The "Backward" Wisdom of God


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This morning we are starting a topical series. Normally, we study our way through whole biblical books. But occasionally we study a major biblical theme by looking at different biblical passages that reveal different aspects of the theme. This series is entitled “The ‘Backward’ Wisdom of God.” As the title suggests, key (not peripheral) biblical teachings often strike us as “backward” – contrary to common sense, counter-intuitive, even foolish. This is why Paul says in 1Cor.1:18 (paraphrased), “The wisdom of God is foolishness to many.” I want to come back to this passage later this morning, but first let’s discover the two biblical delivery systems of God’s “backward” wisdom.

2 biblical delivery systems

Biblical Paradox: Biblical authors (especially Jesus and Paul) frequently utilize a special form of instruction called paradox to communicate God’s “backward wisdom.” This brief series is going to explore some key biblical paradoxes, so we need to understand what paradox is and how it works.

A paradox is an apparent contradiction. G. K. Chesterton defined paradox as “truth standing on her head to attract attention.” In other words, paradox is not only a rhetorical device to get our attention, but also an instructional device to motivate us to resolve the contradiction by reflection that leads to new or deeper insight.

EXAMPLE: “In order to grow big, you must remain small.” On the surface, this sounds contradictory. But since we presume rationality, this statement invites us to listen more closely to the context and explanation—that churches can only grow large effectively by facilitating small groups that build community.

Read Matt.19:31. Jesus is declaring that many who are first in this age (according to its values) will be last in God’s future kingdom (according to God’s estimation)—and vice-versa. Many in this room who will never make any “Who’s Who” list will be famous in heaven!! And many of the “movers and shakers” in our culture will be non-famous/absent from God’s kingdom!

Read 2Cor.6:9,10. Paul is contrasting the way the world assesses him according to its values to the way he actually is according to God’s assessment. He was a loser to Jewish and Roman society—but famous in God’s eyes and those who knew Jesus. He endured sadness from his persecutions—but God’s Spirit imparted joy to him in the midst of these sufferings. He had no monetary wealth—but he spiritually enriched many people through his knowledge of Jesus. This saying thus emphasizes two very different standards of success.

Shocking statements: But God’s “backward” wisdom is not limited to biblical paradoxes. Even when the biblical authors express God’s wisdom with straightforward language, it often seems strikingly “backward” to us. For example:

Read Acts20:35. How backward this sounds! Our best chance at happiness is receiving from other people – getting them to treat us the way we prefer!

Read Rom.12:17,19 & Luke6:27,28. How backward this sounds! We should “not get mad, but get even!” The only thing we should pray for our enemies is for them to get what’s coming to them!

Read Matt.7:3. How backward this sounds! The key to resolving inter-personal conflict is getting the other person to see and stop his obvious mistreatment of me!

Why does God’s wisdom seem “backward?”

Now we come to a crucially important question: Why do these paradoxes and statements seem backward to us? According to the Bible, this is because our way of thinking is so backward! When biblical statements strike you as backward, counter-intuitive, crazy—this is God’s loving alert that you are brainwashed!

American prisoners of war during the Korean conflict were subjected to sophisticated brainwashing. Therefore, after they were released they had to undergo a process of political deprogramming and reprogramming in terms of their political presuppositions (from Marxism to democracy) in order to return to normal and productive life in American society.

The Bible says the same thing is true of every one of us on a far deeper level! They were brainwashed politically—but we are brainwashed in every key area of life (how we think about God, ourselves, other people, purpose of life, etc.). They started out with the “correct” political presuppositions—but we never had them to begin with. Like the people living in “The Matrix,” most people are completely duped and aren’t even aware of it! Realizing and admitting this is the first step toward real wisdom.

Read Rom.12:a. The way to real transformation is to get mentally renovated, which means admitting that you have been brainwashed.

Read Prov.14:12 and 3:5. The way to true wisdom is to realize that the “way that seems right” and “our own understanding” are usually fundamentally flawed!

Read 1Cor.3:18. The way to true wisdom is to admit that your “wisdom” was folly.

Here are some ways you can tell whether you are responding properly to God’s wisdom:

Have you developed a healthy mistrust of your long-held perspective on key areas of life? Do you seek counsel from people who have biblical wisdom? Or are you confident that you are right in your own eyes (Prov.12:15)?

Do biblical truths that once seemed “backward” to you now make living sense – because you have learned His truth, acted on it—and experienced its profound wisdom in your life? This should continue to happen both extensively (with more truths) and intensively (deeper appreciation of same truths).

Do you yawn “I know that” about biblical truths – but don’t really live by them (Jas.1:22)? In some ways, this is a worse state than overtly not believing God’s wisdom. Knowing you’re blind is better than thinking you see!

The goal of this series is to facilitate your deprogramming/reprogramming by studying specific aspects of God’s “backward” wisdom (NAME TOPICS). But none of these elements of His wisdom will make sense unless you embrace the heart of it—the “foolishness” of the Cross.

The “foolishness” of the Cross

Re-read 1:18. “The message of the cross” is that Jesus’ execution outside Jerusalem in 33 AD is the most important event in human history. Paul is writing to a group of people who had embraced this message, but were now becoming embarrassed by it. This was because they were being mocked by advocates of the “wisdom” of Greek philosophy and Jewish rabbinic theology. From these perspectives, the central message of Christianity was the height of foolishness.

Read 1:22,23. The heart of the Christian message is the grand paradox: “Christ crucified” (“Ruler executed;” “Conqueror defeated”). How can the execution of a capital criminal be the most significant event in human history and the source of human salvation (ELECTRIC CHAIR NECKLACE)?! This message was “scandalous” to first-century Jewish theology and “moronic” to first-century Greek philosophy because it contradicted their humanistic assumptions about humanity’s root problem and solution.

This message was a “scandal” to Jews because they sought for “signs” – a powerful political deliverer. Most Jews defined their main problem as political subjection to Rome, and they looked for a great political deliverer/king who would perform dramatic signs to break Rome's political oppression. Jesus performed private healings, but He deliberately refused to perform public miracles (Matt.12:38-40), and He refused to be made king when they wanted to draft Him (Jn.6:15). Instead, He voluntarily submitted to Rome’s political power to the ultimate extent: death by crucifixion. Because they conceived of salvation as political deliverance, a crucified messiah was a contradiction in terms—"If He was the Messiah, He couldn't be crucified; if He was crucified, He can't be the Messiah."

This message was “moronic” to the Greeks because they sought humanistic “wisdom.” Greek philosophy held that the “logos” (essential meaning) of the universe was within the human soul. They were convinced therefore that a philosophical elite could answer humanity’s deepest questions without any need for God’s revelation. They delighted in debating complex, esoteric ideas about ultimate reality that only intellectuals could comprehend. Therefore, any teaching that was simple enough for the masses to understand (cf. Jn. 3:16) must be “fools’ gold.”

Underlying both is what Paul calls “boasting” (1:29)—the prideful assumption that humans can make life work by our own resources. Here is a key principle: As long as you accept humanistic diagnoses and solutions, “Christ crucified” will be either offensive or irrelevant. This is why:

In the university, which is dominated by humanistic philosophy (whether modernist or post-modernist), a message that insists that "Jesus died for our sins" is viewed as either “primitive superstition” or “arrogant intolerance.”

In the market-place, which is dominated by materialism (“greed is good”) and the will to power (“dog-eat-dog world”), the claim that success was personified in the One who lived a life of voluntary poverty and voluntarily submitted to his enemies is naïve or despicable.

In the mental health field, which is dominated by humanistic theories of self-empowerment and victimhood, the assertion that humble confession of our own sinfulness and forgiveness of our offenders are essential to psychological healing is outrageous.

In religion and spirituality, which is dominated by humanistic notions of self-help through good works and spiritual disciplines, the declaration that these things count for nothing (toward entry into God’s kingdom) and that whores and criminals can make it in rather than religionists is offensive in the extreme.

On a more personal level, as long as you think that a new LOVER, a better JOB, another DEGREE, a bigger HOME, a different CITY, etc. is what you need to make you truly happy—you will have no use for the Cross, because it says that these things have nothing intrinsically to do with true happiness.

But when you humble yourself, “Christ crucified” becomes wise and powerful.

Read 1:24,25. God’s diagnosis is far more radical—our root problem is that we separated from Him because of our true moral guilt, that every area of our lives is damaged and corrupted because of this, and we are headed for judgment and eternal alienation from God.

But God’s solution is far more radical and wonderful. Read 1:30. Through Jesus’ death on the Cross, God made it possible for us to be spiritually united with Christ—which solves our deepest problems in a way we never could.

“Righteousness” refers to right standing with God—complete and permanent forgiveness and acceptance by God. Because Jesus was willing to take God’s judgment for your sins, God can now accept you as righteous in Him. This is true security!

“Sanctification” refers to progressive spiritual healing and character transformation. The same Spirit who indwelt Jesus and enabled Him to live free from sin’s power can now indwell you—to enable you to live your life as God designed you to live it. This is true freedom!

“Redemption” refers to the guarantee of total transformation in God’s eternal kingdom (cf. Rom.8:23). Because Jesus conquered death by His resurrection, you can be raised from the dead with a glorified body to enjoy eternal life with God and His people. This is true hope!

Are you willing to admit to yourself that the world’s “wisdom” hasn’t worked? Tell God this, and ask Him to unite you with Christ today! He will give you all of the above, beginning today!

Are you united with Christ, but still trying to live your life by the world’s wisdom? Tell God this, and ask Him to open your eyes to His wisdom as we survey in through this series (NAME TOPICS)! He will revolutionize your relationship with Him!