‘Human wisdom and God’s wisdom’
At Sunday 13 October we celebrated my induction as the first pastor of IREF in the Oude Kerk of Delft.
The service was led by pastor C. Blenk (The Hague). His sermon he concentrated on how God brought people together in a surprising way. In Acts 18 vers 24v you see how Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria (Africa) met a couple from Rome (Europe) in the city of Ephesus (Asia). Three continents come together! That is typical for IREF as well. It is not accidental that so many people from abroad come to our country and to Delft, whether they are students or researchers, whether they are refugees or Asylum seekers. It is part of God’s providence and plan. We believe that it is also one of God’s surprises to bring IREF and me together!
My entry sermon dealt with the theme ‘Gods wisdom and human wisdom’ (based on 1 Cor. 2: 1-5).
Gods wisdom in the unchanging Gospel.
What exactly was the essence that Apollos heard from Priscilla and Aquila? Probably Apoloos knew about Jesus’ death and the apostles’ testimonies of His resurrection. Apparently he, Appollos, didn’t know the work of the Holy Spirit. He used his personality, personal strength, and apologetic skills to convince.
Priscilla en Aquila taught Apollos what they had heard from the apostle Paul in Corinth. Nice chain of discipleship! The couple worked together with Paul as tentmakers in Corinth, preparing thin skins of leather to be used as fabric for tents (Acts 18:2). Paul explained the gospel to them in full, and they saw and heard him preaching and teaching in Corinth.
In 1 Cor. 2vs 1-5 we might find the heart of what Paul had taught in the Corinthian church.
Years ago I heard the English pastor and teacher dr. John Stott on this passage at a German conference of International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). I consider John Stott as one of my most important teachers. So I want to pass on what I received from him and what I have never forgotten. The Gospel is:
(A) ‘Truth from God’ -1 Cor. 2vs 1
(B) ‘Truth from God about Jesus’ – 1 Cor. 2 vs 2
(C) ‘Truth from God in the power of the Holy Spirit’ – 1 Cor. 2 vs 3-5
Truth from God
Paul indicates to the Corinthians that he didn’t come with eloquence or superior wisdom, as he proclaimed the secret (some manuscripts say marturion, testimony; other texts have: mysterion-secret) about God. The word ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’ doesn’t indicate that Paul was vague or irrational. In Acts 18 we read that he tried to convince the people. He used reasonable and logical arguments to people who are looking for evidence. They weren’t asked to stop thinking. Actually they were challenged to think in a new way. Paul emphasized that the Gospel is truth from God, not human wisdom or intelligence or effort.
Truth from God about Jesus
1 Cor. 2vs 2: ‘I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified’. Some interpreters speculate that Paul seemed to be tempted in Athens to preach Christ without the cross. That could be a reason that Paul indicated in Corinth that he only wanted to concentrate on the cross. However, Paul preached the Gospel of Christ in Athens, but certainly he started contextually. He didn’t change his preaching in Corinth but he insisted on the cross of Christ and he had reasons for that. Why?
The city of Corinth in those days was a proud harbour-city, it was destroyed in 146 BC and beautifully rebuilt by Julius Ceasar in 46 BC. Many Roman colonists lived there. It was famous because of its Isthmian games. And because of the Acrocorinth, the rock of 2000 feet high with the flat summit and the temple of Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love. You can sense the intellectual and religious pride of the Corinthians in Paul’s correspondence with them. The Corinthians boasted their ‘wisdom’. But the preaching of the cross of Jesus presented a fully different reality that challenged their pride at several points. I mention three:
1. Intellectual pride.
Intellectually they could bring many objections to the cross, like Celsus in the beginning of the 2nd century did: ‘Christians honour a dead man, intellectually this is ridiculous’. Richard Dawkins, biological professor from Oxford, says in his ‘God delusion’: ‘If you still believe that a man can walk on the water, or even be resurrected from the death, you are still living in the 19th century’. Friedrisch Nietzsche despised Jesus and his cross because of His weakness and his attitude of submission. So the cross can be too simple for intellectual people.
The city of Corinth counted many gods and temples. Jesus could easily be added to the pantheon of gods. But to proclaim the exclusiveness of His cross, was offending to them. And it still is, both for people in the East and in the West. The Gospel about Jesus may be a truth, not the only one. So the cross can be too narrow for religious people.
3. Moral pride.
Corinth was a trading city with lots of seamen and a lot of prostitution. The word ‘korithianidzai was known for ‘practising immorality’. The cross meant and still means a call to repentance and holiness. To become a slave of Jesus Christ, frees you from all other bondages. And this is real freedom. But it might have sounded too demanding for the Corinthians.
The cross of Christ challenges cultural wisdom
Every culture has its beauties and strengths reflecting something of God’s beauty and grace. Our culture is like a safe place, where we feel at home. We are proud of it and usually we are unaware of the weaknesses of our culture and the ungodly powers in it. Dr Samuel Lee, a pastor from Middle East, married to an Asian woman, working with Philippine, Nigerian and Chinese people in the city of Amsterdam, recently said that he sometimes gets questions from Dutchmen: ‘Why are you, non-Westerners, so badly organized?’ And his answer is this: ‘No, we are very well organized, but we are organized differently from you!’ He senses the Western pride.
The Corinthians were proud of their wisdom. Paul proclaimed ‘Christ and the cross as Gods wisdom’. It sounded as an offense for the Jews in the city, who maintained such a high ethical standard. And it was foolishness for the Greek philosophers and scientists. It was too demanding for the Romans who wanted to have their pleasures in the city that was something like the ‘Vanity Fair’ of the Middle East in those days.
The cross challenges religious wisdom
In all religions, humans are able to maintain something of their own wisdom. Through the path of knowledge, or through the path of human efforts, or through the way of mysticism or magic. Secularism, is a strong belief in human efforts. So there is reason for human pride. But not in Christian faith, because the cross is the death blow for all human pride. How? You may ask our Chinese brother who was baptized recently. In his witness he said something like this: “I longed to find intellectual, moral and religious satisfaction, but I didn’t know the truth. Till the moment that I learned to know Christ, and began to understand the meaning of the cross. How God in Jesus on the cross gave Himself to this world to take away my sins and my shame. There I discovered how much I missed the glory of God, how much I missed real life, how I missed real freedom and real peace. I thought I could find it but I didn’t know the reality of God and His love. In Him I have found a treasure of wisdom that goes beyond all philosophical, moral and religious wisdom.’ (Cf 1 Cor. 1: 30: ‘Christ has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and full redemption.’)
The Gospel is truth from God about Jesus, in the power of the Spirit
How can we understand and accept God’s wisdom?
The Gospel is Truth from God about Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is what Priscilla and Aquila learned from Paul, that is what they taught Apollos.
In 1 Cor. 2: 3-5 Paul mentions the power of God. He confesses his weakness, his nervousness. He felt very weak. He was not a superman. Physically and maybe even psychologically Paul was not so strong. All pastors know: as a pastor you can feel so weak, so inadequate. Your efforts, intellect, empathy etc. seem to fall short. The eyes of people are not opened to the beauty of God by our efforts, but by the power of God!
God doesn’t love people because they are beautiful, successful and attractive, but He loves sinners, those who are ashamed because of their failures. And through the grace of Jesus Christ He creates what is beautiful and attractive. That is the Gospel that I want to bring, teach and preach in IREF, with ‘fear and trembling’ because of my human weaknesses, but with full hope in the living God.