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The Cross Foolishness or the Power of God?

Because the Cross is a central foundation of Christianity, it is also a prime target of those who attempt to discredit the Faith.  There have been many excellent books written over the years greatly detailing the evidence for the resurrection.  Indeed, the evidence supporting the Biblical accounts of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection is much stronger than many of the other historical events that we take for granted.  For this article however, we’d like to examine the Cross from a somewhat philosophical viewpoint and ask, “Is the Cross really foolishness, or is it the Power of God?”

Written April 2015.

The Cross - Foolishness or the Power of God?

The Scriptural basis for our discussion will be 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5, where Paul is writing about the message of the Cross in the context of contrasting the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man.

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.  For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1:18-19)

Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  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.  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (1:20-25)

Brothers, 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.  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.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  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.  Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1:26-31)

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (2:1-5)

We actually see the answer to our question in the first verse, but subjectively, the answer depends on a person’s standing before God.  Therefore, we must investigate the matter further.  Let’s begin by taking a closer look at some of the Greek language underlying the verse.

For the message (logos) of the cross is foolishness (moria) to those who are perishing (apollumenois), but to us who are being saved (sozomenois) it is the power (dunamis) of God (1Cor 1:18).

We immediately recognize the Greek noun “logos” (also translated as “word” or “preaching” in other Bible translations of 1Cor 1:18) from the Apostle John’s opening of his Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God” (Jn 1:1).  In the Bible, the word “logos” is used in the normal sense of “word, message, statement, subject” etc, and these cases are easily differentiated from its two most important uses, to signify either the Gospel message or Christ Himself.  In our verse, logos encompasses the Gospel message and in particular, includes the great news that Jesus was crucified as a substitute for us, so that all believers could be forgiven and adopted as God’s children and co-heirs with Jesus to the heavenly kingdom.

Paul’s use of the term logos as directed to the Corinthians was certainly no accident.  Corinth was located in close proximity to Athens, so Greek philosophy had greatly influenced their understanding of doctrine.  The Greeks generally thought of the logos as the divine thought or reason that was distributed into the world.  As such, the term would greatly appeal to those seeking the true meaning to life.  Paul is also attempting to convey that the message of the Cross (the Gospel) is completely rational and logical.

Despite Paul’s message, we’re told that the Cross is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1:23).  Regarding the Jews, the Cross was a stumbling block due to their expectation of the coming Messiah.  The Jews were expecting a military leader who would free them from Roman rule and set up an earthly kingdom to continue the Davidic Dynasty.  They could not accept a messiah that was executed by the Romans, particularly on a cross since the law of Moses stated that anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God (Dt 21:23).  They did not understand that Jesus voluntarily allowed Himself to be cursed on the cross in order to redeem both Jewish and non-Jewish believers from the curse of the law (Gal 3:12-14).

Paul also linked the Jewish view of the Cross with their demand for a “sign” (1:22).  Even though they witnessed Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons and other miracles, they demanded more, possibly a direct sign from Heaven.  Jesus replied that the only sign that would be given was the “sign of Jonah” (Mt 12:39, 16:24; Lk 11:29-30).  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days, so too would the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days.  Thus, the Jews also missed the sign of the death and resurrection of the Suffering Servant that was foretold in Isaiah 53, even though the Crucifixion of Christ was at the heart of Paul’s preaching (2:2).

On the other hand, the Greeks who prided themselves as being highly intelligent, regarded the message of the cross as foolishness (1:23).  The Greek noun translated as foolishness in both 1:18 and 1:23 (moria) can mean silliness, folly, nonsense or even absurdity, and can denote a person with a lack of judgment or understanding, often through stupidity or confusion.  Basically, most Greeks considered the message that a crucified Jew could be the world’s Savior as an insult to their highly prized intelligence.  This Hellenistic thinking had influenced many of the Corinthians, so when Paul preached Christ crucified by the Spirit’s power instead of using “wise and persuasive words” (2:4), those whose faith rested on man’s wisdom missed the truth.

Still, we know from the Book of Acts that thousands of Jews and Gentiles were being added to the body of believers.  If we move ahead in the second chapter of 1Corinthians, we find Paul’s statement that The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (1Cor 2:14).  This explanation is consistent with 1:18, but gives the additional fact that, not only is the message foolish to those who are perishing (Gk apollumenois – being killed, lost, destroyed, put to death etc), but they can’t even understand it.

There is some debate among theologians as to how much (and what type of) understanding of the Scriptures can be possessed by an unbeliever.  Several years ago, I read the account of a theologian (whose name I can’t recall) who had attended a lecture given by another theologian on Paul’s Soteriology.  As he listened to the speaker expound on Paul’s doctrine of salvation, he became more and more impressed with the speaker’s knowledge.  In fact, he had just came to the conclusion that it was the clearest and most accurate presentation he had ever heard when the speaker concluded with, “but we all know that this is just a bunch of nonsense”.  After the lecture, the theologian asked the speaker’s wife what she thought.  She said something to the effect of, “I don’t know all the details like my husband, but I believe Paul spoke the truth”.  So who had the better understanding of salvation, the speaker or his wife?  Obviously, the speaker had much more knowledge of the letter of the doctrine, but his wife actually got it.  She understood the spirit of the salvation doctrine.

So, it appears to me that an unbeliever can develop a good intellectual knowledge of the doctrines of the Faith, but lack discernment when it comes to true understanding.  If a person has a true understanding as aided by the Spirit of God, including all the ramifications and consequences therein, that person could never think of these things as foolishness.

We now look at the final part of our subject verse (1:18), where Paul declares that, to us who are being saved from that death it is nothing less than the power of God (Phillips NT translation).  The Greek verb for salvation is sozo, which can mean to save, keep safe or preserve, rescue or cure in either the physical or spiritual sense.  Here, it is used to denote spiritual salvation.  Paul uses the present tense to express the idea of the past (justification), present (sanctification) and future (glorification) tenses of salvation (see our Pressing On article for additional explanation).

Paul also talks about the Cross as the power of God.  The Greek word translated power is “dunamis” from which we get our English word “dynamite”.  It is typically translated as physical power, energy, force, ability, might, efficacy etc, and conveys the basic sense of ability to accomplish something.  When used of God, this power is considered infinite since God has the ability to accomplish anything He wills.

With respect to the Cross, we can express this power or capability in multiple ways.  We’ll just mention a few results of the cross.  The promise of Satan’s defeat was fulfilled (Gen 3:15).  The curse of sin on mankind was reversed (Rom 5:12-21).  Death itself was defeated (1Cor 15:50-56).

The Gospel of the Cross is the power unto salvation (Rm 1:16).  Entire volumes have been written about the effect it has had on millions of lives throughout history. Finally, because of the power of the Cross, we’ll be able to live forever in heaven before the Coram Deo, the very Face of God.

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