A. Greeting and giving of thanks.
1. (1) Whom the letter is from: Paul, a called apostle.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother.
a. Paul: The apostle Paul follows the normal pattern for writing a letter in ancient times. We write a letter by saying who the letter is to first, and we conclude with writing who the letter is from. In the ancient culture of Paul, a letter began with writing who the letter is from, and then stating who the letter is to.
i. Paul had an extensive history of contact with the city of Corinth, beginning with when he established the church in Corinth, coming there after Athens and staying a year and a half (Acts 18).
ii. He wrote a letter to the Christians in Corinth from the city of Ephesus (Acts 19), which is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9. This “previous letter” is lost.
iii. Paul then received reports from people in Chloe’s household about disturbances in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11); and he may have received a delegation from Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:7) who brought him questions from the congregation (1 Corinthians 7:1).
iv. Then Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to respond to these reports. But because of all the time Paul spent in Corinth, and all the letters he wrote them, we know more about the Christians at Corinth than we know about any other church in the New Testament.
b. Called to be an apostle: At the outset of the letter – indeed, the very first few words – Paul fearlessly declares his apostolic credentials. As is evident from 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul’s standing and authority as an apostle were not appreciated among the Christians of Corinth.
i. Called to be an apostle is literally a called apostle. Paul tells them just what kind of apostle he is, a called apostle. “Paul knows that he is not one of the twelve apostles, but he is on par with them because, like them, he is chosen by God.” (Robertson)
ii. An apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God: With this, Paul emphasizes his point and already begins contending with the Christians of Corinth. It is as if he says, “You all may not recognize my apostolic credentials. That is of little importance to me, because I am not an apostle because of a popular election. I am not an apostle through the appointment of the other apostles. I am an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, not the will of any man.”
iii. What is an apostle of Jesus Christ? In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul deals more fully with what makes a person an apostle. However, we learn something just from the meaning of the ancient Greek word “apostolos,” which has the idea of “a special ambassador.” Paul was a “special ambassador” of Jesus Christ to the world and to the church.
iv. Even in his introduction, Paul thinks about the critical issues he needs to communicate to the Corinthian Christians. Paul thought carefully about this letter.
c. Sosthenes our brother: This man Sosthenes is perhaps mentioned in Acts 18:17, as the head of a Corinthian synagogue who was beaten because he protected Paul.
i. When Paul first came to Corinth, the ruler of the synagogue was a man named Crispus. Crispus believed on the Lord with all his household (Acts 18:8), and was saved. So he was fired from – or quit – his job as ruler of the synagogue!
ii. His replacement was a man named Sosthenes, who was beaten by the Roman officials in a bit of anti-Semitic backlash against the Jews who tried to persecute Paul. Perhaps this same Sosthenes in Acts 18:17 is now with Paul, so Paul calls attention to the man with him whom the Corinthian Christians would know: Sosthenes our brother.
iii. It was common in the ancient world to dictate a letter to a scribe who would write it all down. Probably, Sosthenes was Paul’s scribe (or, more technically, his amanuensis).
2. (2) To: The church of God at Corinth.
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.
a. To the church of God: Most people today associate the word church with a building where Christians meet. But the ancient Greek word for church (ekklesiai) was a non-religious word for an “assembly” of people, typically gathered together for a specific purpose.
i. “The Greek word has both a Gentile and a Jewish background. In its Gentile sense it denotes chiefly the citizen-assembly of a Greek city… but it is its Jewish usage that underlies its use to denote the community of believers in Jesus. In the Septuagint it is one of the words used to denote the people of Israel in their religious character as Yahweh’s ‘assembly.’” (Bruce in his Acts commentary)
ii. The term church of God has Old Testament associations, especially in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament). See passages such as Numbers 16:3, Numbers 20:4, Deuteronomy 23:1, and 1 Chronicles 28:8.
iii. Because church was a secular term (referring to “the gatherings of the citizenry in a city-state to discuss and decide on matters of public interest” [Mare]), Paul calls the gathering of Christians in Corinth the church of God. This isn’t the gathering of the world, but of God.
iv. Paul doesn’t only consider believers in Corinth to be the church of God. Believers in Palestine are described this way (1 Corinthians 15:9), as well as the church at large (1 Corinthians 10:31-32).
b. Which is at Corinth: Corinth was one of the great cities of the ancient world, and a community very much like Southern California. It was prosperous, busy, and growing; it had a deserved reputation for the reckless pursuit of pleasure. Corinth had a rich ethnic mix, and it was a center for sports, government, military, and business.
i. When Paul came to Corinth in A.D. 50 the city was famous for hundreds of years before he was born. Ancient writers considered Corinth “rich, prosperous… always great and wealthy” (Mare). The Romans destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C., but Julius Caesar rebuilt the city a hundred years later.
ii. Many things made Corinth famous. Pottery and “Corinthian brass” (a mixture of gold, sliver and copper) from the city were world famous. Famous athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games – second only to the Olympian Games – were held at the temple of Poseidon in Corinth every two years. Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Serapis, and Asclepius, among others, had temples to their honor in Corinth. But most prominent was the worship of the Corinthian Aphrodite, who had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes and priestesses) in her service.
iii. Corinth was a major city of business, especially because of its location. It was on a four-and-one-half mile-wide isthmus of land. “At its narrowest part the isthmus was crossed by a level track called the diolcus, over which vessels were dragged on rollers from one port to the other. This was in constant use, because seamen were thus enabled to avoid sailing round the dangerous promontory of Malea.” (Vincent) Sailors wanted to avoid the dangerous journey around Malea, which was indicated by two popular proverbs: “Let him who sails around Malea forget his home,” and “Let him who sails around Malea first make his will.” If the ship was too large to be dragged, the cargo was unloaded and loaded onto another ship on the other side of the isthmus.
iv. The Corinthian people were also world known: for partying, drunkenness, and loose sexual morals. The term Korinthiazomai was well known in the Roman Empire and it meant literally “to live like a Corinthian.” But everyone knew it really meant “to be sexually out of control.” “Aelian, the late Greek writer, tells us that if ever a Corinthian was shown upon the stage in a Greek play he was shown drunk.” (Barclay)
v. Fee comments on Corinth’s sexual immorality: “The Asclepius room in the present museum in Corinth provides mute evidence to this facet of city life; here on one wall are a large number of clay votives of human genitals that had been offered to the god for healing of that part of the body, apparently ravaged by venereal disease.” Fee sums up his analysis of Corinth by writing: “All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world.” Leon Morris describes Corinth as “Intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”
c. To the church of God which is at Corinth: Notice the contrast: The church of God (something good), which is at Corinth (someplace bad). Understanding the tension between the church and the city is important to understanding the letter of 1 Corinthians. The bottom line is this: is the church influencing the city, or is the city influencing the church?
i. Morgan says well in his introduction to 1 Corinthians: “The measure of failure on the part of the Church is the measure in which she has allowed herself to be influenced by the spirit of the age… We are sometimes told to-day that what the Church supremely needs is that she should catch the spirit of the age. A thousand times no. What the Church supremely needs is to correct the spirit of the age.”
d. Those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints: Paul continued his description of the Corinthian Christians. The words sanctified and saints communicate the same idea, of being set apart from the world and unto God.
i. Notice the words to be are inserted by translators. The Corinthians were called saints, not called to be saints.
ii. There is much in 1 Corinthians that is unflattering to the Christians of Corinth. They are shown to have, at times, morality problems, doctrine problems, church government problems, spiritual gift problems, church service problems, and authority problems. It might be easy for us to think they weren’t even saved! But they were. They were called saints.
iii. We might also think saying called saints is mere flattery, Paul’s way of preparing them for coming rebuke. It isn’t. The Corinthian Christians are called saints, but this was not based on the outward performance of the Corinthians. It was founded on a promise of God, when He said for I have many people in this city (Acts 18:10).
e. Both theirs and ours: In his first few words, Paul lays the foundation for a fundamental issue he will address in this letter: Christian unity, based on the common Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Corinthian Christians are called… saints, but this isn’t exclusive to them. They are saints together with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus is both their Lord and our Lord, and because they share a common Lord, they share an essential unity.
3. (3) Greeting: Grace to you and peace.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
a. Grace to you and peace: The greeting including grace and peace is typical of Paul’s letters, and draws from both Greek and Jewish customs. Paul uses this exact phrase five other times in the New Testament.
i. “Grace is always first, peace always second. This is due to the fact that grace is the source of peace. Without grace there is and can be no peace, but when grace is ours, peace must of necessity follow.” (Lenski)
b. The Lord Jesus Christ: Paul will often (more than 17 times in the letter) refer to Jesus as the Lord Jesus Christ; it is well to recall what the title means.
i. Lord: A title designating not only master and boss, but also the Lord revealed in the Old Testament (known as Yahweh or Jehovah). “This term could be no more than a polite form of address like our ‘Sir.’ But it could also be used of the deity one worships. The really significant background, though, is its use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to render the divine name, Yahweh… Christians who used this as their Bible would be familiar with the term as equivalent to deity.” (Morris, in Romans)
ii. Jesus: The given name of the son of Mary, and adopted son of Joseph, which is the Greek pronunciation of Joshua. The name Joshua means, “Yahweh is salvation.”
iii. Christ: This is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, or “Anointed One.” This is the One prophesied by the Old Testament Scriptures, sent by the Father to save and deliver us.
4. (4-9) A prayer of thanksgiving.
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
a. I thank my God always: Paul will later spend most of this letter rebuking sin and correcting error, yet he is still sincerely thankful for God’s work in the Corinthian Christians.
i. Those who feel called to rebuke sin and correct error in the church today should follow Paul’s example. Unfortunately, many of them never communicate any encouragement with their correction and advice.
b. For the grace which was given to you by Jesus Christ: This was the specific reason for Paul’s gratitude. Everything good the Corinthian Christians have from God has come to them by grace. Grace means that God gives freely, for His own reasons.
c. Enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and in all knowledge: This was the effect of grace in the life of the Corinthian Christians. The Corinthians were a “rich” church, not only materially, but also in their speech and knowledge of Jesus (all utterance and in all knowledge… the testimony of Christ), in their abounding in the gifts (come short in no gift), and in that they lived in anticipation of Jesus’ coming (eagerly waiting).
i. The work of God in the Corinthian Christians could be seen by what they said, by what they learned, by a supernatural element in their lives, and by their expectant anticipation of Jesus’ return.
ii. When Paul looked at the Corinthian church, he could say: “These people proclaim Jesus, they know about Jesus, there are the supernatural gifts of God among them, and they are excited about Jesus’ return.” Whatever problems they had, these are some pretty impressive strong points. Can even this much be said about many churches today? We may pride ourselves on not having the problems of the Corinthian Christians, but do we have their positives?
iii. Yet, these positives were no great credit to the Corinthian Christians themselves. They were not the spiritual achievements of the Corinthians, but the work of the grace of God in them.
d. You come short in no gift: Paul thanks God for the gifts among the Corinthians, even though they were causing some trouble. He recognizes that the gifts were not the problem, but wrong attitudes and beliefs about the gifts.
i. The Corinthian Christians were indeed gifted, yet carnal. “Should it not show us that gifts are nothing, unless they are laid on the altar of God; that it is nothing to have the gift of oratory; that it is nothing to have the power of eloquence; that it is nothing to have learning; that it is nothing to have influence, unless they all be dedicated to God, and consecrated to his service?” (Spurgeon)
e. Confirm you to the end: The Corinthian Christians had their strong points, and they had their weak points. Paul praises God for their positives, and expresses confidence that God will take care of their weak points, and confirm them to the end, so that they would be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
i. How can Paul be confident of this when the Corinthian church has so many problems? He can be confident because God is faithful. He is the One who has called them into the fellowship of His Son, so He is the One who will confirm them to the end and present them blameless.
f. His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord: In these first 10 verses, Paul refers to Jesus in every verse, for a total of 11 times. In this emphasis on Jesus, Paul promotes the sure cure for the problems of the Corinthians: getting your eyes off self and on Jesus.
B. The problem of divisions.
1. (10) Initial plea: don’t be torn apart, but joined.
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
a. I plead with you, brethren: Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. He had authority in the church. He had the right, and the authority, to command the Corinthian Christians in these matters. Instead, with loving heart, he begs them – he pleads with them – to be unified as believers.
i. “Now, after preparing their minds for rebuke, acting like a good, experienced surgeon, who touches the wound gently when a painful remedy must be used, Paul begins to handle them more severely.” (Calvin)
b. That there be no divisions among you: The ancient Greek word for divisions is “schismata.” Although we derive our English word “schism” from this Greek word, it does not really mean a “party” or a “faction”; it properly means “tear or rend.” Paul’s plea is that they stop ripping each other apart, tearing up the body of Christ.
c. But that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment: The contrast to divisions is to be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. Instead of being torn apart, Paul pleads that they would be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
i. Barclay on joined together: “A medical word used of knitting together bones that have been fractured, or joining together a joint that has been dislocated. The disunion is unnatural and must be cured.”
2. (11-13) Paul exposes the foolishness of their divisions.
For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
a. Those of Chloe’s household: Chloe was a woman (probably a Christian) whose business interests caused her representatives (those of her household) to travel between Ephesus and Corinth. Paul writes this letter from Ephesus, where these people from Chloe’s household visited and told him about the condition of the the Corinthian church.
i. Clarke on Chloe: “This was doubtless some very religious matron at Corinth, whose family were converted to the Lord; some of whom were probably sent to the apostle to inform him of the dissensions which then prevailed in the Church at that place.”
b. Contentions among you: The Corinthian church suffered under quarreling and conflict. This conflict had made them divide up into “parties” or “cliques,” each party having its own “leader.”
i. “I am of Paul”: There was the “Paul Party,” who declared “We are following in the footsteps of the man who founded our church, the apostle Paul. We’re the ones really right with God!”
ii. “I am of Apollos”: There was the “Apollos Party,” who declared “We are following in the footsteps of a man who is great in power and spiritual gifts, and an impressive man. We’re the ones really right with God!” (Acts 18:24-25)
iii. “I am of Cephas”: There was the “Peter Party,” who declared “We are following in the footsteps of the man who is first among all the apostles. Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and he’s our man. We’re the ones really right with God!”
iv. “I am of Christ”: There was the “Jesus Party,” who declared “You all are so carnal, following after mere men. We are following in the footsteps of no one less than Jesus Himself. We’re the ones really right with God!”
v. It is possible there was not an actual “Paul Party” or “Apollos Party” or “Peter Party” or “Jesus Party” at Corinth. Later in this letter, Paul writes that he transferred to himself and Apollos what applied to others (1 Corinthians 4:6). The actual Corinthian factions may have centered around people in the congregation, not the different apostles who ministered to them. Even if this is the case, the picture fits. Paul may be “changing the names to protect the innocent,” or to show mercy to the guilty.
vi. The Corinthians’ boasting about their “party leaders” was really boasting about themselves. It wasn’t so much that they thought Apollos was great, but that they were great for following him.
c. There are contentions among you: Though division is ungodly, it is not wrong to make distinctions between churches and ministers. God has made different churches and different ministries with different callings and characters, because the job of preaching the gospel is too big for any one group.
i. “I bless God that there are so many denominations. If there were not men who differed a little in their creeds, we should never get as much gospel as we do… God has sent different men to defend different kinds of truth; but Christ defended and preached all… Christ’s testimony was perfect.” (Spurgeon)
ii. It is one thing to prefer one minister to another, but we cannot divide into cliques behind one minister or another. “One minister of Christ may be justly preferred to another. We ought to honour those most whom God most honoureth, either by a more plentiful giving out of his Spirit, or by a more plentiful success upon their labours; but we ought not so far to appropriate any ministers to ourselves, as for them to despise others. We are not bound to make every minister our pastor, but we are bound to have a just respect for every minister, who by his doctrine and holy life answereth his profession and holy calling.” (Poole)
d. Is Christ divided? Jesus does not belong to any one “party.” These cliques ignore the truth of unity over all diversity in the church, even if they were all in the name of spirituality.
i. Spiritual elitism is terrible, no matter whose name it is practiced in.
ii. There was an old, contentious Quaker who went from one meeting to another, never finding the “true” church. Someone once said to him, “Well, what church are you in now?” He said, “I am in the true church at last.” “How many belong to it?” “Just my wife and myself, and I am not sure about her sometimes.”
e. Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul: Even more foolish than “dividing Jesus” is to center parties in the church around men. When Paul explained it like this, it shows how foolish it is to focus on anyone but Jesus.
3. (14-17) Paul is grateful he did not happen to baptize more people in Corinth and thereby add more fuel to the partisan debate.
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
a. Apparently, some of the Corinthian Christians (probably those of the “Paul Party”) made a big deal of the fact that they had been baptized by Paul. Because it was becoming a divisive issue, Paul was therefore grateful that he had not baptized very many in Corinth (lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name).
i. Of course, Paul did baptize a few in Corinth. Crispus is likely mentioned in Acts 18:8, Gaius in Romans 16:23.
b. I thank God… Christ did not send me to baptize: For Paul, preaching was more important than baptizing, though he was certainly not opposed to baptism. Yet, we can see by this that baptism is not essential to salvation. If it were – if the teaching of baptismal regeneration were true – then Paul could never thank God that he baptized so few in Corinth, and he, as an evangelist, could never say Christ did not send me to baptize.
i. That Paul did not regard baptism as essential to salvation is also seen by the fact that he did not keep careful track of those he baptized: Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. Surely, Paul remembered his converts, but the issue of baptism, though important, was not as important to Paul.
ii. In light of I thank God that I baptized none of you, it is impossible to claim that Paul was a sacramentalist. “He clearly denies here that he considers baptism essential to the remission of sin or the means of obtaining forgiveness.” (Robertson)
iii. “While therefore it is unscriptural to make baptism essential to salvation or a certain means of regeneration, it is nevertheless a dangerous act of disobedience to undervalue or neglect it.” (Hodge)
iv. This passage also makes it clear that the individual doing the baptizing doesn’t really affect the validity of the baptism. Those baptized by the great apostle Paul had no advantage over those baptized by some unknown believer. The power of baptism is in the spiritual reality it represents, not in who performs it.
c. Not with wisdom of words: How did Paul preach in Corinth? Not with the wisdom of words, which can be translated cleverness of speaking. Paul came speaking plainly, without any attempt to dazzle with eloquence or intellect.
i. Paul came to Corinth from Athens, where he contended with the great philosophers of the day in terms they could understand (Acts 17:16-34). Some people think that Paul was disappointed by the results in Athens, and resolved to preach differently in Corinth.
ii. It’s wrong to say that Paul preached a watered-down gospel in Athens. “Like the biblical revelation itself, his argument begins with God the creator of all and ends with God the judge of all… The speech as it stands admirably summarizes an introductory lesson in Christianity for cultured pagans.” (Bruce, in his commentary on Acts) At the same time, it is not unreasonable to think that Paul came from the intellectual environment of Athens, to the open wickedness of Corinth, with a renewed passion to preach the gospel plainly and without compromise.
iii. There is another significant difference between Paul’s ministry in Athens and his work in Corinth. Paul was in Athens a day or two; he stayed in Corinth for a year and a half.
d. Lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect: Paul makes it clear that it is possible to preach the gospel in a way that makes it of no effect. If one preaches the word with a reliance on wisdom of words, they can make the gospel of no effect.
i. How sobering this is! The great gospel of Jesus Christ, the very power of God unto salvation – made empty and of no effect through the pride and cleverness of men! This danger was constantly on the mind of the apostle Paul, and should be constantly on the mind of any preacher or teacher.
C. The power of the cross and the wisdom of men.
1. (18) The central point: How the perishing see the cross, and how the saved see the cross.
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.
a. For the message of the cross: In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul declared the idea that the cross could be made of no effect if it were presented with the wisdom of words. Paul now will show why this is true of the cross and the message of the gospel.
b. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing: To those who reject the salvation of the cross, the idea of being saved through the work of a crucified man is foolish.
i. The words message of the cross sound kind of noble and religious to our twentieth-century ears. But in the first century, saying message of the cross was about the same as saying message of the electric chair – except worse! What message does a cruel, humiliating, unrelenting instrument of death have? No wonder it is foolishness to those who are perishing!
c. To us who are being saved it is the power of God: Though it is a strange message, and regarded as foolish by the perishing, to those who trust in it and are being saved, this message of the cross becomes to them the actual power of God.
i. There is inherent power in the preaching of the true gospel, when it is received with faith. The hearing and trusting of the true gospel will bring the power of God into your life.
ii. Though the word gospel isn’t in this verse, it is in the previous verse. For Paul, the message of the cross was the gospel. It was impossible for the Apostle to preach the gospel without presenting the message of the cross. So, preaching a high moral standard is not preaching the gospel, preaching the universal fatherhood of God is not preaching the gospel, and preaching the universal brotherhood of man is not preaching the gospel. The gospel is the message of the cross.
d. Those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved: The verb tenses of are perishing and are being saved are significant. They both describe a work in progress. Each of us is definitely moving in one of those two directions.
2. (19-21) The wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God.
For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
a. For it is written: In this quotation from Isaiah 29:14, Paul shows that in spiritual matters, God opposes the wisdom of man. He will destroy the wisdom of the wise, not bow down before it.
b. Where is the wise? Paul says, “In light of what God says in Isaiah 29:14, now where is your ‘wise’ man? Where is your scribe? Where is your disputer of this age? God has made them all foolish through His wisdom. He has destroyed the wisdom of the wise, just as He said He would.”
i. The disputer of this age “was the man who wanted to dispute every issue and solve it by human reason.” (Mare)
ii. The point is plain: There is no wise man, no scribe, and no debater who can do what Jesus Christ has done.
c. The world through wisdom did not know God: There is a constant tendency to think that the smartest and wisest humans will know the most about God. But God cannot be found through human wisdom, but only through the message of the cross. The pursuit of human wisdom may bring an earthly contentment or happiness (though this is rare), but in itself, it can never bring the true knowledge of the true God.
i. It is significant that often the most educated people have the least regard for God. This is not always the case; some of the most brilliant men of history have been Christians (such as Isaac Newton). But largely, the “smarter” one sees himself, the less regard he has for God. Human “wisdom” is constantly rejecting God and opposing Him, and ultimately showing itself foolish and perishing in doing so.
ii. One day, students in one of Albert Einstein’s classes were saying they had decided that there was no God. Einstein asked them, how much of all the knowledge in the world they had amongst themselves collectively, as a class. The students discussed it for a while and decided they had 5% of all human knowledge amongst themselves. Einstein thought that their estimate was a little generous, but he replied: “Is it possible that God exists in the 95% that you don’t know?”
d. Through the foolishness of the message: The Corinthians wanted to believe that the gospel itself was a sublime form of wisdom, as the Greeks considered wisdom (sophia). Paul replies, ‘how foolish can you get? What is there ‘wise’ (in the Greek sense of wisdom) about a crucified Messiah?”
i. The phrases foolishness of the message and foolishness of God do not mean Paul actually considered the message and God foolish. He is describing them as they appear to the perishing man, the “wise” man of this age.
ii. God’s wisdom is not man’s wisdom multiplied to the highest degree. It is wisdom of a different order altogether. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
iii. Paul isn’t condemning all learning or education; he merely says that by themselves they are useless for obtaining spiritual wisdom.
iv. “It is certain that a blind man is no judge of colours, a deaf man is no judge of sound, and a man who has never been quickened into spiritual life can have no judgment as to spiritual things.” (Spurgeon)
e. It pleased God: God takes pleasure in accomplishing our salvation in a way no one would have expected. He is happy to do it in this way, which offends the height of human wisdom.
3. (22-25) The wisdom of God, though foolish to the world, triumphs.
For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom—but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
a. For Jews request a sign: In Paul’s day, the Jewish world was looking for a sign. Specifically, they wanted the sign of a miraculous Messianic deliverance. They were not looking for the message of the cross. Their desire for deliverance was not bad, but their rejection of God’s way of deliverance was.
i. “Their idolatry was that they now had God completely figured out; he would simply repeat the Exodus, in still greater splendor.” (Fee)
b. Greeks seek after wisdom: The Greek culture valued the pursuit of wisdom, usually expressed in high, academic, philosophical terms. They did not value the wisdom expressed in the message of the cross. Their desire for wisdom was not bad, but their rejection of God’s wisdom was.
i. “Their idolatry was to conceive of God as ultimate Reason, meaning of course what we deem to be reasonable.” (Fee)
c. We preach Christ crucified: Instead of giving the Jews and Greeks what they demanded in deliverance and wisdom, God gave them something unexpected: a crucified Messiah.
i. Christ (Messiah) meant power, splendor, and triumph. Crucified meant weakness, defeat, and humiliation. Christ crucified was the ultimate oxymoron, and this was what Paul preached!
ii. If the cross doesn’t seem strange to you, then you either don’t understand how the cross was seen in Jesus’ day, or you don’t understand who Jesus is. You don’t understand the tension between Christ and crucified.
iii. The great Roman statesman Cicero said: “The cross, it speaks of that which is so shameful, so horrible, it should never be mentioned in polite society.” If we were witnesses to the trial of Jesus – when the crowd was shouting out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” – if we had our wits about us, we would have shouted back, “Don’t crucify Him! If you must execute this man, do it honorably. Let him die the death of a dignified man. But don’t expose Him to the horror and the humiliation of hanging on a cross.” But God wanted Christ crucified, and if we don’t embrace the cross, even with all its strange contradictions and demands, then we are lost.
iv. Let every pulpit rightly say, “we preach Christ crucified!” A strong church once inscribed these words on an archway leading to the churchyard. Over time, two things happened: the church lost its passion for Jesus and His gospel, and ivy began to grow on the archway. The growth of the ivy, covering the message, showed the spiritual decline. Originally it said strongly, we preach Christ crucified. But as the ivy grew, one could only read we preach Christ, and the church also started preaching “Jesus the Great Man” and “Jesus the Moral Example” instead of Christ crucified. The ivy kept growing, and one could soon only read, we preach. The church also had even lost Jesus in the message, preaching religious platitudes and social graces. Finally, one could only read we, and the church also just became another social gathering place, all about we and not about God.
d. To the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness: The Jews regarded Christ crucified as a stumbling block; perhaps this is better understood as an offense or a scandal. The Greeks regarded Christ crucified as foolishness. But God did not respond to the polling data. He kept to His gospel, because for those who believed it (both Jews and Greeks), Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
i. If the cross and its message seem weak, they are not; they are powerful and wise. But our expectations of what God should do keep us from receiving that power and wisdom.
ii. Paul knew this by experience. He was once scandalized by a crucified Christ; it infuriated him that one obviously cursed by God (according to Deuteronomy 21:23) should be honored as Messiah and Lord. So, he persecuted the church before being confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
iii. As much as Paul was once offended by a crucified Messiah, so the Greeks thought a message of salvation through a humiliating instrument of death foolish. A well-known piece of graffiti in Rome shows a worshipper standing next to a crucified figure with the body of a man and the head of an ass, and it says, “Alexamenos worships his god.” This is how foolish the Greeks saw the cross.
iv. Those who insist that we must change the emphasis of the gospel because people can’t relate to it today must realize that the people of Paul’s day couldn’t relate to his preaching either, yet he kept it up, and with great results.
v. “Those who thus veil an unwelcome truth imagine that they make disciples, whereas they are only paying homage to unbelief, and comforting men in their rejection of divine propitiation for sin. Whatever the preacher may mean in his heart, he will be guilty of the blood of souls if he does not clearly proclaim a real sacrifice for sin.” (Spurgeon)
vi. “Certain divines tell us that they must adapt truth to the advance of the age, which means that they must murder it and fling its dead body to the dogs… which simply means that a popular lie shall take the place of an offensive truth.” (Spurgeon)
e. The foolishness of God is wiser than men: God was at His most “foolish” and very “weakest” at the cross, but it was infinitely wiser and stronger than anything man could do.
i. Salvation is not the achievement of human wisdom; it is the embrace of God’s dramatic, unexpected act of love at Calvary.
4. (26-29) God’s “foolish wisdom” is also displayed by whom He has chosen for salvation.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
a. You see your calling, brethren: Paul says to the Corinthians, “Look at yourselves. You’re no great bargain.” There were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble among the Christians at Corinth.
i. Lady Huntington, the rich and influential friend of Whitfield and Wesley, said she was going to heaven by an “m”: it isn’t any noble; instead it is not many noble.
b. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world: Looking again at the Corinthians, Paul can say “you aren’t wise according to the world, you aren’t mighty, you aren’t noble – but you are among the foolish things of the world.”
i. No doubt, many of the Corinthian Christians were beginning to think of themselves in high terms because of God’s work in them. Paul will not allow this. They have not been chosen because they are so great, but because God is so great.
c. To put to shame the wise: This explains part of the pleasure of God described in 1 Corinthians 1:21. God loves to rebuke the idolatry of human wisdom, and He often does it by choosing and using the foolish things of the world.
i. God isn’t saying that it is better to be foolish or uneducated. Rather, He is saying that the world’s wisdom and education does not bring us salvation in Jesus Christ. “In putting the strong and wise and great to shame, God does not exalt the weak and uneducated and worthless, but brings all of them down to one common level.” (Calvin)
ii. God has called the weak and ignorant first, but not exclusively; shepherds first, then wise men; fishermen first, then the educated (like Paul, who was himself an educated man).
iii. “The ancient Christians were for the most part slaves and men of low station; the whole history of the expansion of the church is in reality a progressive victory of the ignorant over the learned, the lowly over the lofty, until the emperor himself laid down his crown before the cross of Christ.” (Alford, quoting Olshausen)
d. That no flesh should glory in His presence: This is the end result. No one will stand before God and declare, “I figured You out” or “You did it just like I thought You should.” God’s ways are greater and higher, and nothing of the flesh will glory in His presence.
5. (30-31) True wisdom belongs to the believing.
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.”
a. Jesus, who became for us wisdom: Jesus perfectly shows us, in His teaching and life, God’s wisdom. This wisdom is often in contradiction to man’s expectation.
i. True wisdom isn’t about “getting smart.” God’s wisdom is received in and through the person of Jesus.
b. Who became for us: Jesus is not only wisdom for us; He is also righteousness and sanctification and redemption. In His work, He communicates three things to those who are in Christ Jesus.
i. Righteousness means that we are legally declared not only “not guilty,” but to have a positive righteousness. It means that the righteous deeds and character of Jesus are accounted to us. We don’t become righteous by focusing on ourselves, because Jesus became for us… righteousness.
ii. Sanctification speaks of our behavior, and how the believers are to be separate from the world and unto God. We don’t grow in sanctification by focusing on ourselves, but on Jesus, because Jesus became for us… sanctification.
iii.Redemption is a word from the slave trade. The idea is that we have been purchased to permanent freedom. We don’t find freedom by focusing on ourselves, because Jesus became for us… redemption.
c. He who glories, let him glory in the LORD: Paul uses this reference to Jeremiah 9:23-24 to show that God did it all this way so that God would get the glory. The path for God’s glory is Christ crucified; the evidence of God’s glory is His choice of the lowly.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission