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1 Corinthians 1:18-31 - Christ the Wisdom and Power of God

1 Corinthians 1:18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Background to Corinthians:  Corinth was a unique and cosmopolitan city in what is now Greece. It was captured by Rome in 146 B.C. and leveled. The city laid waste for nearly 100 years until Julius Caesar rebuilt it. It then grew very rapidly. It was a marvelous port and controlled all north/south land traffic. By the time Paul came to Corinth, 100 years of so after it’s rebuilding, it was wealthy, diverse and was the third most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. It was a city known for its excesses. It was stocked with art treasures from all around the empire. It was noted as a center for philosophy, but prone to run after fads and whatever the teacher of the moment expounded. There were 26 pagan temples in Corinth including the great temples of Apollo and Aphrodite. In old Corinth 100 temple prostitutes served Aphrodite and the practice was continued in the new city.  Corinth had a world wide reputation for sexual immorality, excessive luxury and as many as 400,000 slaves. It was rootless, proud, independent, individualistic and rich. Given all of that it is no surprise that it was in Corinth that Paul had to fight his first major battle to prevent Christianity from falling into the enticements of the world.

Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey. Having fled danger in Macedonia, he went by ship to Athens where he met with little success. He then traveled the short distance to Corinth where he met Priscilla and Aquila, two converts who would prove to be among the best new church developers in the early movement. When he arrived in Corinth he preached first in the synagogue and had some success. But he was soon forced out, at which time he simply moved next door to the home of a Gentile and continued to preach Christ. He was constantly in trouble in Corinth but stayed for 18 months, leaving for new work in Syria. Some time later word reached him of the problems in the Corinthian Church. Unable to visit in person, Paul chose to address the problems by letter. We do not know how many letters he wrote. The Bible books of I and II Corinthians are from that correspondence. Many scholars believe that II Corinthians is a compilation of fragments from several different letters. Today’s text picks up after Paul’s greeting to the church in which he urges them to give thanks at all times and states the primary reason for the letter: to address divisions in the church. (We will look at that specifically in a couple of weeks.) He begins to set up his argument in the verses we consider today. His desire is to help people see that Christianity is not just another example of a human inspired philosophy. How could it be after all? Who would make up such an outlandish tale with such counter cultural values? Who would base their philosophy on a God/man who is crucified and a God who works most powerfully in weakness?

Word Study:

Vs. 18 – the message about the cross -this is the core of Paul’s theology. It is all about the cross, Jesus’ willing relinquishment of all divine and earthly power for the sake of love, for the purpose of salvation for all. The word we translate here as message is Logos, word. It is the word that John uses in his first chapter to introduce Jesus: In the beginning was the Word.

            Perishing – this word refers to something or someone who is being destroyed either temporarily or eternally

            Foolishness – In Greek this word refers to someone who lacks mental sanity or reason. Someone of a reckless or inconsiderate frame of mind. Someone who lacks common sense perception of the reality of things. Someone imprudent in organizing life. Paul’s point is that this is how the perishing world sees Christians.

            Saved – (sozo) this beautiful word refers to being put back together whole, both in this life and eternally. It is not as simple as going to heaven when we die, although it assures that. It is about becoming the completed perfect beings we were created to be in the beginning. This is what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:48 when he says “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”

            Power – This is another huge word/concept in the New Testament. The word comes from the same root as the English word dynamite. It is not the power of coercion or destruction, however. It is the inherent capacity to accomplish what God wants done. It is the ability ‘to do’ that resides within us because God resides within us. The opposite is someone who sleepwalks through life or lives life incompetently because of refusing the power of the Source.

Vs 1:19 – destroy – this is the same word translated above as perishing.

            Wisdom, wise – (Sophia, Sophos)- This is God’s wisdom that operates in the believer. It is all knowledge and the capacity to apply it righteously. In this verse Paul uses the words almost sarcastically to mock the so called wise ones of the day.

Vs. 20 – world – (kosmos) the sum total of the physical universe. Paul often uses this word in a quite negative sense. It often refers to the misled world systems or mindsets that have no awareness of God or of eternal values.

            Decided – this is an interesting word that literally means to be well pleased, to think something good. It is not merely an understanding of what is right and good, but stresses the willingness and freedom of an intention or resolve regarding what is good. (Strong’s concordance)

            Believe – This word, used throughout the New Testament, means to trust, to rely upon, to decide to place one’s trust and confidence in. It is not about assent to a set of propositions. It is about choosing a trusting relationship.

Vs. 22 – Signs – the Jewish people expected that Messiah would come with undeniable miraculous deeds. In Jesus they only saw a weak heretic whose enemies got away with killing him.

            Greeks desire wisdom – the Greeks valued cleverness, cunning logic and persuasiveness. They thought that the cross was the opposite of that. For them the thought of God’s son dying to save humanity was laughable. Surely any true God would never come up with a plan like that.

Vs. 23 – crucified – in the ancient world this type of capital punishment was the most brutal and shameful. Convicts were tied or nailed to wooden stakes usually close to public walking paths so that people could revile and spit on them as they slowly drowned in their own bodily fluids.

            Stumbling block – (Greek scandalon)- this is the word for the trigger in a trap on which the bait is place and which when touched causes the animal to be entrapped or killed. It refers to the injury lurking or hidden in ambush. Scandalon always produces behavior or results from behavior that damages and deludes.

Vs. 24 – called – this word (kletos) refers to those who have received the divine call to intimate relationship with God.

Vs. 25 – weakness – this word is never used in a moral sense. It always refers to physical weakness, or powerlessness, as we see in Jesus on the cross.

Vs. 30 – righteousness – a huge word in the scriptures. It always has to do with being blameless before God according to God’s values and just desires.

            Sanctification – to be holy, separated from that which is debasing and demeaning. It is to be a mirror of God’s love and values.

            Redemption – this is the word for paying the ransom price of captives for their freedom.

Questions for Reflection

1.  In what way do you experience your calling?  How do you open yourself to where God leads you?  What resistance do you find to answering God’s particular calls on your life?

2.  What is the wisdom you think the world values? How can the wisdom of the cross impact the world for good?

3.  Can you think of ways that you, or the church, can be stumbling blocks to those we are looking for a faith that will sustain them? How can we address these issues?