1 Corinthians 1:18-31


Perhaps verses 18-31 are more than can be handled in one sermon. Perhaps the preacher will use only verses 18-25. The New King James Version captions these verses:  "Christ, the Power and Wisdom of God."  J. B. Phillips:  "The True Wisdom and the False."

Or perhaps the preacher will wish to use only verses 26-31. Their theme could be: "Glory Only in the Lord."  Phillips captions these verses:  "The Believers are Insignificant."

By the way, verses 26-31 comprise the pericope for Epiphany IV in Series A. The notes for Epiphany IV are repeated here from Series A.

Ever since the fall into sin, natural man is spiritually blind, dead and an enemy of God.  The only thing which can remove this awful condition is the Gospel which is God's power, God's wisdom.  And it comes to man only because Christ was crucified and the message comes only in the Gospel.  God is not anti-intellectual.  He is the author of all wisdom and knowledge, be that secular or sacred.

The problem at Corinth (verses 10-17) was that the flesh was getting the upper hand.  Note that the flesh is mentioned twice in today's text, verses 26 and 29.  The flesh is diametrically opposed to God's wisdom and the sense of values of the flesh is the very opposite of that of God.

1 Corinthians 1:18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Some English translations:  "The preaching of the cross."  "The message of the cross."  "The story of the cross."  "The doctrine of the cross."

The distinction in the verbs is important. If people are lost, it is their own fault.  If they are saved, it is due only to what God, in Christ, has done.

Kretzmann: The Word of the Cross includes the account of all that was done for the entire world on the cross, the message of reconciliation through the work performed on the cross by the Redeemer.

1 Corinthians 1:19 For it is written:  "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."

Morris: His quotation is from Isaiah 29:14 with a slight variation from the LXX.  The principle Paul is expounding is thus nothing new.  From of old God's way had stood in marked contrast with that suggested by the wisdom of men.  Men have always felt that their own way must be the right one, look at Proverbs 14:12; 16:25.  God reduces their systems to nothingness.  In this context there is not much difference between 'wisdom' and 'understanding.'  Properly the former denotes mental excellence in general, the latter the intelligent critical discerning of 'the hearings of things.'  Neither can stand before God.
Kretzmann: Just as the wisdom of the Jews, which relied upon shallow cunning, was brought to naught in the days of the prophets, just as their hypocrisy and lip-service results in their rejection, so the wisdom of him that believes himself to be exceptionally rich in understanding according to the standard of this world, and with supercilious haughtiness despises the message of the Cross, will be frustrated.
Lenski: The two lines from Isaiah are Hebrew poetry in the form of a parallel.  In this instance the parallelism is coordinate: the second line restates in other words the thought of the first line.  Instead of the Hebrew 'shall be hid' Paul writes: 'I will reject.'  Paul thus translates independently into Greek, he gives the sense rather than the words.  This 'wisdom' of Hezekiah's advisers was exactly like that which was trying to magnify itself in Corinth.  It emanated not from God, but from godless thinking.

1 Corinthians 1:20 Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Paul asks three questions but is really asking only one.  He has three for the sake of emphasis.  And, it must be admitted, the triple question gets at all possibilities of the various groups and cultures.  The three rhetorical questions are followed by a summary question which expects the answer  "yes."

Bengel: The wise men of the world not only do not approve of and promote the Gospel, but they oppose it, and that in vain.
Kretzmann: What has become of all the learned Greeks whose wisdom was praised so highly?  Not one sinner has ever been converted by their sayings and writings; not one person has obtained salvation by following their rules of conduct.  The men that prided themselves on their ability to sway multitudes according to their will, to make them accept as right and true whatever their skill dictated, are vanished with the others that were filled with intellectual pride.  All the knowledge that has been acquired by men since the dawn of history, all the wisdom that is stored in countless minds, all the prevailing ideas of the present life, is vain where the heavenly wisdom is wanting, and utterly foolish if it attempts to measure the wisdom of God or to judge spiritual matters.
Morris: In the manner of Isaiah 33:18 a series of rhetorical questions hammers home the point.  His concern is to demonstrate that no human wisdom can avail before God. 'Wise,' 'scribe,' 'disputer of this world' are three typical terms to describe those who are learned and acute as the world counts wisdom.  There is a glance at the transitory nature of human wisdom in the use of 'eon' for 'world' rather than 'cosmos,' which appears in the latter part of this verse.  God has simply disregarded this wisdom.
Lenski: All these questions are uttered in one breath as it were, and really form but one question.  Paul is no longer quoting, but is merely alluding to Isaiah 19:12 and 33:18.  To these two questions which allude to Isaiah's words of old Paul adds a question of his own: 'Where is the disputer of this age?'  Paul's three questions cover the entire domain of mere human or worldly wisdom.  All this world-wisdom God turned into silliness.  God showed what this wisdom really is, men merely thought it wisdom.

1 Corinthians 1:21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

The wisdom of God is contrasted to the wisdom of the world.

Bengel: They who heard the prophets, despised them.
Kretzmann: Although His wisdom is evidenced both in the works of creation, Romans 1:20, and in the history of the world, Acts 17:26, yet in all this wise plan of the world's government and the world's wisdom failed to win the knowledge of Him.
Lenski: When His good pleasure acts, it always blesses; it is never God's pleasure to destroy or to damn.  God's good pleasure is the expression of his saving love and grace.  The proclamation calls for faith and is received only by faith.  The foolishness of preaching also marked the entire Old Testament era back to the days of Adam.

The Formula of Concord quotes this verse three times: Tappert 522.10; 531.51;618.12.

Formula of Concord: The more zealously and diligently they, unbelievers, want to comprehend these spiritual things with their reason, the less they understand or believe, and until the Holy Spirit enlightens and teaches them they consider it all mere foolishness and fables. . . . It is God's will to call men to eternal salvation, to draw them to himself, convert them, beget them anew, and sanctify them through this means and in other ways -- namely, through his holy Word and the sacraments. . . . Everything in the Word of God is written down for us, not for the purpose of thereby driving us to despair but in order that 'by steadfastness, by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope,' Romans 15:4.  From this it is beyond all doubt that the true understanding or the right use of the teaching of God's eternal foreknowledge will in no way cause or support either impenitence or despair.  So, too, Scripture presents this doctrine in no other way than to direct us thereby to the Word. (In all three cases 1 Corinthians 1:21 is referred to).

1 Corinthians 1:22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,

Verse 21 spoke of the unbelieving rejection of the Gospel by the covenant people in the Old Testament.  A contrast was drawn between their rejection and God's gracious pleasure in proclaiming the Gospel to obedient believers.  In verse 22 Paul speaks of all men, contemporary Jews and Greeks, who are typical of the rejectors of the Gospel throughout the New Testament era.

Morris: Paul brings out the characteristics of the two nations.  The Jews thought of God as manifesting Himself in history in signs and mighty wonders.  In the light of this they demanded a sign from the Lord, Matthew 12:38; 16:1-4; Mark 8:11ff; John 6:30.  They thought of the Messiah as One attested by striking manifestations.  From the lofty heights of their culture, the Greeks looked down on and despised as barbarians all who failed to appreciate their wisdom.  That this wisdom often degenerated into meaningless sophistries meant little to them.  They still remained proud of their intellectual acuteness.
Lenski: The Old Testament promised great signs in connection with the Messiah.  But instead of following the Old Testament the Jews applied to its promises their own wisdom.
Kretzmann: That was characteristic of the Jews, they were not satisfied with the words of salvation, but demanded signs from heaven, John 4:48; Matthew 12:39; 16:4. And of the Greeks it was characteristic that they sought wisdom; they wanted philosophic proof, logical demonstration, they wanted to be convinced by reasonable arguments, Acts 17:19; Colossians 2:4.

1 Corinthians 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

Just as in verse 21 the good pleasure of God was contrasted with the rejection by the Old Testament Jews, so here the preaching is contrasted with the rejection in the generations of the New Testament, verse 22.  "Christ crucified", of course, Christ is no longer suffering.  This refers to the exalted Lord who, in His exaltation, remains the crucified One.

Lenski: Once crucified, Christ now stands before us continuously as such.
Morris: He continues in the character of the crucified One.  The crucifixion is permanent in its efficacy and its effects.

"Stumbling block"  is something that trips men up.  "Foolishness"  that which displays a senseless act of thinking of speaking.

Kretzmann: the Jews will not accept Him, and therefore their perversity causes them to fall over Him as over an obstacle placed in their path.  To the Gentiles in general the Savior savors to them of madness.

How did the Gospel effect the unbelieving Jews?  Read John 6 where Jesus offers Himself as the bread of life.  It was offensive to the Jews.  Read John 8 where we see their hatred and intent to kill Jesus.  Think about how they treated Jesus on the cross, or Paul when he preached the Gospel.  How did the Gospel effect the unbelieving Gentiles?  Read Acts 7 of Paul in Athens.  When he began speaking about the resurrection they would hear no more.

1 Corinthians 1:24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Verse 23 is in contrast to verse 22, and verse 24 is in contrast to verse 23, so far as the people to whom the Gospel is preached are concerned.

Morris: 'Called' has the thought of effectual calling.  It is implied that the call has been heeded and obeyed.  The cross revealed God and it gave men the power they needed.
Lenski: The called are the saved in verse 18 and the believing in verse 21.  Power and wisdom are joined in the description of 'Christ' as to the content of the saving proclamation of the Gospel.  The caution must be added, never to confuse 'this' power with his omnipotence, for we are saved by the power of grace, love, mercy, attributes altogether distinct from omnipotence.

The person who truly believes in the Gospel is armed for eternity.

1 Corinthians 1:25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

Here we have a summary statement, showing the impossibility of comparing the wisdom and strength of God with that of man.  Beck translates:  "The foolish thing God does is wiser than men, and the weak thing God does is stronger than men."  TEV has:  "What seems to be God's foolishness is wise than men's wisdom, and what seems to be God's weakness is stronger than men's strength."

For that which is foolish in God, what seems to man's reason a foolish, weak policy, the redemption of the world through the death of His Son on the cross, is wiser than men.  And what is weak in God, what seemed to man's foolish reason altogether lacking in intrinsic strength and efficiency, that is stronger than men.  That is the mystery of the Cross, that Christ, dying, conquered death, that in His yielding up the ghost death was swallowed up in victory, 2 Corinthians 13:4.

1 Corinthians 1:26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

In the Greek the verse begins with  "in view of this."  In view of what?  What is said in verses 18-25.  And now Paul is asking them to take a good look at themselves.  The Corinthians were to look at their calling.

Kretzmann: The miraculous working of the power and wisdom of God is exemplified in the case of the Corinthian Christian themselves.  The apostle urges them to consider, to contemplate earnestly, their calling, the acts of God's calling as it affected their own ranks.

Look at John 1:13 and 1 Peter 1:23. Also Luther's explanation to the Third Article. Note that he calls them  "brothers" again.

Paul is not condemning the  "wise."  He is saying that not many wise people, wise according to the standard of sinful flesh, became Christians or were called.  The word  "many" implies that there were some.

Human wisdom, which is devoid of the wisdom of the Gospel, is always looking for something new, ever learning but never coming to the knowledge of the truth, and never giving lasting and sure comfort.

To sum up: in verse 26 Paul asks the Corinthians to look at themselves and the character of the membership of their congregation.

1 Corinthians 1:27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

"But"  means  "quite to the contrary."

Morris: God has not chosen only those whom the world counts foolish and weak; He has chosen those who really are the foolish and weak of the world.
Lenski: The verb 'to shame' means to bring shame and disgrace. Here in the world they still strut in high honor, but this strutting is all a hollow show.  By His choice God intends to disgrace all of it.  All the strong things in the world of men are only strong shams, with no reality of strength in their make-up, and full of hostility against God.  The whole world lies in wickedness.
Kretzmann: Since the time of Christ the believers have been despised, scorned, ignored, and yet they have displayed a power of action and endurance which cannot be accounted for by reasonable suppositions.  The despotism of the Roman emperors, the tyranny of the medieval hierarchy, the inquisition of the counter reformation, all the so-called assured results of modern science falsely so called have not been able to overcome or to render obsolete the truth and the power of the Gospel.  No man can say that he has contributed anything to the success of the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 1:28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things -- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are,

Paul mentions the things which have been set down to be nothing and still remain so.  "The things despised."  "The things which are contemptible."  To summarize thus far: If the world considers you and your faith in Christ foolish, weak, low-born or contemptible, flee to Him Who has chosen you from eternity, by grace, in Christ.

Lenski: There is one last and still lower step that at least Paul does not fail to see; 'and the things that are not,' that do not even exist.  While this is the lowest step in the series, beyond which even the mind cannot go, it is at the same time more.  This last group in reality includes the four groups previously mentioned.  In foolish things true wisdom does not exist; in weak things true strength does not exist; in base-born things true (divine) origin does not exist; in things that are counted as nothing true value does not exist. Nil runs through all four of them, something that does not exist.  The fifth specification 'things that do not exist' is not coordinate with the preceding four. Non-existence could be paired only with one other, namely existence.  Now all these four are in reality hollow with non-existence too, only in each of the four this is a non-existence of something specific, of wisdom, strength, etc.  Do you ask what they are?  The new life God's grace creates in our hearts, our faith and our good works, our glory to be when we reach heaven.

1 Corinthians 1:29 so that no one may boast before him.

Three times we were told what God chose for Himself and in each case for a definite purpose which has been carried out.  Verse 29 comes down like a heavy sledge hammer at the end of all this.

Morris: God does all this with the purpose of taking away from all men every occasion of boasting.
Lenski: All flesh is everlastingly trying to glory in God's presence, insulting him to his face; secondly, that no flesh really has anything in which to glory, it only thinks it has, it only deceives and cheats itself.  'Flesh' here means man in his fallen state.

The flesh is constantly vain-glorious.  The flesh is constantly trying to save itself.  The flesh is constantly deceiving itself by thinking that it is wise, strong, powerful and noble.  The only thing which can stop this boasting is repentance and faith.  And that leads us to the heart of the Gospel as presented in the next verse.

1 Corinthians 1:30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God -- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

In verse 30 Paul returns to the Corinthians and rounds out the thought begun in verse 26.  Verses 27-29 speak of the wonders of becoming members of the Kingdom.  Here God is the actor.  All synergism is completely eliminated.  You have been begotten from God and Christ's wisdom is from God.  Paul makes sure that he is not misunderstood.  All boasting is truly eliminated.

This verse defines the faith relationship of the believer with Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17:  "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new."  That explains itself.

Morris: Whole books have been written about this enigmatic phrase which Paul habitually uses, in Christ, to describe the relationship of believers to Christ.  Briefly we may say that it indicates that the believer stands in the closest possible relationship to his Lord.  The phrase describes the personal attachment to a personal Savior.
Kretzmann: Out of Him, due to His grace and power, you are in Christ Jesus.  We are the spiritual offspring of God by His grace, and the life which we have received from God is grounded in Christ.

We make several observations.

  1.  We are Christians not because of what WE became but because of what HE became.

  2.  Secondly, this denotes all the promises in the Old Testament and the words of fulfillment in the New Testament.

  3.  Thirdly, it points specifically to the incarnation, when God became man.  We are not the cause of this new relationship

Regarding the word  "wisdom."

Rienecker: Christ is the true wisdom and union with Him makes the believer truly wise.

Morris: The wisdom of God is embodied in Christ.  Here is the real wisdom.  Look at Colossians 2:3
Bengel: Wisdom, though we were formerly fools.
Kretzmann: Christ has become Wisdom to us.  This would not be possible were it not for the fact that Christ became unto us Righteousness as well as Sanctification, 2 Corinthians 5:21; Jeremiah 23:5; Matthew 3:15; Galatians 2:16-17.  The righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us as well as His perfect fulfillment of the Law, and thus our whole life is consecrated to God, and every act is a work of divine service.

What is true wisdom?  It is three things:

  1.  Righteousness.  This is the imputed righteousness of Christ, Look at 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:8. In prophecy Jeremiah 23:6 calls Jesus  "The Lord our Righteousness."

  2.  Sanctification. We take this in the narrow sense, the life of good works. Look at John 15:5; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 2:20.

  3.  Redemption. The word used here is used in the New Testament either of what Christ did for us, as in Ephesians 1:7, or our final deliverance on judgement day, as in Luke 21:28.  Both Morris and Lenski prefer the latter and we think that is right.

Morris: Christ is our redemption because He has paid the ransom price in His own body on Calvary.

I am constantly assured that Christ will finally deliver me on judgement day, look at Luke 21:28.

Apology: Faith is the very righteousness by which we are accounted righteous before God.  This is not because it is a work worthy in itself, but because it received God's promise that for Christ's sake he wishes to be propitious to believers in Christ and because it believes that 'God made Christ our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.' (Tappert 119.86)
Formula of Concord:  We believe, teach, and confess unanimously that Christ is our righteousness neither according to the divine nature alone nor according to the human nature alone.  On the contrary, the entire Christ according to both natures is our righteousness wholly in his obedience which as God and man he rendered to his heavenly Father into death itself. (Tappert 473.3)
Formula of Concord:  So, too, Scripture presents this doctrine of election in no other way than to direct us thereby to the Word, Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 1:21,30,31, to admonish us to repent, 2 Timothy 3:16, to urge us to godliness, Ephesians 1:15ff; John 15:16ff, to strengthen our faith and to assure us of our salvation, Ephesians 1:9,13,14; John 10:27-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. (Tappert 618.12)

1 Corinthians 1:31 Therefore, as it is written:  "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

Verses 26-29 are one long sentence.  This tells us why man cannot and dare not boast before God.  It ends with a negative clause.  Verses 30 and 31 comprise one sentence and ends with a positive clause.  It tells us who should boast and how he should do it.

The contents of verse 30 brought about the fulfillment of a recorded prophecy found in Jeremiah 9:23-24.

The direct purpose of Christ's coming, living, dying, rising, etc., was that man boast in the Lord.

Morris: All glorying must be in what Christ has done, and not in the puny things that we, at best, can achieve.  No higher view could be taken of the person of Christ.
Kretzmann: There should be boasting and praising indeed, but only in God, as the Author of salvation.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Festival Season Sundays, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 76-85.

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