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The "Backward" Wisdom of God


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This series is entitled “The ‘Backward’ Wisdom of God.” Key biblical teachings often strike us as contrary to common sense, counter-intuitive—even foolish. This is why Paul says 1 Cor. 1:18a (read). I want to come back to this passage later this morning, but first let’s get familiar with one of the ways that the Bible communicates its “backward” wisdom.

Biblical Paradox

Biblical authors (especially Jesus and Paul) frequently utilize a special form of instruction called paradox to communicate God’s “backward wisdom.” Most of this series is going to unpack the paradoxes, so we need to understand what paradox is and how it works.

G. K. Chesterton defined biblical paradox as “truth standing on her head to attract attention.” Paradoxical statements arrest our attention because of their apparent contradiction—and motivate us to resolve the contradiction by learning and reflection (i.e., verbal equivocation &/or questioning our own presuppositions).

EXAMPLE: “In order to get big, you have to stay 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 utilizing small groups that build community.

NOTE: Biblical paradox is very different from Zen Buddhist koan paradoxes. These statements seek to deliver us from rationality as a precondition to spiritual enlightenment.1 Biblical paradox presumes rationality (including the law of non-contradiction) and affirms it as integral to spirituality.


Read Matt. 20:16. Does Jesus mean that in God’s future kingdom the physical front of the line literally becomes the rear—and vice-versa? No, he means 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 or absent altogether from God’s kingdom!

Read 2 Cor. 6:9,10. Has Paul lost his mind? How can the obscure be famous, how can the sorrowful rejoice, how can the destitute give others wealth? Paul is contrasting the way the world assesses him according to its values to the way he actually is according to God’s assessment. Once you understand this, it makes perfect sense. He was a loser to Jewish and Roman society—but famous in God’s eyes and those who knew Jesus. He endured much sadness from his persecutions—but God’s Spirit imparted his 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.

Why does God’s wisdom seem “backward?”

Even when the biblical authors do not use paradox, God’s wisdom often seems strikingly “backwards” to us (EXAMPLES: Acts 20:35; Rom. 12:17,19 & Luke 6:27,28; Matt. 7:3).

Why is this? According to the Bible, this is because our way of thinking is so backwards! When biblical statements strike you as backwards, counter-intuitive, crazy—this is God’s loving alert that you are brainwashed!

KOREAN WAR PRISIONERS: Because they were brainwashed, 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 (cf. Eph. 2:1,2) We are all deeply brainwashed and in desperate need of both deprogramming from its teaching and reprogramming through God’s Word.

This is why Paul tells those who want to grow spiritually Rom. 12:2a (confirms brainwashing). This is why Solomon tells those who seek wisdom Prov. 14:12; 3:5 (lean against what seems right). This is why Paul paradoxically challenges the Corinthian Christians 1 Cor. 3:18.

This is why one way you can mark spiritual growth in your life is when truths that seemed total nonsense to you now make living sense—because you have learned his truth, acted on it—and experienced the impact of its profound wisdom in your life.

That’s my goal for this series—to facilitate God’s deprogramming/reprogramming you by studying some of the “backward” wisdom of his Word. Most of this series will focus on key counter-intuitive ways God wants us to respond to him —but first we need to understand and embrace the counter-intuitive way he has provided for us. Turn to 1 Cor. 1 . . . 

The “foolishness” of the Cross

Paul (the author) is writing to a group of people who had responded to the message of Christ, but were now becoming embarrassed by this message. This was because they were buying back into the “wisdom” of Greek philosophy, which emphasized humanity’s ability to solve life’s deepest problems without the help of God and his revelation.

Read 1:18a. From this perspective, the central event of Christianity—Jesus’ crucifixion (the ultimate biblical paradox)—was the height of foolishness.

Read 1:22,23. The heart of the Christian message is “Christ crucified”—that the execution of Jesus as a capital criminal is the most significant event in human history and the source of human salvation. This message was “scandalous” to first-century Jewish theology and “moronic” to first-century Greek philosophy.

This was a “scandal” to Jews—not ultimately because it was not prophesied in the Old Testament (cf. Isa. 53)—but because they sought for "signs." 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 miracles, but he deliberately avoided the spectacular, refusing to do dramatic signs (Matt. 12:38-40). He refused to be made king when they wanted to draft him (Jn. 6:15), and instead 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."2

This was “moronic” to the Greeks. Most Greek philosophy held that the first characteristic of God was apatheia—inability to be emotionally impacted by the human condition. Therefore, a God who lamented human lostness (Matt. 9:36), who wept over death (Jn. 11:35), and who suffer the agony of death was an inferior, barbaric concept. Instead, they sought a humanistic "wisdom." They were convinced that they had within themselves the intellectual capacity to understand ultimate Truth. 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. Matt. 18:3) must be “fools’ gold.”

Behind both of these objections is human pride and self-sufficiency—what Paul calls “boasting” later in this passage. Here is a key principle: As long as you believe you can define and solve your deepest problems, the message of the Cross will be either irrelevant or offensive. EXAMPLES:

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 or arrogantly intolerant.

In the market-place, which is dominated by materialism and the will to power, the claim that success was personified in the One who lived a life of voluntary poverty and submitted to his enemies is the key to life is despicable.

In secular therapy, which is dominated by humanistic theories of self-authentication and victimology, the assertion that humble confession of our own sinfulness and forgiveness of our offenders is the key to psychological healing is outrageous.

In the religious world, which is dominated by the notion that people make it to God through their good works and religious observance, the declaration that we are so sinful that we need charity purchased only by the death of God's Son is offensive in the extreme.

On an individual level, as long as we think that another DEGREE, a higher SALARY, a better JOB, a new LOVER, a bigger HOME, a different CITY, etc. is what we need to make life work—we will have no use for the Cross.

But when you allow God to diagnose your deepest problems, the message of the Cross becomes both profound and wonderful. Read 1:24,25.

God’s diagnosis is far more radical—our root problem is that we separated fro him because of our true moral guilt, and 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. Through Jesus’ death on the Cross, he solved our deepest problems in a way that we never could. This is what Paul means in 1:30 (read).

“Righteousness” here refers to justification—acquittal from true moral guilt. Because Jesus was willing to take God’s judgment for your sins, God is now free to attribute Jesus’ perfect righteousness to you as your permanent standing before him. Talk about security!

“Sanctification” refers to spiritual healing and character transformation. The cross makes it possible for God’s Spirit to indwell your heart and give you a whole new motivation and power to begin to follow God. Talk about freedom!

“Redemption” here refers to the resurrection of your body when Jesus returns (cf. Rom. 8:23). Because Jesus defeated death on the cross, you will one day be raised from the dead with a glorified body to inherit and enjoy eternal life with God and his people. Talk about hope!

What about you? Are you ready to admit that your diagnosis/solution hasn’t worked? Are you ready to submit to God’s diagnosis? Then call out to Christ and ask him to forgive you and forge this spiritual union by indwelling you with his Spirit! If you do this, he will make himself known to you personally and begin to revolutionize your perspective on all of life . . . 


1 Carmody and Carmody define a koan as “a puzzling Zen saying meant to be chewed over as an enlightenment exercise.” (Carmody & Carmody, Ways To the Center (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1984), p. 134). But Guinness rightly explains that this kind of “enlightenment” is essentially non-rational: “ . . . the Zen Koan is a deliberate intellectual teaser designed to jolt the mind into freeing itself from rationality, escaping into the non-rational by intuition, where alone the true self lies. ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ ‘What is your original face before you were born?’ Rationality stumbles in its earnestness, but it is only when it falls that the higher levels of super-rational knowledge can be reached.” Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 206. See also Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1976): A koan is “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining a sudden intuitive enlightenment.”

2 This was also why the disciples “stumbled over” Jesus’ insistence that as the Messiah, he must go to the cross (Matt. 16:13-23). It was not only that they didn’t understand the Old Testament prophecies of the Suffering Servant; it was also that they were setting their minds on their own (selfish and spiritually superficial) interests rather than on God’s interests (16:23) which prioritized rescue from divine judgment for sin.

Copyright 2003 Gary DeLashmutt