Simon Bowkett's Podcast

5. Subversion for our Era of Anxiety - 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

February 05, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Show Notes Transcript

         •        Introduction

Writing in 1843, in a relatively obscure work about the philosophy of Hegel, Marx argued that religion was being used as a drug, an “illusory” source of happiness. If mankind abandoned religion, with its illusions, then they might have a real shot at happiness. 

 

He wrote:

“ Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. 

It is the opium of the people.”

There are a few conflicting translations of the quote, so that sometimes religion is the “opium of the masses,” and sometimes it’s the “opiate of the people,” but the main idea remains the same. 

So let’s get this absolutely straight here now …. Because it touches on this great aspect of the resurrection faith of the Christian as a leading source of hope for our Era of Anxiety.

Let’s get it absolutely straight that Marx was totally, utterly and absolutely WRONG about this.

The faith of the crucified and resurrected Christ is an absolutely subversive faith.

It is a creed that not only teaches but initiates what we’re calling here ‘Reversal’ as a matter of its central ideology and subject matter.

It is essential to the hope it holds out to our Era of Anxiety … but this concept of reversal is also as distant from Marx’s idea as can be!

So where does the Bible’s concept of reversal actually come from?

First we’re going to look into a key passage in the New Testament and then we’re going to unpack what that all leads to in terms of the hope this message holds out to our people.

         •        Where it comes from - 1 Corinthians 1

The main reason 1 Corinthians was written was to deal with division in the very diverse and cosmopolitan Corinthian church … because that division was nullifying the principles of the Gospel and of life in the Kingdom of God.

The Gospel is not ‘just’ there so that individual sinners can turn in repentance from sin to Christ and live by faith in Him.

It is there to do that individual salvation thing in order to end the division in the world caused by that sin and bring all things into unity again under the headship of Christ, thereby healing the hurt and the harm sin has done to the cosmos and restoring the unity and joy God created His world to be characterised by … in its union with Him.

Its hope of restored unity now arises out of restored union with Him (only possible as sin is atoned for and repented of as humans once more put their trust in the God Who cannot lie as opposed to the trusting serpent who cannot abide God’s truth and was a liar from the beginning).

But a key thing to realise is this: people normally divide on account of pride.

The root of factionalism and division is almost always self-importance … arrogance and pride.

So, given what he’s aiming to do about the disunity at Corinth in this book, Paul begins by showing how the Gospel actually begins by piercing human pride.

And he does that by drawing a series of contrasts, between

The wise and the foolish,

The strong and the weak

The influential and those of low status.

In its essence and in our preaching it to propagate it … our message and the fact that we are relying on such weak-looking means to do our ‘big thing’ shows us up as foolish, weak and lowly.

And what that does is that it undercuts the pride and arrogance that underlie the disunity that would (given half a chance) subvert everything that God’s eternal plan and purpose in Christ is designed to do.

Here’s how Paul puts it to them in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

19 For it is written:

 

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;

    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

 

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 

22 Jews demand signs and 

Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but 

we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 

24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 

25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

 

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 

30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 

31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

 

Paul needs these divided Corinthian believers to reflect on the foolishness and weakness of the things that God used to save them and to revolutionise their lives ... and that is a message that since it leans on a crucified, raised and living Messiah holds out real hope in an Era of Anxiety.

Paul starts portraying the Gospel’s ‘foolish’ methods.


            •          A ‘foolish’ method

Andrew Wilson (who is a very clever preacher) writes this about the preaching he’s devoted his life to:

“Christian preaching is fundamentally foolish, at least in the eyes of the world.”

(1 Corinthians For you p.77)

He points out that rhetoric was a fine art in the Greek world, with all sorts of powerful and artistic techniques to make communication more acceptable to the hearer.

Paul lists some in vv. 17-20 as wisdom, eloquence, intelligence, legal reasoning and philosophy.

In our culture we have the power of advertising, music, movies, websites and TV shows which push a particular vision of what is true, good, lovely or whatever … presenting the idea well to make it seem more plausible.

And then there’s church … stuck with this method that looked daft in ancient Corinth and seems even worse now …

Not with tricks and stunts with high-budget special effects.

Neither with some great impression of wisdom or eloquence.

NOT with those.

Why not Paul?

V. 17 “not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

As a recruitment strategy, in our media-saturated, virtual reality world, preaching looks like foolishness.

Yet that is how God saved the Corinthians and how He has saved every truly saved person since.

V. 21 “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

And there they all sat, posing in their church in Corinth as this letter from the Apostle was first read that Sunday morning thinking, ‘Well … yes … that’s what did it for us!”

The fact that they were sat there that morning was the living proof that people are saved simply as the Spirit breathes on the plain message of Christ crucified … they are the case study which proves that THIS is God’s way and this is also what actually ‘works’!

But it wasn’t just the method that seemed ‘foolish’ (but wasn’t).

It was the actual message that looks foolish too!


            •          A ‘foolish’ message

V. 22: “Jews demand signs and 

Greeks look for wisdom, 

23 but we preach Christ crucified: 

a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles …”

Jewish people throughout the four Gospels … even the intellectuals who were their ‘scholars’ in the Law … were pretty keen to see ‘the works of the Messiah’, as they were called, which many still show a great deal of enthusiasm for today.

John’s Gospel, in fact, famously has Jesus performing the Seven Signs:

·       Changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11 - "the first of the signs"

·       Healing the royal official's son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54

·       Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15

·       Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14

·       Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24

·       Healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7

·       The raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45

But in Matthew 12:38-40 we see those Jewish intellectuals coming to Jesus to test Him, rather than to trust Him:

“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

 

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

The sign Jesus proffered for them would be the sign of His death and resurrection.

The Jews were looking for signs … but we don’t lead out our discussion with these things in seeking to make the Gospel plausible, says Paul.

Neither do we seek to ‘empower’ the Gospel’s plausibility amongst the other half of the world … the Gentiles … with what appeals to their arrogance either.

Yes, Jews seek signs, but Greeks seek what they called ‘wisdom’ … σοφία … human intellect and rationality on display to ‘empower’ the message.

In the same way, in our era, people may try to do the same sort of thing with ‘reason’ or ‘science’.

Now, in a world like that, Paul says, our message is beyond belief preposterous.

A crucified Messiah looks like a total contradiction and failure to the Jews and total nonsense to everyone else in the world but when this crazy message is heard by the people God has called … Jews or Gentiles (which is EVERYBODY ethnically) … this crazy Gospel coming by such an unappealing method turns out to be the power and wisdom of God both to save and transform:

“but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

(1 Corinthians 1:24-25)

And Paul has just one more startling thing to say to these people who were so divided by their pride.

And then, look finally at YOURSELVES, Paul says: foolish looking method, foolish looking message, and then …


            •          A ‘foolish’ people

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Oh yes, as they sit there on Sunday, they ARE (v. 30) righteous, holy and redeemed … but it is entirely because having heard this ‘foolish’ method by that ‘foolish’ method (as the world around them sees it) they have come to be IN Christ Jesus (v. 30).

And in them, in this way, by this means God has demonstrated His wisdom in that imperfect Corinthian church in such a powerful way that all the so-say ‘wisest’ people on earth are left scratching their heads and wondering how He did it.

For that reason, take this selfish, prideful, God-challenging boasting (says Paul), bin it and rather boast in the Lord.

Now THAT is the theological foundation and the missiological foundation which flows from it that should revolutionise the Christian’s view of the world, his or her place in it and revolutionises the way we relate not just to the Lord but to the world around us … it banishes the pride that leads to the heart-damaging discord that our anxiety-ridden age is plagued by, and that the Gospel it just can’t grasp dispels.

The Gospel brings about a great reversal … that Great Reversal is the implication of cruciform and resurrection formed theology and practise.

And that’s where we’re going next … to the hope-inspiring Great Reversal this all leads to even in our current Era of Anxiety.

         •        What it leads to - the Great Reversal

We’re trying to show that the faith of the crucified and resurrected Christ is an absolutely subversive faith, but unlike so much that passes as subversive in this world it works peaceably and brings hope to people bogged down in an anxious era.

Nonetheless it is a creed that not only teaches but initiates what we’re calling here the principle we’re calling ‘Reversal’.


            •          The principle

Here’s how the principle underlying it all works.

When the Lord Jesus Christ died then rose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit, He brought the future Kingdom of God into our present.

He brought Heaven down to earth.

And a Christian is a person who has entered His Kingdom now through conviction of sin, repentance, faith in Christ alone to save them personally, and by means of the new birth which is brought about by the personal work of the Holy Spirit Who gives all converts to Christ a new ‘heart’.

And what happens as a result of this for the new Christian, as Paul writes in Colossians 1:13-14, is that …

“he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Citizenship tests aim to verify that the person asking for citizenship in a newly adopted state has not only learned a new set of ideas but has come into a new set of allegiances, aspirations, new guiding values for their life.

You come under new authority and into a new set of values … a new ethos and a new culture.

Well, the values of the Kingdom of God contrast pretty markedly … in a really liberating way … with the values of the kingdom of this world.

Marx had bought into the false understanding of the faith … or perhaps (more charitably) bought into a manifestation he’d seen of false faith … because the actual message of God’s Kingdom totally subverts the persons-harming, pride-feeding dominant beliefs of our own culture.

He’d clearly picked up on the idea that the Bible is a set of stories majoring on making the peasants feel divinely ordained to subordination and guilty, aimed at producing individual salvation and impressing on a totalitarian country’s subjects the need to concentrate on saving themselves (not their society, their disadvantaged weak or frail) by working hard to live morally for themselves.

In fact, as Tim Keller puts it (‘Hope in Times of Fear’ p. 59) the Bible is a single coherent story about how Christ saves the world (and reunites it under Christ) “by means of the Great Reversal.”

Here’s how that works through …

There’s not actually one ‘coming’ of the Messiah in Scripture but two.

·       First, He comes as the Servant King (lives, dies, is raised, sends the Spirit) and 

·       then He will come back as the Conquering King to subdue all those who wouldn’t submit to His grace and love.

Can you see how He comes first in a way that reverses the values of the world we inhabit?

He comes in weakness, to serve and to die to set His people free.

Keller identifies three massive implications of this:


            •           We enter the Kingdom ‘upside down’

We enter this upside-down Kingdom by His own same upside-down pattern of approach.

In other religious systems you achieve salvation by mustering up your own strength to live a life of virtue.

But WE receive salvation by humbling ourselves to repentance and self-mistrust in order to trust Christ alone and His merit for our salvation.

It’s a huge reversal of what comes naturally to human beings.

Secondly … this principle of reversal perseveres with us through life in His Kingdom.


            •           We live in this Kingdom ‘upside down’

We live, grow, progress … we might say ‘achieve’ in His Kingdom not by taking power, not by asserting ourselves and building our reputation but (following on in Jesus’ own way) by giving up power, prestige, authority in order to forgive, sacrifice and serve everyone … regardless of whether we think they deserve it.

That’s what following Christ in the principles of His Kingdom looks like … His subversive Kingdom of the Great Reversal.

And consistent with that comes the third massive and subversive implication …


            •           We lift ‘up’ the ‘down’

On the basis of what we’ve already described, we therefore no longer over-value the competent, the confident, the temporally successful.

We do not kow-tow and cater to the wealthy, the prestigious, the intellectual or the entrepreneur.

James 2:1-7 is utterly subversive of the way our culture expects that we should respect this world’s status quo … bowing to the wealthy, brilliant and able.

Listen to a bit of this:

“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

 

5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

 

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 

9 But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

Do you see?

That is a blessed subversion of the repression of those who are not the beautiful people.

It CHALLENGES the dominant culture and gives HOPE to those who are not the minority of ‘beautiful people’ … who, incidentally, are not quite that beautiful after all.

Greg Beale identifies two sorts of reversal going on in the Kingdom of God.

There’s what he calls ‘Retributive Reversal’ (when the desired successes of sinful living end up being curses rather than blessings).

And there’s what he calls ‘Redemptive Reversal’, where God choses the weak over the powerful, the foolish over the wise … in order to save the world (as in our text).

God is actually working things out in this world contrary to appearances through the incoming of His Kingdom, so that the high ups will be brought low and the lowly lifted up:

You remember when the young (now pregnant) Virgin Mary visited her older cousin Elizabeth (who had been childless but was now seven months pregnant with John the Baptist) Mary sang a song about what God was doing with them and in His world through what was happening in which she sings:

“the Mighty One has done great things for me—

    holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

    from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

    but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

    but has sent the rich away empty.”

Luke 1:49-53

Tim Keller makes much of the way this principle relates to the way we actually DO see things working out in the world, when he says this:

“There are the good things of this world, the hard things of this world and the best things of this world - God’s love, glory holiness and beauty. The Bible’s teaching is that the road to the best things is not through the good things but usually through the hard things, as Jesus Himself shows us in Philippians 2:5-11”

Keller goes on to champion the idea that there is nothing that challenges more directly the way the world around understands life … nor anything that is so challenging of its values.

Now that is not some remote, philosophical idea that you’ve got there … this Great Reversal.

If you see that God is the God of the Great Reversal … the God Who brings life out of death, resurrection out of Crucifixion, the God Who puts down the mighty from their arrogance and exalts the humble and meek … then you will be able to take heart, because when you realise that THAT is who He is, moreover what He DOES, you will be able to face ANYTHING with Him. 

Here is HOPE, in such an Era of such terrible Anxiety.

Conclusion

This Great Reversal is not something that just appeared on the Biblical scene in 1 Corinthians 1 or in Mary’s song in Luke 1.

It has been part of the way God works to bring His Kingdom’s principles to bear in His fallen world from much earlier on than that.


•          God works with


            •           The non-chosen boys

So in Old Testament times we find Him not working with the son who has the greater status or power in their culture, but with the younger son:

Choosing to use Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph. Judah over the eldest son Reuben.
Famously, of course, we see God choosing David over ALL his older brothers.

Please notice that this wasn’t because they were paragons of godly virtue.

It’s quite the reverse in most of their cases!

They were all flawed men, and the Bible does NOT cover that up at ALL!

Jacob was damaged by his father’s favouritism towards Esau and it didn’t make Jacob an appealing sort of person.

Neither were they the beautiful people: Moses, for example, had a speech impediment and whilst it shouldn’t be, that is all too often a social or workplace impediment in our cruel and broken culture that NEEDS so much about it to be reversed.

But let’s not just focus on the boys.

God also chooses to use a whole HEAP of unwanted women for His glory and for a place in the Halls of Fame and Faith …


            •           The unwanted women

It’s a common and a long-standing feature of our world that beautiful and fertile women receive favour, power, privilege … and the attention of the most powerful men.

In our culture too, women’s bodies and appearance are still all too often viewed as a measure of their worth.

It’s not a women’s issue, by the way … it’s all too often a men’s issue because it arises when men are so shallow in their relationships.

And yet, all too often women, who very properly protest against this being the standard they find themselves up against, struggle not to do the same thing themselves.

(Yes – I AM on Instagram and I DO see women valuing other women very openly and publicly for their looks). 

But in the Old Testament God chose to work through the older Sarah rather than the younger Hagar, the plain Leah over her beautiful sister Rachel … and on it goes.

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba … persons who in the eyes of their cultural elites were morally, racially and socially unacceptable.

And yet, each of these women is included in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 … and the Saviour of the world came through their line. 

This sort of reversal delights the heart of God … it’s the principle the God of Crucifixion and Resurrection lives and works by … which must give His people incredible hope in a world that is so broken it just marginalises its un-beautiful ones!

Keller has been big on this throughout his ministry at the heart of Manhattan … a place that has a totally different set of values to these:

“God takes the people who the world consigns to the margins and brings them into the centre”

(Hope in Times of Fear p. 64)

That God is bringing in His Kingdom and with it the values of His Kingdom … which look like THAT … is a tremendously hopeful thing for so many of us.

Non-chosen boys, unwanted women, then finally God works with …


•           The despised ethnicities

The people everyone despised in the Ancient Near East would have been … who?

The ones God chose to work with.

In Deuteronomy 7:7 ff. God says to Israel that the Lord hadn’t chosen them out of all the nations of the earth because they were more numerous, but because He just LOVED them.

In this world the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans all in their turn had an awful lot more going for them than did the descendants of Abraham.

But please notice what Deuteronomy 7 is explicitly saying: it says God didn’t chose the Israelites in SPITE of their powerlessness, but because of it.

And He REPEATEDLY brings strength out of their weakness.

In a world where the problem is the arrogance and pride that causes people to rear up and rebel against God is what causes the trouble, the alienation, the brokenness and the pain, God ordains that the way to up should be down.

This means the way to strength is through weakness … and the fellowship of the God Who walks with His humble, penitent and faithful people in the furnace of our suffering, fragility and helplessness.  

Of COURSE, we want the story-line of our lives to be different to this.

We want to move easily from strength to strength, from success to success, from personal glory to personal glory and then … to Glory.

But throughout the Bible we see something completely different: we see 

·       life through death, 

·       triumph through weakness, 

·       crown through Cross.

It is a pervasive picture as the account of the experience of faith across the ages in Hebrews 11:32-35 points out.

There’s a trail of terrible terror and trial running right through this gallery of the faithful with the key well-turned phrase describing their life-story being this: 

v. 34 “whose weakness was turned to strength”

To whom is the author referring there?

He is referring to virtually every major figure in the Bible.

And supremely this is the case in the weak-looking crucifixion of Jesus, God the Son, the Spirit-anointed Messiah, which resulted in the resurrection and the death-day of death.

So here is the challenge to all of us.

This is the way that God works.

For all of us who can lay aside pretence here to see ourselves clearly, this Gospel fits and meets the realities of my life.

But can we be made low to be exalted?

Can we follow a despised, rejected, crucified Messiah (what human sense does that make?!) … in order to follow Him to resurrection glory?

THAT is the Christian hope, primarily because it doesn’t rest or depend in ANY way on us.

And it lives to mirror the heart-passion of our God, to serve the Kingdom values of our God’s Great Reversal … and to glorify His Name in the doing so.

Let’s give the last word on this hope-inspiring aspect of God’s character and work to a preacher who’s done so much to remind our generation of this issue:

“How fair and just – and how subversive – of God to work so often and constantly among the people whom ‘the good and the great’ of the world reject”

(Keller ‘Hope in Times of Fear’ p. 70)

It’s just BECAUSE our God is like that, that we as His people both have hope for themselves and good hope to hold out to others … hope both in and for our broken Era of Anxiety.

 



 


Table of Contents

•       Introduction

•       Where it comes from - 1 Corinthians 1

•       A ‘foolish’ method

•       A ‘foolish’ message

•       A ‘foolish’ people

•       What it leads to - the Great Reversal

•       The principle

•       We enter the Kingdom ‘upside down’

•       We live in this Kingdom ‘upside down’

•       We lift ‘up’ the ‘down’

Conclusion

•       God works with

•       The non-chosen boys

•       The unwanted women

•       The despised ethnicities