Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Paul writes to the Corinthian church in response to a letter from the community as well as oral reports from “Chloe’s people” (1 Corinthians 1:11). The letter he has received poses questions about several ethical and practical issues, while the oral report has to do with factions within the congregation.
Paul will respond to the written questions later in this correspondence (1 Corinthians 7:1 and following), but first he addresses the urgent problem of factions first (1:10–17). It seems the Corinthians are divided based on loyalty to different leaders; some claim loyalty to Paul, some to Cephas, some to Apollos, and some to Christ (1:12). In response, Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13).
Quite possibly, some of these divided loyalties stemmed from opinions about which leaders were the most knowledgeable, wise, eloquent, or powerful—qualities admired in the Hellenistic culture in which the Corinthians lived. Acts 18:24–25 tells us that when Apollos came to Ephesus, the believers there were quite impressed with his charisma, eloquence, and knowledge of the Scriptures. Apollos then went from Ephesus to Corinth (Acts 19:1).
We know from Paul’s remarks in 2 Corinthians that some in the Corinthian community regarded Paul as rather weak when he was with them in person and thought his speaking was “contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:2, 10). Perhaps in defense of his less-than-impressive speaking style, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that God sent him to proclaim the gospel “not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” He returns to this subject at the beginning of chapter 2, saying he did not proclaim the mystery of God with lofty words of wisdom, but decided to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, so their faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (2:1–5).
In between those remarks, in 1:18–25, Paul has more to say about the “message [logos] of the cross” that he proclaims. The “logos of the cross” is for Paul shorthand for the whole story of Christ—his life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and expected return at the end of days. Paul knows that this story is foolishness to many. He quotes Isaiah 29:14 to show that God has always been in the business of overturning worldly wisdom (1:19). Since worldly wisdom has not led to knowledge of God, God decided to save people in a way that is foolish according to the world (1:20–21).
“For Jews demand signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:22–23). Why would Christ crucified be a stumbling block to Jews? Messianic expectations were varied among Jews of the first century. Yet among those who waited for a Messiah, there were no expectations of a Messiah who would die as a criminal on a Roman cross. The very idea was absurd and offensive. The Messiah was supposed to liberate God’s people from their oppressors, not get killed by the oppressors!
And why would the message of the cross be foolishness to Gentiles? In the Hellenistic world, Gentile ideas about the divine were extremely varied. Most Gentiles were polytheistic, believing in various gods and goddesses who exhibited behavior both virtuous and vicious toward one another and toward human beings.
Certain schools of philosophy promoted ideas of the divine that were more impersonal and removed from human affairs. The Stoics spoke of the “logos” as the rational principle that governs and orders the universe. Moreover, in many philosophical traditions, there was a dualistic view of the body and the mind or spirit, such that the vicissitudes of bodily existence were to be escaped or surmounted by the mind or spirit. In all these worldviews, the idea of a God who willingly takes on bodily human existence and dies a shameful death would indeed be utter foolishness.
Nevertheless, Paul insists that the message of Christ crucified is the power and wisdom of God to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks (1:24). “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). Paul’s argument is rather circular, dismissing those for whom the message is offensive as “those who are perishing” (1:18) and affirming those who believe the message as those who are called and being saved (1:18, 24). Yet Paul is not trying to convince those on the outside. He is writing to those who already believe but are tempted to evaluate their spiritual leaders by worldly understandings of power and wisdom.
You may want to rethink your criteria for evaluation, Paul says. The message of the cross is that God’s wisdom and power are found in the least likely places. Not only do we see this in Christ crucified, but also in the composition of the church. God often calls those who are weak and lowly in the world’s eyes and empowers them by the Spirit to build up the body of Christ. There is no room for anyone to boast, except in the Lord (1:31).
Paul continues to argue in chapters 2 and 3 that there is no place for division among God’s people. “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos of Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (3:21–23).
The message of the cross still sounds like foolishness to many today. In churches struggling with declining participation, there is sometimes a tendency to engage in wishful thinking about church leaders. “If only the pastor were a more charismatic preacher, the sanctuary would be full!” Yet we have also seen in recent years many large congregations devastated by the moral or spiritual failings of a particularly charismatic pastor or leader. The scandal of the cross is overshadowed by the scandal of human failure to live in the way of Christ.
Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians is that it is wrong-headed and dangerous to base participation in the body of Christ on loyalty to any human being. Certainly, we are to pray for and support our church leaders, but our ultimate loyalty is to Christ, who alone is head of the church. The message of the cross is illogical, foolish, and a stumbling block to many. Yet it is also a powerful, radical story of God’s love poured out for the world. Faithful discipleship in our day, as in Paul’s, is to keep ourselves from getting in the way of this story, to speak and embody the message in such a way that the story of Christ crucified and risen can work on human hearts—to scandalize, yes, but also to save.