In the last essay we studied 1:1-17. In this essay we are studying 1:18-2:5, which deals with what Paul calls the “wisdom of God” (1:21). Paul had just said in verse 17 that he was sent to proclaim the gospel, “not in wisdom of speech” (logos in the Greek), “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” And then, in verse 18, which begins this section, he says that the message (logos) of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to those of us who are being saved. And he quotes Isaiah 29:14 for biblical support. Paul wants to set his argument over against “the wisdom of the wise,” that is, the wisdom of the world. And Isa. 29:14 serves that purpose nicely, because Isaiah, speaking for God, declared, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.” Thus Paul is saying that there is a wisdom message, and there is a cross message. And this reality divides mankind into two groups, namely, those who are perishing and those who are being saved.
In verses 20-25 Paul fleshes out the distinctions made in verse 18. Paul’s main point is that conventional wisdom, no matter how great it is, will lead people to error, if it will not bow to the “wisdom of God,” In this case, God’s wisdom, is “the word of the cross,” the teaching that the death of Christ on the cross is the key to salvation.
Therefore first of all, the wisdom of God consists of teaching about a crucified God. Unfortunately, the wisdom of the world has great difficulty dealing with that. The “wise man” of verse 20 refers generally to all wise men, Jewish and Greek. The “scribe” refers specifically to Jewish wise men, the Rabbis and teachers of the law. And the “debater of this age” refers to the Greek wise men, the philosophers. None of these wise men wanted to accept the teaching of the cross.
Paul speaks about three responses to the wisdom of God, the cross. One, he speaks about the Jewish response. The Jews stumble over the cross. As Paul says in verse 22, the Jews demand signs, and the cross becomes a “stumbling block” to them.
The history of the Jews was filled with signs, that is, miracles. God divided the Red Sea in Moses’ day; he sent the fire from heaven in the days of Elijah; and the Jews were convinced that he would send a great sign or signs when the Messiah came. Dying on a cross hardly was the kind of sign they were expecting. They wanted power! If they couldn’t have it themselves, they wanted their Messiah to have it.
As we already have seen, not only is the cross not a proper sign to the Jews, it is a stumbling block to them. The Greek word translated “stumbling block” is skandalon, the word from which we get our word “scandal.” The cross is a scandal to the Jews. A Jewish Rabbi debating this matter with Paul immediately would have referred to Deut. 21:22-23, which reads, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night on the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Two, Paul speaks about the Greek response. To the Greeks, the cross was “folly,” or “foolishness.” The Greeks pursued the wisdom of the world with a passion. And they had great success. The philosophers of classic Greece were famous for their profound thinking and great wisdom. And Paul was aware of that. But they were totally unaware of the truth and power of the cross. To them a crucified God was superstitious nonsense.
Three, Paul next speaks about the response of those who believe in the message of the cross. To those who believe, or as Paul puts it, “who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [and he means Christ crucified is] the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than men’s strength (vv. 24-25).”
There is irony in this. The believers receive both the power and wisdom that the Jews and Greeks wanted. They are not in the form the Jews and Greeks wanted them, but they are available to believers. The wisdom of God is received, and the cross becomes the power of God for salvation.
Now then, in verses 26-29 Paul turns to a second aspect of the wisdom of God. Not only is the wisdom of God a teaching about a crucified God, it is illustrated by the Corinthians themselves.
Notice that Paul begins in verses 26-29 with the Corinthians’ humble origins. With few exceptions they were not wise or powerful or of noble birth. On the contrary, they looked weak and foolish in the eyes of the world. But God used them to shame the wise and the strong.
Next in verse 28 Paul uses some vague language that is a bit difficult to interpret. The NRSV translates it, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” To my mind, the easiest interpretation is that Paul meant by “the things that are not,” the Corinthians. And he meant by “the things that are” the wise and powerful of the world. In any case, verse 29 tells us Paul’s purpose in all this. He doesn’t want anyone to be able to boast in the presence of God.
In verses 30-31 Paul explains why the Corinthians had nothing to boast about in the presence of God, and with that explanation brought this segment to a close.
As you can see, the Corinthians had nothing to boast about in the presence of God, because God was responsible for their life in Christ. Now notice in verse 30 that Paul immediately shifted from “you,” the Corinthians, “to us,” the larger Christian community. Christ had become wisdom from God, which included righteousness, sanctification, and redemption for Christians, everywhere.
Righteousness refers to being right with God in a legal sense. Sanctification has to do with being set apart for holy purposes, and being ethically holy (righteous). And redemption, in Paul’s thought, has to do with being set free from bondage to sin.
In verse 31 Paul caps off the section with a reference to Jer. 9:24. We are to boast in the Lord. Paul means by “the “Lord” here Christ. Instead of boasting in human wisdom, we are to boast in the Lord and his redemptive activity.
In the last paragraph in this section, 2:1-5), Paul turns to a third aspect of the wisdom of God and concludes the section. We have seen, first, that the wisdom of God is demonstrated by the gospel of a crucified God, second, by the example of the Corinthians themselves, and now third, it is demonstrated by Paul’s preaching to the Corinthians.
One thing Paul says about his preaching is that he made no attempt to preach with “excellence of speech.” The Corinthians seem to have been enamored by the eloquence of traveling philosophers and preachers like Apollos. But Paul strongly makes the point that he simply preached “the testimony of God.” Indeed he insists that he was determined to know nothing among them except Christ crucified, because Jesus was the crucified God.
Another thing Paul avoided in his preaching was excellence of wisdom (v. 2), which was another aspect of the culture with which the Corinthians were enamored. Paul refused to use “persuasive words of wisdom” and came to them in weakness, fear, and trembling. However, notice that he also came in a demonstration of Spirit and power (v. 4). Thus although Paul clearly was effective as a preacher, his effectiveness depended on the power of the Holy Spirit, not on wisdom and persuasive speech. In verse five he gives his reason; “so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”