Every time I see it, it still looks to me like it should be gold. Have you ever seen it? It is a mineral called pyrite—a shiny mineral made up of iron and sulfur that forms in tiny cubic crystals. It glimmers and shines, just as you’d imagine real gold would. Many a prospector has come across this “gold” and thought it was the real deal, only to find out later that it was not real gold at all. Thus, pyrite came to be known as “fool’s gold.” Having a science degree in my background, I have trained my kids to examine rocks with a magnifying glass to see the crystals in them. My eight year old son has a rock with pyrite in his mineral collection and every time he sees it, he asks “Are you sure that’s not real gold, Mom?” And every time, I have to crush his hopes by telling him the truth. In the rock world, he has had to learn the famous cliché, “All that glitters is not gold.” However, the harder lessons will come when he has to learn this in the real world. All that looks to be true and right and valuable is not. Some things, although they may glitter and shine, are at the core really only one thing: “fool’s gold.”
This is a lesson that does not come easily to anyone. There is much in this world that seems good and pure and right, but at the core, it is not as wonderful as it appears to be. This is especially true with the worldviews, thinking, and philosophies of our culture. They may seem right to our own finite minds, but in the end, they turn out to be empty and worthless. This is a truth that is taught clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 as Paul compares the wisdom of this world with God’s wisdom. He teaches that the wisdom of this world, although it may look good, is really just a chunk of fool’s gold.
The worst thing about this worldly wisdom is that it is in stark contradiction to the gospel. As Paul states, at the heart of the gospel is one main thing: “Christ crucified” (v. 23, Christ meaning “Messiah”). And to the people of that day, “Christ crucified” was a huge problem. Paul discusses two groups of people in Corinthian culture whose philosophies led them to have trouble with the gospel: the Jews and the Greeks.
The gospel was a scandal to the Jews because instead of the powerful, royal Messiah-King who they were waiting for to raise them up again as a mighty nation, they got a humble, carpenter king who was killed as a criminal. As Paul says in verse 22, “Jews demand signs,” which they did often during Jesus’ time on earth—miraculous displays of his divine power that would prove that he was the Messiah. Jesus hanging on a cross was certainly NOT the sign they were looking for. They wanted a strong and powerful earthly King, but they got a King who would not take himself down from the cross…in their minds, a weak King. They wanted a King who would lead them to victory over their enemies, but instead, they got a King who was crucified by his enemies…in their minds, a defeated King. The whole idea of Jesus being their long awaited Messiah was problematic to say the least. Therefore, “Christ crucified” was a stumbling block to their believing the gospel. They just could not—would not—accept it. To them, the gospel was weak and shameful…scandalous.
The Greeks also could not stomach “Christ crucified.” To them, it was illogical. The gospel entered the Greek world just after the period of the famous philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The Greeks cherished reason, logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of wisdom. As Paul states: they “search for wisdom” (v. 22). To them, this Jesus, a humble carpenter criminal, was certainly not like the wise, learned, and scholarly philosophers they followed. The fact that this crucified criminal claimed to be God was also strange, as their gods were powerful superheroes who ruled the natural world with strength and power. Moreover, the fact that Christianity taught that one could not be good enough for God through their own hard work contradicted their idea that one could be good through reason and intellect. Thus, to them, the gospel was foolish, stupid, dumb…sheer madness.
There is a foundational error in thinking that lies at the core of each of these two worldviews. It is an error that has permeated every culture since the beginning of time, seen even in the thinking of the very first created beings. The error is this: “I know better than God.” Adam and Eve doubted God and questioned the fact that this wonderful fruit could be off limits. They thought they knew how to do things better than God. This error is still alive and well in our culture. How many times have you heard these statements or perhaps thought them yourself: “How could Jesus have done all those miracles? I don’t see stuff like that happening today, so how could it have happened then? And Jesus rising from the dead?! Well, it is all just ludicrous. Anyone who believes those things is just plain naive.” How about, “I don’t believe a loving God would send anyone to hell. Look at me, I’m a good person, especially compared to all the good for nothings in the world. How is it that I don’t deserve heaven?” This is a popular one: “How can it be that there is only one way to heaven? I just think if someone believes something strongly enough and is a good person, they should be fine. Muslim, Buddhist, Christian…it doesn’t matter. Jesus as the only way? Well, that doesn’t seem fair and is certainly not tolerant.”
Do you see it? The same core thinking of the Corinthians’ world is here. The gospel is scandalous. It is sheer madness. It is certainly not in line with our thinking, our experience, and the way we would do things. Thus, it must not be right. So, in our time and culture, just as in Corinth, many people reject the gospel on the grounds that it doesn’t fit their paradigm. This includes, of course, many of the finest scholars and most powerful and influential people in society. Their prideful self-assured arrogance that they know the best way for things to work in this world clashes with the way of God. Human wisdom and the worldview of a culture gone awry dominates their thinking. And through this faulty wisdom, they find no true path to God. What they consider wise is actually foolish because it doesn’t lead them to the thing they need most of all: God. “The world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (v. 21). What they say about the gospel, that it is foolish, is actually the word that is most appropriate for their kind of thinking. This is what Paul asserts here, saying, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world” (v. 20). The wisdom of the world is fool’s gold and nothing more. There is no treasure within.
So what about those of us who believe the gospel? Are we better than those who don’t? Not at all! Although we may be better off, we are certainly not better. For it is “by His doing” that we have been saved through the gospel (v. 30). It is not due to our merit, our goodness, our wisdom, or our reasoning. It is all because of Him. And for this reason, we should not “boast” before God or anyone else. We have nothing on our own to be confident in. The only thing we have to boast about is the fact that we are sinners saved by a crucified Messiah, the true wisdom in the world.
Wisdom, just like a rock that appears to be gold, needs to be tested. Did you know that there are some simple tests to use for differentiating fool’s gold from real gold? One is to hit it with a hammer. Fool’s gold is brittle and will break easily. Real gold is stronger and will not shatter. When the world’s wisdom is tested, it never holds up. And on one great day, the world’s wisdom will be shattered completely. It will be shown for what it really is: fool’s gold…a common rock that may shine and shimmer in the world’s light, but is empty of true, real, and lasting value. Oh, that we would not be drawn in by those empty philosophies that contradict God’s Word and distort our thinking! Oh, that we would stand firm in our faith with a confidence that is unshakeable, knowing that we hold the true treasure in our hearts! Oh, that we would not hesitate to share this true wisdom, the precious gospel, with every person we come in contact with! For it is us, those considered “fools” by the world, who have the real gold, the true gold, the pure gold…our Messiah crucified. And we can rest assured that our treasure will never shatter, break, or fade, but will last for all eternity.