God’s Wisdom in the Cross, 1 Cor 1:18-25
Not a few pastors have pointed out that Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians contain such a profound relevance for California culture that we could easily title them, “Paul’s epistles to the Californians.” Notice the sins that California “Christians” share in common with the Corinthians: compromise with sexual impurity, apathy about church discipline, a reckless devotion to self-improvement, image over substance, boasting, drunkenness, a propensity for litigation, a sectarian spirit, an orientation toward sensuality and pleasure, selfish ambition, spiritual immaturity, a lack of love, etc.
The Corinthians were attracted to the world’s wisdom. Because of that error, they were in danger of neutralizing the power and wisdom of the cross in their lives (1:17). Paul writes 1 Corinthians (esp. chaps. 1-4) to call the Corinthian believers back to the wisdom of God in the cross. (Paul was determined to know nothing among the Corinthians but Christ and Him crucified – 2:2).
The Church today also stands at a fork in the road – in one direction, pragmatism allures with its promise of increased church attendance, greater relevance to culture, and the resultant increase in financial resources. The other path is modeled by Paul – it is the cross-centered life.
A fascination with man’s wisdom has pulled the Corinthians down the wrong path of that fork in the road. The result was an outbreak of carnality. It is the problem of divisions in the church that has led Paul to expound the meaning of wisdom in the first place.
In seeking the wrong kind of wisdom, the Corinthians had split the church into cliques. Until they realize that the scandal of the cross has put an end to human boasting, they will remain carnal babes. (The cross contains scandal because God’s way of working through the cross is considered insufficient to men. It is regarded as a way of weakness scorned by human wisdom; but hidden in the cross is the power of God and the wisdom of God – 1:24).
Only when the Corinthians embrace the scandal of the cross are they ready for the diet of the mature. The message of the cross-centered life is an unacceptable spiritual diet to those who think in terms of human achievement and glory.Christ crucified must be realized in the Corinthians’ lives – if not, they will continue to operate by means of “earthly score cards” in which ego-driven spiritualism allows the self life to dominate.
The focus is to be upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Corinth had forgotten that focus. How they needed the recovery of Christ’s glory in His Church.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians is urgently needed by the Church today; for the world’s “wisdom” is opportunistically making its overtures to the Bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:3-4). The world’s wisdom is attempting to call the Church away from simply and pure devotion to Christ and His cross.
The message of 1 Corinthians is a radical corrective for those who find themselves attracted to human methods, human achievement, and the glory of man. The message of Christ and Him crucified overturns human conceptions of wisdom; for God’s power is perfected through human weakness.
The cross is the paradigm for this formula of power perfected through weakness (2 Cor 12:10; 13:4-5). By contrast, spiritualist power (one of the Corinthian errors) is powerful only when it is no longer weak or needy. Paul boasts of his weakness because it preserves the cross paradigm, then God’s power rests upon him. The Corinthian letters constitute a sustained theology of the cross – which is God’s way of working in the world.
Paul drives home his point about divine wisdom by referring to the make up of the Corinthian’s assembly of believers. One could paraphrase 1:26-28 by saying, “Who in the name of wisdom would have chosen you Corinthians? For by the standards of conventional wisdom, you are nothing but social outcasts (not many wise, mighty, well-born). Why even God’s choice of you is a picture of God’s wisdom in the cross – it is a wisdom designed to eliminate all human boasts” (1:29, 31).
This essay will examine four truths concerning God’s wisdom and power in the cross in order that you might become increasingly cross-centered.
I God’s POWER in the cross is concealed from the perishing (v. 18).
II God’s PURPOSE in the cross is predicted in Scripture (vv. 19-20).
III God’s WISDOM in the cross is contrasted with the world’s wisdom (vv. 21-23).
IV God’s “FOOLISHNESS” in the cross is vindicated by His salvation of the called (vv. 24-25).
1 Corinthians 1:18-25:
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (NASB).
I. God’s POWER in the cross is concealed from the perishing (v. 18).
One of the symptoms of the Corinthians’ attraction to human wisdom, was their use of party (partisan) slogans, (“I am of Apollos; I am of Cephas,”) – Paul is stating that all of this carnal behavior among the Corinthians was traceable to an over-evaluation of human wisdom (and a neglect, or under-evaluation of the Gospel).
Paul is resolute about keeping his entire Gospel away from this sphere of the wisdom of men (v. 17). Paul’s preaching is in strong contrast with the “wisdom of words.”
(Example. There is such a strong tendency in us to clutch onto human wisdom. When a celebrity makes a claim to salvation in Christ, people cannot wait to place a microphone in front of the person to make them a spokesperson for Christianity – as if the glitz of a celebrity’s fame can lift the message of the cross above its association with sham, weakness, and scandal – but Paul says when we run the message of the cross through the grid of the world’s wisdom, we empty it of its power – v. 17).
v. 18 – “The cross occupies a central place in proclaiming the Gospel. It is both the crowing point of a life of self-renunciation and also the ordained instrument of salvation” (Lightfoot). The “Word of the cross” refers to speech that belongs to the message of the cross and consequently does NOT belong to the wisdom of the world (i.e. eloquence and rhetoric only work to neutralize the message of the cross; for the world does not find that its wisdom comports with the Gospel – 1 Jn 4:5-6).
Paul begins the emphasis upon the power of God. (v. 18 is in effect the fulfillmentof v. 19). God showcases His wisdom and power in the destruction of the wisdom of the world. “Perishing” is the fixed state of the individual outside of Christ; nothing short of a complete transformation can avail to change that state and the ruin implicit in it.
The Greek word for foolish is moreeah from which we derive our word “moronic.” Notice that those who are perishing regard the “Word of the Cross” to be foolishness. (Example. A common Roman graffiti scrawled on walls was an image drawn of a slave worshipping a crucified being with a human body and the head of a donkey.)
Those who are “being saved” experience the transforming effect in their lives of God’s power through the cross (solely because of their relation to Christ and Him crucified). The Gospel is simply the “placarding” of Christ crucified (Gal 3:1).
This “public portrayal” of Christ crucified has two effects: salvation in Christ, orperishing outside of Christ. The doctrine of the cross alone is effectual unto salvation. The wisdom of the world abandons man to eternal destruction. The two destinies (saved or perishing) are consummated on the last day when Christ shall judge the secrets of men’s hearts (Rom 2:16), and publicly pronounce the eternal destiny of each person (Phil 2:9-11).
II. God’s PURPOSE in the cross is predicted in Scripture (vv. 19-20).
Every time Jesus responded to Satan, He used geigraptai (Grk.) – it is written (or “it stands written” – the form expresses the authoritative character of the document.
In 2:4-5 the concluding thought to chapter one is that the believer’s faith must be grounded solely on the Scriptural message of the cross and not upon the wisdom of man – “And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”
God is literally precipitating a collision of worldviews. Christ and Him crucifiedis the divine wisdom which invades the realm of human wisdom. Human wisdom is a feeble wisdom – God’s wisdom invades like a wedge, piercing the impotent realm of human wisdom -- ultimately exposing its folly and finally obliterating it.
Paul is confronting the Corinthians -- it is wrong to hamper the truth of the Gospel just because wise men of the world laugh at it and hold it up to contempt (Calvin). Man’s opinion has no weight in the eyes of God – He will avenge Himself upon the enemies of the cross. God will punish the arrogant who rely upon their own “outstanding” discretion and natural abilities. God is going to bring about a great wonder that will produce astonishment – God will obliterate and blot out man-centered wisdom.
(Illustration. Man’s wisdom will be finely ground and blown away like powder in the wind, never to be seen again.)
God’s way of avenging is to strike the proud with spiritual blindness (Jn 9:39-41) – those wise in their own eyes; those bound to their own way of understanding will be left to their own cherished way of reasoning. God announces that their “wisdom” will be reduced to futility, vanity, and folly. (See Ps 33:1.) (Example. If God had an earthly business, it might be titled, “Pride-Demolition.com.”)
V. 20 – The Apostle initiates a taunting attack on man-centered wisdom. Paul’s tirade against human wisdom is certainly justified – for no words can express how hard it is to tear man’s mind away from confidence in the flesh. Consider how the world tramples under foot the Gospel message – the message of God’s most precious Gift of Christ given for a lost and dying world is regarded as not worthy of five minutes of man’s attention.
Man’s knowledge is nothing UNLESS it rests upon true wisdom (Prov 1:7). All the disciplines of the halls of learning are USELESS for obtaining spiritual wisdom (note today’s presupposition of philosophic naturalism – new data gained in research is only used to harden men in their godless worldview and practical atheism). 4000 years of research and philosophic speculation have brought man not one millimeter closer to answering even one ultimate question (space travel, the discovery DNA, mapping the human genome have not brought mankind one bit closer to a saving knowledge of God).
A person cannot reason his way to God – the saving knowledge of God is hidden from human perception. Apart from Christ, every branch of human wisdom is futile; it cannot give a saving knowledge of God. (EX. There was a researcher at Scripps Institute of Oceanography who studied Flashlight fish for more than 20 years, yet he was not one bit closer to understanding causation and purpose of Flashlight fish after two decades of intense research. But because of her Christian worldview, a 12 year old girl sitting in Sunday school knows more about causation and purpose of that fish than the evolutionary scientist.)
By means of the foolishness of preaching, the message of the cross is God’s way of doing what He said He will do – which is obliterate the wisdom of the wise. By means of the cross (the message of the Gospel), God has rendered foolish the world’s wisdom. God has cast down the entire realm of foolish self-sufficiency.This is not merely God making the world’s wisdom appear foolish, it is the world’s wisdom revealed for what it is, total foolishness (this is God turning the tables on the worldly wise – Prov 21:30) (Just as He warns Israel of old, don’t try to match wits with God – do not think that you can outwit God. Note the many examples of Israel’s disobedience that was the result of leaning upon man’s wisdom – Is 30:15-17.)
The whole fulcrum, the whole balance point, the arrow point, the focus of God’s wisdom, the very axis of God’s wisdom is Christ and Him crucified. By means of the cross, God will eliminate every single enemy of His glory. By means of the cross He will redeem the cosmos, save the elect, and fill the earth with Christ’s Kingdom. (All but the salvation of the elect is unseen for the present, but by the “foolishness and weakness” of the cross, God will ultimately eliminate every one of His enemies.)
III. God’s WISDOM in the cross is contrasted with the world’s wisdom (vv. 21-23).
V. 21 – According to Psalm 19 and Romans 1, mankind is immersed in a sea of revelation – the whole creation speaks of God’s power, moral authority, wisdom, might, and goodness. Yet men suppress the truth of God; they hold it down studiously because they do not want to deal with the God who is revealed in the creation. They are ungrateful; therefore they invert things; they change light into darkness (Jn 3:19-21). But this is the judgment, through the foolishness of preaching, God will save those who believe.
God will show the impotence of human wisdom – He will set it aside as worthless. For by its wisdom, the world failed to gain or secure the knowledge that leads to salvation. People in general have never acclaimed the Gospel as a masterpiece of wisdom. (They would rather give the Nobel Peace Prize to a Palestinian terrorist than exalt God’s wisdom in the cross of Christ.)
The world regards the cross as a foolish way of working. Human wisdom scoffs at the incarnation; that the God of the universe should become a man and submit to death; that the Creator, the Source of life, should be subjected to the Curse. The Gospel contains hidden wisdom (wisdom that astonishes angels – 1 Pet 1:12; Eph 3:10). What a testimony this is to the blindness of the human mind; that man is surrounded by light but perceives nothing and prefers darkness.
The cross is not a plan man would have thought of; it is considered folly by worldly standards. Man is self-centered, controlled by self-love, wedded to lusts; he cannot rightly handle God’s manifestation of wisdom. The sinner twists the message to make a god in his own image (Barrett). But our text has a difficult truth in it – this failure of human wisdom spoken of by the Apostle Paul is part of God’s purpose.
God intends to make a public display of those who cling rigidly to man-centered wisdom. (According to 2:7-8, God’s wisdom leads to our glory. God’s people are destined for glory, not shame; consider how this contrasts to the rulers of this age who are destined for shame. The sad irony is that the Corinthians in pursuing wisdom are pursuing what belongs to this age and is passing away (this is Paul’s point – the rulers and wisdom of this age is on its way out). The rulers were blind; they hated truth, therefore they used human standards of wisdom. Christ’s glory, manifested in His obedience unto death, was not recognized by the rulers of this age – they did not recognize Christ as the agent of God’s salvation of man – therefore in their rebellion, they lose their glory. The spirit of the world loves spurious wisdom, but despises the wisdom of God in the cross.)
The cross teaches us the very substance of the Gospel. In the cross is God’s wisdom and power. God’s plan (though regarded as foolish by the world) is that the Gospel should be preached everywhere: at work, at picnics, in the baseball dugout, over the backyard fence, in schools, at Starbucks, by the roadside, and in pulpits.
Do not be troubled or upset that there are such small numbers that believe the Gospel – for you have been set apart for salvation by an act of God (which we will see in v. 24).
Vv. 22-23 – These two verses are a parallel to verse 21; they open up and expand upon verse 21, explaining it in specifics. The Jews have a way (albeit idolatrous) of seeking to validate spiritual knowledge; it is by seeking external, supernatural signs. Jesus often condemned their fervent attachment to signs as the ground of faith (declaring to them that they simply will not believe the Scriptures unless they see signs – Mark 8:11-12; Matt 16:1, 4; 12:38ff.). The Jews demanded a striking demonstration of power and majesty – but the cross was a contradiction in terms; for to human perception it was solely abject ignominy, shame, and weakness.
The Messianic expectation of the Jews sketched out a portrait of a glorious Prince and political deliverer; but Christ disappointed and insulted their expectations. It says in 1 Peter 2:8 that He was carefully examined by them and rejected and discarded as a “Stone” unfit to build upon. “The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone, and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the Word and to this doom they were appointed.”
The builders found Christ and His divine wisdom “unfit” to build upon (God’s wisdom in Christ is considered foolish by the world). The builders deliberatelytested and rejected God’s choice “Stone.” But they will find to their terror that the rejection of God’s stone will bring about their own disastrous injury and ruin (Hiebert, 1 Peter, pp. 138-139).
Unlike the Jews, the Greeks sought true wisdom through science and philosophy. They took immense pride in their speculations; even regarding those outside the circle of their wisdom to be barbarians. But Christ was not preached as a political conqueror or an intellectual philosopher. The message of the Gospel was not tailored to fit either group.
(v. 23) – “But we” -- is a strong adversative of contrast joined to the emphatic“we.” We preach Christ the crucified One whose finished work on Calvary continues to powerfully save and shall ever be the outshining of God’s wisdom.
But here is the scandal of the cross – the stumblingblock of the cross (Grk. “skandalon” -- death trap, trap stick, something that trips men up). If the message of the cross is merely run through human wisdom, it will cause a person to stumble over its all-powerful and all-wise truth. For how could the blood from a condemned man who died a hideous and shameful death forgive sin and convert the world?
Paul Zahl in his book, A Short Systematic Theology, p. 28, makes the following observation concerning God’s hidden wisdom in the cross. “Even the one concrete and universal Christian symbol of the appearance of the grace of God, the cross of Jesus Christ, represents the hidden-ness and, from our end, the inaccessibility of God in any objective form. In the cross of Jesus Christ, God operates sub contrario, under the opposite of His reasoned attributes such as strength and authority and life. In the cross, which is an objective symbol of Christ’s objective life on earth, the symbol belies the realty to which it points. God takes His stand on earth within the human experience of kinked, crooked desperateness.”
IV. God’s “FOOLISHNESS” in the cross is vindicated by the salvation of the called (vv. 24-25).
V. 24 – This contrast in kinds of wisdom shows how badly Christ is received; the humility of Christ is set against the foolish pride of the world’s wisdom. Christ’s humility in the cross offends every form of wisdom that is filled with self-assertion. The Jews could not discern the most profound wisdom when they were confronted with it because they put their minds and opinions ahead of Scripture. (The wisdom and power of God in the cross is not perceptible to self-reliant human wisdom; yet the cross is accessible to all. (EX. L. S. Chafer relays the account of a man with Down’s Syndrome who after attending a week of evangelistic messages stood up in the meeting and declared, “Christ died for sinners; I’m a sinner; Christ died for me.” Then he sat down. Chafer’s remark -- the man’s simple confession showed that he understood and believed the message of the cross; it was enough to save him for all eternity.)
The “called” are those whom God quickens, and draws with irresistible power by His sovereign grace. It is the called who see and experience this power and wisdom of God in the cross (for by the redemption accomplished in Christ the chains that bound you to sin’s power and penalty are cut asunder). This is a change that only divine power can accomplish. (The wisdom and power of God in the cross will be the focus of eternity – you will never outgrow the centrality of the Gospel; for throughout the Church age, it will be the spiritual food of God’s people, and throughout eternity it will be the primary revealer of the Godhead.)
V. 25 – Paul uses this ironic expression, “God’s foolishness and weakness” to rebut, to refute, and demolish the insane pride of the flesh which seeks to strip God of His glory. What was done in Christ’s cross was a direct contradiction of human ideas of wisdom and power – yet the cross achieved what human wisdom and power could never achieve. For divine wisdom and power, even at their lowest point (by human standards) are infinitely above man’s wisdom and power. (The history of the world will prove to be a record of the honoring and the dishonoring of God. Thus, God in history convicts before His justice bar man’s wisdom as utter foolishness and failure.)
Consider what God did in Christ at the cross – He overpowered His enemies and He lavished grace and forgiveness upon His people. He judged us in His Son and took away the believer’s guilt and sin. He disarmed our enmity by forgiving us though we deserved death and separation. He birthed love and trust in us, which transformed us into His willing disciples (1 Jn 4:19; 2 Cor 5:14).
The cross is filled with mystery that towers over the human intellect. To think that the dereliction of the God-man should reconcile the derelict; that the God-man’s willingness to be a victim in the face of evil should conquer evil. His abject weakness and ignominy in His passion should overpower the most powerful enemies of man. To think that succumbing to death should conquer death; that being made the curse of God should lift the curse of God; that death and entombment and resurrection should bring the redeemed from defiled dust to glory. This is made understandable to God’s people through the Spirit.
What good news the cross is to those broken and crushed over their sin. But to those who see any righteousness in themselves, the cross remains a scandal (a stumblingblock and a death trap). Paul is making it clear; the way to a saving knowledge of God is not by brain power, but by a heart broken over sin.
The cross will ever be a way of working in the world, a way that does not make sense to man’s wisdom. God seems to act in an absurd way because He does not make His wisdom plain to see, or obvious to the natural mind. But what appears foolish surpasses the highest human wisdom. God hides His power; He appears to act in a weak way – but what is weak by man’s perception is stronger than the best efforts of the creature. Men will not find God by seeking to satisfy their intellectual problems – they find Him through a heart desire for forgiveness and deliverance from sin.
Paul confronted the problem in Corinth. He went to the very heart of the issue; the Corinthians were attracted to human wisdom. Much like so much of the Church today in its flirting with the world; the Corinthians couldn’t abide, nor stomach the scandal of the cross; that God was doing things His way, by means of the cross, without human help. They did not find it appealing to their carnal thinking that God should operate by means of weakness and folly. But Paul urges them to grow up; to grow beyond spiritual infancy so that the cross-centered life becomes their hallmark!
Paul warned them, just as God through Paul warns believers today – human wisdom blunts and dulls the scandal of the cross. If human wisdom is introduced to try to make the message of Christ’s crucifixion more acceptable and appealing; it will empty the cross of its power (v. 17).
God’s wisdom and power are encompassed in Christ and Him crucified (in the message of the God-man and His horrible death). God’s value system is encompassed in God’s dualism; Christ (the God-man incarnate) and Him crucified as Substitute. God is doing all through the cross. How is this wisdom applicable to us? God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom do not mix! Carnal wisdom will keep you in spiritual diapers!
Paul always starts with Christ. He always takes his readers and converts back to Christ. This is how he deals with man-centeredness, with boasting, with bickering, with a party spirit. Oh Corinthians, why hang onto to carnal wisdom if Christ died to destroy that worthless system of wisdom? Whether the issue is immorality (the body is for the Lord), “cup of demons” (we don’t share in the cup of – discern the body of Christ – 1 Cor 11), the resurrection etc. Paul runs everything through Christ and Him crucified. It is divine wisdom that overturns human wisdom.
Does the description of the “called” fit your situation (v. 24)? Have you felt the power of the cross giving you victory over sin, temptation, and guilt? Which kind of wisdom is yours today? Do you approve of God’s way of working in the world – through the foolishness of the cross? Are you willing to release the sin that Christ died to eliminate? Do you glory in the cross (Gal 6:14-15), knowing that it was your shame Christ was bearing? (Heb 13:12-15). Do you love the way in which Christ saves men and women? Do you see the infinite wisdom of God in the cross?
God continually beckons us back to the foot of the cross. For at the cross is the place that we have the best vision, the best vantage point concerning what God is doing in the world. At the base of the cross the world’s achievements and distinctions melt away. The cross levels all mankind before it – the world’s values are seen for what they are. At the cross, man’s wisdom is cast down to the dust, down to perdition.
Perhaps you know that you have been sitting on the fence between the two kinds of wisdom (the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God in the cross). I encourage you to examine yourself – to which kind of wisdom do you belong? Have you submitted to Christ? Do you bear His cross in a life direction of self denial? He will only save the person whom He can command. If you know Christ as your personal Savior, return to the cross; there you will behold the divine wisdom and power of God; you will see clearly again what God desires to do in your life – to make you a willing disciple and worshipper.
Kenneth Barker, NIV Bible Commentary
C. K. Barrett, 1 Corinthians
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary
Driver, Plummer, Briggs, ICC, 1Corinthians
Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible
D. Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary
Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the NT
Charles Hodge, 1& 2 Corinthians
C. J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life
Leon Morris, 1Corinthians
Charles Pfeiffer, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary
Fritz Reinecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek NT