1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.The first of those problems is divisions in the church, which he has dealt with in verses 10-17—and which he will deal with at more length in chapter 3.
Now Paul turns his attention to the cross of Christ. The cross raises issues for both Jews and Greeks (Gentiles). Corinth is a Greek city, but has a substantial Jewish population. While living in Corinth, Paul worked among both Jews and Greeks, and both were represented in the Corinthian church. The cross of Christ seemed like foolishness both to the Jews, who expected a powerful Messiah—and to the Greeks, who placed a high value on human wisdom (Greek: sophia). To the Jews, the cross appeared to be weakness, not strength. To the Greeks, the cross appeared to be foolishness, not wisdom. Paul addresses both of these perceptions in these verses.
1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-25. THE CROSS IS FOOLISHNESS TO THOSE WHO ARE DYING
18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom (sophia) of the wise,
I will bring the discernment (synesis) of the discerning (synetos) to nothing“ (atheteo).
20Where is the wise (sophos)? Where is the scribe (grammateus)? Where is the lawyer (suzetetes) of this world (houtos ho aion)? Hasn’t God made foolish (moraino) the wisdom of this world (ho kosmos sophia)? 21For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching(kerygma) to save those who believe. 22For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling (skandalon) block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying“ (v. 18a). This verse introduces the rest of this chapter, where Paul contrasts the wisdom of the world (human wisdom) with the wisdom of God, which finds its highest expression in the apparent foolishness of the cross of Christ. For those who pride themselves on their own wisdom, the cross appears to be foolishness—nonsense. Why would God send his Son to die on a cross? By the standards of human wisdom, it makes no sense! But human wisdom, attractive as it might seem on the surface, has no saving power. No matter how intelligent they might be, people who depend on human wisdom alone are perishing. They are like people whose ship has gone down in the middle of a great ocean. Even if they have Olympic swimming skills, those people would have no hope of reaching shore on their own. They need a lifeboat or, better yet, a ship to save them. The ultimate foolishness for such people would be to refuse help from a rescue vessel.
“but to us who are saved it is the power of God“ (v. 18b). Those who are being saved have acknowledged their powerlessness and God’s power. They understand that they cannot defeat the sin that threatens to dominate their lives, and so they have learned to trust in the grace of God. That grace was manifested most fully at the cross of Christ, where Christ not only prayed that God would forgive those who crucified him, but also opened the door to forgiveness for all who would come to believe in him. Thus the cross, which seems like foolishness to those who are steeped in human wisdom, is really the instrument of salvation for those who are being saved.
“For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom (sophia) of the wise, I will bring the discernment(synesis) of the discerning (synetos) to nothing’“ (atheteo) (v. 19). Corinth is Greek, and the ancient Greeks are proud of their wisdom and their great philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The word philosophy comes from two Greek words, phileo, which means “to love” and sophia, which means “wisdom.” The Greeks love wisdom, and pride themselves on their knowledge and understanding.
But Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah to tell the Corinthian church that God will “destroy the wisdom of the wise” and thwart the discernment of the discerning. The quotation comes from Isaiah 29:14b, which says: “the wisdom of their wise men will perish, and the understanding of their prudent men will be hidden.” Human wisdom (sophia) and discernment (synesis—understanding) have their roots in disciplines such as history and science. Such disciplines promise to enlighten us so that our future will be brighter than our past.
This kind of wisdom holds real promise. We enjoy a quality of life, with indoor plumbing and central heat and automobiles, which would have been the envy of princes and kings from an earlier generation. Modern drilling techniques allow us to extract oil from places that were inaccessible even a decade ago. Modern technology makes it possible for us to track down terrorists before they can act. Modern medicine makes it possible for us to live longer and more pain-free lives than ever before.
However, the lessons of history and science have failed to bring us real security, and new solutions often create new problems. We are no closer to solving the problem of evil than our ancestors were a thousand years ago. Unlocking the secrets of the atom has given us cheap energy, but has created massive piles of nuclear waste—and has given us cause to fear annihilation. We still have wars and rumors of wars. Tyrants continue to dominate nations large and small across the globe. Our sophisticated weapons give us a temporary advantage over our enemies, but are often thwarted by primitive, low-cost technologies. The comforts of heating, air conditioning, and automobiles have come at the cost of depleting the earth’s precious resources and polluting the air. Even modern medicine, for which I have reason to be very grateful, has left us with such problems as financing the medical needs of an aging population and trying to determine when to pull the plug.
So God (through Isaiah and Paul) says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, I will bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing.” Can we doubt that God has done just that? It isn’t as if he steps in to thwart us each time we make some sort of progress. It seems instead that he has devised a law of nature as real as gravity—that human wisdom is always finite and often creates new problems as it solves old ones.
“Where is the wise (sophos)? Where is the scribe (grammateus)? Where is the lawyer (suzetetes) of this world (houtos ho aion)? (v. 20a). Paul continues his argument by listing some examples of people known for their wisdom:
• The sophos, the philosopher, the traditional arbiter of wisdom for the Greeks.
• The grammateus, the scribe or teacher, the traditional arbiter of wisdom for the Jews.
• The suzetetes, the debater, skilled in the arts of rhetoric (the art of preparing persuasive arguments) and oratory (the art of public speaking). Persuasive people enjoy a good deal of power. In ancient Greece, the suzetetes had it even better. The Greeks regarded suzetetes with the kind of fawning adulation that many people today regard rock stars. But Paul calls such people syzetetes houtos ho aion—the debater of this age. In the New Testament, “this age” is a negative phrase that is usually contrasted with “the age to come” or “eternal life” (Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; 20:34-35; Ephesians 1:21). Paul uses “this age” to speak of wisdom and rulers who are temporary—doomed to perish (1 Corinthians 2:6). So when Paul talks about “the debater of this age,” he is talking about a person who enjoys power now, but whose power will inevitably turn to dust. Such power is not transferable to the kingdom of God.
“Hasn’t God made foolish (moraino) the wisdom of this world?“ (ho kosmos sophia) (v. 20b). God has made foolish the purveyors of human wisdom. God regularly makes those who possess ho kosmos sophia (the wisdom of this world) look like moraino—fools—morons.
The phrase, ho kosmos sophia (the wisdom of this world) is almost an oxymoron—a combination of contradictory words, such as “essential luxury” or “authentic replica.” The New Testament uses the word kosmos for the world that is opposed to God. How can a kosmos that is antagonistic to God be wise? It isn’t possible!
However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that God loved the kosmos—loved it so much that he sent his only Son to save the people of the kosmos (John 3:16).
“For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world (kosmos) through its wisdom didn’t know God“(v. 21a). In his wisdom, God did not structure things so we can know him through our wisdom. We can know him only by revelation. It is only as God chooses to reveal himself to us that we can know him.
In the book of Romans, Paul says that God has revealed himself so that even evil people can see him plainly. However, many people choose to ignore this revelation. They don’t honor God. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and traded the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals, and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23). How can a person who worships an idol made of wood or stone claim to be wise?
“it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching (kerygma) to save those who believe“ (v. 21b). God, in his wisdom, chose to reveal himself, not through human wisdom, but through the apparent foolishness of preaching (kerygma). The kerygma of the New Testament can be summarized as the “proclamation of the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus that led to evaluation of His person as both Lord and Christ, (confronting) man with the necessity of repentance and (promising) the forgiveness of sins” (Mounce, 9). The kerygma, therefore, is God-given rather than the product of human effort or wisdom. The kerygma is centered on the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. It is by those actions that God has chosen to redeem the world.
The cross of Christ seems like foolishness to those who refuse to believe. Why would God send his Son to die on a cross? Why not send him as the head of a mighty army? Why not send him with magical powers to set everything straight? The answer, of course, is that while God wants to save the world, he wants to do it by wooing and winning people rather than by coercing them. He wants us to be free to choose.
“For Jews ask for signs“ (v. 22a). Demanding signs is one form of idolatry. To demand a sign is to insist that God prove himself. It is to insist that God jump through our hoops and do it our way. Jesus did work miracles, but had no use for those who demanded signs (Matthew 16:1-4; John 2:23-25; 4:48).
Paul says that the Jews demand signs, but people of every stripe demand signs and miracles. Some demand to see medical miracles. Others expect God to find them a parking place in a crowded city—or a new job—or whatever happens to be their need for the moment. They want a God who is like a concierge or a bellboy—a servant to do their bidding.
“Greeks seek after wisdom“ (v. 22b). As noted above, Greeks cherished their sophia—their wisdom—their philosophies—their sophistication. This is the temptation to which Greeks were most susceptible—but their wisdom had no saving power.
Once again, we should note that this temptation is present with us today. We are often swayed by people who seem to be wise but turn out to be merely glib. We are often swayed by various expressions of human wisdom. We are overly impressed by academic degrees. We too quickly dismantle our defenses when we hear, “Scientific studies reveal….”
“but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling (skandalon) block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks“ (v. 23). The Jews demand signs and the Greeks desire wisdom, but Paul has something quite different to offer them. He “proclaim(s) Christ crucified.” This is a skandalon (stumbling block, scandal, offense) to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles—and that’s no wonder. Crucifixion was not only a cruel way to die, but it was also shameful. The Romans reserved crucifixion for the worst offenders. A public crucifixion showed passersby what could happen to them if they committed a crime against Rome. Crucifixion was designed to inspire fear and loathing.
So it is no wonder that the Jews would see Christ’s crucifixion as a stumbling block—and that the Gentiles would see it as foolishness—folly carried to the nth degree.
But Christ crucified is what God gave us.
“but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God“ (v. 24). Paul labels the members of the Christian community “those who are the called.” The concept of God calling people is found in both Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God called Abram, Moses, and others for particular missions. In the New Testament, Jesus called Paul to quit persecuting the church and to become an apostle. God also issues less specific calls. He calls all of us to be in relationship with him. In the New Testament, the word election (Greek: ekloge) is used for this kind of call. The community of faith, the church, is said to be called by God to be his people.
To those who are called by God, the cross suddenly makes sense. What seemed crazy when we were on the outside looking in suddenly comes into focus once we have an insider’s view. We are able to see that the cross is not foolishness at all, but is instead the power and wisdom of God. It is powerful, because it has the power to save. It is wise, because Christ’s death on the cross says more clearly than anything else that God’s love for us has no bounds.
“Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men“ (v. 25). The cross is wise and powerful because it is God’s initiative. God is both wise and powerful, so any initiative of God’s will proceed out of wisdom and will have a powerful effect. That is not true of human schemes, because human schemes proceed out of our limited understanding and often fail to accomplish what they are intended to do.
But many people find it difficult to see that, because they are invested in their personal wisdom or strength and cannot find it in their hearts to defer to God’s plan of salvation.
1 CORINTHIANS 1:26-31. GOD CHOSE THE FOOLISH THINGS TO SHAME THE WISE
26For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; 27but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; 28and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: 29that no flesh should boast before God. 30But of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness (dikaiosyne) and sanctification (hagiasmos), and redemption (apolytrosis): 31that, according as it is written, “He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.”
“For you see your calling, brothers“ (v. 26a). An important part of the Jewish and Christian heritage is the call of such people as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. However, the memory of such historic personages is covered with the patina of greatness, so that the ordinary person cannot imagine having anything in common with such towering figures. But Paul has already introduced the idea that God also calls other people—even ordinary people (v. 24). Now he tells these Corinthian Christians, who have made a rather bad job of acting out their faith, that God has called them too.
Paul, as a highly educated man and an apostle, is clearly their superior in every way, but he addresses these Corinthian Christians as brothers and sisters. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. While the Corinthian Christians need to acknowledge Paul’s authority as an apostle and appreciate his role as the founder of the church at Corinth, they also need to know that they are his Christian brothers and sisters—not his subjects.
“that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble“ (v. 26b). Paul’s point of mentioning that God called these Corinthian Christians has to do with their humble origins and status. God did not call them because they were wise or powerful or of noble birth. God didn’t need for them to be wise and powerful, because God is wise and powerful (v. 24b). God has called them to join themselves to him, so they can become wise, powerful, and noble by virtue of their relationship to him.
“but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong“(v. 27). Not only did God not need these Corinthian Christians to be wise, powerful, and members of the nobility. He deliberately chose them because they were none of these things. If they had been among the “beautiful people” of the world, people would have been disposed to give them credit and not to recognize the hand of God at work in their lives.
If I may introduce a metaphor here, Einstein’s teacher would not tend to receive much credit, because people would see that Einstein was brilliant and would assume that he didn’t need much instruction. In like manner, if God were to call primarily those who are brilliant and talented, people would be distracted by the brilliance and talent of the “beautiful people”—and would therefore miss seeing the hand of God at work in those people’s lives—and would therefore miss being drawn to the God who can save them.
But nobody would be distracted by the brilliance and exceptional talents of the Corinthian Christians, because they are such ordinary people. When God transforms them into people of spiritual depth and substance, nobody will likely miss that it is the hand of God that has done that.
So God, in his wisdom, chose the foolish and weak to shame the wise and strong. Nobody will be distracted by the towering presence of the Corinthians, because they have no towering presence. If something good happens in their lives, people will give God the glory—and be drawn to the God who does marvelous things with such marginal people.
I might add that people with conspicuous talent are especially tempted by the sin of pride, and therefore often stumble. One of my most conspicuously talented seminary professors dishonored himself by sexual misconduct. One of my most conspicuously talented fellow students left the church after a divorce brought on, in large measure, by the shameful manner in which he treated his wife. The race is not always to the swift.
“and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are“ (v. 28). There is something in us that enjoys seeing someone let the air out of a “puffed up” person. We don’t like pompous people who hold a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of everyone else.
God seems to share this point of view. He bypassed the high and mighty in favor of the low and despised, and did so for the purpose of bringing down the high and mighty.
Jesus, on several occasions, told us that the first would be last and the last would be first (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30)—and “Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all” (Mark 10:44). This is the Great Reversal. “Lasts become firsts by grace; firsts become lasts by hubris” (Bruner, 726).
“that no flesh should boast before God“ (v. 29). Once we read further in this letter, it will be apparent that these Corinthian Christians have little to boast about. Their church is riven with divisions (chapter 3). They have been guilty of ignoring sexual immorality in their midst (chapter 5). They have been harassing each other with lawsuits (chapter 6). They have behaved badly during the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11).
Nevertheless, the Corinthian Christians have been arrogant and boastful, saying, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Christ” (1:12).
Such people remind me of the tiny dogs that yap incessantly and try to challenge everyone in their path. They seem to need to prove themselves. Large dogs seldom feel a need to assert themselves in those ways. So, also, insecure people feel a need to boast, but well-grounded people seldom do.
God calls us to be grounded in him so that we can walk in confidence, not in our own abilities, but in his power and in our relationship with him.
If I may be permitted another analogy, when I was a child, my grandparents would occasionally take me to the big city (Kansas City). The city was pretty overwhelming to a small-town boy—but I never felt intimidated, because my granddad was there. He was the kind of man who inspired confidence—lots of common sense and a good, steady temperament. I always felt safe in his presence.
So also, we can find strength in God’s presence. In doing so, we have nothing to boast about, because it is God’s strength rather than our own that provides the solid foundation for our lives.
“But of him, you are in Christ Jesus“ (v. 30a). The Greek says de ex autou humeis este en Christos. A literal translation would be “But (it is) from Him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus.” It was God’s initiative that put these Corinthian Christians into a relationship with Christ Jesus.
The phrase, “in Christ,” is important. Paul uses it frequently. Some examples include:
• Christians “being justified freely by his (Jesus) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
• Christians who “were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
• We must “consider (ourselves) also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11).
• Christians “are sanctified (made holy) in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
• Paul describes the Corinthian Christians “as to babies in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
• “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
• God “in Christ, and reveals through us the sweet aroma of his knowledge in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
• “In Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
• “For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26).
• “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Being “in Christ,” then, involves an all-encompassing relationship with Christ Jesus—a relationship that has saving power. That relationship involves receiving justification (being made righteous) as a gift rather than as an achievement. That makes us equal at the foot of the cross, so there is “there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female.” When we are “in Christ,” there is no room for boastfulness because we have all received the same gift.
“who was made to us wisdom from God“ (v. 30b). The Gospel of John begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word (Greek: logos) , and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). When I asked a seminary professor why John used this word logos (which means “word”) for Jesus, he asked me what we use words for. I answered that we use words to communicate with each other—to get a thought from one person’s mind to another person’s mind. The prof said, “Exactly! That was the reason that John referred to Jesus as the logos. He was a living, breathing word from God—sent to reveal God and God’s kingdom to us.” We become spiritually wise as we absorb the truths that Jesus came to reveal to us.
Now, in this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul says that Jesus “was made to us wisdom from God.” He was the embodiment of God and the embodiment of God’s wisdom.
“and righteousness (dikaiosyne) and sanctification (hagiasmos), and redemption“ (apolytrosis) (v. 30c). Each of these three words has a significant meaning:
• Righteousness (dikaiosyne): This word has its roots in the Old Testament, and appears frequently in the LXX (the Greek version of the OT) as well as in the New Testament. In both, it connotes the meeting of high ethical standards and the sense of being found not guilty. However, its Biblical use goes beyond that, because righteousness is possible only through a covenant relationship with God. Such a covenant relationship (and the righteousness that is derived from that relationship) is gift of God.
• Sanctification (hagiasmos): This word has to do with the act of making a person holy. It is closely related to the word hagios, which is usually translated saint in the New Testament. Sanctification, too, is a gift of God. We are not capable of making ourselves holy. Sanctification requires God’s action.
• Redemption (apolytrosis): Redemption involves bringing liberty to a captive, usually through the payment of a ransom. Levitical law required Israelites to buy back (redeem) a family member who had been forced to sell himself into slavery (Leviticus 25:47-49). It also required them to buy back (redeem) family land that had fallen into other hands due to poverty (Leviticus 25:25, 33). The New Testament presents Jesus’ death on the cross as a redemptive act for humanity—as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul speaks of “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). He tells us that “we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7)—and that Jesus Christ is the one “in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (Colossians 1:14).
So Paul says that, in addition to being Godly wisdom in our midst, Jesus Christ also became the embodiment of righteousness, sanctification, and redemption in our midst. He makes it possible for us to be righteous, holy, and redeemed.
“that, according as it is written, ‘He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord‘“ (v. 31). If all of the things mentioned in verse 30 are the work of Christ rather than our personal achievements, why would we boast? Our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption are the products of Christ’s work, not ours. We can only receive them as gifts from God. If that is the case, where is our ground for boasting? It doesn’t exist. We can boast only that God has been good to us—not that we have anything in our hands that can commend us to God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2010, 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan