In recent weeks, my thoughts have been coming back time and again to the opening chapters if 1 Corinthians. The church at Corinth was quite a piece of work. The church was founded by Paul, but after Paul left to continue his ministry elsewhere, the Corinthian believers were apparently joined by a motley group of false teachers. This introduced all kinds of divisions into the church, with different factions pledging their loyalty to this or that teacher—and not just the false teachers, but Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, or even Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 1:12).
So Paul begins 1 Corinthians by addressing these divisions. His key idea is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ runs completely contrary to worldly wisdom. You see, the message of this world has always been the same: seek to get ahead. Winners conquer. The message of the gospel turns this on its head, and this inversion is seen most clearly at the cross. At the cross, we see the great King dying. Let that sink in: God comes to earth in human form, and is put to a shameful death by his own creatures. Could there be a more humiliating defeat?
The application to the factionalism at Corinth is this: true ministers of Jesus Christ don’t operate according to the worldly wisdom of self-promotion. To the degree that they are driven by ambition, they are evidencing that they aren’t following their Lord, who humbled himself to death. Thus, the notion of “celebrity” pastors is directly counter to the gospel, and the Corinthians who aligning themselves as followers of men are missing the point of the faith rather badly.
And so worldly wisdom and the gospel are directly opposed to one another. Paul illustrates that by talking about his own gospel preaching. He observes that unbelieving Jews want to hear about a conquering Messiah, and unbelieving Gentiles want to hear about a great wisdom teacher. Now get this: Jesus is in fact a mighty conqueror (read Revelation) and he is a great wisdom teacher.
But Paul realizes that if he preaches Jesus as a conqueror to the Jews or a wisdom teacher to the Greeks, he will simply be propping up their idolatries. So he preaches Jesus as the opposite of their expectations. “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” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24).
There is much to say here, but let me offer you one reflection: Paul’s example of ministry indicates that we should avoid allowing the values of those who don’t believe Jesus to determine the shape of our preaching. We should be uneasy about an approach to ministry that asks what people want to hear, and then preaches Jesus as the answer to their desires. To do so, according to this passage, is to make worldly wisdom and the gospel compatible with each other—and they never are.