone stop doing bad things? No. Is the mission of the church to declare all the bad things that people do and tell them to stop doing them? Is the gift of the Holy Spirt inside of us simply there to be a warning beacon that tells us when we’re doing wrong? Is that the whole of the Gospel? Is that what a relationship with God is for?
No. Then why do we so often imply that it is?
Our usual Christian message is that you shouldn’t do bad things because God doesn’t like it when we do bad things. Only bad people do bad things and God doesn’t like bad people. Sinners are God’s enemies and you don’t want to be an enemy of God, do you? Therefore you should ask forgiveness of all the bad things you’ve done, stop doing bad things, and ask for God to help you never do anything bad ever again. So come to our church where we all work hard not to do or think bad things, make each other feel bad when we do or think bad things, and share the good news that Jesus helps us not do bad things.
If that’s the message we tell others, then it’s no wonder no one wants it. If that’s the message you believe, then it’s no wonder you have a hard time worshipping Jesus. If that’s the message you grew up with – to worry at all times about what you say, do, or think, because God doesn’t like it – then it’s no wonder you have a hard time praying to Him as your Loving Father? If that’s how you read the Bible – as a list of things you’re not allowed to do – then it’s no wonder that you avoid reading it. If all you see of your spiritual life is that there’s always another sin, another temptation, another habit, another dark spot on your heart – then you will always feel guilty and bad, never forgiven, saved, and free.
The Gospel is Joy
That’s not the gospel. That’s a sliver of the gospel that is presented by people who misunderstand it, and by the devil who wants you to resent God, hate the church, and feel terrible all the time.
The gospel is joy! Turn to John 1. When the Gospel of John introduces Jesus it says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Another translation says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (NLT) That’s the gospel. Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12) No matter how dark things are, no matter how much sin there is, how bad we think it is, the darkness can never overcome Jesus. Keep reading in John 1:9:
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.… 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
The Law of Moses given to the Jews only had the power to condemn humanity because no one could follow the law perfectly. It showed us how far we are from God’s will, how badly sin had corrupted us. No one who heard even the 10 Commandments could walk away without knowing they stood condemned. The Law gave one solution to the problem of sin: death (Rom 6:23) Either the sinner dies and faces God’s wrath themselves, or God accepts the death of another as a substitute. Hebrews says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb 9:22) For a long time that substitute was an animal – a bull or goat – but that was never enough to satisfy God’s wrath, so more and more had to die. An animal’s blood couldn’t fully atone for the sins of a nation of humans, let alone the world!
But everyone who read the Old Testament Law and Prophets knew something greater was coming.
- When Adam and Eve sinned, God promised that one would come through Eve who would crush the serpent once and for all. (Gen 3:15).
- When God called old Abram and Sarai out of their pagan land to follow Him, He promised that from them would come one who would bless all the nations.
- When God delivered Israel from their slavery to Egypt, He had them spill the blood of a lamb so the death would pass over them – Jesus would be the final Passover lamb.
- Isaiah spoke of One who would bear the grief of sinners, carry their sorrows, be stricken and smitten by God, pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities, who would bring healing to others by the wounds afflicted to Him. One upon whom the Lord would lay upon the iniquity of all (Isa 53:1-6).
The light of man would come and face utter darkness, sin and death, take the full weight of God’s wrath, conquer sin once and for all, and offer Himself in exchange for others.
The Woman Caught in Adultery
Jesus didn’t shy away from us because we were sinners. He didn’t come and simply tell us to stop sinning, and that’s not the message we are to give to others. Certainly, He called for repentance, but that wasn’t his core mission. Let’s read John 8:1-11:
“Early in the morning he [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”
Herein we see how Jesus sees people who are in sexual sin. This isn’t about one woman who lived a long time ago. This is how Jesus sees adulterers, pornography makers and users, prostitutes, homosexuals, people who have sex outside of marriage, those with perverted hearts and minds, anyone who doesn’t line up with God’s perfect standards of human sexuality – which is everyone. This is how Jesus treats them. Remember, she didn’t come to him, but was dragged before Jesus. We see no repentance from her; only guilt, shame and fear.
Who could have thrown the first stone? Jesus. But He didn’t.
This isn’t the only place Jesus does something like this. He looks at the woman at the well, who has had a tonne of messed up relationships and shows her love and turns her into a missionary. He looks at Zacchaeus, a sinner and maybe the most hated man in town, and invites himself over for a party to meet his messed up friends.
In Luke 15:1-2 we can see the magnetic pull the love of Jesus had on sinners:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
Hearing this Jesus then tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, sharing how much God loves pursuing sinners and how much He rejoices when they come back to Him!
Next week we are going to talk about sexual sin, which is a very big deal in scripture. It tears apart souls, marriages, families, cities and nations. Sexual sin has corrupted every part of our society. It is not too much of an overstatement to say that we live in modern day Corinth. And none of us are right with God in this. Every person who has hit puberty, and some who haven’t yet, are guilty of committing sexual sin.
But when you hear this, or when you are faced with it in your life or in the lives of others, I beg you to see it in the light of the Gospel. And when you feel the conviction of sin, or see sinners around out, know that Jesus doesn’t hate you or them. He’s not disappointed in you or angry with you. He isn’t surprised by what you’ve done, nor is he repulsed. That’s not the message of His gospel.
John 3:16-17 says,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
He looks at us who have committed sexual sins, or sins of any kind, and He does what He did for the woman caught in adultery. She stood there, caught in the act, blushing, terrified, perhaps barely holding her clothes around her, feeling more guilty and scared than she ever had in her whole life. There was no doubt she had sinned, no question of her guilt, there was no question of what the law said must happen – she must die – and no one in the entire world could make her innocent – except One.
The accusers surrounded Jesus, demanded her blood, her death, her public shame to be seen by all, and he silenced them by pointing out their sin, their hypocrisy, their own guilt and shame, until the only one that was left to accuse her was Jesus, the only one who had never sinned.
And He stood up and looked at her. She was alone before the God of the universe, the judge of all mankind who knew that she wasn’t just an adulterer, but knew every other sin she had ever committed too. He looked into her eyes, but saw not only the sin, he saw the woman, the girl, the baby God had formed in her mother’s womb. His heart, full of compassion and love for her, released her from her guilt, and told her to sin no more knowing fully well she would.
And God the Father took that sin, written on His divine ledger, the list of things that would be held against her after death, and he erased it – and then wrote it on the list of sins that would be held against Jesus, His Only Son. God the Father would punish Jesus the Son for her sin of adultery. He would take the accusations, shame, beatings, death, and divine wrath so she wouldn’t have to.
That’s why He could send her away without casting the stone. It would disobey God’s Law not to hold her to account. But, there was one way she wouldn’t have to die – if someone took that punishment for her. Payment must be made. Blood must be spilt. And He would spill His. That’s why He came. No to condemn sinners, but to save them.
That’s the gospel. That’s why we sing. That’s the joy. That’s our hope. That’s where we find peace. That’s the source of our love and forgiveness. That’s what we preach and teach and share, and what Paul was so concerned that the Corinthians would remember, because they had lost their joy, hope and love, because they had lost the gospel and got wrapped up in the world.
So I implore you, as we enter this next section of 1 Corinthians, do not forget that it is all said in the light of the loving forgiveness and amazing grace that comes from Jesus Christ to all sinners who would believe.
If you have your Bibles with you, please up to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and let’s read it together. Those of you who have been following along with the sermon series so far are going to see some really important words in there and will, hopefully, recall some of the things we’ve already learned.
When you read the word “calling”, I hope it brings to mind this section’s repeated emphasis on how it is not we who choose God, but God who calls people to Himself. When you read the words “wise” or “foolish”, I hope it reminds you of the Greek people who loved nothing more than the pursuit of wisdom and feared nothing more than being considered a fool, and then remember the contrast between worldly and godly wisdom and worldly and godly foolishness which we’ve seen over the last couple weeks.
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about human weakness these days – specifically my own. Most of you know that I’ve been dealing with Bell’s Palsy for the past 5 weeks or so. It’s a lot better now, but it was quite a shock when I woke up 36 days ago and half of my face was paralyzed. I still have a way to go to call myself “fully healed”, but I’ve come along way. The day before I was perfectly fine, then the next morning, I couldn’t blink, move my lips, taste on one side of my mouth, or breath properly. I went to the doctor and he gave me a mess of pills, but had no real explanation of what happened or how long it would last.
A week later I was back in the ER in a huge amount of pain. The doctor looked concerned, said “Hmm, I don’t think that’s supposed to happen”, prescribed more pills and said she’d get me a cat scan. It’s been some time since then, and I’ve done a lot of healing. Thankfully, the pain has stopped, but I still have some issues with my face and can’t blink – which is the most annoying part right now.
This sudden illness has caused me to do some soul searching that I would never have expected, and has caused me to ponder the concepts of weakness and foolishness in ways I don’t think I would have otherwise. This experience reminded me of how weak and foolish I really am – and how frail humans are in general.
I know that rankles some people because they hate the idea of being considered weak. “Sure, Pastor Al – you’re weak – but I’m not. I’m strong! I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”
I’ve even had people argue with me when I’ve said that I’m weak. Maybe this has happened to you too. I’ll be going though a tough time, physically exhausted, mentally drained, spiritually down, emotionally fragile, and someone will ask me to do something, or something will come up and I’ll say, “I just can’t do that. I’m too weak to pull that off right now. Just forget about it. If you want me to do that, it will literally require a miracle.” And they’ll say, “No! You’re strong! You’re smart! You can do it! Just believe in yourself! You don’t know how tough you are until you try! Quitters never win and winners never quit!”
Have you ever been told that? You get to the end of your rope, or you find yourself in a dark place, your life feels like you’re trudging through the slough of despond, or the valley of death, and you just want to curl up there and quit – and well-meaning people keep telling you to “keep trying”, “suck it up”, “get going”.
The implication behind that advice seems to be that if we try hard enough, everyone is strong enough to deal with whatever life has to offer. No matter what life throws at us: sickness, death, tragedy, natural disaster, war, abuse, heartbreak… we all have the inherent capacity within us to push through it, get over it, break it down, or build it up. All we have to do is try. No human being should need anyone else! You can do it if you try!
What a ridiculous notion! Not only does it go against what we read in scripture, it goes against common sense, worldly wisdom and human experience! Ask any professional counsellor in the world, any politician, anyone with military background, any doctor, or lawyer, anthropologist, historian, accountant, teacher, poet or artist and they will say the same thing: everyone needs help. Everyone needs help. No one is born with everything they need to survive, thrive and conquer this world and the troubles within it. No one. Everyone has lack. Lack of stability. Lack of strength. Lack of knowledge. Lack of skills. Lack of wisdom. Lack of resources. Everyone has weakness.
And yet, somehow, though countless voices around us – from the medical establishment to the educational system to religious leaders – are telling us that we have weakness built into us, the voices we tend to listen to are the misguided ones that tell you “you’re just not trying hard enough” or the voice in own head that tells you: “I can do it on my own, I don’t need anyone, I should do it alone, no one understands, everyone else has it all put together, I’m the only weak person, I should be ashamed of myself for having weakness. Even God is disappointed in me. He expects me to be strong, good, helpful, joyful, gracious, kind, sinless, and perfect – and every time I mess up, every time I show my own weakness, He’s angry, or disappointed, or leaves me, or punishes me.
Therefore I must be strong – or if I can’t actually be strong, I must pretend to be strong! I must tell everyone that ‘I’m fine, I’m good, in fact, I’m great!’. I must hide all of the ways that I sin, and keep them in the dark, because then everyone will think I’m perfect. I must have the best car, the nicest toys, the cleanest house, the prettiest wife, the smartest kids, the greenest lawn, so everyone will know how successful I am and then they won’t think I’m weak.
If I study hard enough then I’ll know more than anyone else and they won’t realize I think I’m a fool. If I diet and exercise enough then I’ll look good so no one will know that I’m crumbling emotionally. If I earn enough and have enough things, then I can impress everyone and they won’t know that I think I’m a total failure. If I say all the right religious words, and do enough religious things, then everyone will think I’m a saint, even though I have massive struggles with my faith and am trapped in a cycle of temptation that I can’t see a way out of.”
What a total load of garbage we feed ourselves in our private thoughts, don’t we?
God’s Way is Backwards
This same pile of lies had infected the Corinthian church too, and in the first chapter of his letter, Paul is trying to shake them up with some truth. They had already forgotten some of the most critical things about their relationship with God, and had slipped into a bunch of false thinking. I’ve covered a lot of those things over the past weeks, but another set of false beliefs that had snuck into their minds was that they needed to overcome their weaknesses so they could be acceptable to God and the world.
They had started to listen to teachers that were telling them that they didn’t just need to believe in Jesus to be saved, but also needed to do a bunch of other things – have ecstatic religious experiences, follow the whole Law of Moses, and come up with ways to make the Gospel of Jesus look cooler to their neighbours.
The true Gospel of Jesus, where we are unable to save ourselves but need to turn from our sins and accept the free gift of salvation that comes only through believing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was making them look like fools to their neighbours – and it was making them look weak.
They were used to boasting about their leaders, teachers, religion, and selves – and Christianity wasn’t very boast worthy. The leader of the church was Jesus – a rural, Jewish teacher from the middle of nowhere, spent most of His life in obscurity, and barely left a 120 mile square during His whole ministry. Their main teacher, Paul, had a pretty impressive resume of education and experience, but he refused to talk about it, instead opting to preach simple messages and point people to Jesus.
Their religion was nothing like the ones around them. Corinth was full of beautiful temples, lavish decorations, crazy religious performances, and hugely popular speakers and personalities. Christians, on the other hand, gathered at some guy’s house, sang a few songs, and then sat quietly as a few people taught and prayed. And the teachings they heard, at least at first when Paul was there, kept telling them – from the wealthiest man in town to the slave who tied his sandals – that they were all foolish sinners in need of a Saviour, starving beggars in search of bread, wicked, hellbound people that experienced undeserved grace. They were told that God wanted them to be humble, their acts of charity and prayer should be done in secret. They were told that they would never be good enough, strong enough, wise enough, or smart enough to achieve the perfection that God desires – and that the only way to be accepted by God is to throw themselves at His feet, acknowledge they were spiritually bankrupt, and ask for mercy in the name of Jesus.
But, if you’ve been told that your whole life is about amassing knowledge, wisdom, riches, pleasure, honour, and status to impress the gods and everyone else – and that it’s the god’s job to give you all these things if you perform all the right rituals – the Gospel of Jesus comes as a shock because God’s version of knowledge, wisdom, riches, pleasure, honour and status are radically different than the world’s. They’re not boast-worthy.
If you’ve been told that you need to be stronger, better, smarter, and wealthier than everyone around you in order to be worthy of God’s attention, and know you have been blessed by God, then the Gospel of Jesus will come as a surprise because it says that the first step towards getting saved is acknowledging that you are too weak, too foolish, too ignorant, too poor, and too broken, to be able to do anything of value for Him – that you are spiritually dead inside, and that you absolutely need God to resurrect you before you can begin.
If you believe that you need to suck it up, pretend everything is ok, deny you are hurt, deny your temptations, and ignore your pain, so you can look happy, successful and spiritual, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ will challenge that belief by saying that you need to come to Him on your knees, and acknowledge to those around you that you are in need. You need to realize you are broken, lost, afraid and dirty; so He can pick you up, clean you off, put you on the right path, and give you a hope and a future.
The whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is backwards to most of our worldly thinking – and that’s kind of the point.
God Doesn’t Choose Like We Do
Look back at our scripture today and see what Paul reminds them of. He says, “Consider your calling… not many of you were wise according to worldly standards.” He reminds them that God didn’t call them (or choose them, or save them) because they were so wise and intelligent that they discovered His secrets. No, in fact, they were so off the mark that God had to go and get them because they were too foolish to find Him themselves.
He tells them, “not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth”. He reminds them that God didn’t choose them because they had so much to contribute to His church and Kingdom. He isn’t like us humans that look at wealthy celebrities and think, “Oh wow, if only that person would become a Christian, if only they would join our church… that’d be amazing!” No, God goes the other way, choosing the weak, the sick, the broken, the obscure, the afraid – and then He gives them His version of strength, His version of healing, His version of success, His version of courage.
Why? Why would God do that? It’s certainly not how we would pick our star team, is it? If we lined the whole of the world up against the gym wall and wanted to pick our teams for who is going to lead our religion and tell everyone how to get saved from Hell, who would we pick? The wisest, the smartest, the most powerful, the most influential… right? God’s upside-down kingdom is exactly the opposite!
Why? If you look back one verse it says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” How can humanity know this is true? By God, “choosing what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Everyone looks at the person who has great physical or mental powers and is so very impressed – and God says, “That’s not strength. Do you want to see strength? Look at my follower here… they are in pain but full of joy, they have depression but still encourage others, they have anger issues but choose to be gentle, they are in the throes of addiction but choose every day to walk with me instead, they lost everything they had but are still generous with others.” That’s God’s kind of strength.
How else can humanity know that God’s way is “wiser” and “stronger” than ours? Because He “…chooses the low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are…” Our society idolizes people who are unique, talented, remarkable, overachievers and successes. We watch singing competitions to see who’s the best singer, talent competitions to see who is the most interesting, hockey tournaments to see who is the best player, and then hand out MVP awards to individuals who outshine even their winning team-mates. Our democratic process is largely a popularity contest, and our movies are dominated by a small group of people the industry has decided are the most marketable.
But God almost always does the opposite. God almost always chooses “the low and despised… the things that are not” to be the ones to carry His signature, be His defenders, show His glory, lead His people, serve His kingdom, do His work. He takes the drug dealer and turns them into a Sunday school teacher, turns the porn addict into a faithful husband and father (or wife and mother). He chooses the smallest group, the most socially awkward person, the one with the lowest score, the one that we would overlook every time – and chooses them to be one of His champions.
The prophecy about Jesus from Isaiah 61:1-4 ( which Jesus says is about Him (Luke 4:16-30)), says this:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
Who has God chosen to be the ones who will populate His kingdom and rebuild the devastations of many generations? The brokenhearted, the captive, the prisoner, the mourner, the weak… That’s Jesus’ beatitudes from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the persecuted…” Why? Because in God’s upside-down kingdom, their poverty, sadness, meekness and pain is what allows them to realize their weakness and turn to Him for strength!
Why the Weakest?
Why does God operate that way? First, “…To bring to nothing the things that are”. In other words, to negate, invalidate, to deprive of all validity, every thought that says we are good enough, strong enough, and able enough to serve Him, save ourselves, and do good things in this world without Him. He wants to negate that thought completely in our minds.
He wants us to look at the strong, successful, proud, rich, famous person who does not know Jesus and watch them fall apart at the seams because they don’t have God holding them together. He wants us to watch a society built upon human wisdom turn and eat itself, corruptin everything that makes them human, because they have refused to acknowledge God. And then he wants us to contrast that with the weak, obscure, and powerless ones who know and trust God, and marvel in wonder as we try to figure out how they can have such inner strength, such spiritual power, be so kind, so joyful, so wise, so calm, and so patient. He wants to negate in our minds the thought that strength is found within ourselves, or within any human creation. He wants to bring that thinking “to nothing”.
Which leads to the second reason that God gives for why He chooses the weak: from verse 29, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”… so that all of our boasting will be done “in the Lord”.
God wants us to realize our weakness, turn to Him, and say: “I need you because I cannot do this on my own. All that I have is not enough. I need Your Word to guide me, Your Son to save me, Your Spirit to protect me, Your church to care for me, because I am too weak on my own. And whenever I choose my own path, or design my own god, they fail me. I can’t be a good enough husband, wife or parent. I’m not strong enough to conquer this temptation. I’m not wise enough to know what to do. I need the One, True God.”
And then, as He strengthens you, and changes you, and cleans you, and remakes you, and teaches you, and uses you to do His will, you return to Him the glory. “I didn’t do this, God did! I didn’t conquer that sin, God did. I didn’t become less angry, or proud, or vain – God changed me. I didn’t conquer that sin, God did. I didn’t make that wise decision, God lead me.” You get a life that is touched by the blessing of God, He gets the glory. It’s actually a pretty good deal.
And so, let me close with this: You’ve probably heard the scripture that most people call “The Great Commandment” which says “Love the Lord your God with your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength” (Matthew 22:37-38), right?
I want you to use that scripture to consider your weakness today, and let that acknowledgement of your weakness drive you to prayer, asking Him for help.
Some of us are weak in Strength. Some here are physically weaker than others. You have illness or some kind of handicap. You are not as strong, or tall, or well as others. You cannot run as fast, jump as high, go as far, or do as much as you want to. Acknowledge your physical weakness before God and turn it over to Him. It was His idea. He has chosen to make you weaker so that you will lean on His strength. You are not less of a person because of your health status – you have been given a greater opportunity to show that God can do amazing things through someone like you.
Some of us are weak in Mind. Some here have learning disabilities like dyslexia, or are forgetful, can’t do math well, can’t spell properly, can’t read well, and struggle to pick up concepts well. Does that mean you are less valuable to God? That you can’t serve in His Kindom? Of course not! It means that you have been given a greater opportunity to show what God can do through you! Turn to Him, acknowledge your mental weakness, and ask Him how you can use the gifts he has given you for His glory. Stop trying to be who you are not, and allow God to work with who He has made you to be.
Some of us are weak in Heart. Some have a really hard time with things that most people don’t see – your brain chemistry and emotions. There are people that suffer from Depression, Anxiety, Bipolarity, OCD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, PTSD, Social Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Sexual Disorders, Insomnia, or other things that you didn’t ask for, came out of nowhere, are a constant burden, require medications and doctors and treatments and make your life miserable. Does that make you unfit for the Kingdom of God? Does that mean God is disappointed in you? Does God expect you to suck it up and get strong before you can come to Him? Does God expect you to get healed before you can worship or serve Him? I hope you know by now the answer is “no”.
Though I can’t tell you why, I can tell you that God has given you that so He can use you to shame the wise, shame the strong, and negate everyone who has ever said that people with mental illness are a problem to be solved and a burden to those around them. He has created you exactly the way you are so He can use you in a way that He can use no one else. Acknowledge your weakness, and that you need help – not just from meds and doctors, which are fine by the way – but ultimately from God, the only One who can give you the “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” that you need to live with what the burden you carry every day (Gal 5:23).
And finally, consider that we are all weak in our Soul. None of us have what is necessary to fix that which is most wrong with us. The Bible says “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), which means that everyone who has ever done, thought or said something wrong is spiritually dead (Eph 2:1) and in need of the miracle of a resurrection. God promises to do that for all that call on Him. Only God can raise the dead, and it is only by faith in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord and Saviour of the world, that we can experience that healing.
As long as you are trying to save yourself, as long as you think that you are a ‘good enough person’, as long as you think you are better than others, as long as you think that you deserve to go to heaven – you will never call out to God and never receive His healing. It is only when you acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of a Saviour, and turn to Jesus, that you will be saved.
And so, I implore you to acknowledge your weakness, and then turn to God for strength, so He will provide what you need – and then as He does, give Him the worship and praise He deserves.
One would think that it would be universally true that no one likes looking like a fool, but that’s not really the case is it? There are countless websites, YouTube channels, gifs, tv shows and blogs that are solely dedicated to watching people do foolish, dangerous, stupid or ridiculous things – and they get thousands, even millions of hits and earn the content creators quite a lot of money. It would seem that today, acting like a fool, is not only popular but quite lucrative. Just the other day I watched a video where a guy filled a swimming pool with 1500 gallons of Coca-Cola, threw in some mentos and ice to make it cool and bubbly, and then proceeded to jump in. And then, just for good measure, they included some “tech destruction” by ruining a $2000 dollar flying quad-copter camera by crashing it into the pool. It made no sense.
Every single comment I read, from top to bottom, was about how stupid and wasteful it was – and yet, last time I looked, they had almost 5 million subscribers and the video had 22 million views. Foolishness, silliness, and stupidity, it would seem, is quite a popular pastime.
I’m not going to say that I’m immune from it. I’ve done some stupid things in my life. Sometimes to impress people, other times because I simply wanted the experience. I once drove my father’s car 212 km/hr down a long, steep hill on a highway out of town. That was dumb and I could have died. I once helped duct-tape a friend to a lawn-chair and throw him in the back of a car so we could take pictures of him in various, sketchy, locations. He still bears the scars from how tightly we taped him. Another time I ate nothing but Little-Caesar’s Crazy bread for three straight days, just to see what would happen. Actually, nothing happened and I enjoyed every minute of it.
That’s one kind of foolishness, and it seems to be one that a lot of people enjoy, but maybe there’s a different kind of foolishness that isn’t quite so popular; a feeling that no one wants to experience, and where even the most extroverted YouTuber dares not go. The section of scripture we are going to look at today uses the word “folly” and “foolish” a lot, but it certainly can’t mean “silliness”, “goofiness” or “simple stupidity”.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and let’s read it together and then take it apart a bit to see if we can understand what God is trying to teach us here.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
The Mines of Moria
The word for “foolish” or “folly” here both come from the same root word, MOROS. The word “folly” is actually the word MORIA, and if there are any Lord of the Rings fans here you’ll remember that word. It was the underground mining city where the Dwarves dug too deeply to extract more and more treasure from the earth until they accidentally awoke a demon called a Balrog. Their foolish greed literally drove them to dig their own tunnel to hell. In Tolkien’s made-up language MORIA means “Black Abyss”, but there’s no doubt Tolkien intended a double meaning for Christian readers who had studied the concept of the deeper meaning of folly in the Bible.
If you recall, the wizard Gandalf, was the guide for the group and was trying to get them to the Land of MORDOR to get rid of the ring, was something of a Christ-figure throughout the books. He didn’t want to go MORIA because of what had been awoken by the dwarves – the evil, or utter foolishness, of a society dedicated to an all-consuming greed – embodied in the danger of facing the Balrog.
As they try to sneak their way through the mines, everything inevitably goes wrong (just as Gandalf thought it would) and they are forced to make a break for the Bridge of Kazad-Dum, the very long, straight and narrow bridge to safety, without any kind of rail, spanning a great fiery chasm, where they would all have to cross single file. (Sound familiar?) It was on this bridge that Gandalf was forced protect those under his care by having them cross first and then turn to confront the demon, shouting “You Cannot Pass!”, breaking the bridge in half, sending the Balrog tumbling into the chasm, saving his friends.
Now, let me nerd-out a little bit more because Tolkien digs really deep her into his Christ-figuring. Before he breaks the bridge he shouts out some very specific warnings at the demon. He says, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the shadow! You cannot pass.”
Most people think it’s strange that the good-guy, Gandalf, would be a “servant of fire” and a “wielder of a flame”, but when you dig deep, you see here that this is no mere occurrence of fighting fire with fire. In Tolkien’s universe, The Secret Fire is the “Light of Creation that burns at the centre of the earth” and “Anor” is the name of the sun. He’s looking at the demon and saying, “Your dark fire, your destructive ‘flame of Udun’ (which is Tolkien’s version of Hell), will do you no good against me because I have access to the greater powers of light and creation.” [Or in today’s vernacular: “Hey demon, you better check yourself, before you wreck yourself.”]
This whole situation here, without question, is meant to show us a picture of salvation through Jesus Christ. They journey through a land of foolishness who releasing all the powers of Hell in their greed leading to a battle between a demon and the One who has the power of the Light of Creation.
It’s basically the beginning of the Gospel of John in storybook form!:
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5)
Jesus says in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.”
But that’s not where the Gospel of John’s opening chapter ends. By the third chapter, we read about the cost of what it takes to bring the people trapped in the black abyss of MORIA, the land of total foolishness, back into the light. It requires the only One who has lived in perfect light to go into the darkness, do battle with sin and evil, and cast the darkness itself into the abyss? How? By living a perfect life, and then dying in place of foolish sinners.
In John 3:13-21, Jesus says,
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
I have no doubt that’s what Tolkien was illustrating in this scene in Lord of the Rings. Gandalf had to die at the hands of the Balrog so his followers could escape the deep dark of MORIA.
But if you’ve seen the movie, or read the books, you’ll remember the last words that Gandalf said before he slid into the abyss: “Fly, you fools!”.
Interesting last words, aren’t they? His final message was to call them fools and command them to “fly”, or “run”, or “get out as fast as you can”. Why? Let me read it to you,
“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone. The fires went out, and blank darkness fell. The company stood rooted with horror staring into the pit. Even as Aragon and Boromir came flying back, the rest of the bridge cracked and fell. With a cry Aragorn roused them. ‘Come, I will lead you now!’ he called. ‘We must obey his last command. Follow me!’”
Here we see the disciples, lost, afraid, alone, in the dark, and frozen with fear. It was the final command of their saviour that got them to move. “Get out of this dark place as fast as you can. Get away from the land of Darkness. Fly from the land of Foolishness. Do not stay a moment longer, or your enemies will find you again. Remember, you fools, that you must flee this danger, not stand in the darkness. I have saved you at the cost of my life! Why do you stand there in the darkness waiting for the enemy to surround you? Fly, you fools!”
Aragorn takes up the charge and leads the group out of MORIA. Perhaps he is the figure of the Apostle Paul here, taking up the commands of Jesus and reminding the disciples to obey their Lord as he does. In fact, later in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul says just that, telling them, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
Jews and Greeks
With that picture in mind, let’s go back to 1 Corinthians 1 though and talk about that deeper form of foolishness I hinted at before, but let’s remember the context. It says in verse 22,
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”
The Jews and the Greeks both hated the idea of looking like fools. Not the silly, goofy kinds of fools we see on YouTube, but the kind of fool that no one wants to be. For the Jews, a fool was a sinner who had no access to the power of God, where a wise man was righteous and lived with God’s blessing. All through the Bible, we see demonstrations that the only way a Jew will change their minds is if God Himself comes down with fire, lightning, plagues and miracles. And even then, it doesn’t last long until they need to see more miracles.
That’s something they continued to request of Jesus. When He came back to the town of Cana where he had changed water into wine, he hadn’t stepped two feet into town before they came running up to him asking for another miracle. His reply was a frustrated,
“Will you never believe in me unless you see miraculous signs and wonders?” (John 4:48 – NLT)
After feeding the 5000 and walking on water to get to the other side of the sea of Galilee, the crowds caught up to Jesus and “said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’” In other words, “What does God expect of us? What great deeds must we do? What laws must we obey? What impresses God the most?”
“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
All God requires is faith in Jesus. The works-oriented Jews couldn’t accept this. God must want more than just believing in Jesus as Messiah? He must want more than faith? What about circumcision, keeping the festivals, washing hands, going to the temple, making sacrifices…? There’s no way that God merely wants us to believe in You as Messiah, Jesus?
“So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?'”
We’ll believe you only if you do a powerful miracle again. Feed us again like you did yesterday. Do something spectacular and then we’ll believe you.
That’s why Paul says that Jews demanded signs. They weren’t going to change their beliefs unless they saw a work of power.
For the Greeks, the worst kind of fool is the one who is taken in by a liar; the fool who listens to the wrong teacher or puts their confidence in the wrong place. Athens, the greatest city in Greece was named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom. No Greek ever wanted to be the fool who reported wrong, ridiculous, outrageous things that no one else could understand or believe.
For them, the concept of the Almighty, Invisible God coming down in the form of a dirty, human, baby, was impossible to believe. That God would choose to live and work and sweat as a man, get hungry and thirsty and tired, was ridiculous. That a Creator would become one of his Creations was insulting. And perhaps worst of all, that that the God/man would die, and then somehow be raised from the dead, was borderline insane. Believing, teaching and sharing Christian beliefs made you sound like a crazy person.
Afraid to Look Like Fools
And yet, that’s the gospel; “…a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This stumbling block became a problem in the Corinthian church and echoes the same problems that many churches, and many Christians, have today.
They become ashamed of Jesus and ashamed of the true gospel, so they change their beliefs to make themselves look less foolish for believing it. They are afraid to look like fools in front of their family, their friends, their culture, their workmates, their teachers or fellow students. They don’t want to look foolish to the scientific community, or even other religions, but instead of completely giving up on their faith, they change it to sound less foolish.
In Corinth, they were pressed on all sides to compromise. They lived in a pantheistic culture, with many gods, and yet the Bible teaches that there is only one. So they compromise a little to allow for the existence of other gods alongside their own.
The other temples had incredibly popular forms of worship that included ritual sex, prostitution, orgies, homosexuality, and other perverse things. And yet God was very clear about the rules for sex. But they thought that if they compromised their sexual integrity, perhaps it would be easier to get people to come to church.
The other religions in town had ecstatic performances with crazy exhibitions. The attendees would start drinking and the worship leaders would put on a huge display with instruments and dances, and stripping, and screaming, and blood, and more. Madness was an important aspect of their worship – and it was quite a show to behold.
And yet Paul tells the Corinthians that Christian worship services are to be orderly, respectful, one person speaking at a time, and then only those who have the spirit of God upon them and know what they’re talking about. He tells them that if they have no idea what’s going on in church, to save their questions for when they get home so that others aren’t distracted. That’s a HUGE difference! What a weird service that would be to all the newcomers! Every other temple and religion around them gets a good show, some crazy performance, and some sensuous perversion – and we have to sit here politely, sing some songs and listen to people take turns talking? No way, God! No way, Paul! That’s not how our culture worships!
So, to look less like weirdos, and more like the world around them, they changed things. But not just the way thy performed their worship services, they altered the very core of their faith. They didn’t want to sound silly to the intellectuals, so they compromised on the resurrection of Jesus. They didn’t want to seem closed minded, so they compromised on how salvation works and allowed other teachings like following the law, or having special knowledge, or a crazy experience, to be required for salvation alongside belief in Jesus.
In that short, two-year period when Paul had gone from Corinth to Ephesus, the fear of looking like fools to the people around them had gripped them so tightly that they had compromised almost everything so they could fit in. They changed the gospel. They ignored or altered God’s expectations. They refused to confront sin. And, to look cool and popular with the people of Corinth, they even tried to build bridges towards the other religions in the hopes of showing how similar they were. Does that sound familiar – because it’s still happening today.
And so, with a cry Paul seeks to rouse them saying, “Come, I will lead you now!… We must obey Jesus’ command. Follow me!” And what was Jesus’ command? A lot like Gandalf’s: “Fly, you fools! Run from sin! Don’t compromise the gospel. Don’t stay in the darkness MORIA. Don’t dwell in the land of fools. Don’t try to build bridges to the demons. Don’t befriend the orcs. Only a fool would do that. Fly! Get out of the darkness. Don’t dwell here anymore! You have been saved and are now children of light – live like it! (1 Thess 5:5)”
Christ The Power and Wisdom of God
But, in a great twist of irony, Paul never tells them that seeking great knowledge, deep wisdom and spiritual power is bad. No, we are meant to seek these things! But that all that they are seeking is truly found in Jesus! He tells these people who are thirsting for power and wisdom, not to stop searching, but to search where it may be found – in God.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?”
He’s asking the question: “Where do you intend to turn for more wisdom or learning or than God can provide you? Where will you find the one who can debate with God and win?” “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
He asks them to consider what they know about God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
It’s almost a challenge to find a better plan than the one set out by God through our salvation through Jesus Christ. I defy you to find a better, more comprehensive, more gracious, more powerful, more wise, more helpful, more all-encompassing, more hopeful message than the message of Jesus. Everything that the world has come up with – all of its religions and medicines and solutions– fall utterly short of what God has provided in Jesus Christ. You may feel like fools in your culture, the ways of the enemy, the ways of the world, are what is truly foolish.
You WILL Look Like a Fool
And so the simple conclusion today is this: Remember that if you are a follower of Christ, then you are going to look like a fool to the world and they will mock you. The Christian salvation message doesn’t make sense to those whose hearts are hard towards God.
One last Lord of the Rings reference (I promise). When the company gets out of MORIA they end up with the elves – the immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings – and the king of the elves, the wisest of all, says, “If it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.” His Queen quickly corrects him saying, “Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life. Those that followed him knew not his mind and cannot report his full propose…”
I read you that to say, that when you are following Jesus, even the wisest person in the world may consider you a fool – because sometimes God chooses to make us look like fools as He works out His full purpose in our lives, and in this world. You cannot follow Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and be fully accepted by the world. You cannot follow Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and not end up being considered a fool by some. By following Him you have made yourself incompatible with the way the world acts and thinks.
You will speak differently, have different priorities, and relate to people differently. You will use your time differently and see your work differently than those around you. They will be driven by different desires than you. You will sacrifice things that they would never consider giving up, and you will do things that they would never consider doing. And they will call you stupid for it. They’ll call you a doormat, or a bible-thumper, or a goody-two-shoes, an idiot, or a weakling. They’ll call you a fool because in their eyes you are one.
You have to remember that the closer you walk with Jesus, the more foolish you will look to the world around you. You have to be ok with that. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words, God people get mocked and mistreated. They always have and they always will.
In John 15:18-19 Jesus said this,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
Don’t be surprised when following Jesus, sharing the Gospel, believing the Bible and obeying God makes you look foolish and causes the world to mock, persecute and hate you. That’s how it’s always been. Jesus was the most perfect, most loving, and most just man ever – and they mocked Him and killed Him. It’ll be the same with you. So remember you’re going to look like a fool when you follow Jesus, but God’s foolishness is wiser than any man’s wisdom. Don’t be ashamed of it. Jesus is the power and wisdom of God and the one way by which we are saved.
Spectacle over Substance
Our North American society, including the Christian church, tends to overvalue style, spectacle, and cleverness in not only our educators but also our teachers, preachers and authority figures. What a person may lack in knowledge, character, understanding, wisdom and kindness, they can more than make up for in how they look, their showmanship, and their ability to turn a phrase. A person’s abilities, intelligence, and giftedness don’t seem to matter nearly as much as their appearance, willingness to adapt, and overall marketability.
It’s a strange thing that hundreds of experts who have devoted their life to studying a certain subject, can agree on something and no one will listen – but if a famous actor or athlete talks about it, then suddenly their opinion is not only registered as valid, but important and worthy of being repeated in news outlets all over the world.
It happens all the time when news programs bring actors, comedians, and athletes on to talk about everything from nutrition to politics to religion. When Justin Bieber does an interview about his music, for some reason they also ask him his opinion on geopolitics and social issues. Gwyneth Paltrow once introduced the President of the United States by commenting on how handsome he is and wishing that he could have the unilateral power to do whatever he wants. And social media makes it even worse. Lindsay Lohan tweets her solution to the Middle East crisis, and it’s retweeted by hundreds. Chris Brown told 16 million people that he thinks the “Ebola epidemic is a form of population control” and it’s retweeted by tens of thousands.
And the line gets even fuzzier as many so-called scientists and experts get corrupted as they try to become celebrities. Maybe they feel like they aren’t listened to, so they alter their message or pursue popular and obscure topics that will get them the attention they so crave. Think of Dr. Oz who used to be a real doctor, but is now a television personality that hocks products and spouts wrong information. Or the countless experts and teachers who were corrupted into lying by the promise of big-business money and political power. Or the psychologists and counsellors who have allowed truly mentally ill people to think they are healthy because they have bent to political pressure, want to be on the “right side of history”, or want their name to be first on a unique paper.
Yes, I understand that one of the joys of the internet is that everyone can register their opinion on anything at any time. We can post pictures of our breakfast with as much ease and impunity as we can tell everyone our solution to climate change and what we think about Justin Trudeau’s political strategies. I’m not saying that’s terrible. It’s great to have a forum where the whole world can talk to one another.
The problem is that our celebrity-obsessed culture is making these the voices that shape our worldview. These people, who are dripping with charisma, style, and pseudo-intelligence, have a greater voice than any of the wise, knowledgeable, humble and thoughtful people who actually should be listened to.
More and more people, especially people younger than me, live in a world of tweets, sound bites, cartoons and memes that seem to have the magical ability to boil an incredibly complex issue like climate change, zoology, parenting, religion, terrorism, relationships, sex, politics or a thousand other things into one picture and an easy to digest sentence. And if it seems right to us, we’ll grab onto it, believe it and repeat it to others. These voices are steering what a generation of people believe about incredibly important and complex issues, and it is dangerous spiritually, emotionally, relationally, politically, and every other way, to gain your information from sources that value celebrity and style over truth and substance.
Not that this is anything new. Choosing the wrong voice to listen to because they sound convincing and telling us what we want to hear has been an issue for humans since the Garden of Eden! And if you remember back to when we talked about the context of 1st Corinthians, you’ll remember that this was an issue for Paul’s ministry too.
He was a man that was not only educated as a great Jewish scholar but was also trained in the Greek educational system too. He was a talented guy who was not only a skilled tradesman, but had memorized the whole Bible, had studied it for years, and was also well versed Greek philosophy. When he came into Greece as a missionary, he had an amazing amount of information, and the skill to share it, with those who were looking for new knowledge and divine wisdom.
And yet, over and over he was mocked and dismissed as a fool. Why? Because instead of playing to what the crowds wanted to hear with long, clever speeches full of fancy quotes and floury language, Paul stuck to the simple truths of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He had the ability, but he staunchly refused to stylize his teaching. He refused to dilute the message by becoming a spectacle. He refused to cloud the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ with a bunch of clever showmanship.
Why? Wouldn’t that have helped? Wouldn’t he have gotten more listeners if he would have been a bit more marketable? Maybe, but he didn’t want anyone walking away from his preaching and remember him. He only wanted his listeners to remember what he had said about Jesus. He knew that the Greek people struggled with the same thing we do today: celebrity worship. When they went home they would be talking just as much about how interesting, exciting, and passionate their favourite speaker was as they would about the substance of what they learned – maybe more. “I have no idea what he said, but wow, was he an entertaining speaker!” was not a review that Paul wanted to get.
Too many Bible teachers get this confused, and too many Christians do this with their favourite preachers today. They find a person that looks good, sounds interesting, has lots of charisma, and says things that they agree with, and then decide to follow them. The truthfulness of the message comes second to the personality behind the microphone.
Listen to what Paul says to the Corinthian church. Open to 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
You see, they had forgotten the message they had heard and believed, and had slipped into celebrity worship. It wasn’t Paul’s or Apollos’ or Cephas’ (which is Peter’s) fault that this happened. It was the natural state of the Corinthians to elevate the teacher over the message. “Paul was the one who planted our church and spent time with us, so he’s my favourite we should all follow him.”, some would say. “Well, Peter is the leader of all the Apostles, plus he’s the one who gave the first sermon in Jerusalem at Pentecost, so we should listen to him.”, others would argue. “Well, Apollos is one of the greatest preachers of all time! His eloquence and speaking ability is unmatched by anyone! Everyone loves him and the crowds come running whenever he’s in town. We should all follow him!”, others would say.
Meanwhile, Paul, Peter, and Apollos are each getting more and more frustrated with this church because none of them want this kind of attention! They are trying to put the spotlight on Jesus, and the crowd keeps trying to put the spotlight on them.
Sounds like what happens in the church today, doesn’t it? I’m a John MacArthur guy! I like Rick Warren! I’m all about John Piper! TD Jakes! Franklin Graham! John Hagee! Francis Chan! Joyce Meyer!
But in the church it gets even crazier because we don’t just idolize people that are alive, but those who have died a long time ago – and then we stick their names on our churches! Of course, you have churches dedicated to St. Peter, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Paul… but also Calvinist churches named after John Calvin, Lutheran churches named after Martin Luther, Arminian churches named after Jacobus Arminius… and the list goes on. We seem to love finding a favourite Christian, glomming onto them, and then arguing with other believers on their behalf. Paul is better than Peter! Luther is better than Calvin!
All this celebrity worship divided the Corinthian church into sects that not only argued with one another but ended up working against each other. It got to the point that they wouldn’t even eat together anymore. We’re not even talking about differences in theology, we’re merely talking about preferring one teacher over another! And it divides churches today too.
Look at verse 14 and see what Paul says next. He says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 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.”
Paul is actually thankful that he spent so much time preaching and teaching that there were not many people in the church who can claim to be in his “official fan club” because they were baptized by him. That kind of thinking is a sign of a sick soul and a sick church, and he wanted no part of it. Why? Because when the focus is on the teacher, or the religious act, the focus is no longer on the worship of God, salvation through Jesus Christ, and obedience to His Word. Instead, people start talking about the person who is leading the worship, preaching the sermon, and teaching the Bible. And that, in short, is idol worship.
Now, there are lots of places we could go from here. I could go on a rant against the health and wealth preachers who put on a great show, attract thousands of followers, but are actually preaching a false gospel. I could talk about how some Christian pastors have been corrupted by their pursuit of fame and deny the fundamental tenets of the faith so they gain a bigger audience. I could get into how many churches have split because of their dedication to secondary and tertiary issues, forgetting about their unity in Christ. I could explain a bunch of ways that famous theologians have differed with one another and how the church dealt with those issues. I could even take a tour of how the Roman Catholic Church has corrupted the gospel and fallen into the trap of elevating human teaching to the level of scripture.
And I would enjoy talking about all of those topics. But, here’s where I think God wants me to go today, because I think all of us need to hear it – me included:
Emptying the Cross of its Power
There’s an important phrase that Paul uses at the end of this section that explains the problem with creating a cult of personality, worshipping celebrities, or simply getting our eyes off of God and onto the one who is delivering the message – and it’s found in verse 17.
Paul says, “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.”
Paul is clearly not against baptism. He knows how important baptism is, that it was commanded by the Lord Jesus, and actually takes time in many of his letters, including First Corinthians, to explain how it connects us to the gospel of Jesus and to one another.
And Paul is not against “eloquent wisdom”. Proverbs 3:13 says, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.” Whole books of the Bible are dedicated to wisdom! Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are often called “wisdom literature”. So there’s no way Paul is against speaking and pursuing wisdom.
So what is Paul saying here? He is saying that this church had gotten their priorities out of whack and were placing too much emphasis on the means and modes of their religion, and all the good things that come as a result, and had forgotten the core of what their faith was supposed to be all about.
They argued about baptism but forgot about what it meant, the story it told, the obedience it showed, and the community it made them a part of. They would argue about which preacher was best, but not discuss the truth they were sharing. They would perform and celebrate the rituals and rights of the church, like taking the Lord’s Supper, but had forgotten their meaning. They would come to church seeking more knowledge, but weren’t using that knowledge to better their relationship with Jesus. They would have grand discussions about theological things, but their hearts were growing cold towards God. And in all of their religious passion for wisdom, they had forgotten the message of the gospel, the power of the cross, and their desperate need for the presence of God in their lives.
In their very short Christian lives, they had gone from overwhelmed by how God had called them to be followers of Jesus who were freed from the consequence of their sins to religious people who came to church, but didn’t think much about Jesus. They were happy as long as the speaker was interesting enough, the spectacle was exciting enough, and they could go about their week knowing they were better than all those around them because they were Christians.
Everything about Paul’s ministry and preaching spoke against that. Wisdom and learning were incredibly important to both the Jews and the Greeks, so it was easy for them to slide into thinking that it was most interesting preachers that were best to listen to. And yet Paul didn’t play that game.
Remember how exhausted he was when he first came to town? He didn’t have anything left other than the core of the gospel and whatever power the Holy Spirit would give him. He was utterly dependent on God for whatever he was going to say, and whatever God wanted to do. Even if he had wanted to use them, he had no strength left to come up with clever illustrations and fancy, philosophical arguments.
Turn the page and look at the beginning of chapter 2 where he says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
You see, that’s the difference. When the message of the gospel “rests on the wisdom of men”, or is framed so it sounds like “plausible words”, or is filled with “lofty speech”, it is drained of its power.
For me, as a preacher, the more I want you to see me, the less you will see Jesus. The more interested I am in you hearing my words, the less you will hear His Word. I could stand up here, talk about the Bible for an hour, and it could be utterly useless to you spiritually.
For you, as you share your faith with your family and friends, the more they hear of your wisdom, your plausibility, and your arguments, as you fancy up your presentation, trim off the parts you think they’ll be offended by, embellish the parts that sound more interesting, and cram in worldly wisdom because they don’t want to hear what the Bible has to say – the less they will hear from Jesus. Your human, “eloquent wisdom”, will show that you believe that the message of the cross of Christ is empty of its power.
Does that mean we don’t have to study the Bible, or theology, or history, or learn how to make reasoned arguments for why we have the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15)? Of course not! We learn those things so we can know more about God. It increases our faith and builds our relationship with Jesus. It helps us gain confidence during times of doubt that there are good answers to our hardest questions and helps us know what we’re talking about when people ask us those hard questions.
What this means is that when we preach, or teach Sunday school, or lead the service, or organize a small group, or share our faith with a friend, we need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, our knowledge or wisdom cannot change anyone’s heart or mind!
When a preacher, teacher, missionary, or evangelist (and all Christians are at least one of those in some capacity) either pursues fame and celebrity or tries to use their charm, intelligence or winsomeness to convey the gospel, they not only risk the temptation to change the message, but also risk losing the power of God that is meant to do the work in changing the listener’s heart.
You may, in fact, do more harm than good as you seek to try to convert someone to your own personal understanding of God than if you are seeking to introduce them to God Himself. You could do more harm by trying to use imperfect human explanations of mysterious things, and causing them to be more confused than they were when you first started speaking. You could also do more harm than good because if they did believe you, and change their mind, they may be converted to your own personal religion, a version of the faith that you’ve come up with yourself, or to whatever version they think they heard. You will have gained a follower of yourself, but you have not made them a follower of God (Matthew 23:15).
When we are sharing our faith, we aren’t trying to argue or convince anyone into a new or better relationship with God. All we are meant to do is to present what God has said in the Bible, the simple meaning of the Gospel, and what it has meant to us. We allow the Holy Spirit to do the convincing, the Word of God to be the tool we use, and the testimony that God has been writing in our lives to be our evidence. There is no need for lofty speech or human wisdom. We must come “weak”, and in the power of the Spirit.
So here’s a couple of applications for us today, based on what we’ve been talking about:
First, and most importantly, before you teach or share anything with anyone about God, the Bible, the Gospel, or your testimony, you must pray for God to be the one who speaks through you. Pray that whatever words you say will be truthful, helpful and honouring to God. Ask God to remove your pride and your fear. You don’t want to walk in there full of pride, thinking that you are going to argue this person into becoming a Christian – and you don’t want to walk in their full of fear as though you are all alone in trying to save this person’s soul. This is God’s work, and so you need to be absolutely dependent on Him to go before you and be with you as you share God’s story.
Second, when listening to a preacher or teacher, or reading a Christian book, or blog, or podcast, or some form of social media, ask yourself if you are interested in finding the truth, or are you more interested in witnessing the spectacle? Do you follow them because you know they love God and are presenting His Word unchanged, or because they are media savvy, have interesting illustrations, speak passionately, and agree with what you think. Be careful who you listen to, what voices you allow to inform you, and be aware of your motives when you choose those voices. Scripture tells us to test the spirits, test the prophets, and make sure that they agree with reality and the truth of scripture. I think that includes us testing ourselves for why we are listening to those people in the first place.
Third, when you are given the opportunity to teach or share the gospel with someone, don’t fall for the temptation to try to think that the message needs to be changed so it will be more interesting, popular, or well received. The words of scripture and the message of the cross have inherent power on their own.
I’m not saying you don’t use illustrations to help people understand – Jesus did that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t figure out ways to engage auditory or tactile or visual learners – Jesus did that too. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t speak with passion or use measured words – Jesus did that too.
What I am saying is that as you present the gospel to people, or teach the Bible, there are going to be parts that you are going to want to downplay because they are controversial, or difficult to explain, or just plain offensive – like that people are sinners from birth, or that God has standards for how people live their lives, or that Jesus defies labels (he’s not a liberal, or conservative, or democrat, or communist, or feminist, or chauvinist, or modernist, or socialist…), or that God presents Himself as male, or the violence Jesus endured, or that there really is a Hell for all who do not believe in Jesus as their only Saviour, or that someone has to be willing to publically declare their faith. There are lots of things we are going to be tempted to downplay or skip over when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we shouldn’t.
Every time we do, that’s us trying to use human wisdom instead of God’s to try to get people to come to Him. It’s impossible. Human wisdom cannot lead us to God. An edited gospel, or an edited Bible, cannot save anyone. Trying to be clever, safe, and inoffensive, but still present the whole gospel, is impossible. It’s designed to offend. It’s designed to require knowledge we can’t give. It’s designed to require the Holy Spirit to change the heart – and not us.
Don’t fall into the trap of changing the message or skipping parts in your personal study, when you talk to your kids, when you teach in church, or when you share your faith. Give the whole story in a simple way, and trust that the “wisdom or Christ” and the “power of the cross” will lead the person to have their faith “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18-2:5)
The 24th episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
The Prosperity Gospel & Christian Suffering
We take some time this week to explain the danger and insidiousness of the Prosperity Gospel and the “Lite” version that’s creeping into our North American churches. How do we combat it? What is the place of suffering in the Christian life?
As Always, We Want Your Feedback
Please give it a listen and then give let us know what you think in comments section below, by e-mailing me, commenting on our Facebook page, or on Twitter! It would be great if you’d rate us on iTunes too! We’d also really appreciate if you’d pass them around to your friends. Sharing is caring!
The Christmas story has been told so many times that, to some, it can lose its potency. We all think we know it so well… Mary, Joseph, Manger, Wise Men, Shepherds, Herod, etc., etc. I want to ask you to try to listen again for the first time and thentake a look at the first people to hear the good news of the birth of Jesus.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. ( Luke 2:8-20)
We talked about this a bit last week, but it’s such a striking story that it’s worth digging into because it’s pretty amazing to consider that the first people to hear about the birth of the most important person in history were a small group of shepherds sitting in their field, in the middle of the night.
Think of what we do when a child is born! We put it in the newspaper, the church bulletin, call our family and friends, post pictures on Facebook, and tell as many people as we can, as quickly as we can.
We would have sent the angels to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, to wake the High Priest, to sing “Glory to God on High!” in every part of the world so everyone could see. We wouldn’t have even waited until people were awake to let the trumpets ring! We would have arranged the clouds and stars to say “The Messiah has been born!”
But God goes a different direction.
Outcasts & Rebels
Something you need to know about shepherds, which I alluded to last week, is that they were actually outcasts in their society. We romanticize them because David was a shepherd, and we love the picture of God as our shepherd from Psalm 23, we have shepherds in our nativity sets (and they seem nice), Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and we have little pictures of sheep and shepherds all over the place on our Christian mugs and posters. But during the time of Christ, shepherds were actually social rejects that nobody liked or trusted.
It would be like having pictures of the guys who collapsed Enron or Nortel, or the shady construction companies that overcharge people and then do shoddy work, or used car salesmen or pawn-shop owners, on our coffee mugs and nursery walls.
Their work made them continuously ceremonially unclean, and therefore they couldn’t associate with good, religious Jews. Going to the temple was almost prohibitive for them so they just didn’t. Their reputation was tarnished and they stayed on the outside of society, and were generally considered to be untrustworthy and unlikeable. Sure, they needed them – to buy their sheep for sacrifices in the temple – but they didn’t like them.
Think of them the way that we think of gas companies or phone companies. We need their product, but we don’t really want to be associated with them, right?
But that’s who God chose first. And I think the reason is because God wanted to demonstrate that He didn’t send His Son for the special, wealthy, loveable, or elite of human society, but for everyone, even (and especially) broken, rejected sinners.
The angels announce in verse 10, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Those words, “all the people”, are the Greek words PAS LAOS. LAOS is where we get our word “laity”, as in “lay people” or “lay worker” or “commoner”.
The good news of Jesus was given first to common people. This is a theme throughout the life of Christ. He is continuously found speaking to, doing miracles for, teaching, eating with, and associating with regular people. That was one reason the Pharisees and religious elite found Him so perplexing and annoying. They had built a big wall between themselves and all the “unwashed masses” that weren’t like them. They were the “holier-than-thou’s” and everyone else was beneath them.
And yet when God sends His Son, the first people He tells are the common, hard-working guys that are just out there doing their job, never expecting any kind of special treatment. They were rejected by “good society” but God gives them a special place in history.
Many of us wouldn’t be getting the invite to visit Jesus in the stable. It would be the poor, immigrant who is working at a low-paying but can’t find anything better because of discrimination and intolerance. The angels would be appearing to the group of homeless people and prostitutes huddled under an overpass to keep warm. He would come to the senior citizen’s home or the women’s shelter, to those who have had to leave their home, are in debt up to their ears, have little hope and feel forgotten by the ones who they thought cared about them.
That’s an amazing think the shepherd’s story teaches us. God introduces Himself regular, normal, struggling, sinful, hurting folk, in a spectacular way. He doesn’t give the good stuff to a a certain age, economic, or ethnic group. The message to the shepherds, and to us, is that a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is not just for certain people – but for everyone.
An Understandable God
This shows up all over scripture. God speaks to people in ways they can understand. Sometimes movies and books portray God as confusing – as though He speaks in riddles. But that’s not the case! God is extremely clear about what He says, all the way though scripture – it is we who complicate His message by our disobedience, ignorance and willful attempts to twist His words.
The New Testament is written in the common language of the day, using words everyone could understand. Jesus taught mostly using simple stories, not complicated theological jargon. And we know He loves using regular, normal, everyday people to do amazing things for His glory and to grow His kingdom. That way He gets the glory, and people get to be involved with something that is on an eternal scale.
Look at what the shepherds got to do! They ran away from their sheep (something a shepherd would not normally do) and were the first people to see Jesus, and then ran all over town spreading the good news!
Instead of doing what we would do, using the religious elite like pastors, priests, teachers and politicians – or even angels from Heaven – God’s plan was to use normal people to tell Bethlehem about the Messiah.
And He’s still doing that today. God doesn’t work primarily through people like Billy Graham or other famous Christmas. People like me are not His primary workers. Billy Graham brought people to God. I’m someone who was given to the church to help equip people for what God wants them to do. It’s you and other normal people that God works though most.
“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is WRONG
The words “God helps those who help themselves” is NOWHERE in scripture! Neither is “God helps those who deserve it”. It’s just not there! God’s grace is amazing because it is for those who need it, who don’t deserve it, and can’t help themselves.
- “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
- Jesus said, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
- When His disciples were asked, “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Jesus answered, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:16-17)
- Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 )
This is all over the Bible and the very foundation of how we understand the Gospel! We need to understand that when Jesus came to earth at Christmas He wasn’t coming to simply give us an example to live by – no, He was coming to save us because we couldn’t save ourselves. He was coming out of love for people who didn’t love Him. He was coming to resurrect dead souls and make His enemies into friends.
- “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)
That word “propitiation” means Jesus was the One who satisfied the God’s wrath against sin on our behalf. His judgement of sin is right and good and punishment must be given to sinners. But Jesus came to earth as a baby so He could grow up and take upon Himself the full measure of God’s hatred for sin — the punishment we deserve.
- “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6-10)
More than this, Ephesians describes the state of our souls before the coming of Jesus as being dead. Dead people can’t help themselves. No doctor would walk into a morgue and look at a dead body and say, “I’ll help him get better when he can help himself.” That’s ridiculous. But that’s what people are saying when they say “God helps those who help themselves.” Before Jesus changes our hearts, we are corpses… enemy corpses… unable to do anything to save ourselves.
- “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Do you see that? That’s what Jesus came to at Christmas. He didn’t come to a world that deserved Him. No, he came to surround himself with people who were dead in their sins, following Satan, disobedient, more interested in the desires of our flesh than what God wants, and were, along with all mankind, under God’s WRATH. Thank God for verse 4.
- “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:4-10)
Another reason that “God helps those who help themselves” is wrong is because it assumes that we can actually do something good before we are saved. From God’s perspective, that’s impossible. The Shepherds didn’t do anything to deserve to hear the gospel from the angels, and we can’t do anything to deserve salvation!
When the prophet Isaiah described the state of affairs of a group of people who have turned away from God he said this:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6-7)
Theologians call this the doctrine of “Total Depravity”. It means that unless we are washed by the blood of Jesus, we are stained completely black from the inside out, not one ounce of good left within us.
The term “polluted garment” is a very strong one. Other translations use the word “filthy rags” or “permanently stained rags”, but it doesn’t quite capture the picture – and it’s a gross one. The word to describe all of our “good deeds” before salvation is the word “polluted” or “filthy” and it’s the Hebrew word IDDAH, which literally means “the bodily fluids from a woman’s menstrual cycle.”[i]
We sometimes ask the question, “But what about all the good people who don’t believe in Jesus? What about all the really nice people who are so moral and good? Won’t they be able to go to heaven and say, ‘I did good things for you, God! I was a good person!’”
The Bible says that since they are still in their sin, in rebellion against Him, are enemies of God, are playing for team Satan, and that even their so-called “righteous acts” are as repugnant as a soiled feminine hygiene product.
Now, to give this context, remember what was happening when Isaiah wrote this. The Israelites had turned their backs on God, were worshipping idols and demons, and making sacrifices to God on pagan alters. They thought they were doing something good, but it was all stained by sin. There is no way to impress God as a pagan unbeliever.
There was an old sketch on SNL where Stewart Smalley would stare into a mirror and do a daily-self-affirmation where he would say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” It was a joke – but it really is the basic mantra of all self-help gurus. It’s the belief that most people have for the afterlife too. And it’s total garbage.
Martin Luther once said,
“The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is that somehow he can make himself good enough to deserve to live forever with an all-holy God.”[i]
When Jesus talked about the judgement of all people in the end He said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
This is why He said that. Good works do not impress God, and they cannot save. They are like “filthy rags”.
What does this mean for us today?
First, if you’re feeling the conviction of your sin, then realize that God isn’t expecting you to clean yourself up before you come to Him. You don’t need to stop sinning in order to be saved. No, the difference comes in that you must hate your sin. As long as you love your sin, make excuses for it, make allowances for it, and tell God that you love it more than Him, then you cannot be saved. Thinking you need to clean yourself up, or that you need to do so many good deeds to impress God first, is a satanic lie that actually keeps you from God.
Salvation comes when you realize that you are a sinner, that you cannot save yourself, that you start to hate your sin and want to be free from it, and come to the only one who can forgive you. That’s what “Repentance” means. It means turning around and walking the other way. You know you are wrong, admit you’re wrong, come to Jesus and say,
“I’m wrong. I’ve been living wrong. I’m a sinner and I can’t get out from underneath. There is no amount of good deeds I can do to make up for my sin, and no matter how much I try to do, I always feel guilt and shame. Jesus, be my Lord, be my Saviour. I accept your salvation. I accept that you died on the cross for me, and I will spend the rest of my live living in a way to say ‘thank you’.”
1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s not about feeling forgiven – it’s about accepting that you are forgiven because Jesus did everything that was necessary. The feelings will come later as you live out your faith. Know you are saved and cleansed because God always keeps His promises.
Remember the words of the Angels to the Shepherds,
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Second, if you are a Christian today who has fallen backward, has allowed sins to pile up, or is drifting away from a life of consistent prayer and bible reading, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re too far gone. Don’t believe must come to God perfectly or you shouldn’t do it. Don’t think it’s too late to start praying. Don’t believe that you’ve got too much back-logged sin to confess, or too much to say to start praying again, too much to read to start reading again, too many back-payments in tithing to start giving again.
Jesus wants you as you are today. Ask forgiveness and just start today. I don’t see anywhere in scripture where God wants back-payments. You don’t need to “catch up” your prayer life or bible reading. Just start today. Don’t be paralyzed by guilt or shame. Stop making excuses, confess your sin of neglect, ask God for help, ask a Christian friend to hold you accountable, and start being obedient today.
And third, if you’ve come to church, or go to a small group, work in one of the church ministries, or simply feel a draw to talk to your family or friends about Jesus and feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and mistakes you’re making, don’t get down on yourself thinking that God is disappointed in you.
It’s ok you don’t know all the right words, know exactly what to do, or what the “rules” are. It’s ok if you stumble through a song, feel shy praying aloud, or drop the ball in some area of work. God listens to your heart and your motivations. God doesn’t just hears prayers if they are formatted properly, using special words. He doesn’t just accept worship from professional singers. He doesn’t just use people who are talented and confident. No, God uses regular people most of all – in fact, He prefers it! Normal, nervous, dependant, obedient people are His favourite way of affecting the world.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 says,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
So let’s do that this Christmas. Let’s “boast in the Lord” and be thankful that the first people He told were normal, messed up, sinful shepherds – people like us. Let’s be thankful that we cannot save ourselves, because then we’d always be stressed out that we’d done enough, or be prideful thinking about how great we are. Let’s be thankful for the one who came and saved us, who keeps saving, and who will always save those who come to Him and ask.