What sort of people does God look for when he gets ready to populate heaven? If heaven has an admissions committee, what qualifications do committee members look for? That’s not an idle question. We tell our young people that before they apply to a particular college, they need to find out what the admissions committee is looking for when they evaluate prospective students. Is it grades? Test scores? References? Work experience? Extracurricular activities? Creative ability? Whatever it is, you’d better know what it is and you’d better make sure you’ve got what they want before you turn in your application.
So what is heaven looking for from prospective residents? Perhaps it is education. Surely God wants smart people in heaven. Maybe it’s power. I think God would want people who know how to get things done. Type A personalities might have an edge. What about those who are well-connected? We all need friends in high places from time to time. So maybe that matters in heaven. Wealth is a given. Surely God wants rich people in heaven. Ditto for beauty. There’s no room for ugly people in paradise. So you write all this down, turn it in to the admissions committee, and a few minutes later your application is returned to you in shreds. What happened? You missed it by a mile. All the things we think that God wants in heaven turn out to be totally wrong.
The Corinthians made the same mistake. They thought God made a list, they thought they knew what was on the list, and they thought they qualified. Wrong, wrong, wrong. If you scratch a little deeper, you discover that they made three fundamental errors in their thinking:
They replaced Christ with human wisdom.
They replaced the cross with their own ability.
They replaced grace with worldly status.
In I Corinthians1:26-31 Paul pulls the rug out from underneath them and turns their thinking upside down to show how wrong they were. If you want the message of this passage in one sentence, here it is: God won’t tolerate human pride, so he chooses people who have nothing to brag about.
I. The Fact Stated v. 26
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth"(I Corinthians 1:26
). Paul begins by reminding them of what they were when God saved them. The word “called” refers to their position in the world when they came to Christ. Not many of them came from the educated or upper classes of society. Not many had what the world calls “good breeding.” (The term “noble birth” translates a Greek word from which we get the English word “eugenics.” The Corinthians by and large did not come from “blueblood.") In a sense, he holds up a mirror and says, “Take a good look. What do you see?” If they were honest, they didn’t see many impressive people. They saw ordinary men and women, from undistinguished backgrounds, whose lives had been utterly transformed by Jesus Christ.
Memory can be a blessing or a curse. In the spiritual life, it can be very healthy to remember what life was like before we met Jesus. If you remember where you started, you’ll appreciate much more the grace of God that has brought you to where you are today.
There is an important message here if we care to receive it. God prefers losers. When God calls people to his family, he intentionally chooses those whom the world rejects. He prefers the weak over the strong, the forgotten over the famous, the nobodies over the somebodies. Do you remember what it was like in grade school when they chose teams for baseball or for kickball? I can remember it vividly because I was almost never among those chosen first. Back then I was tall and skinny and wore glasses and had no visible athletic talent. I was awkward and gawky and nothing like the athletes who were always chosen as captains. I remember how it would go. Mike Massingill would usually be one of the captains. Then maybe Bob Rogers would be the other one. The rest of the boys would stand in the middle. Jack Harris … John Payne … Tommy Thompson … Gene Ellison … Mike Akins … One by one, the best athletes were chosen for one of the teams. Those of us in the middle huddled together as the group became smaller and smaller. I didn’t pray much back then, but when I did, my prayer was always, “Please don’t let me be chosen last.” When they got down to the last few, they dealt with us in groups: “I’ll take Nelson, Pritchard and Smith. You take Porter, Lewis and Malone.” And that’s how it was for those of us who were not blessed with unusual athletic ability. Every recess brought forth the agony of wondering if and when we would be chosen.
Our text tells us that when God chooses his team, he starts with the people the world chooses last. He actually prefers to choose the weak instead of the strong. We must not miss the implication of this teaching. It’s not as if God intends to take equal numbers from every social class in the world. And it’s definitely not true that God populates the church from the upper classes but sprinkles in a few from the lower classes. The opposite is closer to the truth. God populates his church with the rejects of the world and then sprinkles in a few wealthy and powerful people. He prefers losers. God deliberately chooses the forgotten of the world and he prefers the company of the poor. He loves to save the uneducated, the foolish, the addicted, the broken, the downcast and the imprisoned. In short, he specializes in saving those whom the world counts as nothing.
II. The Reason Given vv. 27-29
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (I Corinthians 1:27-29
). In these verses Paul makes his teaching even clearer. God chooses “weak things” and “lowly things” and “despised things” and even “things that are not.” These “things” are actually people—weak people, lowly people, despised people, and people who are invisible to the world. In short, God makes a choice, and the choice he makes is to choose the people the world would never choose. The words of Isaiah 55:8
come to mind, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” Here’s a simple way to remember this truth: God is different. Ponder that statement for a moment. God is different from us. He is different in what he thinks and he is different in what he does. He does not do what we expect him to do because his thinking is entirely different from ours. He nullifies the mighty by using the weak instead. He nullifies the proud by using the humble. He nullifies the wise by using the simple. He nullifies the professional by using the blue-collar worker. He nullifies the Ph.D. by using the high school dropout. God’s “nullification” demonstrates how fundamentally different he is from us. This truth—elementary as it may seem—is actually quite vital to a healthy Christian worldview. Our God stands alone. He does not bind himself to do what we think he ought to do. He is holy and he is sovereign and he is absolutely free to do whatever he pleases to do. He can humble the proud any time he chooses. He knows how to bring down an NBA superstar and he knows how to humble a talk show superstar. No one has the power to stand against him.
Note that three times Paul refers to God’s choosing of certain people. This is the doctrine of sovereign choice. It is the biblical doctrine of election. These words mean exactly what they seem to mean. If we have a problem with them, the problem does not rest in the Greek text or the English translation. We may not like the idea that God chooses whom he will save, but that’s exactly the meaning of these words.
Consider the implication of the text. When the world throws a party, the beautiful people are always invited. You know the names: Ben Affleck, J-Lo, Britney Spears, Tom Cruise, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and the rest of the current crop of Hollywood superstars. They rent a nightclub and hire a security team to keep the ordinary people out. Only the “in crowd” makes it past the rope line. Helicopters circle overhead and the paparazzi strain to a get a picture they can sell to People magazine. It’s all about who shows up and who is wearing what kind of dress, and trying to match this man with that woman. That’s how the world throws a party. But God does it differently. Jesus told a story in Luke 14 about a certain man who invited many guests to a huge banquet. All the invited guests made a series of excuses—they were too busy, they had other plans, they had business to attend to, and a hundred other “legitimate” excuses. So the master ordered his servants to go out into the highways and byways and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. When that had been done, there were still some empty seats so he told his servants to go out into the country roads and find anyone who had been overlooked and invite them to come to the party because the master declared that every seat must be taken. If those who had been invited first would not come, then the master would go after the outcasts who would never otherwise come to such a fine affair. That’s how God does it. He goes after the people the world overlooks because the “beautiful people” have no interest in coming to him for salvation.
Do you recall the occasion when Herod threw John the Baptist in jail? No doubt confused and frustrated by his incarceration, John sent messengers to Jesus with a very pertinent question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-3). That’s the right question to ask of Jesus. Is he the one sent from heaven, or is there someone else who will be our Savior? Is he really the promised Messiah? The circumstances may have changed, but the question is the same one this generation is asking: “Jesus, are you the one or should we look elsewhere?” The answer our Lord gives is very instructive. Go back, he says, and tell John what you have seen. Then he lists five miracles:
The blind see.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cured.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
Note what he didn’t say: “Tell John that I am the fulfillment of the Messianic promises of the Old Testament.” That is true but he didn’t say it. “Tell John that I can walk on water.” Also true but he didn’t say that either. “Tell John that I make the Pharisees look like fools.” Very true, but also not mentioned. Jesus essentially says, “Go back and tell John that in my name, the hurting people of the world are being totally transformed.” That was the ultimate proof.
But there is one other part of Jesus’ answer that we must notice. After giving those astounding statements, he adds one more thing that may seem anticlimactic to us: “The poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). This was the highest proof of all. Jesus validated his Messiahship by preaching the gospel to the poor. He is no “country club Savior” who prefers to party with the high and mighty. Jesus is no “front-runner,” always trying to please the power brokers of the world. He specializes in preaching to those whom the world disdains.
God does it this way for three reasons:
1) To destroy all human pride,
2) So that no one can boast, and
3) So that all would be equal in God’s family.
We need to hear this word because American Christianity is entertainment-oriented and celebrity-driven. We are far too prone to swoon over the latest “celebrity conversion” and to rush the latest “hot convert” to the pulpit so that we can all applaud and congratulate ourselves on catching such a big fish for God. We are not immune to that at Calvary—nor am I immune to this personally. When I first came as pastor of this church, there was a certain very important person with a large public reputation who attended our church. To be precise, he had attended some years earlier and had left to go elsewhere. But he came on my first Sunday at Calvary and attended another six or seven times over my first couple of years at the church. I know how many times he came because every time he came, every single time, someone (usually several people) would come rushing up to me with the news, “Pastor Ray, Mr. So-and-So is here. You’d better go and say hello to him.” It was big news because he was so well known. And I guess it made us feel better somehow that he was here. Things haven’t changed much. A few months ago, people came rushing up to me with this news: “Pastor Ray, Steven Curtis Chapman is here today.” It was true, and I met him, and I’m happy to report that he was a very gracious, humble, unassuming sort of person. Not at all the celebrity persona you might have expected. For that matter, the “very important person” from years ago was also quite friendly. To be clear about it, I’m happy when anyone visits the church, and I am happy when well-known or popular people drop in to see us. That’s always an encouraging thing. Nothing wrong with celebrities coming to church and nothing wrong with being glad to see them. But I’ve been waiting for someone to say, “Pastor Ray, guess what? We’ve got two prostitutes visiting the church today. Isn’t that wonderful?” Or “Pastor Ray, there’s a man here with AIDS and he wants to know Jesus.” Or “Pastor Ray, here’s a single mother with six children. This is her first time at Calvary.” Or “Pastor Ray, this man just got out of jail and he came to worship with us today.” The sin is not that we make much of the celebrities, it’s that we make so much less of the other people who visit us. And while I’m on the subject, I should mention that occasionally someone will say, “I wish so-and-so would get saved. They have so much to offer,” which usually means they have money they could give. Is God so broke that he needs another banker in his family? Is God so confused about the economy that he needs another stockbroker on his team? Nothing could be more worldly than valuing lost people based what we think they could contribute to God’s Kingdom.
III. The Purpose Explained vv. 30-31
“It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’” (I Corinthians 1:30-31
). The reason God does what he does is to demonstrate that he alone is the source of our salvation. “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.” It’s not your wisdom or your intellect or your memorized Bible verses that brought you to Jesus. And you are not a Christian because you are a good person or a church member or because your father was a preacher and your mother was a Sunday School teacher. Paul says plainly: “It is because of him.” Salvation is of the Lord. God wants us to know that he is the reason we came to Christ. And in Christ we find wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption. If we believe this, then our boast will be in the Lord alone. When it comes to salvation, we contribute nothing but the sin that makes it necessary to be saved. God does the rest. God chooses whom he pleases, and he does so by choosing those whom the world overlooks.
If we believe what this passage teaches, it will change the way we look at ourselves, and it will change the way we talk about ourselves. Some of us talk so much about ourselves that we hardly talk about the Lord at all. Our real problem is the vast difference between our view and God’s view.
We look at the outward; God looks at the inward.
We value popularity; God values character.
We look at intelligence; God looks at the heart.
We honor those with money; God honors those with integrity.
We talk about what we own; God talks about what we give away.
We boast about whom we know; God notices whom we serve.
We list our accomplishments; God looks for a contrite heart.
We value education; God values wisdom.
We love size; God notices quality.
We live for fame; God searches for humility.
Our view is shallow; God’s view is deep.
Our view is temporary; God’s view is eternal.
At the end of the day, we discover that God destroys human pride two ways:
1) By sending a Savior to die on a hated Roman cross,
2) By choosing the weak over the strong to be part of his family.
We wouldn’t have done it this way, but that brings us back to the fundamental point that God is different. He doesn’t play by our rules.
Before I finish, let me say a word about the Chicago Cubs. For 95 years, since their last World Series victory in 1908, they have been known to the world as “loveable losers.” Generations of fans have cheered them on, only to be heartbroken at the end of the season. It’s been 58 years since the Cubs made to the World Series, and 95 years since they won it all. That’s a long dry spell that may at last come to an end in the next few days. I thought about the term “lovable losers” as I prepared this message. That strikes me as a good description of those whom God chooses for his church. No matter where we come from, in God’s eyes we are all just “lovable losers.” In the spiritual sense, we’re all Cubs now. When God chooses members for his team, he doesn’t look for superstars. He goes after “lovable losers” and he picks them out one by one. “But I can’t pitch,” you say to the Lord. “I can’t hit or field or bat. I don’t even know how to play baseball.” It doesn’t matter, the Lord replies. “Jesus is the captain of the team, and he’s never lost a game yet.” There is a method to God’s selection process. When the team finally wins, Jesus alone will be the credit, not the “lovable losers” who played alongside him. We didn’t do so well, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because the Captain of our Salvation won the victory, and when he won, we won with him.
By arranging things this way, God destroys human pride and glorifies his Son at the same time. Only God could have conceived of a way that losers could become winners through association with his Son.
Boast in the Lord. Make much of him. Praise his name.
We were made to boast in the Lord.
We were created to magnify his name.
We were born to honor him.
This is God’s will for you. Turn from all boasting in yourself and come to Christ. Trust in him. Open your heart to him. Come and see for yourself how the weak are made strong by his mighty power. See how the despised are exalted in him. Behold how the lowly are made great by his grace. This is my final word to you. From one lovable loser to another: Let him who boasts boast in the Lord. Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.