ARMisleading Signs, Foolish Wisdom"For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom," Apostle Paul wrote. Today, these two attitudes of disbelief still prevail. Why are they so dangerous?What's deceptive about the demanding of signs and the seeking of wisdom is that these quests constitute seemingly worthy spiritual goals in and of themselves. Hence, they can lead us into that most subtle of traps: straying from the truth precisely when we think that we are pursuing it. Many people think that the beliefs they have settled on and the ways in which they have chosen to live are the best possible ones. But this attitude is exactly where the danger of falling away from God begins.
Most people would never willingly commit
themselves to believing something that they know is wrong.
Many people, in
fact, think that the beliefs they have settled on and the ways in which
they have chosen to live are the best possible ones—otherwise why would
they hold to them? Indeed, regardless of the objective truth or falsehood
of what we believe, we usually have at least the subjective impression
that we are not mistaken.
But this attitude is
exactly where the danger of falling away from God begins. So is there some
kind of standard, some kind of perfect mirror in which to reflect and
self-reflect? In the biblical passage below, Paul shows us how to raise up
the Lord Jesus Christ as just that standard and mirror:
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, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of
God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of
God is stronger than men. (1 Cor 1:22-25)
While this is but a
short passage from one of Paul's letters, what the apostle is getting at
is striking and profound. For when Paul speaks here of Jews and Greeks, he
is not just commenting on two communities of people at a certain time and
in a certain place. He is in fact highlighting two types of disbelief that
existed in his time and that still exist today.
To Paul, disbelief
is not a simple refusal to believe in God, but is something more complex
and insidious. What's deceptive here about the demanding of signs and the
seeking of wisdom is that these quests constitute seemingly worthy
spiritual goals in and of themselves. Hence, they can lead us into that
most subtle of traps: straying from the truth precisely when we think that
we are pursuing it. Let's take a closer look.
To begin with, let's look at the idea of "demanding signs." We
could say that signs have to do with having proof of what we believe. We
might wonder what Paul's problem is with this idea. After all, would you
buy a car before you had first driven it? Would you sign a contract before
you had read the terms? What is so bad about seeking proof for what one
But this desire for
proof is precisely the problem. In a world that demands instant
verification and instant gratification, we as Christians are called to do
something different, to have "assurance of things hoped for, the
conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).
Like Abraham being
called out of his old homeland toward the hope of a better land, we are
called to a new life and a hope of something better than what is before
our eyes. Like the people of Israel, who sank their feet into the roiling
waters of the Jordan in the firm expectation that God would open up the
waters, we too are called to step out in faith, to live with the constant
assurance that God has already taken care of our needs and prepared our
path. When we do so—and only when we do so—we are met with the gracious
response of God.
On another level, seeking after signs is really seeking after power. How
is this so? The people of Jesus' time were constantly asking Him to
perform some sign to show that He was indeed from God. Many of them were
more interested in pyrotechnic displays than in listening to the words of
Jesus, the real source of saving power.
history, it seems that power is the true currency of the world: might is
right, they say, and power is persuasive. It is in this respect, however,
that such a seeking becomes a dangerous sideroad away from the ultimate
sign, which has been given to us once and for all: Christ crucified—and
not only crucified, but resurrected and triumphant over death.
Jesus said, "An
evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be
given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three
days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be
three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew
12:38-39). He also said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I
will raise it up" (John 2:19).
What does this mean?
It means that the cross issues a direct challenge to the prevailing values
of a world that has always been awed by displays of sheer power—brute
strength, might, and force. Instead, Jesus came to show us a completely
different ideal, which He demonstrated by forgiving us, loving us, and
giving Himself up for us before we even knew Him.
On Golgotha there
were no armies and no grand spectacles, only the sight of a lonely man
dying on a cross. But when Jesus rose again, He triumphed over all of the
transient "powers" of this world, over evil, sin, and death
itself. Our crucified and risen Savior is the only sign that we need: the
sign of a new life in Him.
Turning now to the
seekers of wisdom, let me first say that I don't think Paul was making a
blanket statement against any and all attempts of human beings to gain
insight. After all, the Bible itself constantly admonishes us to seek
wisdom, that is, to come to know who God is. Instead, Paul is trying to
identify the dangerous tendencies that a person pursuing wisdom can fall
into. In my mind there are at least two of these tendencies:
misidentifying wisdom with the prevailing "common sense" of the
world, and accepting the assumption that human efforts alone can provide
the answers to life's basic problems.
On the first count, we might be reminded of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount,
which can be found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew. While He addresses Himself
to the adherents of the law of Moses, Jesus was also attacking the way
that people in general have gradually fashioned for themselves a brand of
human wisdom that we might also call the "common sense" or
prevailing wisdom of the world.
Over and over again,
Jesus speaks out against this view, saying "You have heard..."
and answering "But I say to you...." While the prevailing wisdom
of the world tells us not to kill, Jesus tells us not even to hate. While
the prevailing wisdom tells us not to commit adultery, Jesus tells us not
even to tolerate lustful thoughts in our hearts. While the world teaches
us to "love your neighbor and hate your enemy," to practice the
retributive justice of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,"
Jesus teaches us, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute
The Lord wants us
not to be content with being simple rule-followers, following only an
outward shell of goodness or simply submitting to the prevailing
"wisdom," which would convince us that the world is one big,
zero-sum rat race. We are children of God (and not rats!), and the Lord
gives us the insight and the power to rise above the limitations of any
secular system we may find ourselves in. Thus, we live in the plenitude of
God's love, not in the impoverishment of the world's lowered standards.
Second, seekers of wisdom may often fall for the appealing illusion
that human efforts alone will provide the answers to life. We can see this
attitude today in the New Age, pop-psychology messages that teach
self-knowledge and self-empowerment as tools to tap into the power within
ourselves, trying to find acceptance, love, and freedom. While such
messages are attractive and to some extent can bring positive changes in
people's lives, they tend to miss a very basic point. Paul poignantly
reminds us of this point in the eighth chapter of Romans:
For I know that
nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is
right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil
I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no
longer I that do it but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a
law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight
in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another
law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of
sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver
me from this body of death?
This passage tells
us many things. For one thing, it tells us that mere knowledge is not
enough to help us. Just knowing that we should or should not do something
does not in fact give us the power to act accordingly. And this passage
points out a basic fact of human nature: that it is fundamentally flawed,
compromised by evil and the power of sin. That is why any idea or system
that relies only on the innate power of human nature is destined to fail,
for we are not gods, and we are certainly not God.
In the end, it is
the "foolishness" of God, a foolishness that would make Him come
down and die on a cross, that ends up trumping the wisdom of the world.
For the utterly incomprehensible love of God accomplishes what no human
scheme ever could-it opens up a fountain of life through Jesus' blood that
washes us of sin, and it dwells within us as the Spirit to guide us into
His likeness. Finally, we realize that worldly wisdom fails because it
cannot truly transform human nature, and because it cannot save our souls.
God's seeming foolishness is revealed as the highest wisdom of all.
May God grant that
we hold on not to dazzling signs of proof or might, but to the saving
power of His love. May He grant that we seek not prideful and self-reliant
human systems, but the wisdom that comes from knowing Him and being
redeemed by Him.