(1Co 1:18-21 ESV) 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.
The cross makes no sense to those with a secular worldview. The Greeks knew that the cross was for rebels and criminals. And yet the early church reveled in the shame of the cross. They found the irony compelling. After all, if the Son of God could lower himself to be among the most contemptible, he could surely understand them in their poverty and low social station.
The Roman world was highly structured socially — largely on the basis of inheritance. The son of a slave would also be a slave. The son of an aristocrat would surely also be an aristocrat. Social mobility was not impossible, but it was rare.
Christianity was a powerful leveler of society, and the cross made this possible because the church worshiped a Savior who died a criminal’s death. It created an humble community.
The Greeks considered the resurrection laughable. They believed in an afterlife, but it was as a disembodied phantasm — a wisp, barely real and not happy.
All, however, were agreed: There was no resurrection. Death could not be reversed. Homer said it; Aeschylus and Sophocles seconded it. “What’s it like down there?” asks a man of his departed friend, in a third-century B.C.E. epigram. “Very dark,” comes the reply. “Any way back up?” “It’s a lie!”
Christianity promised the resurrection of a re-created body, and the philosophers laughed.
The Jews knew that anyone hung on a tree was under a curse, and the Christians celebrated this fact — pointing it out in their preaching — mentioned it in three different sermons in Acts! Paul wrote,
(Gal 3:13-14 ESV) 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” — 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Paul argues, essentially, that Jesus took on the curse of the Law — equating the curse for being “hanged” with the curse of Deu 27:26 pronounced on all who violate the Law — so that we would not have to.
Paul’s ultimate point is that God’s wisdom greatly exceeds — to the point of destroying — the wisdom of the wisest humans. No philosopher and no rabbi had anticipated the gospel or that the Messiah would be crucified and resurrected. God surprised them all!
In short, why on earth are you dividing over men when the only wisdom that matters is God’s wisdom?
(1Co 1:22-24 ESV) 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.
Christians see the world differently from everyone else. They can see glory in humility, wealth in poverty, and power in weakness.
“Jews demand signs” is surely a reference to the insistence of so many Jewish leaders that Jesus do a miracle on cue — as though the only miracle that could prove his divinity would be the next one. If they didn’t believe on account of the last 100 miracles, why do one more?
Greeks loved their philosophy, and Jesus defied all categories. The Greeks had not invented him, and therefore they struggled to imagine that he might be real. In other words, once we become thoroughly absorbed into our worldview, we become blind to all others.
(1Co 1:25-29 ESV) 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Paul next points out the humble state of the Christians in Corinth — largely not “wise” in Greek philosophy, not powerful in the world, and not of noble birth — even appearing foolish, weak, and low to the world.
But God has always used the weak and outnumbered to defeat his enemies. The power is in God.
Paul is indirectly chastising the Corinthians for their pride. His point is that pride in who converted you or who baptized you doesn’t change the fact that you owe everything to Jesus. You didn’t bring anything to this party, and so you should not look down on anyone else.
Division, as Paul observes, is ultimately about pride — about how much wiser we are than the others. And yet, Paul says, human wisdom is nothing.
(1Co 1:30-31 ESV) 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
It’s because of God that we’re saved — not our birth, our wealth, or our wisdom. It’s not because we’re smarter than the other church down the road or care more about “the things of God.” It’s because Jesus died for us on the cross — which he did, and we did not.
Jesus is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption. He does it. We don’t.
Why didn’t Paul suggest that the Corinthian congregation divide into separate churches, each with its own perspective? Wouldn’t that have been easier? Wouldn’t the members have felt more comfortable in a congregation that suited their own perspectives? And wouldn’t they feel better fed in a church compatible with their own slant on Christianity?
Given that Christianity seemed so foolish to both Jews and Greeks, why did it catch on at all? What was the appeal?
What does it really mean to say that we’re not as wise as God? Of course! So why does it matter?
Why is division such a concern to Paul? It’s not as though those splitting off to form a new church were going to be damned! Why not let them go so the church could move forward?
Is it really so wrong to declare yourself “of Christ”? Isn’t that exactly what Paul is saying we should do — pick the Christ side?
What’s the foundation for unity in church? Why are we so incredibly bad it — in our congregations? Denominations? Among denominations?
What would be required for all of Christianity to be united?