Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
In last week’s reading, Paul took the Corinthians to task because the very fact of their division is a denial of the gospel.
The Economy of the Cross
In this week’s passage, he shows how the particular divisions plaguing Corinth can be given the same diagnosis. And here is where things might start to get a little more personal.
Paul contends that the gospel has a way of taking all of our expectations and turning them on their head. God did not send us a messiah so that Christians can outpace the world in its own game. Instead, God’s work comes as a genuine surprise to the watching world. Where the world’s measuring stick would indicate “folly” or “weakness,” the gospel proclaims (to those with ears to hear) “wisdom” and “power.”
As Paul begins his defense of the “foolishness of the gospel,” he places his interpretive key front and center. It is the cross that is foolishness and weakness to outsiders. Because Christ crucified is the way that God has acted to save the world, Paul insists that our normal ways of assessing smart practices and displays of power are prone to deceive us. Is the work of God powerful? Yes, Paul insists, but this power will only be seen as foolishness and weakness to others (1 Corinthians 1:18).
The Revelation of Israel’s God
In order to understand what Paul is up to, we have to get behind a couple of his assumptions. The first, and most important, is that the God of Israel is at work in the cross of Christ. The second is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the ultimate revelation of this God, and of why what the Old Testament says about this God is, in fact, true.
Isaiah had prophesied before the exile that the vision of the prophets would be like a sealed document. Unreadable. Undecipherable. “The wisdom of the wise will perish” (Isaiah 29:14, 1 Corinthians 1:19).
In our culture we have a tendency to expect that Christianity will come alongside and reaffirm many of the ways of looking at the world around us that are otherwise embedded in our culture. This passage pulls back the curtain so as to expose the inner workings of the Kingdom of God. It allows us to see that God’s ways of working in the world are so entirely unexpected that they can only be recognized as powerful and wise by those who have been given the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:10).
Wisdom, Power, and the Cross
Paul takes hold of two categories for greatness in the ancient world, wisdom and power, and turns them on their heads. In all likelihood, these are roughly equivalent to the respective claims that the “Apollos party” and the “Cephas party” are making for themselves. Rather than attempt to redeem these categories, Paul simply claims that worldly understanding and worldly power are the wrong tools for apprehending the work of God.
The only way to know that the execution of a pretender to the Roman throne was, in fact, the means of God’s salvation of the world, is through proclamation. This “foolishness” is the means God has chosen to save (1 Corinthians 1:21).
It might be possible to translate “the foolishness of preaching” as the act of preaching itself, but the NRSV wisely steers us toward another interpretation when it says that God saves “through the foolishness of our proclamation” (1 Corinthians 1:21). The point is not simply that “preaching” is how God saves, but that what is preached is “the word of the cross,” as Paul makes clear in verse 23.
Once again, we should take stock of how differently Paul approaches his society than we often approach ours. Rather than showing the world how much better God is at wielding the kind of power it expects, or the sort of wisdom it demands, Paul proclaims the cross as an alternative means of enacting both wisdom and power. The gospel turns the economy of the world on its head.
Fools Made Wise
Last week we saw how the gospel message and our own participation in it are inseparable. The same move is made in verse 26 as Paul makes the transition from the message itself to the Corinthians who have believed it.
In fact, though many of our modern translations omit the word, verse 26 begins with “for,” telling us that Paul intends for this part of his argument to furnish the proof of what he has just said. How do we know that God’s folly and weakness outpace the wisdom and power of people (verse 25)? Because the Christian community in Corinth, those defined by their acceptance of the gospel message, were not mighty, wise, and noble when they came to faith. Their own testimony is proof of how different God’s ways are than the ways of the world.
In all of this, Paul continues to argue that being divided denies the gospel of Christ. Flocking to teachers who bear the marks of worldly power and wisdom undermines the economy of the kingdom, in which God’s wisdom and power so outpace their human counterparts that defining ourselves by wise and powerful leaders is shown up to be a denial of the gospel itself.
What, then, is power? It is God, by God’s own doing, uniting people to Christ (verses 27-30). Christ is wisdom and power (verse 30). Union with the crucified Christ, then, is to play out in all aspects of the church’s life.
Realizing that Christ is the substance of everything we could want, the wind is taken from the sails of any argument that would draw us to a person in a display of party spirit within the church. We do not boast in earthly leaders, we boast only in the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 31).