Relevance is irrelevant (Part 4)
I believe that the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians ought to guide our thinking concerning the relationship of our efforts to minister the grace of Jesus Christ and so-called cultural relevance. This series has been slowly working through those chapters, seeking to understand the words of Paul, and then apply them to our own ministry practice today.
In part 3, we saw how Paul contrasts worldly and godly wisdom. Worldly wisdom seeks to understand the world apart from God’s revelation. Christ is the wisdom of God, especially in the focal point of his person and work, as seen in his death and resurrection. Paul says in 1:22-23,
The 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,
the power of God
and the wisdom of God.
Here is the message no worldling could ever invent. The fancy of natural men is piqued by all sorts of different things (here signs for Jews and wisdom for Greeks), but the revealed message of God concerning the redemption for men through the crucified Christ is the only hope of salvation.
Paul’s main point remains that it is the preaching of the cross that works effectively in bringing men and women to Christ. In mere preaching God wants to bring wretched men and women to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. As I said in part 2, the message of our preaching points to Christ and as such sets him before sinners as the only hope of salvation, and thus in the foolishness of preaching God works to bring men to Christ. Preaching here is the proclamation of the revealed message of God that salvation comes through the crucified Christ.
Having shown that in mere preaching God brings sinners to himself through Jesus Christ, he now turns to the Corinthians themselves as hard evidence that God’s ways are not man’s ways. This too emphasizes the contrast between worldly wisdom and godly wisdom.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:26-29).
Paul says to the Corinthians, “Look around you. Look at the kinds of people who fill your pews. Not many of you are philosophers or smart, not many of you are doing miracles, and not many of you have ‘blue blood.'” If we were trying to construct our own religion, and we could pick anyone we like to join our cult, we’d want people with prestige, power, and academic brilliance among the people we chose to join our ranks. But God doesn’t work that way. Even in the kinds of people God is working to save, God is showing that he does not work according to man’s vain wisdom. By saving the unexpected, God glorifies himself and his own wisdom above the empty opinions of men.
Frankly, I think it is amusing how worked up Christians get when they find out some celebrity or professional athlete or renowned scholar is a Christian. It’s as if this paragraph was never written. But we look at such phenoms as a kind of bolster for our own faith. We so rarely see the important people of this world confessing Christ that we think that those who are important somehow vindicate our beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is of God’s great condescension and mercy that even saves celebrities, actors, professional athletes, or renowned scholars. Ultimately, this fawning over Christian celebrities betrays our own lack of faith in God. We ought to believe God’s message about Christ simply because it is the message that has come to us from the greatest being in the universe, the Almighty, All-wise God himself. Christianity’s truth has nothing to do with the celebrities who profess Christ. It has everything to do with the God who has revealed himself in Christ.
That said, I am grateful for celebrities who happen to be Christian and I pray that they humbly and faithfully serve the Lord and Master and seek to defray human glory in an age that worships it. Moreover, Paul’s words in vv 26-29 do not mean that God never chooses those who are wise, powerful, or well-born, but that, as a matter of fact, it is not his custom, in order that he might always get the glory.
Unfortunately, American evangelicalism has tried to leverage worldly celebrity culture for evangelism as well. We see churches scheduling big names to draw a crowd and thereby bring men and women to Christ. This practice directly contradicts Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 1. God doesn’t care about worldly celebrity. He wants to glorify his Son. God wants it so that “no human being may boast in the presence of God” (1:29). Woe to us if we regard the celebrity that God deliberately avoids, even if we regard the celebrity in order to save souls! We are not desperate people, for the message of the cross is the power of God (1:18). We do not need to stoop to these tactics. Of course, despite our best efforts to mess up the stewardship God has given to us as his ambassadors in the use of such gimmicks, God still genuinely and graciously saves men and women. But even such genuine fruit does not justify the methods employed.
God wants to turn worldly wisdom on its head. See the proof again when you gather with your fellow believers this coming Lord’s Day. Your pews will be filled, not with the smart, nor with the miracle workers, nor even with many well-born, but with simple, ordinary sinners, all of whom have experienced the saving power of God through Jesus Christ crucified.
About Ryan Martin
Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).