It was inconceivable to the Greek that there could be an incarnation. So what happened when Paul preached in Athens? They laughed, because his message seemed foolish. What Paul had to say to the Greeks was that mind was separated from matter, that spirit was separated from flesh. What Paul had to say to the Greeks was that this message, which appears to be foolishness, and which is communicated in a manner that is conceived to be the height of folly, is actually the wisdom of God.
I once asked a number of people which verses came to mind when they thought about preaching. I had already gone to one of the concordances and looked up verses where the English words preaching, preacher, or preach occur, and I found that, even in these cases, which do not reflect
all occurrences of the Greek and Hebrew root words (these are also translated “proclaim,” “make known,” “speak,” and so on), there are 150 verses. But when I began to ask my question, people referred again and again to one verse, 1 Corinthians 1:21, which says, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
I think that says something about the way many people regard what they hear coming from the pulpit. They think of it as foolishness. In the minds of many, the content of preaching, and perhaps even the delivery of the sermon itself, is a very foolish thing.
Is preaching really foolishness? It obviously is in some sense because Paul uses that word. Indeed, preachers will often say that there are times when they feel foolish as they try to bring a word from God to those living in the midst of a secular culture. Yet when we look at the passage from which that word comes, it is perfectly evident, even on a very superficial reading, that the apostle is using this word foolishness in a specialized sense. He is talking about that which is foolish in the world’s eyes, but which in actuality is the wisdom of God unto salvation.
Paul makes this statement in a very interesting context. In this passage, he speaks not only of foolishness and wisdom, but also of weakness and power (a parallel contrast) and signs versus what we would probably call the foundation stone of revealed religion.
Paul was one of those rare individuals who moved quite easily among diverse cultures. He was a Jew, but he had grown up in a Roman town and was greatly influenced by Greek culture. So he moved equally well within Jewish, Greek, and Roman communities. Everywhere he went he preached Christ. He found that he did not have exactly the same problem when he moved among the Greeks as when he moved among the Romans, or when he moved among Romans as when he moved among the Jews. Each of these cultures had its own particular difficulty where the gospel was concerned.
The Romans’ difficulty was that they were proud of their power. They ruled the world. Their legions held the barbarians at bay. Their naval power had brought order to the Mediterranean. Their soldiers kept the roads open and the brigands in their place. They controlled the greatest empire the world had ever seen. They were proud of their power. When the apostle spoke to the Romans in the context of the Roman culture, it was natural that the Jesus he preached (crucified under a Roman governor) seemed the epitome of weakness. As Paul spoke to the Romans, with their great concern for power, he had to show that, although Jesus is in a sense the weakness of God, this weakness of God was actually a power able to transform men and women. In Romans he says, “The gospel … is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
With Jews the situation was not the same. If the Roman mentality was that of a military man who believes that the most important thing is strength, the Jewish mentality was what we might compare to the cults of our day. That is, the Jews wanted a sign; they wanted visible demonstrations. That is why they were always asking Jesus for miracles. They did not like the signs He gave because they did not like Him, just as people today do not like the words of the Bible because they do not like the Bible’s God. They say, “If only God would say something; if only God would speak to me.” But God has spoken. They do not accept it because they do not like Him.
In the same way, the Jews were asking for miracles. To Jews, Jesus was a stumbling block. But Paul maintained that far from being a stumbling block, the gospel of Christ was actually a foundation, a block over which one could stumble but which was actually the foundation stone of revealed religion.
This is the context in which Paul talks about foolishness. But in writing to the church at Corinth, he has a Greek mentality in mind. Greece had lost the power it once had under Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great. That dominion was gone. But what the Greeks did have (and the Romans did not, at least not to the same degree) was wisdom. Greece produced the great philosophers. Greece provided the teachers. In most wealthy Roman homes, there was a slave who was responsible for the education of the children, and nine times out of ten he was a Greek. The Greeks were proud of this wisdom. When the early ambassadors of the gospel came, proclaiming that the ineffable God had become man in human flesh in order to die for our salvation, that contradicted everything the Greeks understood about philosophy. The basic principle of their philosophy was that mind was separated from matter, that spirit was separated from flesh. It was inconceivable to the Greek that there could be an incarnation. So what happened when Paul preached in Athens? They laughed, because his message seemed foolish. What Paul had to say to the Greeks was that mind was separated from matter, that spirit was separated from flesh. What Paul had to say to the Greeks was that this message, which appears to be foolishness, and which is communicated in a manner that is conceived to be the height of folly, is actually the wisdom of God.
On the basis of 1 Corinthians 1:21, we can say that preaching is that wise means of God by which the wisdom of the world is shown to be foolishness, and the folly of the gospel, as the world conceives it, is shown to be true wisdom.