VERSE OF THE DAY
1 Corinthians 1:18 (New Living Translation)
The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.
The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for disaster and destruction! But we who are being saved know it is salvation by the power of God and the works of Jesus the son
What Does 1 Corinthians 1:18 Mean? ►
For to those who are perishing the message of the cross is foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power.
1 Corinthians 1:18(HCSB)
Philosophical wisdom in Paul’s culture was almost as highly prized as the pop stars and sports men and women of today.. but the same saving gospel message of the cross that Paul preached 2000 years ago still has the same astonishing, antithetical effect in our own lives and cultures.
The message of the cross is foolish folly to the unsaved masses in society today. To those who are lost and perishing – to those who have not trusted in the shed blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and God’s free gift of eternal life- the message of the cross is insane madness; stupid silliness and illogical idiocy .
But the message of the cross to us who have believed in Christ’s sacrificial work 2000 years ago, is dynamic and powerful. The shed blood of Christ as the redemptive price for the forgiveness of sin and His glorious resurrection from the dead – with its promise of eternal life and our blessed hope in Christ’s soon return, is our glorious hope; our sufficient strength.. for it is the power of GOD and the wisdom of GOD.
The wisdom of God is unfathomable. His powerful ways and His thoughts are passed finding out, but He chose to use the sacrificial death of His only begotten Son to be a means to display His infinite wisdom and exhibit His divine understanding.
To the Jews, who are blind in part.. the message of the cross is a stumbling block. To the unsaved gentiles, who are dead in their trespasses and sins.. the message of the cross is utter foolishness. But to us who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.. and who continue to ‘be being saved’ through the wonderful, sanctification process of the indwelling Holy Spirit – conforming us day by day into the likeness of Christ Jesus our Lord,- the message of the cross is the power of God and the wisdom of God – to Whom be all praise and glory for ever and ever amen.
1 Corinthians 1:18
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 is an aside from the discussion on division dealing with the issue of the message of Christianity and how it relates to the issue of division. If we more greatly focus on the message, we will have less focus on divisions. The Holy Spirit radically distinguishes the wisdom of men against the wisdom of God.
Greeks formed their culture around philosophy. They had scores of countervailing philosophies. Above all, they were in love with wisdom. Their ultimate view of life revolved around philosophy (love of wisdom). This gave them certainty, meaning, and purpose. A plurality of viewpoints pervaded Corinth, none of which provided an absolute view of truth. Some Greek believers passed their viewpoints into the church. This desire to add human wisdom to truth caused a schism in the Corinthian church. Their central problem was the dislocation of Scripture as the central focus of viewpoint. Christians cannot permit themselves to divide over human viewpoints.
The section running from 1:18-2:16 shows that the message was not exclusively for the intellectual (1:18-25) for few intellectuals are believers (1:26-31). Paul used the simple gospel to reach people (2:1-5). God’s wisdom comes by revelation, inspiration, and illumination (2:6-16).
The word “for” indicates the reason Paul did not come in the wisdom of words. Wisdom would ruin the content of the message. This is why there are two reactions to the cross. The cross always offends pluralism because its message is mutually exclusive.
the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
The word “message” means the content (revelation) of the cross, not the act of preaching the cross. The word translated “message” is literally the word. It is the plan that Christ would die for our sins that is foolishness to the non-Christian. God’s wisdom is the only true wisdom. The word “wisdom” occurs 13 times in 1:18 through chapter 3. The Holy Spirit sets divine wisdom over against human wisdom.
The first reaction to the cross is that it is “foolishness.” The cross was foolishness because the cross in the Roman Empire was the lowliest form of punishment a person could undergo. Those who are in the process of perishing use human wisdom to appeal to human wisdom. There is nothing supernatural in it.
“Those who are perishing” are those in the process of going to hell. The idea behind “perishing” is the loss of well-being, not of being. The word does not carry the idea of extinction but the idea is more qualitative, not quantitative.
Paul met a diversity of viewpoints when he came to Athens (Ac 17:18-21). When they heard of the resurrection, they sneered (17:32). The natural mind views the cross as unacceptable. Paul determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified when he came to Corinth (2:2). Paul did not accommodate the truth to meet their need. They did not need one more opinion. The supernatural power of the cross would countervail the human viewpoint.
but to us who are being saved
Paul sets in sharp contrast those “who are being saved” to “those who are perishing.” Everyone falls into one of these two classes of people. Saving is strictly the work of God (passive voice). God is in the process of saving the saint.
it is the power of God.
The cross is the power of God to the believer. The cross is a high exhibition of God’s power. Paul contrasts “power” to “wisdom of the previous clause. We would expect that Paul would say that the gospel is the “wisdom of God,” but he says it is the “power of God.” The gospel is more than a good suggestion but produces a dynamic effect, for it is fit to attain its end.
Ro 1:16, For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Philosophy is inadequate to represent the message of the gospel.
We live in a pluralistic society. People prefer relativism to absolutes. To the people of our day, no one has the truth. Twentieth-century pundits revel in opinion. All this rejects divine authority. The church today falls prey to the prevailing opinion of the day. Some so-called evangelicals adopt pluralism as truth, which means there is no objective truth. All opinion is relative. They accommodate Scripture to prevailing opinion. This is worldliness. When the believer accepts some philosophy as true, he inevitably exchanges the truth for a lie (Ro 1:25).
There are only two kinds of people, and the differentiating point between them is the cross. We understand this difference when we grasp the meaning of the cross. The cross indicates that God has absolute righteousness and cannot compromise with sin. That condemns my righteousness. This is an offense to our pride and good works. We cannot obtain God’s wisdom through human cunning, for there is no compromise in the cross. This is the “offense of the cross.” It is offensive to those who perish that the cross is the only way to heaven.
1 Co 2:1, And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.
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.
1 Corinthians 1:18 to 2:5 – Whose way (or who) dominates?
July 24, 2013
This is the fourth post in the series on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The question we are asking is: What does this letter teach us about being a community of faith in diverse cultural contexts? And the passage for this post is 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.
In this passage Paul is continuing to address the problem of divisions within the believing community at Corinth. As you read the passage, you will notice that three words keep appearing in this discourse, foolishness, power, and wisdom. These words provide a clue as to what caused these divisions.
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 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; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
2 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Since the words power, foolishness, and wisdom reappear, we are compelled to ask what was going on in Corinth to make them be so caught up with these terms? Let’s see if this becomes clear as we work through the passage.
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
As Paul tells us, the message of the cross is the power of God for those who are on their way to being saved (Thiselton 2000, 154). Why? At the very moment humans were executing Jesus he was in response creating the way for all of us to have life! The message of the cross opens the door to us so that we can access the eternal life that only he offers.
Though Paul does not go into depth about the significance of Jesus’ death, we need to identify what this is in order to understand how the message of the cross is the power of God. When people respond to the message of the cross they turn to Jesus. He in response gives the gift of the Holy Spirit who works within us to change our affections and our behaviors. Paul describes these changes in Galatians 5:16-26. Paul draws our attention to the changes the Spirit is working to make in us throughout this letter. Moving away from divisiveness and getting along in peace are two of them. However, in 6:9-11 he overtly mentions some of the behaviors which God has redeemed and separated us from: sexual immorality, idolatry, adulterous or homosexual liaisons, stealing, drunkenness, criticizing others in an angry, abusive, insulting manner, and deceit. The power of God to release us from these and from so much more comes to us through the message of the cross.
This message is so wonderful. Why, then, did Paul say that the message of the cross was foolishness?
We need to understand the context to answer this question. First, at that time in history people looked to the gods to help them have a more prosperous life. The gods were supposed to be powerful and able to respond to people’s appeals for help. Second, people did not necessarily have a firm idea about life after death. Death was the end of life. So, people were primarily concerned with being healthy and prosperous in this life (Witherington 1995, 112). Therefore, to talk about salvation coming through someone’s death went against their assumptions about the gods and about the finality of death.
In addition, we do not have the emotional revulsion to crucifixion that the people had in Paul’s day. So, we cannot appreciate how offensive talking about crucifixion was. Death on a cross was not only disgusting to observe, it was horrifying. This is why it was reserved for the worst criminals and seditionists. Crucifixion was apparently so revolting that it was never mentioned in polite society. Therefore, for followers of Jesus to say that they followed someone who was crucified and that this person was not only good but that he was also God was to try to make the implausible appear plausible. Asserting that divine salvation came through someone’s crucifixion contradicted the people’s assumptions about and their personal observations of crucifixion.
In this light Paul’s quote in verse 19 makes sense: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” No one could have imagined what God was doing through Jesus’ death. It only makes sense after the fact, once we have seen what God is like. God loves us so much that he was willing to utterly debase himself and die a horrific and shameful death so that we could live. The writer of Hebrews mentions how shame was indelibly attached to the cross: who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame (12:2).
Paul knew how people were naturally inclined to look at the message of the cross as absurd and asks: Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age (1:20)? God’s plan of salvation contradicted Graeco-Roman conventional wisdom, a wisdom developed from the prevailing assumptions, values, and experiences of the Graeco-Roman world. God’s plan of salvation was developed from his goodness, generosity, and endless love. God’s character and ways turned conventional wisdom on its head. Due to this, Paul asks: Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world (1:20)? Since this is a rhetorical question, the answer is yes. Conventional wisdom was powerless to change one’s life and it did not enable people to be humble and loving. Thus, conventional wisdom was foolish because it stood in opposition to the character of God; and it was utterly powerless to help the Corinthians heal the brokenness in their relationships and in their community.
This is why Paul continues to write: 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
God’s foolishness achieves what humans and conventional wisdom are not able to achieve- the transformed life.
One theme that resurfaces over and over throughout the Scriptures is the theme of reversal. Two notable places that this theme appears is in Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and in Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55. This theme of reversal resurfaces in the next verses of this passage:
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 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; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
In choosing those in the congregation who were not wise, powerful, or noble by birth God had turned the wisdom of the Corinthian world on its head. God does not despise the rich or noble; but, to ensure that his kingdom was open to all, he chose poverty in spirit as one of the entrance requirements (Matt. 5:3). Poverty of spirit was something anyone could have- slave or free, rich or poor, noble or common. Though Paul does not state this in this section, to this he was referring.
Paul goes on to focus on God’s power and his generosity, highlighting the surpassing riches that are ours in Jesus. He writes:
30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
In verse 30 Paul says that God is the source of our lives in Christ Jesus. He is the one who is powerful. In addition, God made Jesus to be our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption. Wisdom means that Jesus models for us the fundamental values that we are to have about our world. Status, prestige, influence, and power are all redefined in the light of the life of Jesus. Righteousness doesn’t refer to a level of moral achievement. It refers to God’s acceptance of us, that because of Jesus we have been put right with God and now enjoy a relationship with Him. Sanctification refers to the status of having been set apart from the world and belonging to God. Elsewhere in the epistle Paul indicates that since we belong to God our lives are meant to change and increasingly reflect God’s character and values. So, in this way sanctification is an ongoing process. By redemption Paul means that Jesus rescued us from the power of hostile spiritual forces and sin. Due to this we are now free to reflect God in our lives and develop good moral character.
Paul concludes this paragraph with these words: 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” This is the second time he has referred to boasting in three short verses. The first time was in verse 29: 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Paul is emphatic here. No one is to boast in themselves or their own power. The only boast we are allowed to make is in God. God is the one who has acted on our behalf. God is the one who loved us and gave himself for our sins. God is the initiator and the agent of our reconciliation with him and our redemption from sin, Satan, and death.
In 2:1-5 Paul mentions lofty speech and wisdom. Notice how the words wisdom and power are repeated here:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
In verse 20 Paul threw in a question that we bypassed. Paul asked: Where is the debater of this age? Why did Paul speak about people debating here? Is he against the use of rhetorical strategies in talking about issues? Paul could not have opposed the use of honest rhetoric because he used classical rhetorical forms in this epistle and even in this passage (1:18-2:5). However, what Paul completely rejected was the use of rhetorical forms which were emotionally manipulative, showy, or self-advancing.
Remember, in Corinth people were concerned with status, recognition, and self-promotion. This made them susceptible to a certain kind of manipulative rhetoric, sophistic rhetoric. The sophistic style of rhetoric and debate had come to center stage in Corinth and other provincial centers. Classical rhetoric was concerned with effectively communicating truth. Sophistic rhetoric was concerned with pompous display and manipulating the emotions of the crowd. Sophists swayed people to agree with them not by logic but by their emotive rhetoric and their showy antics.
Due to this, Paul says that he decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ crucified. His speech and message were not in plausible words of wisdom (conventional wisdom) but in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power.
What does the phrase “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” mean? Some have asserted this refers to miracles. Does it? In the light of 1:18 and 1:30 as well as what follows in 2:6 onwards, it appears that the primary meaning of “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” refers to the working of the Spirit in the minds and hearts of believers. This power is that which enables people to turn to God and to live a transformed life. Though few would deny that God uses miracles to get people to open their hearts to him, it doesn’t appear from the literary or the historical context that this is Paul’s primary meaning in these verses.
Now we know why the words, power, wisdom, and foolishness kept on surfacing in this passage. The misuse of social power was one of the main reasons why there were divisions in the church. Following on what we learned in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, these divisions were caused by certain individuals that were seeking to promote themselves and draw people to them. These individuals were not concerned with truth; they were concerned with themselves and their own advancement. So, the leaders of the groups had degenerated into using sophistic rhetorical strategies in their sermons to draw people to them. People were getting caught up in their power plays because being part of these groups was a means of advancing themselves. The poor were open to join these groups so that the power brokers in the group would become their patrons and treat them with favor. The patrons liked having those who needed to be patronized because having more people in their groups advanced their standing and influence in the believing community.
Foolishness and wisdom are contrasted because God’s ways contradict conventional wisdom. The world favors the strong. Who then would have expected that the weak and the lowly would be the ones who the Creator favors. This is the case only because the Creator is also the Redeemer. The strong rule by exercising their strength. God rules through humility, self-abasement, grace, and the empowerment of others.
This should cause us to reflect on what “power” means. Does the potential of having influence and social power sometimes awaken desires within us that reflect foolishness more than the power of God? Are we ever tempted to want “power over people” rather than power for salvation, holiness of life, and service of others?
Paul’s response to the problems in Corinth show us that we ought to take great care about how we approach differing theological stances in our multi-ethnic, multi-denominational communities. I don’t think Paul is suggesting we act like we agree so we have some sort of false harmony. I think Paul would allow for us to hold differing theological opinions and even engage one another as to why we hold to the positions that we have. After all, in the larger body of Christ we have Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and so much more. These diverse positions within the Church actually make us stronger. They inspire us to be like the Bereans in Acts 17 who nobly and eagerly searched the Scriptures to see if the things Paul said were true (17:11). However, Paul would not want us to debate with others so that we can win people over to our positions because we know what is best for them. I don’t think Paul would condone the making “straw men” of differing positions in order to make our positions appear stronger. Paul points us to a higher ethic. He said that Christ has become for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Thus, we are free to hold differing positions. In addition, we have been set free so we can treat those who hold differing opinions with dignity. Finally, we have been set free so we can be humble and talk about our positions and differing positions with integrity and respect.
EPISTLES: THE WISDOM OF WEAKNESS (1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31)
The message about a crucified Messiah might seem preposterous to some people, but God uses that message to bring salvation to those who believe. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (v. 18). Paul then quotes Isa. 29:14: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” God works in unexpected ways — some people might say that the gospel of grace is a message of weakness, but Paul says it is a message of power (Rom. 1:16).
“Where is the one who is wise?” Paul asks. Most are not in the church. Where is the teacher of the law? Most are not accepting the message of salvation. Where are the philosophers? Not here. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
Humans value education, but God’s message does not depend on human approval. People cannot know God through their own intelligence, and they cannot save themselves by any amount of philosophy or study. Instead, God decided to save people who believed the gospel (v. 21).
“Jews demand signs [miracles] and Greeks desire wisdom [philosophy], but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vv. 22-24). The message is too simple for some people, but God uses it to save his people.
The crucified Christ may look weak and foolish, but this is the power and wisdom of God. “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25). This is the basis of unity in the church: accepting the gospel of Christ crucified — people being saved by the shameful death of Christ.
The wisdom of God
Remember that you were ordinary people when you heard the gospel, Paul says. You were not the movers and shakers of Corinth. “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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (vv. 27-29).
If people could save themselves through their own intelligence, then the kingdom of God would be filled with people who were proud of their own accomplishments. If people could get in through their own abilities, they would think that they were just as good as God.
So God decided to call the nobodies of this world, those who were willing to admit their need, those who were willing to accept the gift of salvation. And this plan will eventually shame the wise and humiliate the proud, who will then be able to realize that their own strength, no matter how good it was, was not good enough.
Because of God’s plan, Paul writes, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (vv. 30-31, quoting from Jer. 9:24). Jesus is our righteousness — it is in him, and only in him, that we can be righteous and holy. Only when we are in Christ, united with him by faith, can we be redeemed. We cannot boast about anything we did — our only boast is in what Christ does for us. He gets the credit and the praise.
Things to think about
• In what way has God enriched you? (v. 5).
• How can people be perfectly united in mind and thought? (v. 10)
• Is v. 14 an inspired mistake?
• Can the wise and wealthy accept the unexpected wisdom of God? (v. 20)
• If Christ is our righteousness, do we need any of our own? (v. 30)
Author: Michael Morrison, 2005, 2013
What does 1 Corinthians 1:18 mean? [⇑ See verse text ⇑]
Paul now begins to expand on his statement from the end of verse 17: that Christ did not send him to focus on words of eloquent wisdom as he preached the gospel, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. Paul divides the world into two groups of people: those who are perishing and those who are being saved. Those perishing are destined for eternity apart from God, while those being saved are destined for an eternity of sharing in God’s glory.
To the first group—the perishing—the cross of Christ is “folly.” The original Greek term used here is mōria, from the same root word forming English words such as moron. In blunt terms, Paul is saying that to the unsaved world, those who preach the gospel look like idiots. Broadly speaking, ungodly people think believers, and their faith, are stupid.
In Paul’s day, the cross remained in widespread use by the Romans as a means of public execution. It was a symbol of shameful crimes and powerlessness before the irresistible Roman empire. The cross of Christ was not foolish in the Greek and Roman culture as a result of atheism. In truth, they believed in all kinds of gods and sorted them by the power they wielded over nature and humanity. The cross of Christ was foolish to the pagan culture because Jesus Christ was rejected by His own people and crucified like any other common criminal by the Roman machine.
From the Greek and Roman perspective, that was no kind of god to worship.
For those who are being saved, because of their faith in Christ, the cross is understood to be God’s most powerful act. God’s Son did not lose a fight with the Jewish leaders or the Roman government. He wasn’t overpowered or outmatched (John 10:17–18; 18:6; Matthew 26:53). God the Father sacrificed His Son Jesus for human sin. Jesus, in spite of limitless power and authority, gave up His life to cover the sins of those who were perishing.
Those who trust in Christ understand that without that powerful act, we would be lost and without hope.
First Corinthians 1:18–31 describes the foolishness of the gospel in the world’s eyes. Both Jews and Greeks rejected the idea of Christ crucified. Any god who would die on a Roman cross, especially as a sacrifice for human sinfulness, would be seen by worldly eyes as a weak and foolish deity. God, though, will shame the wise and strong by giving the ability to believe in the cross of Christ mostly to the weak and foolish of the world, in human terms. In the end, nobody will boast before him of their own strength and wisdom.
Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth begins with thanks for the great and powerful gifts God has given to them by His grace and through their faith in Christ. They will stand blameless before God in the end. Right now, though, they must stop dividing themselves according to which Christian teacher they follow and become unified in and around Christ. The gospel message of Christ’s death on the cross is weak and foolish to the world, but God has given faith in Christ to those who believe it and find God’s power and wisdom