The Power of Folly

The Power of Folly

Oct 01, 2017

Passage: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Preacher: Jason Wolin

Series: 1 Corinthians

Category: Christian Living


Well if you were here last week you know we are in a new series in the book of 1 Corinthians. And I'm excited to go through this book. It's a long book so it may take a while. You will be among the privileged few who can retell to your grandkids many moons from now, yes, I remember back to when we started that book. I believe it was the year of the solar eclipse....which by the way, was awesome."

So last week Nate gave us a geographical and historical overview which is immensely helpful. We have this book in our hands but as we open it up and begin to read it, it's important for us to remember there was a story behind it. And most of that story is recovered by reading the book of Acts.

And Acts tells us among many things, that this man Paul was a church planter. A church planter means you go into a town where there isn't a church and you start a church from nothing. There are about 300,000 churches in America and every one of them started this way. We are supporting Ryan and Katie Eagy and Luke and Katie as they bravely go out and plant the 300,001st church. This is how churches start. Some guy gets up the courage to start a church and he goes for it. It's not easy.

So Paul goes to Cornith with the goal of planting a church and many of these people became Christians and we have this incredible church grow up. And this church is complex. You can kind of surmise this just based on the length of the books. The first Corinthian letter was 16 chapters. The second Corinthian letter was almost as long. And there's at least two lost letters we don't have. Every other letter to every other church is very short with the exception of maybe Romans, but still less than half if you count 1 and 2 Corinthians. So this church in Corinth was complex.

And today we are going to analyze a bit of that complexity. What we want to do today is three things:

  1. Think about the cultural atmosphere into which the book was written,
  2. We want to compare that to our own cultural atmosphere
  3. We want to see how the gospel confronts that atmosphere and actually wants to supplant it with its own.

You see, there's always an atmosphere. There's always a culture. There's always established and assumed values that are programmed into any people beginning the day they are born. These values are so completely and entirely part of a cultures thinking that nobody is even aware they exist. In fact, they are so engrained, so assumed you can't even find a book that defends or establishes it as a philosophical system. That's when you know it's reached this atmospheric stage. Nobody even thinks to question it. Is there even another way to think? You couldn't even conceive of another arrangement.

Let me give you an example from our day that I think will illustrate this. Our society whether you realize it or not is a product of the Enlightenment. In what way you ask? Well the enlightenment created this atmosphere where empiricism is valued - that is the idea that reality is established by what we can sense, the scientific method, the primacy of logic, the objectivity of reason. All these things are handed to you and you don't even question them. You might even be offended if you think there is another option.

Let me show you how atmospheric this is. Right now you can walk through the doors at St Luke's or St Als and when you do that you will find patients who are being sustained by life-saving devices technology. Now as a society, how do we determine when to pull the plug and terminate life support? We determine that the patient has no life once he or she is “brain-dead”—no longer capable of transmitting brainwave evidence of life. What defines life is the ability to think.

This concept is an enlightenment concept. Descartes (de'/cart)said famously, "I think, therefore I am." In other words, what makes me alive is my ability to think. But why that?

  • Why not, I love therefore I am.
  • I am capable of receiving love, therefore I am.
  • I give or serve, therefore I am.

My point here is not to try to challenge when a person ought to be pulled from life support but just to illustrate, you probably never even thought to question it. Do you see how deeply these assumptions have worked their way into our fabric so that we no longer even see them? We just breathe them in without question.

Atmospheric culture is built into the fabric of every society, and it's so intertwined into our DNA as a culture we can't even conceive of some society that operates differently. We live and breathe a society that is all about individualism. You might read about a medieval society in which honor and chivelry was part of the system. You read Beowulf and you think is that kind of self-sacrifice even real? It seems like some fairy tale. Was that even possible? Individualism is literally the air we breather and yet there's no book on it. There's no training manual that teaches this to children and explains it to them. It's so pervasive, it will automatically be taught, understood and absorbed.

So that's what I mean by atmosphere. Now Corinth had it's own atmosphere. And today we want to explore that. And I think you will be shocked at how similar their culture was to ours; we in fact derive much of our culture from it. So we will try and reinsert ourselves into the atmosphere of Paul's day in Corinth. And the reason we want to do this is because ultimately we want to show just how radical and penetrating and counter-cultural the gospel would have been for these early Greek and Roman thinkers and then my extension and parallel we see the same thing for us.

And that will create a backdrop against which we can understand the rest of the book. Because Paul's goal is to create a new, gospel atmosphere. And you can see it as plain as day. If you open up the book of Corinthians and just start reading, it reads a little bit like Paul was working off a shopping list. It's almost as if Paul has a list of 10 random question that he's been given by the church in Corinth and he just starts answering them. Now, concerning food sacrificed to idols. Now concerning sexual immorality. He just checks them off the list one at a time.

And all of Paul's answers tries to get them to think in light of the gospel, in light of the life, he's trying to perform atmospheric dialisis.

  • How does the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ change things. How does the gospel apply to sexuality?
  • How does the gospel apply to Christian freedom? Paul's goal is for them to literally breathe the gospel. He wants it to be such a part of them that they instinctively respond to what's around them and they just respond.
  • Is there even another way?

So that's the idea of the message today. So let's get started. What was the cultural atmosphere of Corinth? How did a Corinthian think? What values informed his perspective?

Plato's Line

Now, I'm just a beginner when it comes to understanding Greek culture and by extension Roman culture so I'm kind of banking on the fact that you are too. But even a beginner can sketch out a basic framework of how the Greeks thought.

The first thing to say is that defining a culture at large is almost impossible and if you were somehow successful it would be so high level it wouldn't be that helpful. Think about our own culture. Within our single culture you have tons of subcultures that can barely communicate or understand each other. We have southern culture, the farming culture, hip-hop culture, gang culture, punk, goth, redneck culture, corporate culture. I mean, they are wildly different and yet they are all American. There is incredibly diversity even within a culture.

All cities are like this to some degree, but especially Corinth. Nate taught us last week that Corinth was a trade city that had two ports and it had been this way for hundreds of years. In ancient Greece, Cornith was the hub of trade for the entire empire. So by the time Paul came around this was a well-established center of trade.

And because of this, it was diverse. All port cities are melting pots. Think of L.A. and New York and Minneapolis. You have such a mix of cultures because that is where global commerce happens. So that is certainly the case in Corinth.

Now the reason to mention this is that the church in Cornith was really a blending of all these subcultures. It would be unfair to broad-brush ancient Greek culture and say Paul was trying to hit one particular segment. The church very clearly was a Frankenstein. You had the rich, the poor, the Jew, the Greek, the educated, the uneducated, the religious, the irreligious. Does that sound familiar? I mean this is America.

So what we are going to do today is parse off segments of Greek culture, compare them to our own day and see how the gospel confronts it.

Let's start with the educated. How does the gospel confront the educated? Plato and Socrates are household names in our culture. How much more so in ancient Greek culture and Roman culture. The Romans were the greatest advocates and evangelists of Greek culture. They spread it it more than any other civilization ever did. So these names would have been well known, their philosophies studied, their ideas circulated.

Now if you grew up in Corinth and went to school, I can't be certain, but it's very likely that your teacher would do exactly what I'm about to do right now. Okay students, open your text books to Plato's republic and today we are going to talk about Plato's Line.

Who knows what Plato's line is? Plato's line is a way of understanding how we come to understand reality. How do we really come to understand truth? From where does truth originate?

In order to understand Plato's line, it's best to begin with an analogy he gives later in his book. He says imagine being born in a cave where you were chained one direction so that you couldn't move your head in any direction. All you could do is stare at a wall.

And behind you is this fire. And in front of that fire is a bridge where people walk back and forth. That fire would cast shadows on the wall in front of you and you would think that the shadows were realities. But the shadows are not the realities. Correct? They are simply pointing to the realities. they are produced from the realities.

The point of that analogy, is to cause us to stop and think and evaluate our assumptions. Is there a greater reality beyond what we see and hear with our senses?Plato says yes. And so here's how he pictures it:

So Plato's line says, break up the material world into two pieces.

You have the material world and the immaterial world. The material world is like the shadow in the analogy we just gave. What we see with our eyes and our senses is only the shadow. The reality, the thing that is casting the shadow is the substance. That can only be seen with the mind's eye. That's the realm of thoughts and reason and understanding.

And so we move from perceiving our reality with our senses below the line to reasoning our way to reality. Now as interesting as this may be, distill this down. What is the philosophers point here? What he's saying is that reason is ultimate. We can discover ultimate truth through our reason. Plato would say our reason can lead us to the ultimate good.

And so you have whole entire industries, educational systems, networks of minds, think tanks that start with this assumption that with enough mental horsepower we can do it. We can solve all these problems, find the reality behind everything and arrive at the ultimate good. It's just a matter of time before these smart minds deliver and our job is to wait.

We are told when Paul was in Athens in Acts 17 just one chapter before he gets to Corinth that he stood up in the marketplace and began engaging with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.

What do philosophers like to do? What do the educated like to do? What do university professors like to do? They try to reason their way to God. Now in one sense this is good. God gives us reason and we are to use our reason to arrive at reasonable conclusions. But here's the problem. We need more than reason. There are dozens of possible starting points all none of which can be absolutely excluded. We need some sort of key. We need a Rosetta stone of sorts to crack the code and unlock the mystery.

And the educated man is looking for something complex, something that will win him a Nobel Prize. He's wanting something that will blow people's mind. How clever you were to discover that. He wants to have academic, demi-god status as he unfurls his brilliant solution before people.

They spent their time telling or hearing something new. Intellectual novelty can be a deadly trap for some people.

And here's what Paul does in 1 Corithinans. You want to know what the solution that unlocks it all is: it's Jesus Christ crucified. For an academic, this is a real downer. Really? To the academic this is unsophisticated. It's too primal. You're telling me that the intellectual key that unlocks the mystery of the entire world is a carpenter that grows up in the home of this weird people group, the Jews, gathers some little gathering of people, and ends up getting crucified next to criminals because he was too fanatic? Honestly, bro, that's offensive to my dignity.

What does the gospel do? It breaks in. It reorganizes the worldview. It says you want to know how to make sense of the world. You want to know the proper place of reason? You submit it to the claims of Jesus Christ. When God becomes the starting point, it all snaps into focus.

But it's not automatic. The cross is difficult for many because it confronts us. It shows us things about ourselves that we don't like.

Once you accept this foolishness, it's like being unchained and being able to finally see the reality. You'll never understand it without him. You insert him and suddenly your reason can bolt out of the gate like a racehorse and make sense of it all.

We all want to see the ultimate good, but we aren't allowed to see it until we embrace the foolishness of the cross. Plato himself said, "No one is satisfied with the appearance of goodness - the reality is what they seek."

So 1 Corinthians is going to deal with the reality, but it's going to offend and confront the educated, the sophisticated, the philosopher. Those were in Paul's day and they are in our day.

But there's another group he deals with, the hedonist. You'll always find this group in any culture. These are the people who want to gratify the flesh and see sensual satisfaction as the highest and most worthy aim of human existence.

This has expression in drunkenness, homosexuality, prostitution, gluttony. These are sensual sins.

Now at first blush this might be surprising since the Greeks and Romans are known for this idea of virtue. The virtuous man is a man of Fortitude, Prudence, and Temperence. That's a far cry from a hedonist.

But every time you hold out a high standard, you have people who rebel against it. You have people who try to achieve it and can't and they end up saying, "this is way too hard, I've tried your way, and all it does is produce misery in me since I can't attain it. The secret to happiness is not seeking the virtues, it's abandoning it."

And so you have lesser known philosophers like Aristippus who is the pendulum opposite of Plato who said, the highest good is the experience of pleasure and the avoiding of pain. So you are always going to have these people.

You will have people who try to experience this sexually. Our culture is just brimming with this. Every commercial you watch, every little ad that pops up on your screen, everything is some teaser that is sexually charged. And the message is this: what you are missing out on is this girl, this experience, this comfort. And that's what will make you happy.

Cornith was full of these people. Nate alluded to Corinth being the Amsterdamn of the Ancient Near East and it was true. We have a song in our culture that dreams of Californication. Corinth had a similar play on words. Temple prostitution was part of the culture. I don't want to get into the details but there was every vice available from same sex, child sex, slave, prostitution, etc.

And the gospel is going to break in. It's going to transform and reshape and destroy some of the assumptions. Sexual sin is a huge theme in Cornithians and what is so helpful is the way Paul is going to confront it. He doesn't just say stop. He doesn't say less than that but he certainly says more. He gives you compelling reasons. He tries to show you the poison of the atmosphere you're currently breathing and say, "You weren't made for that. You've corrupted a good thing! We just like the Cornithians need this:

Lest you come away with some prudish view of Paul, he's going to talk about sexuality and sexual pleasure in it's proper context. He's going to talk about marriage and roles of men and women and he actually commands married people to not abstain from marital intimacy. That's the design. That's where you are supposed to enjoy it!

Hedonism, instead of seeing the boundaries of sex as protecting the design, interprets those walls and fences as barriers to pleasure. So hedonism tries to tear down those perceived restrictions. But hedonism of course is not limited to sexual pleasures.

  • Hedonism can express itself in drunkenness. This was a problem in the church in chapter 11. The gospel has something to say about substance abuse.
  • Hedonism can express itself in greed and we find greed called out in chapter 5. The gospel has something to say about our money.
  • Hedonism can express itself in overeating. And again Paul doesn't shy away. He wants the gospel to shine light into our eating habits. Paul addresses eating over 20 different times in the book.

So there are a thousand ways in which Hedonism can express itself, but there is one solution. And Paul points us straight to it without ambiguity. And the solution is always the same:

The gospel said to the educated:

  • Listen, if you want to be truly educated you need to submit your mind to Christ.
  • The gospel says the same thing to the hedonist, if you want to be truly happy and find true pleasure, you need to submit your desire to Christ.

The issue is a submission issue.

When Paul says, the body was 'meant', he means, 'you were designed.' You were designed to use your body for the Lord, the sovereign, the king, the guy who gets to call the shots. There is something bigger than sensual pleasure out there. This is going to be a big theme. Look bigger. Look beyond the moment.

There's a final group we will look at today. He's going to confront the religious. Let's define the term here a little. Of course Christianity is a religion and so people who believe Christianity, technically would be considered religious people. But when we use the word negatively, we mean, someone who tries to achieve their righteousness by adherence to religious, externals. People who earn their righteousness or find a false identity in their religious performance.

Paul's going to get super stern with people who love religion and not the God to whom the religion points. You see there is always benefit to being a front-runner in your religion.

  • Maybe you are known for being an encourager. And people say to you, man you always encourage me. Well at the point you have the opportunity to turn that back to the glory of God or you can absorb it, accept it, internalize it, have that become part of your identity and allow it to corrode your soul.
  • Maybe you are a good counselor and people say, man you have helped me so much. Thank you.
  • Or maybe you are gifted at discernment and have wisdom.
  • Or maybe you are a good teacher and people say, "Man that was the best lesson I've ever heard on some particular subject."

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about. Paul's is going to confront this attitude in 1 Corinthians. Fill in this blank. I'm more spiritual than you because I do BLANK.

I read my Bible more, I pray more, I serve at church more, I lead this study, I speak in tongues, I read this theology, I went to this school, I do this kind of education with my children.

And the Corinthians had the same problem because of course this is a human problem:

  1. I am more spiritual than you because I don't eat food sacrificed to idols.
  2. I am more spiritual than you because I do eat food sacrificed to idols.
  3. I am more spiritual than you because I speak in tongues
  4. I am more spiritual than you because I can heal people
  5. I am more spiritual than you because I am unmarried and I devote all my time to the Lord.

And again the gospel breaks in. What you do only has value insofar that it is done for the purpose of loving others or honoring the Lord.

If you do all that stuff for some other reason, you are a clanging gong and symbol. It's not about you. It's about God and his honor and his glory!

Paul is going to use all of his effort to re-orient these Christians for God's glory.

Paul wants it to be about God, about his glory, about his people, his church.

So we are on a quest to learn from the gospel atmosphere. Our theme for the year is treasuring Christ. This is the atmosphere Paul wants to infuse.

And atmosphere always shows up in the little stuff, the insignificant stuff, the daily stuff. You've heard the saying, the devil is in the details. Christianity is in the details. Grace is in the details. Love is in the details. Forgiveness is in the details.