1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where 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? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.


This section comes on the heels of Paul condemning the Believers in Corinth who were forming factions, based on preferred teachers / church leaders. The implication is that the culture of the day among the Greeks – adopting a philosopher and identifying with him – was creeping into the Church.

It’s not a wide step from “I follow Plato,” “I follow Seneca,” etc., to “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas.” Paul is making clear in this section that this “schools of teaching” approach does not work within the Church and should not be permitted in the Church. As Paul makes clear, Believers follow Christ. When we get away from that, we get away from Him. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 1:18

For the preaching of the cross; rather, the word of the cross. To them that are perishing; rather, to the perishing; to all those who are now walking in the paths that lead to destruction (2 Corinthians 2:15). To them it was foolishness, because it requires spiritual discernment (1 Corinthians 2:14); and, on the other hand, human wisdom is foolishness with God (1 Corinthians 3:19). Foolishness. It shows the heroic character of the faith of St. Paul that he deliberately preached the doctrine of the cross because he felt that therein lay the conversion and salvation of the world, although he was well aware that he could preach no truth so certain at first to revolt the unregenerate hearts of his hearers. To the Jews “the cross” was the tree of shame and horror; and a crucified person was “accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23Galatians 3:13). To the Greeks the cross was the gibbet of a slave’s infamy and a murderer’s punishment. There was not a single association connected with it except those of shame and agony. The thought of “a crucified Messiah” seemed to the Jews a revolting folly; the worship of a crucified malefactor seemed to the Greeks “an execrable superstition” (Tacitus, ‘Ann.,’ 1 Corinthians 15:44; Pliny, ‘Epp.’ 10:97); yet so little did St. Paul seek for popularity or immediate success, that this was the very doctrine which he put in the forefront, even at a city so refined and so voluptuous as Corinth. And the result proved his inspired wisdom. That very cross became the recognized badge of Christianity, and when three centuries had elapsed it was woven in gold upon the banners and set in jewels on the diadems of the Roman empire. For had not Christ prophesied, And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me”? Unto us which are being saved; who are on the way of salvation. The same present participle is used in Luke 13:23Acts 2:472 Corinthians 2:15Revelation 21:24. It is the power of God. Because the cross is at the heart of that gospel which is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16Romans 8:3), though many were tempted to be ashamed of it. It could never be a carnal weapon of warfare, and yet was mighty for every purpose (2 Corinthians 10:42 Corinthians 10:5).

The note here explains well why Paul’s message might seem foolish to those for whom he was preaching. “We worship someone who was crucified by the government” is hard to explain to new people. Continuing on to verse 19 in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(19) For it is written.—This is a further explanation of why the word of the gospel, and not the word of merely human wisdom, is “the power of God.” The quotation which follows consists of two passages in Isaiah, and is taken from the LXX., one word being altered. We have here “bring to nothing,” instead of “I will conceal.” “Words which originally applied to those who assumed to be the guides of the Jewish race (Isaiah 29:14), apply with greater force to those who would presume to be Christian leaders.

Isaiah 29:14 14 therefore, behold, I will again
    do wonderful things with this people,
    with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
    and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

It’s interesting, and worth noting, that the note tells us Paul is quoting from the Septuagint. The early Church, as well as most practicing Jews during the latter centuries of the Second Temple Period, primarily relied on a Greek translation of the Old Testament. More than two hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Greek translation was done and spread widely, because most Jews spoke Greek and few actually spoke Hebrew. The translation allowed more people to read the Sciprtures.

In the decades and centuries after the time of Jesus, many Jewish leaders developed skepticism about the Septuagint and eventually the Masoretic Text (a Hebrew version of the Old Testament) was compiled. The debate between Septuagint and Masoretic Text was one of the points of contention during the Protestant Reformation, with the Protestants moving away from the Septuagint in favor of the Jewish canon instead. That’s obviously a long discussion, and one needs to read books to get a full understanding of this translation tension (and the reasons for it,) but I want always to make my readers aware of these points so that you can begin your own research.

Continuing on with The Pulpit Commentaries in verse 20:

1 Corinthians 1:20

Where is the wise? etc. (Isaiah 33:18); rather, Where is a wise man? i.e. a scribe, etc., which is even more incisive. These questions are triumphant, like the “Where is the King of Hamath and of Arpad?” The same impassioned form of speech recurs in 1 Corinthians 15:55 and in Romans 3:27. The questions would come home to the Jews, who regarded their rabbis and the “pupils of the wise as exalted beings who could look down on all poor ignorant persons (amharatsim, or “people of the land”); and to the Greeks, who regarded none but the philosophers as “wise.” The scribe. With the Jews of that day” the scribe” was” the theologian,” the ideal of dignified learning and orthodoxy, though for the most part he mistook elaborate ignorance for profound knowledge. The disputer. The word would specially suit the disputatious Greeks, clever dialecticians. The verb from which this word is derived occurs in Mark 8:11, and the abstract substantive (“an eager discussion”) in Acts 28:29. If St. Paul has Isaiah 33:18 in his mind, the word “disputer” corresponds to “the counter of the towers” (comp. Psalms 48:12). Even the rabbis say that when Messiah comes human wisdom is to become needless. Of the world; rather, of this age, or aeon. The old dispensation, then so rapidly waning to its close, was called “this age” (olam hazzeh)the next or Messianic age was called “the age to come” (olam habba)The Messianic age had dawned at the birth of Christ, but the old covenant was not finally annulled till his second coming at the fall of Jerusalem. Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? rather, Did not God (by the cross) stultify the wisdom, etc.? The oxymoron, or sharp contrast of terms—a figure of which St. Paul is fond (see 1 Timothy 5:6Romans 1:20, etc.; and my ‘Life of St. Paul,’ 1:628)—is here clearly marked in the Greek. The thought was as familiar to the old prophets (Isaiah 44:25) as to St. Paul (Romans 1:22); and even Horace saw that heathen philosophy was sometimes no better than insaniens sapientia (Horace, ‘Od.,’ 1.34, 2).

Paul wants the Corinthians who read this letter to shift their paradigm regarding wisdom. Continuing on with Ellicott:

(21) For.—This is an explanation and evidence of how God made the wisdom of the world to be only “folly.”

After that (better, inasmuch as) is not here a note of time, but of causal relation.

In the wisdom of God.—These words can scarcely be taken as an expression of a kind of approval of God’s wisdom in so arranging the method of revelation, but rather as referring to God’s wisdom evidenced in nature, and in the teachings of lawgivers and prophets. The world by its wisdom did not attain to a knowledge of God in His wisdom displayed in creation (Acts 17:26Romans 1:19).

It pleased God.—The world having thus failed to gain a true knowledge of God in His wisdom, He gave them that knowledge through that very proclamation of “the cross” which those “that perish” call foolishness. The contrast so strikingly put here is between (1) the failure of the world by means of its wisdom to know God, in His wisdom displayed to all in His mighty works, and to the Jews in His great teachers; and (2) the success of this “folly” of the gospel, as they called it, in saving all who believed it (Romans 1:16).

This verse begins an explanation of God’s plan. Since the world did not know God, via its wisdom, God (in His own wisdom) provided a wisdom that the world would mistake for folly. Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 1:22

Jews ask for signs; rather, Jews demand signs. This had been their incessant demand during our Lord’s ministry; nor would they be content with any sign short of a sign from heaven (Matthew 12:38 : Matthew 16:1John 2:18John 4:48, etc.). This had been steadily refused them by Christ, who wished them rather to see spiritual signs (Luke 17:20Luke 17:21). Greeks seek after wisdom. St. Paul at Athens had found himself surrounded with Stoics and Epicureans, and the same new thing which every one was looking for mainly took the shape of philosophic novelties (Acts 17:21).

1 Corinthians 1:23

Christ crucified; rather perhaps, a crucified Messiah. It was only by slow degrees that the title “the Christ,” i.e. the Anointed, the Messiah, passed into the name Christ. A stumbling block. They had for centuries been looking for a regal and victorious Messiah, who should exalt their special privileges. The notion of a suffering and humiliated Messiah, who reduced them to the level of all God’s other children, was to them “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence” (Romans 9:33; comp. Isaiah 8:14). These two verses, translated into Syriac, furnish a marked play on words (miscol, stumbling block; mashcal, folly; seed, cross); and some have seen in this a sign that St. Paul thought in Syriac. Unto the Greeks; rather, unto Gentiles; א, A, B, C, I). Unto the Jews… unto the Greeks. Both alike had failed. The Jew had not attained ease of conscience or moral perfectness; the Greek had. not unriddled the secret of philosophy; yet both alike rejected the peace and the enlightenment which they had professed to seek. Foolishness. The accent of profound contempt is discernible in all the early allusions of Greeks and Romans to Christianity. The only epithets which they could find for it were “execrable,” “malefic,” “depraved,” “damnable” (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, etc.). The milder term is “excessive superstition.” The heroic constancy of martyrs appeared even to M. Aurelius only under the aspect of a “bare obstinacy.” The word used to express the scorn of the Athenian philosophers for St. Paul’s “strange doctrine” is one of the coarsest disdain (ἐχλεύαζον)and they called him “a seed pecker” (Acts 17:18Acts 17:32), i.e. a mere picker up of “learning’s crumbs.”

The story of Jesus is “folly” to the hearers of the Gospel because it is not what they were expecting or hoping for. Does it matter to many of them that the search, conducted in their own wisdom, was not yielding what they wanted? Apparently not.

That said, pause and consider again that Paul is addressing people who were receptive to the Gospel. Yes, many Jews and Greeks rejected the Gospel for the reasons he is stating, but the recipients of this letter are not among them. In reminding them of the culture they were born into, Paul is also reminding them of how they should be set apart. We see that spelled out in verses 24 and 25. From Ellicott:

(24) Them which are called.—St. Paul always speaks of all Christians as “the called,” not using that word in the narrower sense to which some modern religious sects have restricted it.

(25) Because.—This introduces the reason why Christ, as being crucified, is the power and wisdom of God, viz., because God’s folly (as they call it) is wiser, not “than the wisdom of men,” as some understand this passage, but than men themselves—embracing in that word all that men can know or hope ever to know; and the weakness of God (as they regard it) is stronger than men.

The Pulpit Commentaries address the same verses this way:

1 Corinthians 1:24

Unto them that are called (see Ram. 8:28); literally, to the called themselves. Both Jews and Greeks. Henceforth the middle wall of partition between them is thrown down, and there is no difference (Ram. 1 Corinthians 9:24). Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. These words are a summary of the gospel. St. Paul is the best commentator on himself. He speaks elsewhere of “the exceeding greatness of God’s power to usward who believe which he wrought in Christ” (Ephesians 1:17-20), and of “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” as being “hid in Christ” (Colossians 2:3). And the world, once so scornful, has learnt that Christ is indeed the Power of God. When Rudolph of Hapsburgh was being crowned, and in the hurry no sceptre could be found, he seized a crucifix, and swore that that should be his only sceptre. When St. Thomas of Aquinum asked St. Bonaventura what was the source of his immense learning, he pointed in silence to his crucifix.

1 Corinthians 1:25

The foolishness of God… the weakness of God; the method, that is, whereby God works, and which men take to be foolish and weak, because with arrogant presumption they look upon themselves as the measure of all things. But God achieves the mightiest ends by the humblest means, and the gospel of Christ allied itself from the first, not with the world’s strength and splendour, but with all which the world despised as mean and feeble—with fishermen and tax gatherers, with slaves, and women, and artizans. The lesson was specially needful to the Corinthians, whom Cicero describes (‘De Leg. Age,’ 2:32) as “famous, not only for their luxuriousness, but also for their wealth and philosophic culture.”

The Greek word for “called” from Strong’s:

κλητός klētós, klay-tos’; from the same as G2821; invited, i.e. appointed, or (specially), a saint:—called.

The wisdom of the cross is contrary to human wisdom and human nature. The wisdom of the cross is so humble (a deity who died on a cross, with the lowest of servants) that people rejected it. The Gospel is not what they would have expected it to be, and it is not what they want it to be. There was likely a desire among the Corinthian Christians to reshape the message of the Gospel to their own benefit. Perhaps this is the direction of the factionalism Paul is rebuking.