Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
In this text Paul is not seeking to answer age old questions regarding how we humans come to know God.
Likewise he is not trying to provide a theological treasure-map to guide our human quests to find the divine. Instead, Paul is presenting the divine enterprise which intentionally thwarts all human attempts to know or find God. This is the divine initiative of the cross.
Paul’s theological perspective is decidedly top-down. In the cross God has deliberately chosen to reveal God’s own self and unleash divine power whose goal is human salvation. The irony (indeed the paradox) of this divine scheme is that the cross is the last place where humanity would expect to discover God’s ultimate wisdom and power.
At times preachers may encounter folk who are baffled why more people were not converted to Christian faith through the preaching of Paul. Actually just the opposite should baffle us: why would any first century person have been converted to Christian faith through the preaching of Paul?
The core of Paul’s preaching is the word of the cross (1:18) and the proclamation of Christ crucified (1:23). Yet this is not a message geared to win friends or influence people. The cross was a lousy marketing tool in the first century world (as it most likely remains in the twenty-first century). Here it is important to realize fully the first century realities of crucifixion. This was the enactment of capital punishment meted out by the forces of the Roman Empire. It was reserved for those disreputable individuals or groups such as rebellious slaves, insurrectionists, pirates, or brigands who had threatened the divinely sanctioned social order of the Empire. Thus the cross was the imperial instrument used to suppress subversion.
As a public spectacle, crucifixion was an act geared to shame its victims through degradation, humiliation, and torture before, during, and even after death ensued. At the same time, it was a political statement which declared that all who threatened the imperial social order would find themselves co-crucified with the current victim. In some Jewish circles, it could also be regarded as a sign of divine curse (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).
Given this reality, it would be sheer idiocy (not just mere foolishness) to speculate how the cross might be a means of divine revelation. Paul, however, goes much further. He does not speculate on what God might or might not be doing through the cross. Rather, he openly, boldly, and regularly proclaims the cross as the intentional and exclusive means God has chosen to encounter humanity and initiate our salvation. The cross is the divine activity which both embarrasses and embraces humanity in an inclusive way.
God’s embarrassing action in the cross relates to humanity’s attempts to establish its own appropriate means for encountering God. According to 1:22, Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom. Here, Paul is referring to attempts to encounter God, either through miraculous divine manifestations (such as the events surrounding the Exodus) or elaborate philosophical systems and their eloquent rhetorical schemes. The proclamation of Christ crucified does not fit such human criteria – it is offensive to Jewish sensibilities and idiotic to Gentile intelligence (1:23).
God, however, is not a reactive deity. God has not sought out humanity according to the ways humanity has sought out God. Rather, God has intentionally and decidedly destroyed the ways and means by which humanity decided get to God (1:19, quoting Isaiah 29:14). Through the four rhetorical questions in 1:20, Paul declares that God has rejected and embarrassed the best and brightest of human efforts to understand, explain, and experience God.
At the same time, God embraces humanity through the cross, both as the event of Good Friday and as an act of proclamation. Both Jews and Gentiles are called into relationship with God through the word of the cross (1:24). Suddenly that which outwardly seems moronic and weak, the apparent oxymoron of Christ crucified, becomes divine revelation, divine power, and divine salvation (1:18, 21). We do not get to God, or find the key to knowing God through our efforts. Rather, God comes to us and establishes the terms of the encounter of faith in the proclamation of the cross.
Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is confronting various forms of social, theological, spiritual, and moral elitism which have fractured and stratified God’s church in Corinth (1:11-13). The core of Paul’s appeal is for a unified perspective and purpose among the Corinthians (1:10). By opening 1 Corinthians with this unrelenting focus on the cross, Paul both undercuts elitist perspectives and undergirds foundational Christian unity. God has outsmarted and outmaneuvered human attempts to set the agenda regarding the who and the how of our getting to God (1:25).
At the same time, the cross becomes the epistemological key for understanding not only God, but understanding ourselves as those called by God. Hence the proclamation of the word of the cross by Paul and contemporary preachers does not impart a new understanding of the divine. Rather, it provides people with the experience to encounter God anew precisely where God has most clearly displayed God’s own self, own power, and own wisdom. The cross always remains, at one and the same time, offensive idiocy and divine delight (1:21). Paul’s preaching never downplays, disguises, or dismisses the power and wisdom of God manifested in the cross of Jesus Christ. Does ours?