1 Corinthians 1:18 to 2:5 – Whose way (or who) dominates?

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.

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. 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.

Conclusion

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.