The Foolish Gospel of God
Paul demonstrates in 1 Corinthians 1:18-21 that the gospel of God, while seeming foolish to the world, is the central display of the power of God. In verse 18 Paul reminds believers that words of the cross are foolishness to those who are perishing, that is, to those who have rejected the Biblical gospel (2 Corinthians 4:3). He then explains that to those who are being saved, the gospel is the very power of God (Romans 1:16). The point Paul is trying to make is that the gospel is not just a better philosophy, or merely a better idea, but the very power of God. God declared long ago that things would be this way (1 Corinthians 1:19).
He then goes on to list rhetorical questions of the leaders of “worldly wisdom”. He asks, “Where is the one who is wise?” The wisdom Paul is questioning is not so much the wisdom spoken of in Proverbs, which is an application of godly knowledge in the fear of the Lord. This is more of a public philosophy, or a clear explanation of how this “wise man” makes sense of his life and his world, or his worldview. Basically, Paul is asking, “Where is the guy with the independent coffee house mug and the backpack and the book of poetry who ‘gets it’? Where is the guy who looks at everyone else with a pretentious smirk and says, “religion is such a waste…I’m so glad I’ve outgrown all of that…” Paul then adds two other categories of wisdom in the scribe (lawyer) and the philosopher (debater). He is looking for the highly educated and the aggressive defender of worldly wisdom. He (rhetorically) wants the best they can offer.
He smashes their offerings with the hammer of the true gospel when he says, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.” It’s not just as if God has made worldly wisdom appear foolish, but he has made it foolish. The idea comes across clearly in the satire of Isaiah.
“The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:13-20 ESV)
God has made idolatry foolish. It’s more than appearance. The worship of anything other than the true God is foolishness. While the world is cutting down trees and using half for firewood and half to carve into a god, the true and living God has been saving people by what totem worshippers call foolish (1:21).