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Dr. Constable's Expository Notes Constable's Expository Notes
1 Corinthians 1
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ dcc/ 1-corinthians-1.html. 2012.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
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Paul’s description of himself as one whom God had called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ reminded his original readers of his privilege and authority (cf. Romans 1:1). The idea of authority received added strength from the reference to the will of God (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1).
Sosthenes was probably the same Sosthenes who was the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:17). He was with Paul in Ephesus when Paul penned this epistle. Though Luke did not record his conversion in the Book of Acts, Sosthenes quite clearly became a believer, assuming this was the same man. Probably he was the same man, and Paul referred to him because the Corinthians knew him well.
A. Salutation 1:1-3
The apostle Paul began this epistle as he did his others by identifying himself and a fellow worker known to the readers. Then he identified and described the recipients of the letter and greeted them with a benediction. This is the most extensive elaboration of an address that we have in Paul’s letters.
I. INTRODUCTION 1:1-9
To begin his letter, Paul greeted the Christians in Corinth and expressed gratitude to God for them. This positive and complimentary introduction contrasts with the generally critical spirit of the epistle that follows. Paul began with praise and commendation for his readers’ good qualities, as was his typical practice. He knew this congregation well having lived in Corinth for 18 months.
Paul frequently referred to all the Christians in a particular locality as the church of God in that place (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:16). However to the Corinthian church, where party spirit was a problem, this reminder focused on the church’s true Lord. This was not the church of Cephas (Peter) or Apollos or even Paul, each of whom had their admirers in Corinth. There may or may not have been more than one house-church in Corinth at this time. [Note: Craig S. Keener, 1-2 Corinthians, p. 21, believed there were many.] God had set the Corinthians apart to be His holy people by uniting them with Him through faith in His Son. "Sanctified" may be a metaphor for conversion (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30; 1 Corinthians 6:11). They were saints by divine calling (i.e., positional sanctification). The Corinthians were not saintly in their conduct (i.e., progressive practical sanctification), as this letter makes clear. Perhaps Paul mentioned their saintly calling to inspire them to be more saintly in their conduct. They were saints who were sinning. [Note: See Robert L. Saucy, "’Sinners’ Who Are Forgiven or ’Saints’ Who Sin?" Bibliotheca Sacra 152:608 (October-December 1995):400-12.]
"Biblical sanctification is fourfold: (1) primary, equivalent to the ’efficacious grace’ of systematic theology (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2); (2) positional, a perfect standing in holiness, true of all believers from the moment of conversion (cf. Acts 20:32; Acts 26:18); (3) progressive, equivalent to daily growth in grace (cf. John 17:17; Ephesians 5:26; 2 Corinthians 7:1); (4) prospective, or ultimate likeness to Christ positionally and practically (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23). The use of the perfect participle here refers to positional sanctification." [Note: Johnson, p. 1230.]
"Paul understands Christian ethics in terms of ’becoming what you are,’ a perspective that emerges in 1 Corinthians in a number of ways. . . .
"Perhaps the single greatest theological contribution of our letter to the Christian faith is Paul’s understanding of the nature of the church, especially in its local expression. If the gospel itself is at stake in the Corinthians’ theology and behavior, so also is its visible expression in the local community of redeemed people. The net result is more teaching on the church here than in any of Paul’s letters." [Note: Fee, pp. 17-18.]
The saints in other places are probably those in churches in other places some of whom had come to the Savior through the witness of Christians other than Paul. This seems more likely than that they were just Paul’s converts near Corinth (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:1; Romans 16:1). This seems probable in view of "every place" (NASB) or "everywhere" (NIV) and in view of how this verse ends. Paul evidently wanted his readers to remember that they were part of a large body of believers (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12); they were not the only church. They needed to fit into the family of God harmoniously rather than being a rebel congregation.
Calling on the name of Christ means confessing faith in Him, worshipping and praying to Him (cf. Romans 10:13-14).
This greeting is characteristically Christian (cf. Romans 1:7; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3). It sums up Paul’s whole theological outlook.
Paul was grateful that God had poured out His unmerited favor and divine enablement (i.e., His grace) on the Corinthian believers through Christ Jesus. He usually referred to the Lord as Christ Jesus rather than as Jesus Christ. This put the emphasis on His divine character as Messiah rather than on His human nature and encouraged his readers to submit to Him as their Lord.
B. Thanksgiving 1:4-9
Paul followed his salutation with an expression of gratitude for his original readers, as he usually did in his epistles. In this case the focus of his thanksgiving was on God’s grace in giving the Corinthians such great spiritual gifts (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14).
"What is remarkable here is the apostle’s ability to thank God for the very things in the church that, because of the abuses, are also causing him grief." [Note: Ibid., p. 36.]
By "speech" (NASB) or "speaking" (NIV; Gr. logos) the apostle meant eloquence, the ability to express their "knowledge" (Gr. gnosis) fluently and effectively. As we shall see, knowledge and eloquence were two things the Corinthians valued very highly. These characteristics appear by their usage in this letter and in 2 Corinthians to have been common buzzwords in Corinth. Logos occurs 26 times in 1 and 2 Corinthians compared to 58 times in Paul’s other epistles, and gnosis appears 16 times in these two epistles but only seven times in all of Paul’s other writings. Paul had to put these gifts in their proper place among the other gifts. Nevertheless they were great gifts, and Paul was thankful that God had given them to the Corinthians.
The Corinthians’ reception of these gifts had corroborated the truthfulness of the gospel. Giving these gifts was one of the ways God validated the gospel message in the early history of the church (cf. Galatians 3:2-5; Hebrews 2:3-4).
God had blessed the Corinthians greatly with spiritual gifts. Note that Paul praised his readers for their gifts but not their behavior. Ancient orators typically praised their audiences for both. [Note: Keener, p. 22.] But Paul could not do that. The revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ to His saints at the Rapture would be God’s greatest gift to them. The early Christians awaited His return eagerly. This reference to the Rapture is one of many indications that the apostles taught the imminent (i.e., any moment) return of the Lord for His own (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Philippians 3:20; Philippians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:10-12; Titus 2:13; James 5:7-9; 1 John 2:28; Revelation 3:11; Revelation 22:7; Revelation 22:12; Revelation 22:17; Revelation 22:20). [Note: See Wayne A. Brindle, "Biblical Evidence for the Imminence of the Rapture," Bibliotheca Sacra 158:630 (April-June 2001):146-48.]
"Three words are prominently employed in connection with the return of the Lord: (1) Parousia, also used by Paul of the coming of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 16:17), of Titus (2 Corinthians 7:6-7), and of his own coming to Philippi (Philippians 1:26). The word means personal presence, and is used of the return of the Lord as that event relates to the blessing of Christians (1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17) and to the destruction of the man of sin (2 Thessalonians 2:8). (2) Apokalupsis, employed here, and meaning unveiling, revelation. This word emphasizes the visibility of the Lord’s return. It is used of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:7; 1 Peter 1:13; 1 Peter 4:13), of the sons of God in connection with the Lord’s return (Romans 8:19), and of the man of sin (2 Thessalonians 2:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:8), and always implies perceptibility. And (3) epiphaneia, translated ’brightness’ (2 Thessalonians 2:8) or ’manifestation’ in some other versions. It means an appearing, and is used of both advents (first advent, 2 Timothy 1:10; second advent, 2 Thessalonians 2:8; 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:8; Ti. 1 Corinthians 2:13)." [Note: The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1233.]
By God’s sustaining power Christians will stand free of guilt before Him on that day. The day of the Lord Jesus Christ is the Rapture (cf. Philippians 1:6; Colossians 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; et al.). It is not the day of the Lord, which is a term both Old and New Testament writers used to refer to the period beginning with the Tribulation and extending through the Millennium.
"The expression ’the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ identified with ’the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:7), is the period of blessing for the Church beginning with the rapture. This coming day is referred to as ’the day of the Lord Jesus’ (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14), ’the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6), and ’the day of Christ’ (Philippians 1:10; Philippians 2:16). (’The day of Christ’ in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 should be rendered ’the day of the Lord.’) ’The day of Christ’ in all six references in the N.T. is described as relating to the reward and blessing of the Church at the rapture and in contrast with the expression ’the day of the Lord’ (cp. Isaiah 2:12, marg.; Joel 1:15, note; Revelation 19:19, note), which is related to judgment upon unbelieving Jews and Gentiles, and blessing on millennial saints (Zephaniah 3:8-20)." [Note: Ibid.]
The Greek word translated "blameless" (anegkletos) means not reprovable or without accusation (cf. Colossians 1:22; 1 Timothy 3:10; Titus 1:6-7). It does not imply that at the judgment seat of Christ there will be complete equality among believers (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Moreover it does not mean that once God regenerates a person that one never sins again (cf. 1 John 1:6-10). It means every Christian will stand before the Lord guiltless, unimpeachable, because God has imputed the guilt of our sins to the Savior and He has borne them (cf. Romans 5:1; Romans 8:1).
Paul’s confidence that his readers would one day stand without guilt before the Lord did not rest on the Corinthians’ ability to persevere faithfully to the end. It rested on God’s ability and promises to preserve them. God had begun the good work of calling them into fellowship with His Son, and He would complete that work (cf. Philippians 1:6; 1 John 1:1-4).
". . . God is the subject of all the actions of the thanksgiving. And in every case that work is mediated by or focused on ’his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Thus the christological emphasis that began in the salutation is carried through in an even more emphatic way in this introductory thanksgiving. Everything God has done, and will do, for the Corinthians is done expressly in ’Jesus Christ our Lord.’
"His concern here is to redirect their focus-from themselves to God and Christ and from an over-realized eschatology to a healthy awareness of the glory that is still future." [Note: Fee, p. 46.]
An over-realized eschatology is an understanding of the future that stresses present realities to the exclusion of related future realities. For example, an over-realized view of the resurrection emphasizes the believer’s present spiritually resurrected condition to the exclusion of his or her future physical resurrection.
The apostle’s confidence in God as he expressed this in these verses (1 Corinthians 1:4-9) enabled him to deal with the problems in the Corinthian church optimistically and realistically. God was for the Corinthians. Now they needed to orient themselves properly toward Him.
By exhorting his readers in the name of their Lord Jesus Christ, Paul was putting what he was about to say on the highest level of authority. This is the tenth reference to Jesus Christ in the first ten verses of the epistle. Clearly Paul was focusing the attention of his audience on Christ, who alone deserves the preeminence. The Corinthians were to regard what he was about to say as coming from the Lord Himself.
"That the true source of the Corinthians’ illicit behavior is bad theology-ultimately a misunderstanding of God and his ways-is evident from the beginning, especially with Paul’s use of crucifixion language in 1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 2:16." [Note: Idem, "Toward a . . .," p. 41.]
Bad theology usually lies behind bad behavior. There was already disagreement among members of the congregation, but there was not yet division in the sense of a church split. Paul urged his original readers to unite in their thinking. The Greek word katartizo, translated "made complete," describes the mending of nets in Mark 1:19. Paul wanted them to take the same view of things, to have the same mind (cf. Philippians 2:2), and to experience unanimity in their judgment of what they needed to do.
"The gospel that effects eschatological salvation also brings about a radical change in the way people live. This is the burden of this letter and the theological presupposition behind every imperative. Therefore, although apocalyptic-cosmological language is also found, salvation is expressed primarily in ethical-moral language. [Note: Ibid., p. 47.]
1. The manifestation of the problem 1:10-17
The surface manifestation of this serious problem was the party spirit that had developed. Members of the church were appreciating their favorite leaders too much and not appreciating the others enough. This was really a manifestation of self-exaltation. They boasted about their teachers of wisdom to boast about themselves.
II. CONDITIONS REPORTED TO PAUL 1:10-6:20
The warm introduction to the epistle (1 Corinthians 1:1-9) led Paul to give a strong exhortation to unity. In it he expressed his reaction to reports of serious problems in this church that had reached his ears.
"Because Paul primarily, and in seriatim fashion, addresses behavioral issues, it is easy to miss the intensely theological nature of 1 Corinthians. Here Paul’s understanding of the gospel and its ethical demands-his theology, if you will-is getting its full workout.
". . . the central issue in 1 Corinthians is ’salvation in Christ as that manifests itself in the behavior of those "who are being saved."’ This is what the Corinthians’ misguided spirituality is effectively destroying.
"Thus three phenomena must be reckoned with in attempting a theology of this Letter: (1) Behavioral issues ( = ethical concerns) predominate. . . . (2) Even though Paul is clearly after behavioral change, his greater concern is with the theological distortions that have allowed, or perhaps even promoted, their behavior. This alone accounts for the unusual nature of so much of the argumentation. . . . (3) In every case but two (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; chaps. 12-14), Paul’s basic theological appeal for right behavior is the work of Christ in their behalf." [Note: Idem, "Toward a Theology of 1 Corinthians," in Pauline Theology. Vol. II: 1 & 2 Corinthians, pp. 38-39.]
A. Divisions in the church 1:10-4:21
The first major problem that Paul addressed was the divisions that were fragmenting this church.
". . . this opening issue is the most crucial in the letter, not because their ’quarrels’ were the most significant error in the church, but because the nature of this particular strife had as its root cause their false theology, which had exchanged the theology of the cross for a false triumphalism that went beyond, or excluded, the cross." [Note: Idem, The First . . ., p. 50.]
Triumphalism is the belief that Christians are triumphing now over sin and its consequences to the exclusion of persecution, suffering, and some human limitations. It is sometimes, and it was in Corinth, an evidence of an over-realized eschatology, which is that we have already entered into certain blessings of salvation that really lie ahead of us in the eschaton (end times). Prosperity theology is one popular form of triumphalism.
Today no one knows exactly who Chloe was. She evidently had a household or business that included servants, some of whom had traveled to Corinth and had returned to Ephesus carrying reports of conditions in the Corinthian church. They had eventually shared this news with Paul. Quarrels and dissension should never mark the church (cf. Galatians 5:20).
The Corinthians had overdone the natural tendency to appreciate some of God’s servants more than others because of their own personal qualities or because of blessings they had imparted.
It was normal that some would appreciate Paul since he had founded the church and had ministered in Corinth with God’s blessing for 18 months. Apollos had followed Paul there and was especially effective in refuting Jewish unbelievers and in showing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was a gifted apologist and orator (Acts 18:24-28).
There is no scriptural record that Peter ever visited Corinth, though he may have. Cephas is the Hellenized form of the Aramaic kepa, meaning "rock" (cf. John 1:42). Since Peter was the leading apostle to the Jews, it is understandable that many of the early Christians, especially the Jewish believers, would have venerated him. A fourth group apparently professed loyalty to no human leader but boasted of their allegiance to Christ alone. They appear to have regarded themselves as the most spiritual element in the church. They had devised their own brand of spiritual elitism that made them no better than the others.
This last group was using Christ as the name of a party within the church. This in a sense cut Him off from the other members of the church. Such an idea was unthinkable, and by stating it Paul showed its absurdity.
Next Paul addressed his own supporters. How foolish it was to elevate him over Christ since Christ did what was most important. Note the central importance of the Cross in Paul’s thinking. Paul’s followers had not submitted to baptism in water to identify with Paul but with the Savior. This reference shows how highly Paul regarded water baptism. It is God’s specified way for the believer to identify publicly with his or her Lord (Matthew 28:19; cf. Acts 8:16; Acts 19:5; Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). It implies turning over allegiance to the one named in the rite.
Crispus was the ruler of the synagogue in which Paul preached when he first came to Corinth (Acts 18:8). Gaius may be the same person as Titius Justus. This man was a Gentile convert who lived next door to the synagogue and opened his home to the church after the Christians could no longer meet in the synagogue (Acts 18:7; Romans 16:23).
"Gaius Titius Justus would be a complete Roman name (praenomen, nomen gentile, cognomen)." [Note: F. F. Bruce, ed., 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 34.]
Some Christians contend that water baptism is essential for salvation. If it is, it would seem natural that Paul would have emphasized its importance by personally baptizing more than just two new believers in Corinth (cf. John 4:2).
Paul deliberately did not baptize his converts so there would be no question as to whose disciples they were. This was one way he kept Christ central in his ministry. Paul believed baptism was important, but it was valid whether he or any other believer administered it. He was not superior to other believers in this respect.
The members of Stephanus’ family were the first converts in the Roman province of Achaia (1 Corinthians 16:15). It was unimportant to Paul whom he personally baptized; he was not keeping score. This is clear because he temporarily forgot that he had baptized these people. As he continued to write, the Lord brought them to mind.
"Paul casts no reflection on baptism, for he could not with his conception of it as the picture of the new life in Christ (Romans 6:2-6), but he clearly denies here that he considers baptism essential to the remission of sin or the means of obtaining forgiveness." [Note: A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 4:76.]
Baptizing is part of the Great Commission that all Christians are responsible to carry out (Matthew 28:19). Paul’s point was that preaching the gospel is more important than baptizing. He used a figure of speech, litotes, for emphasis. In litotes a writer makes a negative statement to emphasize the positive alternative. For example, "No small storm" (Acts 27:20), means a very large storm. Paul would hardly have said what he did if baptism were necessary for salvation.
"Cleverness of speech" (NASB) and "words of human wisdom" (NIV) greatly impressed the Greeks.
"The Greeks were intoxicated with fine words; and to them the Christian preacher with his blunt message seemed a crude and uncultured figure, to be laughed at and ridiculed rather than to be listened to and respected." [Note: William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 22.]
One of the features of Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Christ that made them attractive to various segments of the Corinthian church was evidently their individual oratorical styles. Later Paul pointed out that the Corinthian Christians were viewing things through carnal eyes, namely, seeing things as unsaved people do (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Paul did not emphasize or place confidence in the method of his preaching but the message of the Cross. He did not want to draw attention away from the gospel message to his style of delivering that message.
"Paul represents himself as a preacher, not as an orator. Preaching is the proclamation of the cross; it is the cross that is the source of its power." [Note: Barrett, p. 49.]
"The Gospel’s appeal is not to man’s intellect, but to his sense of guilt by sin. The cross clothed in wisdom of words vitiates this appeal. The Gospel must never be presented as a human philosophical system; it must be preached as a salvation." [Note: Johnson, p. 1231.]
This verse provides a transition into the next section of the epistle in which Paul contrasted God’s wisdom and human wisdom.
"With this observation Paul is fully launched on his epistle. As in Romans (cf. i. 16 ff.), mention of the Gospel sets his thought and language in motion." [Note: Barrett, p. 49.]
The crux of the Corinthians’ party spirit lay in their viewing things as unbelievers did, specifically Christian preachers and teachers. They failed to see the important issues at stake in ministry and instead paid too much attention to external, superficial matters. This was a serious condition, so Paul invested many words in the following section to deal with it (1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 4:21). This is still a major problem for many Christians who have been too influenced by the attention given celebrities in culture.
2. The gospel as a contradiction to human Wisdom 1:18-2:5
Paul set up a contrast between cleverness of speech (impressive oratory) and the Cross in 1 Corinthians 1:17. Next he developed this contrast with a series of arguments. Boasting in men impacts the nature of the gospel. He pointed out that the gospel is not a form of sophia (human wisdom). Its message of a crucified Messiah does not appeal to human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Second, its recipients are not especially wise in the eyes of humanity (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). Third, Paul’s preaching was not impressive in its human wisdom, but it bore powerful results (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
"There are . . . three particularly important expository passages in 1 Corinthians. They may be regarded as the letter’s principal theological discourses and as such deserve special attention.
"These three key discourses deal, respectively, with the wisdom of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:16), the nature of Christian community (1 Corinthians 12:4 to 1 Corinthians 13:13), and the resurrection of the dead (chap. 15). In each instance Paul’s reflections on the topic are deliberate and focused, and lead him to develop a more or less extended and coherent argument. Moreover, each of these passages occurs at an important point within the overall structure of the letter. The discourse on wisdom, situated prominently at the beginning of the letter, supports the apostle’s urgent appeals for unity (1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21). It can be argued that the discourse on Christian community undergirds, directly or indirectly, all of the counsels and instructions in chaps. 8 through 14. And the discourse on resurrection, a response to those who claim that ’there is no resurrection of the dead’ (1 Corinthians 15:12), is located prominently at the end of the letter." [Note: Victor Paul Furnish, "Theology in 1 Corinthians," in Pauline Theology. Vol. II: 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 63.]
"In this part of the [first] discourse [i.e., 1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:5] the argument proceeds in three steps: Paul makes his main point in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, confirms it in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 with an appeal to the Corinthians’ own situation, and then further confirms it in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 with reference to what and how he had preached in Corinth.
"The apostle’s thesis is registered first in 1 Corinthians 1:18 and then twice restated (in 1 Corinthians 1:21 and 1 Corinthians 1:23-24). [Note: Ibid., p. 65.]
Superficial displays of erudite oratory, which to the Corinthians appeared to be demonstrations of wisdom, impressed them too greatly. Paul pointed out that the wisdom of God, the gospel of Christ, had power that mere worldly wisdom lacked.
The message (logos) of the Cross, in contrast to the speech (logos) of human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:17), has the Cross as its central theme. When people hear it, it produces opposite effects in those who are on the way to perdition and in those on the way to glory. Paul contrasted foolishness and weakness with wisdom and power (cf. Romans 1:16).
"What would you think if a woman came to work wearing earrings stamped with an image of the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima?
"What would you think of a church building adorned with a fresco of the massed graves at Auschwitz? . . .
"The same sort of shocking horror was associated with cross and crucifixion in the first century." [Note: D. A. Carson, The Cross & Christian Ministry, p. 12.]
The folly of a crucified Messiah 1:18-25
"This paragraph is crucial not only to the present argument (1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21) but to the entire letter as well. Indeed, it is one of the truly great moments in the apostle Paul. Here he argues, with OT support, that what God had always intended and had foretold in the prophets, he has now accomplished through the crucifixion: He has brought an end to human self-sufficiency as it is evidenced through human wisdom and devices." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 68.]
Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 29:14 shows that it has always been God’s method to expose the folly of merely human wisdom.
The first three questions in this verse recall similar questions that Isaiah voiced when the Assyrians’ plans to destroy Jerusalem fell through (Isaiah 33:18; cf. Job 12:17; Isaiah 19:12). Paul’s references to the age (Gr. aion) and the world (kosmos) clarify that he was speaking of purely natural wisdom in contrast to the wisdom that God has revealed. God’s wisdom centers on the Cross.
"In first-century Corinth, ’wisdom’ was not understood to be practical skill in living under the fear of the Lord (as it frequently is in Proverbs), nor was it perceived to be some combination of intuition, insight, and people smarts (as it frequently is today in the West). Rather, wisdom was a public philosophy, a well-articulated world-view that made sense of life and ordered the choices, values, and priorities of those who adopted it. The ’wise man,’ then, was someone who adopted and defended one of the many competing public world-views. Those who were ’wise’ in this sense might have been Epicureans or Stoics or Sophists or Platonists, but they had this in common: they claimed to be able to ’make sense’ out of life and death and the universe." [Note: Ibid., pp. 15-16.]
Human reasoning ("wisdom") does not enable people to get to know God nor does it deliver them from their sins. These benefits come only through the "foolishness" (in the eyes of the natural man) of the message preached (Gr. kerygma), namely, the gospel. [Note: See Larry J. Waters, "Paradoxes in the Pauline Epistles," Bibliotheca Sacra 167:668 (October-December 2010):430-35.] The true estimation of things, therefore, is that human reasoning is folly.
Paul was not saying that all the wisdom that unbelievers have produced is worthless. However, in comparison with what the wisdom that God has revealed about Himself can accomplish, human wisdom is of little value.
"Not every human knowledge about any given topic-physics or medicine, for instance-is under debate in our text (at least not primarily). Paul has something more specific in mind . . . Paul aims specifically at the human wisdom about God as ’wisdom of the world,’ at ’theo-logy’ as ’wisdom of the world.’" [Note: Peter Lampe, "Theological Wisdom and the ’Word About the Cross’ The Rhetorical Scheme in 1 Corinthians 1-4," Interpretation 44:2 (April 1990):120.]
The Jews characteristically asked for signs as demonstrations of God’s power (cf. Matthew 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-12; John 2:18). In contrast, the message of the Cross seemed to be a demonstration of weakness, specifically, Jesus’ inability to save Himself from death.
Likewise the Greeks typically respected wisdom, an explanation of things that was reasonable and made sense. However the message of the Cross did not appear to make sense. How could anyone believe in and submit to One who was apparently not smart enough to save Himself from suffering execution as a criminal when He was not one? Furthermore how could anyone look to such an One as a teacher of wisdom?
". . . the ’Jews’ and ’Greeks’ here illustrate the basic idolatries of humanity. God must function as the all-powerful or the all-wise, but always in terms of our best interests-power in our behalf, wisdom like ours! For both the ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how ’the God who makes sense’ ought to do things." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 74.]
A crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to the Jews because they regarded Messiah as the Person on whom God’s blessing rested to the greatest degree (Isaiah 11:2). However, Jesus’ executioners hung Him on a tree, the sure proof that God had cursed Him (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13).
Paul used the terms "Greeks" (1 Corinthians 1:22) and "Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23) interchangeably.
"It is hard for those in the christianized West, where the cross for almost nineteen centuries has been the primary symbol of the faith, to appreciate how utterly mad the message of a God who got himself crucified by his enemies must have seemed to the first-century Greek or Roman. But it is precisely the depth of this scandal and folly that we must appreciate if we are to understand both why the Corinthians were moving away from it toward wisdom and why it was well over a century before the cross appears among Christians as a symbol of their faith." [Note: Ibid., p. 76.]
The "called" contrast with the unsaved among both Jews and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:2; Romans 8:28; Romans 8:30). Christ is the instrument of God’s power in conquering the forces of evil and delivering people from their control. Moreover He is the instrument of God’s wisdom in solving the problem human reasoning could not unravel, namely, how people can know God and come to God. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament personified wisdom as God’s agent in revelation, creation, and redemption. Jesus Christ personally is that wisdom because He is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30).
"This is Paul’s most brilliant epigrammatic description of the world in which the Gospel is preached, and of the Gospel itself." [Note: Barrett, p. 54.]
The "foolishness" of God, the gospel of the Cross, is wiser than human wisdom, and the "weakness" of God, in the eyes of unbelievers, is stronger than human strength.
At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ’vision’ consists in clearly articulated ’ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements-but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning. Again, I insist, my position is not a thinly veiled plea for obscurantism, for seat-of-the-pants ministry that plans nothing. Rather, I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry." [Note: Carson, p. 26.]
In these verses (18-25) Paul sought to raise the Corinthians’ regard for the gospel message by showing its superiority over anything humans can devise through reasoning and philosophizing. His purpose in doing so was to encourage them to value the content of the message more highly than the "wisdom" evident in the presentations of those who delivered it.
"One can scarcely conceive a more important-and more difficult-passage for the church today than this one. It is difficult, for the very reason it was in Corinth. We simply cannot abide the scandal of God’s doing things his way, without our help. And to do it by means of such weakness and folly! But we have often succeeded in blunting the scandal by symbol, or creed, or propositions. God will not be so easily tamed, and, freed from its shackles, the preaching of the cross alone has the power to set people free." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 77-78.]
This verse reflects that there were few in the Corinthian assembly who came from the higher intellectual and influential levels of their society. This characteristic has marked most local churches throughout history.
The folly of the Corinthian believers 1:26-31
Paul turned from the content of the gospel to the Corinthian believers to strengthen his argument that the gospel he preached contradicted human expectations. God had chosen "nobodies" rather than the "beautiful people" of Corinth. They themselves were evidence that God’s "foolishness" confounds the "wise." Jeremiah 9:23-24, with its emphasis on boasting in one proper thing or another improper thing, lies behind this pericope.
The Old Testament is full of illustrations of God choosing less than promising material as His instruments. In the Book of Judges, for example, we see Him using an ox goad (Judges 3:31), a nail (1 Corinthians 4:21), trumpets, pitchers, and lamps (Judges 7:20), a millstone (Judges 9:53), and the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:15). His method did not change with the coming of Christ nor has it changed since then.
"Things that are not" are things that are nothing. They are non-entities in the eyes of the world. The "things that are" are those things and individuals that the world values highly. Paul did not mean that God cannot or will not save the affluent, but the glory of the gospel is that God’s mercy extends to those whom the affluent tend to write off.
God has chosen this method so the glory might be His and His alone. How wrong then to glorify His messengers! Glorying here has the idea of putting one’s full confidence in some inappropriate object to secure ourselves.
God is the source of the believer’s life in Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2). Righteousness, sanctification, and redemption are metaphors of salvation, the result of the wisdom we find in Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11). Righteousness focuses on our right standing in the sight of God (justification), sanctification on His making us more holy (sanctification), and redemption on our liberation from sin (glorification).
This loose quotation from Jeremiah 9:24 summarizes Paul’s point. Instead of emphasizing the Lord’s servants and what they have done, we should focus on what the Lord Himself has done in providing wisdom and power in Christ.
God’s purpose was not to make a superficial splash but to transform lives, something the Corinthians could see in their own experience.
"The issue of election is particularly strong in 1 Corinthians. Paul opens the letter by affirming not only his call (’called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’) but also that of the Corinthians (’called to be saints,’ 1 Corinthians 1:2). This conviction reappears in the final verse of the thanksgiving, functioning there as part of the ultimate ground for Paul’s confidence (1 Corinthians 1:9): ’God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.’ When the issue surfaces again a few verses later with renewed rhetorical emphasis (1 Corinthians 1:24; 1 Corinthians 1:26-30), it becomes clear that the concept of election or call no longer merely undergirds Paul’s argument; it has instead become the focus of this argument. The Corinthians, it seems, have not grasped what election means." [Note: Jouette M. Bassler, "Paul’s Theology: Whence and Whither?" in Pauline Theology. Vol. II: 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 15.]