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. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
What would you think if a woman came to work wearing earrings stamped with an image of the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima?
What would you think of a church building adorned with a wall painting of the mass graves at Auschwitz, Germany?
Both visions are grotesque. They are not only intrinsically abhorrent, but they are shocking because of powerful cultural associations.
The same sort of shocked horror was associated with cross and crucifixion in the first century. Apart from the emperor’s explicit sanction, no Roman citizen could be put to death by this means….it was illegal to do such. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves, aliens, and barbarians. Crucifixion was not only a horrible death; it was a shameful death.
Many thought it was not something to be talked about in polite company, any more than we today would discuss over dinner the gas chamber or the electric chair.
Yet today, crosses adorn our buildings and letterheads, shine from lapels, and dangle from our ears—and no one is scandalized. It is this cultural distance from the first century that makes it so hard for us to feel the compelling irony of 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.”
To say the same thing in a different way: the cross of Christ has no status to the lost.
The key word in this paragraph is wisdom; it is used eight times. The key idea that Paul expressed is that we dare not mix man’s wisdom with God’s revealed message.
Fascinated by the rhetoric of learned scholars of their day, the Corinthians were sometimes more impressed by form and show than by content and truth. They loved literally, “wisdom of word,” (1:17) the wit and eloquence that neatly packaged more than one school of thought in first-century Greece.
God was pleased to save those who believe “through the foolishness of what was preached” (1:21). It is the content of what is preached that Paul here emphasizes, not the act of preaching.
In verses 18-25, Paul reminds the church that those who are status seekers will never gain recognition and status from the unbelieving world. The gospel does not appeal to human pride; it cannot even co-exist with it. The gospel informs us that there is only one thing to do with pride—crucify it.
Simply to make the announcement, to tell the story of Jesus and his cross, was to invite people to mock.
I have struggle most of the week to know how to best present and explain the closing verses of this chapter. It finally hit me Friday that the best way is to look at Acts 17:16-21. These verses present exactly what Paul is addressing in Corinth.
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.
18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?
20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”
21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
So when he announced it, when he stood up in the synagogue or the market-place or the debating-chamber, he didn’t use clever words to trick people into thinking they believed it because they enjoyed his speaking style. Now, writing this letter, looking back on his initial announcement, he can for a moment spin some good sentences together, to tease them into seeing the point. But he didn’t do that when making the original proclamation. The cross had to do its own work. Simply telling the story released a power of quite a different sort from any power that human speech could have: God’s power, beside which all human power looks weak; God’s wisdom, beside which all human learning looks like folly.
Paul says it the other way round, to make the point with stunning rhetorical effect: God’s folly is wiser than humans, and God’s weakness is stronger than humans! Of course, it’s very easy for humans, when they believe the gospel, to turn it into a way of inflating their own personal or political power, or showing off how clever they are. But to do so is to under mine the very point of the message. The Christian good news is all about God dying on a rubbish-heap at the wrong end of the Empire. It’s all about God babbling nonsense to a room full of philosophers. It’s all about the true God confronting the world of posturing, power and prestige, and overthrowing it in order to set up his own kingdom, a kingdom in which the weak and the foolish find themselves just as welcome as the strong and the wise, if not more so. Think back to Jesus himself, and the people he befriended, and ask yourselfwhether Paul is not being utterly loyal to his master.
In other words, as he says in Romans 1.1 6, the gospel, the royal announcement that Jesus is Lord, because God has raised him from the dead, is ‘God’s power for salvation to those who believe’. When this announcement is made, people discover to their astonishment that things change. Lives change. Human hearts change. Situations change. New communities come into being, consisting of people grasped by the message, believing it’s true despite everything, falling in love with the God they find to be alive in this Jesus, giving Jesus their supreme loyalty. That is the evidence Paul has in mind.
‘To us who are being saved, it is God’s power.’ That is as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the first – however much people today, exactly as in Paul’s day, defend their own power and prestige by declaring that it’s all folly.
The “word of the cross,” that is, the gospel, is not a status symbol to unbelievers; it is an offense. For those of us who “are being saved,” the gospel is the power of God. For the unbeliever, the cross is a shame; for the Christian, the cross is glorious.
The Message of the Cross, by God’s Determination, Divides the Human Race Absolutely (1:18–21)
He is contrasting ‘the wisdom of the world’ with ‘the wisdom of God’. His basic claim is that the message about the Messiah and his cross carries a power of quite a different sort to the power of human rhetoric, with its showy style designed to entertain the ear and so gain an undeserved hearing for a merely human message.
The point is that when Paul came into a pagan city that prided itself on its intellectual and cultural life, and stood up to speak about Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Romans but raised from the dead by God, and who was now the Lord of the world, summoning people to faithful obedience, he knew what people would think. This was, and is, the craziest message anybody could imagine. This wasn’t a smart new philosophy; it was madness. It wasn’t an appeal to high culture. It was news of an executed criminal from a despised race.
The ancient world deployed various polarities for describing humanity: Romans and barbarians, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free.
Paul sets forth the only polarity that is of ultimate importance: he distinguishes between those who are perishing and those who are being saved. The dividing line between these two groups is the message of the cross: “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” (1:18).
Both to the cultured Greek and to the pious Jew the story that Christianity had to tell sounded like folly. Paul begins by making use of quotations from Isaiah (Isa 29:14; Isa 33:18) to show how mere human wisdom is bound to fail.
Isaiah 29:14: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
He cites the undeniable fact that for all its wisdom the world had never found God and was still blindly seeking him. That very search was designed by God to show men their own helplessness and so to prepare the way for the acceptance of him who is the one true way:
What then was this Christian message? If we study the four great sermons in the Book of Acts (Ac 2:14-39; Ac 3:12-26; Ac 4:8-12; Ac 10:36-43) we find that there are certain constant elements in the Christian preaching.
- There is the claim that the great promised time of God has come.
- There is a summary of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
- There is a claim that all this was the fulfilment of prophecy.
- There is the assertion that Jesus will come again.
- There is an urgent invitation to men to repent and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, the message of the cross is nothing other than God’s way of doing what he said he would do: by the cross, God sets aside and shatters all human pretensions to strength and wisdom.
But to this God says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Human folly and human wisdom are equally unable to achieve what God has accomplished in the cross. The gospel is not simply good advice, nor is it good news about God’s power. The gospel is God’s power to those who believe. The place where God has supremely destroyed all human arrogance and pretension is the cross.
Paul drives the point home with three stinging rhetorical questions:
“Where is the wise man?” (1:20). In first-century Corinth, “wisdom” was not understood to be practical skill in living under the fear of the Lord (as it frequently is in Proverbs), nor was it perceived to be some combination of intuition, insight, and people smarts (as it frequently is today in the West).
Rather, wisdom was a public philosophy, a well-articulated world-view that made sense of life and ordered the choices, values, and priorities of those who adopted it. The “wise man,” then, was someone who adopted and defended one of the many competing public world-views….they claimed to be able to “make sense” out of life and death and the universe.
An organizing system, a coherent world-view, conveys a sense of power. If you can explain life, you remain in control of it. The Greeks were renowned for their pursuit of coherent systems of thought that ordered their world. In short, they pursued “wisdom.”
“Where is the scholar?” (1:20). What Paul has in mind is the use of the term among Greek-speaking Jews: the grammateus was the “scribe,” the expert in the law of God, the person knowledgeable in biblical heritage and in all the tradition that flowed from it. Thus, in his first two rhetorical questions Paul anticipates both the Greeks who look for wisdom and the Jews who seek miraculous signs (1:22).
Paul’s point here, then, is that theologians, biblical experts, ethicists, and the ancient equivalent of ecclesiastics fared no better than the “wise man.” None of them had developed a system where the cross stands at the very center; none of them had anticipated “good news” from God that would make much of the odious death of the long-awaited Messiah.
“Where is the philosopher of this age?” (1:20). The word rendered “philosopher” might more literally be translated “debater” or “orator.” But in Greek culture rhetoric was so highly regarded that the best public philosophers were almost inevitably gifted and trained rhetoricians.
The plain fact of the matter is that in the cross God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1:20). Paul does not merely mean that God made the world’s wisdom appear to be foolish. What he says is far stronger: God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. He has reduced the vaunted wisdom of the world to folly. He has pricked its pretensions and established its foolishness.
How has God done this? In the first place, Paul says, the utter bankruptcy of all the world’s efforts to know God was part of God’s wise design. It was “in the wisdom of God” that “the world through its wisdom did not know him” (1:21). Not only did the wise and the scholars and the philosophers fail to understand, God in his all-wise providence actually worked it out that way.
He determines that the message of the cross, the content of what is preached, should save “those who believe.”
This is breathtaking. God has not arranged things so that the foolishness of the gospel saves those who have IQs in excess of 130. Where would that leave the rest of us? Nor does the foolishness of what is preached transform the young, the beautiful, the extroverts, the educated, the wealthy, the healthy, the upright. Where would that leave the old, the ugly, the introverts, the illiterate, the poor, the sick, the perverse?
These people are saved by him, not because he chooses those who boast some superior trait or insight, not because he loves people who judge themselves to be wise, but because he has determined to rescue those who believe him. By his grace, they trust him, they rely on him, they abandon themselves to him. He is their center, their rock, their hope, their anchor, their confidence. And thus God quietly and effectively banishes the wisdom of our culture as utter folly.
Paul stresses a second element in the message of the cross: The Message of the Cross Proves That God’s Folly Has Outsmarted Human Wisdom; His Weakness Has Overpowered Human Strength (1:22–25).
Paul now divides those who are perishing into two groups. God’s wisdom is revealed primarily in the cross of Jesus Christ, but not everybody sees this. Paul pointed out that there are three different attitudes toward the cross.
Some stumble at the cross (v. 23a). This was the attitude of the Jews, because their emphasis is on miraculous signs and the cross appears to be weakness. Jewish history is filled with miraculous events, from the Exodus out of Egypt to the days of Elijah and Elisha. When Jesus was ministering on earth, the Jewish leaders repeatedly asked Him to perform a sign from heaven; but He refused.
The Jewish nation did not understand their own sacred Scriptures. They looked for a Messiah who would come like a mighty conqueror and defeat all their enemies. He would then set up His kingdom and return the glory to Israel.
At the same time, their scribes noticed in the Old Testament that the Messiah would suffer and die. Passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 pointed toward a different kind of Messiah, and the scholars could not reconcile these two seemingly contradictory prophetic images. They did not understand that their Messiah had to suffer and die before He could enter into His glory.
To them it was incredible that one who had ended life upon a cross could possibly be God’s Chosen One. They pointed to their own law which unmistakably said, “He that is hanged is accursed by God.” (Deut 21:23).
The Jew sought for signs. When the golden age of God came he looked for startling happenings. This very time during which Paul was writing produced a crop of false Messiahs, and all of them had beguiled the people into accepting them by the promise of wonders.
- In A.D. 45 a man called Theudas had emerged. He had persuaded thousands of the people to abandon their homes and follow him out to the Jordan, by promising that, at his word of command, the Jordan would divide and he would lead them across on dry land.
- In A.D. 54 a man from Egypt arrived in Jerusalem, claiming to be the Prophet. He persuaded thirty thousand people to follow him out to the Mount of Olives by promising that at his word of command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down. That was the kind of thing that the Jews were looking for.
Historically, of course, this is what happened to Jesus on more than one occasion. When “some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you,’” he replied, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!” (Matt. 12:38–39). They were openly testing him by demanding a sign (Matt. 16:1).
Even those who out of sheer desperation asked Jesus for miraculous help could at first be gently rebuffed, with words such as these, “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders . . . you will never believe” (John 4:48).
In some cases, such as the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ miraculous power was attractive to the crowd simply because of what it gave them (John 6:26).
But one might well ask why Jesus should object. After all, he performed many miracles. Why should he object when someone asked him for one? Did not such requests simply give him an opportunity to display yet one more powerful work?
These questions miss the point. There is a kind of longing for a display of Jesus’ power that is entirely godly, submissive, perhaps even desperate. There is another kind that puts the person making the request into the driver’s seat. Some want to see Jesus perform a sign so that they can evaluate him, assess his claims, test his credentials.
As long as people are assessing him, they are in the superior position, the position of judge. As long as they are checking out his credentials, they are forgetting that God is the one who will weigh them. As long as they are demanding signs, Jesus is nothing more than a clever performer.
At one level, of course, he accommodates himself to our unbelief by performing miracles that ought to elicit faith (John 10:38). But at another level, he cannot possibly reduce himself to nothing more than a powerful genie who performs spectacular tricks on command. Thus the demand for signs becomes the prototype of every condition human beings raise as a barrier to being open to God. I will devote myself to this God if he heals my child. I will follow this Jesus if I can maintain my independence. I will happily become a Christian if God proves himself to me. I will turn from my sin and read the Bible if my marriage gets sorted out to my satisfaction. I will acknowledge Jesus as Lord if he performs the kind of miracle, on demand, that removes all doubt.
In every case, I am assessing him; he is not assessing me. I am not coming to him on his terms; rather, I am stipulating terms that he must accept if he wants the privilege of my company.
“Greeks [i.e., Gentiles] look for wisdom”(1:22) . Some laugh at the cross (v. 23b). This was the response of the Greeks. To them, the cross was foolishness. The Greeks emphasized wisdom; we still study the profound writings of the Greek philosophers. But they saw no wisdom in the cross, for they looked at the cross from a human point of view. Had they seen it from God’s viewpoint, they would have discerned the wisdom of God’s great plan of salvation.
To the Greek idea the first characteristic of God was apatheia. That word means more than apathy; it means total inability to feel. The Greeks argued that if God can feel joy or sorrow or anger or grief it means that some man has for that moment influenced God and is therefore greater than he. So, they went on to argue, it follows that God must be incapable of all feeling so that none may ever affect him. A God who suffered was to the Greeks a contradiction in terms.
They went further. Plutarch declared that it was an insult to God to involve him in human affairs. God of necessity was utterly detached. The very idea of incarnation, of God becoming a man, was revolting to the Greek mind.
Augustine, who was a very great scholar long before he became a Christian, could say that in the Greek philosophers he found a parallel to almost all the teaching of Christianity; but one thing, he said, he never found, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
To the thinking Greek the incarnation was a total impossibility. To people who thought like that it was incredible that one who had suffered as Jesus had suffered could possibly be the Son of God.
The Greek sought wisdom. It came to mean a man with a clever mind and cunning tongue, a mental acrobat, a man who with glittering and persuasive rhetoric could make the worse appear the better reason. It meant a man who would spend endless hours discussing hair-splitting trifles, a man who had no real interest in solutions but who simply gloried in the stimulus of “the mental hike.”
In both “Jews” and “Greeks,” there is profound self-centeredness. God is not taken on trust. Both the demand for signs and the pursuit of “wisdom,” and all the countless offspring they have spawned, treat God as if we have the right to approve him, to examine his credentials. This is the most reprehensible wickedness, the most appalling insolence, the most horrific mark of our deep rebellion and lostness.
The cross, then, is dismissed and derided by everyone. But still, Paul insists, “we preach Christ crucified” (1:23). The message of the cross may be nonsense to those who are perishing, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), “but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).
Those Whom God Has Saved Have No Status Either (1:26-31)
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NIV) Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
The world is full of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’, and it does neither of them any good. That’s not the way God intended it to be. Every human being, man, woman, child, and even unborn child, bears the image and likeness of God, and has neither more nor less dignity because some other people have heard of them, look up to them, or think they’re special. But in most parts of the world, at most periods of history – and, as the story shows, often enough in the church itself – people feel that it’s better to be ‘somebody’. The cult of fame has reached monstrous proportions in recent days, to the absurd point where many people are now famous for being famous. We know their names, we recognize their faces, but can’t remember whether they are footballers, film stars or fashion models.
The Corinthian saints were status seekers. Paul wanted them to see how foolish this was in the light of divine wisdom and power and how inconsistent status-seeking is with the gospel. First, Paul challenges his readers to take a good look around the church to note who was not present among them. This he did in verses 18-25. Glaringly absent in the church are those people who hold positions of status in the secular world, in accordance with secular values. The church is not made up of wise men, scribes, and debaters (verse 20).
Now, in verses 26-31, Paul wants the Corinthians to give thought to who is present in the church. “Look at yourselves,” Paul challenges the Corinthians. Granting the possibility of a few exceptions, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the rule. By and large, the church is not composed of the wise, the mighty, or the noble, when judged by fleshly (unbelieving) standards (verse 26).
Instead, God has chosen to save the foolish, the weak, the base and despised, the “nobodies.”
Following the principle set down in verse 19, Paul explains why God selected the undesirables of this world for salvation. God has purposed to nullify the wisdom of the wise and to humble the proud. He has chosen to do so by employing means and people that the world rejects as weak and foolish and worthless.
God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak things of this world to shame the strong, the base and despised things to humble that which is highly esteemed (verses 27-28).
God has not done this because the weak and foolish are any better than the powerful and the proud. He has set aside the highly regarded and employed those things which are disdained so that all the glory might come to Himself and not to mere men. This is the concluding point Paul makes in verses 29-31.
If God were to achieve His purposes through the worldly wise and powerful, we would be inclined to give the praise and glory to the men He has used rather than to God.
This world believes the “shakers and the movers” are the ones who make things happen. Even the church seeks to evangelize and train those whom the world regards as “most likely to succeed.” But God chooses the opposite, those whom we expect to fail (or, more accurately, those we already deem to be failures), so that when His wisdom and power are evident, there are no wise and powerful men to take their bows before men. Instead, men must bow before God, giving all the glory to Him. To God be the glory, great things He has done!
Corinth, as a proud Roman city, was exactly the sort of place where people would look up to the ‘somebodies’, and do their best to join them. Then, as now, there were the obvious routes to fame: political power, and royal or noble birth. And, as we’ve seen (though this doesn’t hold for all cultures), Corinth paid special attention to people who could speak well, public rhetoricians, lawyers and the like. The wise, the powerful, the noble: these were the ‘somebodies’ in Corinth.
And Paul reminds his readers that most of them were, on the same scale, ‘nobodies’. When he first came to town and announced the gospel of King Jesus as Lord, and they believed it, most of them weren’t among the ‘wise’ whom society looked up to. Most of them didn’t have any social power (though
Erastus, the city treasurer, is mentioned as a Corinthian Christian in Romans 16.23 ). Most of them didn’t come from well-known, ‘noble’ families.
‘But God . . . ‘ Those are some of Paul’s favourite words. He often describes a human situation or problem and then takes delight in showing that God has stepped in and done something to change it drastically. They were ‘nobodies’, but God has made them ‘somebodies’. Not the sort of ‘somebodies’ the world would recognize as such, but the only sort that mattered.
And what is important in this paragraph is the fact that God has taken the initiative in it all. The Christian gospel is a matter of grace from start to finish. God chose these Corinthian ‘nobodies’ (verses 27, 28); God ‘called’ them through Paul’s announcement of the crucified Jesus as Lord (verse 26; the word ‘call’ is Paul’s regular word for what we sometimes call ‘conversion’); God gave them the status in his eyes that the Messiah himself has (verse 30). They are who they are, as he says in a rather shorthand way, ‘from God in the Messiah’ (verse 30). This is the same sequence (chosen, called, justified) as Paul sketches in the famous summary in Romans 8.29-30, though there he extends the sequence backwards to God’s original plan and forwards to ultimate glorification as well.