Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians (though it is at least the second of four letters Paul wrote to the church at Corinth), Paul is addressing two interrelated problems vexing this Christian community: various elitist attitudes and dissension within the ranks.

Matthew 5:13
"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 9, 2020

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians (though it is at least the second of four letters Paul wrote to the church at Corinth), Paul is addressing two interrelated problems vexing this Christian community: various elitist attitudes and dissension within the ranks.

As the letter transitions from its opening to main body, Paul implores the Corinthians to end their divisions and be united in the same mind and purpose (1 Corinthians 1:10). On the one hand, one cause of their divisions and quarrels involves various parties claiming allegiance to particular leaders (1 Corinthians 1:12-13; an issue which Paul will again pick up in next week’s text from 1 Corinthians 3). On the other hand, another cause for division is the various elitist attitudes whereby some Corinthians regard themselves as theologically, morally, and spiritually superior to other Corinthian Christians (issues which Paul will address throughout 1 Corinthians).

The first elitist stance which Paul addresses involves wisdom. As Richard Hays notes, in this context the category of wisdom “can refer both to the possession of exalted knowledge and to the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful and rhetorically polished way.”1 Paul’s antidote to elitist reliance on such wisdom is the cross.

For Paul, the proclamation of Christ crucified, that which God accomplished in and through Christ crucified, and ministry in which Christ crucified is the central paradigm are all indelibly intertwined. Likewise, through these interrelated facets of the cross, God’s salvific plan is both revealed and unleashed in the world. Ironically, however, by the standards of the world’s wisdom, these seem foolish and pathetically weak (1 Corinthians 1:18-30).

Nevertheless, Christ crucified is the standard which undergirds and guides Paul’s theology, message, and ministry as he will continue to emphasize throughout his argument in 1 Corinthians 2. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 2:2 when Paul refers to Christ as crucified, he uses the perfect instead of the aorist tense (so too in 1 Corinthians 1:23). Not only was Christ crucified at a particular point in time in the past, Christ remains the crucified one even as he reigns over the cosmos.

When Paul begins to present what/how he did not and did proclaim the mystery of God to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:1-2), it is important to see how this flows out of his overarching apocalyptic theological framework. God’s mystery involves God’s plan of cosmic salvation whose core is the death, resurrection, and parousia of Jesus Christ. God established this divine plan before creation (1 Corinthians 2:7b), but it was a plan which was (and to some, still is) secret and hidden (1 Corinthians 2:7a).

The reality and power of this plan is certainly inaccessible through the standards and means of human wisdom (for example, the “wisdom of this age” in 1 Corinthians 2:6; so too the “wisdom of the world” in 1 Corinthians 1:20 and “human wisdom” in 1 Corinthians 1:25). This is why Paul did not use the means or method of wisdom when he first came to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:1). Instead, the means and method he used was Christ crucified, which reveals God’s mystery and unleashes its power and reality (1 Corinthians 2:2, 5, 10).

Paul’s own ministry bears the paradigmatic imprint of Christ crucified so that he comes in what appears to be weakness because it does not reflect the trappings and standards associated with wisdom and rhetorical eloquence (1 Corinthians 2:3-4a). Nonetheless, his message and ministry release divine saving power because it is the vehicle through which the Spirit is at work to create, nurture, and sustain faith by revealing the depth of God’s salvific plan (1 Corinthians 2:4-5, 10-16).

Again, none of this is accessible or understandable by the means and standards of human wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:13), also known as the wisdom of this age (1 Corinthians 2:6). Because the rulers of this age (in this context most likely the agents of the Roman empire) use the standards of the wisdom of this age, they judged Jesus to be a weak, wretched enemy of the state and so crucified him completely unaware that through Christ crucified and raised their doom is sealed (1 Corinthians 2:6-7; also see 1 Corinthians 15:24-25).

Paul’s dualism here is stark and ironic. On the one side stands the ways, means, and values of this age with its human wisdom and rhetoric, rulers and violence. Some of the Corinthians are using these standards by which they judge themselves to be superior compared to others in the Christian community of Corinth. Not only has their arrogant reliance on the principles of this age caused them not to understand the core of God’s saving plan and work, it is tearing apart the fabric of unity in the body of Christ.

 In actuality, Paul calls them “unspiritual” because they have closed themselves off to the core revelation of the Spirit, Christ crucified. On the other side is God’s mystery, God’s hidden plan whose core is Christ crucified. This is the heart of the gospel. It is the message Paul first proclaimed to the Corinthians and which he is now reiterating to them. It also provides the form and contours for Paul’s own ministry. Through the Spirit at work in the lives of those receiving the gospel of Christ crucified, what is otherwise humanly incomprehensible (1 Corinthians 2:9 echoing Isaiah 64:4) becomes comprehensible. This is divine wisdom. This is how one becomes truly spiritual (1 Corinthians 2:12-15). This is the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and the fabric of Christian unity.

For Paul, the message and ministry, the reality and conduct, the epistemology and criteria for Christian living (individually and communally) is cruciform. That is, it is formed by the cross, and it takes the form of the cross. A number of the Corinthian Christians do not want to hear that, let alone adopt it in their living, which is why Paul needs to hammer home the cross in both 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. A number of American Christians also do not want to hear that, let alone adopt it in their living, which is why faith preachers need to hammer home the cross in their proclamation and in the form their ministry takes.


  1. Richard B. Hays. “1 Corinthians,” Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 27.