I have had the pleasure of preaching the gospel open-air two times per month for about six years. Every time I preach to a group of God-hating sinners and hear their heckling, I am reminded of just how scandalous they think the gospel really is. Many have told me outright how foolish it is to think that a crucified Jewish man from ancient
Paul was dealing with essentially the same problem with the divided Corinthian church. Because they had been thoroughly immersed into the worldly philosophy of Hellenistic dualism, they believed that salvation was an escape or a “getting away” from the world and the body. As a result, they sought human “wisdom” and “knowledge”, had an over-spiritualized view of the ordinances, and some even denied the physical, tomb-emptying resurrection of the dead at the end of history due to an overrealized eschatology (1:22; 15:12). Because some in the Corinthian church had imbibed man’s worldly philosophy and attempted to mix it with biblical truth, they believed that “salvation” consisted of experiencing a weird kind of ultimate, transcendent spirituality in which the “saved” were said to be presently living on a higher spiritual plane, far above the mundane material existence of the present age.
Because the anti-Pauline factions in the church saw a need to “examine” Paul since he seemed to be devoid of the message of divine wisdom (i.e., the Greek concept of sophia = Corinthian “wisdom”; cf. 9:1-19; 4:12; Acts 18:3), they further wondered if he was really a prophet of God (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37 and 2nd Corinthians) since he lacked the oratorical skills necessary for being a good Greek philosopher, especially when Paul didn’t match up to what they thought true divine wisdom should look like and sound like (cf. 2:6; 3:1; 1:17; 2:1-5). So, having already set up the contrast in verse 17 between the “cleverness of [man’s] speech” versus the powerful preaching of the cross, he further develops this contrast in verses 18-25. In those verses, Paul sets them straight about where God’s power, wisdom, and strength lies; which is not in man’s wisdom, but in God’s wisdom.
I. The Power of God’s Message (v. 18).
II. The Preeminence of God’s Wisdom (vv. 19-20).
III. The Strength of God’s Weakness (vv. 21-25).
I. The Power of God’s Message (v. 18).
NAU 1 Corinthians 1:18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. – In this verse, Paul tells us that the cross of Christ is not something that someone may add human wisdom to and in so doing make it more superior. Instead, the cross stands in absolute, uncompromising opposition to human wisdom. Paul wants the Corinthian church to understand that the gospel, the message of the cross is not some new philosophy or new variety of human wisdom (sophia) coming onto the scene nor is it something that can be judged and put under the scrutiny of man. Paul says that this “word of the cross” can never be subjected to man’s standard of what greatness is, because man’s standard of greatness would empty the cross of its power by making it acceptable, tolerant, broad, wide, and shallow. Paul tells them (and us) that the true gospel “is foolishness to those who are perishing”. He wants the reader to understand that no one in their right mind would have ever dreamed this up as a way to be reconciled to God. A crucified Messiah is too humiliating and too much of a contradiction to man’s idea of what god should be. But of course, that is why man always strives to add something to the work of Jesus. It’s just too much for prideful man to handle the fact that all of the work has already been done on the cross and man can add nothing to it. For Paul, the cross cannot be changed, mixed with, or added to man’s philosophy and wisdom. To go beyond the cross by adding anything to it or mixing anything with it is to strip the cross of its power. There is a message that contains human wisdom and a message that contains the cross and the two are mutually exclusive.
“ . . . those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” – In the context of chapter one, those who are perishing are the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles and the ones who are being saved are the same people. Those who are being saved only differ from those who are not because of ultimately one reason, God’s sovereign and gracious heart-regenerating power (cf. Ezek. 36:25-27). For God says in verse 21, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” and in verse 24, “but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Since Paul has set up the general antithesis between the “cleverness of [human] speech” and philosophy and the divine “word of the cross”, he now moves on in verses 19-20 to show us how God’s wisdom destroys human wisdom.
Questions for reflection: (1) What is Paul’s main thrust in verse 18? (2) How can the cross be emptied of its power? What are some ways that we subtly do this? (3) Ultimately, what makes the difference between the saved and the lost? What effect should this have had upon the Corinthians and us today? (4) In what ways do some within modern evangelicalism reject the power of God in the preaching of the cross and render it foolishness?
II. The Superiority of God’s Wisdom (vv. 19-20).
NAU 1 Corinthians 1:19-20 For it is written, "I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? – The fact that Paul starts to seal his case with an appeal to Scripture by stating “for it is written” shows that he will sufficiently seal his case by arguing that what God says is the final word when it comes to the ultimate starting point for achieving true wisdom. “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14, which in its original OT context warns those in Israel not to try to match wits with God (cf. Isa. 40:12-14, 25; Job 38-42). But since it is human nature to think that we can outsmart God, Paul authoritatively quotes this Isaiah passage to show that it has found its New Covenant fulfillment in defeating the pagan wisdom that had infiltrated the Corinthian church.
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” – In verse 20, Paul is reflecting back to Isaiah, where in 19:12 Isaiah says, “Well then, where are your wise men?” Quoting Isaiah, he is asking the Corinthians “Knowing what God has done through the cross, where are all your hotshot wise men? Has not God rendered both your Gentile (“wise man”) and Jewish (“scribe”) wise men foolish and brought their human wisdom to nothing? Where are your philosophical prize-fighters (“debater”)? Paul says that the cross is folly to the perishing, but by it, he has made the world’s wisdom truly foolish. He hasn’t merely made it to look foolish, but actually has turned human wisdom into its exact opposite: foolishness. Dr. John MacArthur appropriately states in regards to verse 20,
Could the apostle have written anything more appropriate for our own day? Where have our great thinkers – our philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists, scientists, and statesmen – brought us? Never before has mankind been so fearful of self-destruction of been so self-consciously perplexed, confused, and corrupt. Modern human wisdom has failed just as ancient human wisdom failed, except that its failures come faster and spread farther. The outer life improves in a material way, while the inner life seems to have correspondingly less meaning. The real issues are not resolved.
Questions for reflection: (1) Paul was known for quoting pagan philosophers to show that they attested to at least some of what he was preaching (cf. Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12). In 1 Cor. 1:19, why is Paul concerned with quoting Scripture instead of pagan philosophers? What does that tell us about our own method of defending the faith? (2) In light of verse 20, what types of people make up the “prize-fighters” for human wisdom in our day? (3) According to Paul, how has “God made foolish the wisdom of the world”?
III. The Strength of God’s Weakness (vv. 21-25).
NAU 1 Corinthians 1:21-25 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – in verse 21, Paul says that a true knowledge of God cannot come through autonomous human philosophy because any “god” created in the minds of man to suit man will always be a projection of man’s sinful, fallen mind and will be a source of pride and boasting. However, since God saves people only through the foolish message of the cross; a message found only in God-ordained apostolic preaching and not in human wisdom; there is no room whatsoever for boasting about the effectiveness human wisdom to save men from their sins. And so, the effectiveness and offense of the “message” preached (Gk. kergyma) lies not in the preacher, but in the content of the message, which is a crucified Messiah Jesus.
For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, - Since unbelieving Jews were known for wanting miraculous signs to believe that something was of God (Matt. 12:38-40) and Greeks thrived on human philosophy and wisdom, Paul contradicts their autonomous sinful desire with the ultimate divine contradiction: the scandalous (Gk. skandalon), foolish message of the crucified Jesus. To have a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms; it was like having “fried ice”. To the Jews, you can have a Messiah reigning on a physical Davidic throne that has overthrown
Thus the “Jews” and “Greeks” here illustrate the basic idolatries of humanity. God must function as the all-powerful or the all-wise, but always in terms of our best interests – power in our behalf, wisdom like ours! For both the ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how “the God who makes sense” ought to do things.
Yes indeed, unbelieving people today desire the same idols that the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s day did, namely, they want a god that can give them humanistic power and wisdom when what they really need to hear is the powerful message of the cross, a simple message that they will consider foolish and scandalous.
[B]ut to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. - Now, since the omnipotent God is able to give the Jews plenty of signs and the Greeks plenty of wisdom, why would He leave them with something that both groups consider to be foolish? Paul’s answer is twofold: (1) The offensive message of a crucified Messiah was God’s ultimate expression of His “power” and “wisdom” and (2) this power and wisdom is only available to those of “the called, both Jews and Greeks”. This wisdom is reserved only for “those who believe” (v. 21), “those who are being saved” (v. 18), and they are believing and being saved because of God’s prior action on their behalf; they are those who are saints by God’s effectual calling unto salvation (cf. 1:1-2). It is those, and only those who will respond to God’s expression of wisdom in this crucified Messiah. It is only those who will seek, savor, hunger, and long for this crucified Messiah and it only those who will realize that this gospel is the “power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – The folly of the cross outsmarts man’s power and wisdom because God’s power and wisdom are revealed in the crucified Jesus. Because God’s wisdom and power are at work in the world through the preaching of the cross, it is the ultimate contradiction to man’s wisdom and power. To the perishing, the cross is foolish and weak, but it is God’s foolishness, and because of this, it is still stronger than anything man can think up or devise. In the cross of Jesus, God not only outsmarts sinful humans and makes their wisdom look stupid, but He also overpowers them by pouring upon them the unmerited grace of regeneration, forgiveness, and reconciliation and in doing so, He takes away their own self-serving strength.
Questions for reflection: (1) What kind of god does man create when he has the opportunity? How does this “god” become a source of pride and boasting? [v. 21] (2) Where should the effectiveness and the offense of the message of the cross come from? [v. 21] (3) Why is the cross considered then and now as the “ultimate divine contradiction”? [vv. 22-23] (4) Why was the cross a scandalous message for the Jews? The Greeks? (5) What does it mean for Paul to say that the foolishness of God wiser than men and the weakness of God stronger than men? How is this the case? [vv. 24-25]
God did not consult man and ask if we wanted a gospel that was suitable for the sign-seeker and the power-monger. We don’t have a “custom-fit” Jesus, complete with trimmings of worldly power, prestige, and success. Instead, God gives us a dangerous dilemma: Be saved by turning from our own wisdom and power and rest in His foolish-wisdom found in the cross of Christ, or do it our own way and perish. We’d do well to do it God’s way, because “the weakness of God is stronger than men” and that “weakness” brings us into “fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9). Such “weakness” in God is a scandal to those who think they are good people and have no need of forgiveness; but to those who are called and recognize that they are in need of His mercy, this is the good news that sets us free to follow him. And so, in the weakness of the cross we find God’s ultimate power, and in God’s powerful gospel, we see God’s ultimate wisdom. Would to God that we would all be humbled by the Sovereign and receive this message of eternal life.