To have a better understanding of this and all the material to follow, it would be helpful to know a little background about this particular congregation, and why Paul wrote to them in the first place.
Corinth was the commercial center of Greece. It was four times larger and about fifty miles west of Athens. It had a population of 400,000 people making it the fourth largest and richest cities in the Roman Empire. It was also one of the wickedest. It was here in the years 52-53 AD that Paul established a church right in the shadow of Athenian philosophy. Athena was the patron of Athens; she was the goddess of wisdom, arts and crafts. It was believed that her wisdom created the cosmos.
After establishing this congregation and moving on to other works, a delegation from Corinth came to Paul with news of serious disputes and problems that had arisen in the Corinthian church. I Corinthians is one of several letters Paul wrote to this church in order to deal with its many problems. One of the main problems stemmed from the fact that this church was made up of mostly Greek (or Gentile) converts. Unlike the Jews who were well trained in moral living and religious worship to God, Greeks came from an extremely immoral sexual background and had many false ideas about God and religion. This had been planted in them by a long history of Greek philosophers and pagan religious teachers. Because of this, they had more difficulty in adapting to the Christian lifestyle than the Jews did. They were either slow in maturing or they tried to mesh their former pagan ideas and philosophies with the teachings and practices of Christ.
And so, the delegation from Corinth reported problems such as sexual immorality, poor conduct during worship, misuse of spiritual gifts and the very dangerous issue of divisiveness. In writing to them about all of these problems Paul tackles the issue of divisiveness first, seeing it as the most dangerous. If the church divides, there is no opportunity to work on the other issues because people are too filled with anger and resentment.
In verse 10 of the first chapter Paul says:
Now, I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you.
When we continue to read his letter, and if we know some of the habits of that culture, we learn the nature and cause of their division.
In those days various trained speakers called orators would develop a following by staking out a position on a philosophy or political idea and debate others on the merits of their position. It was this system that Paul encountered when he was in Athens, and invited to speak on Mars Hill.
These debaters would build up a following based on their skills in public speaking and formal debate. They were like verbal gladiators. The better they were, the bigger their following. This type of thing was beginning to happen in the church, with different teachers staking out positions that they claimed were endorsed by an Apostle or church leader. Some would say, "I am arguing the position of Peter," and another would say, "My position is consistent with Paul's teachings."
The Greek Christians in the church were adopting a familiar form of intellectual exercise to the practice of their faith in Christ.
In dealing with this problem, Paul states in verse 17 that his preaching was not based on "cleverness of speech." This was a direct reference to the debating style and practice beginning to take hold of Corinth.
Paul goes on to say that their system not only produced division, but it also made "void" or "empty" or "useless" the cross of Christ. His idea was that by relying on the power of persuasion and debate to convince men to believe, they took away the power of the cross of Christ to draw men to faith.
Paul shows how it is very tempting to use human methods to bring people to Christ because God's methods (preaching the cross) seems so foolish by comparison. In verses 18-31 he gives the Corinthians three reasons why God's way to save people seems foolish to human understanding.
The Message Itself is Foolish – vs. 18-25
Human beings through their own reasoning, schemes, plans, and philosophies have never been able to provide real hope for the world. No human system gives complete peace of mind and sure confidence in facing death. And, mankind has not been able, through its own efforts, to know the mind of God. Of course, this has not stopped one thinker after another to offer explanations and solutions to the mystery of life and death.
Paul explains to the Corinthians how God's plan and solution compares to all of theirs.
Vs. 18-20 – 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?
God's message, that through the death of one, everyone else could have eternal life, seemed foolish. After all, what possible connection could the dying of a poor Jewish carpenter have to do with the life of a Greek businessman a thousand miles away? Of course, for the one who believed that this was no ordinary Jewish carpenter, but in fact the Son of God, His death and resurrection made a lot of sense and provided the message of hope they were looking for.
Vs. 21-25 – 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 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.
The fact that the world considered this message nonsense was nothing new. The world has never understood God's message for the most part. Jews were not content to hear the word of prophecy fulfilled; they wanted spectacular signs and wonders in order to be convinced of Christ's identity. The Greeks wanted the mysteries explained; they searched for wisdom in human terms rather than the solution offered in Christ.
On the surface, to base your hope of eternal life and joy on the preaching and promises of a dead Jew, executed as a criminal, was pretty foolish. But Paul reminds them that for those who did believe, the wisdom and power of God would be fully revealed in Christ.
The Corinthians understood what he meant because their faith had been rewarded with great spiritual powers and gifts (i.e. tongues).
Paul lays out a great truth here for his readers:
- Faith comes before insight
- Believing precedes understanding
- Obedience first, rewards second
For those who accepted Jesus in faith and obedience, what seemed foolish to the world became, through experience and insight, the wisdom and power of God. These Corinthians believed that, then they saw the power of God working in their lives, not vice-versa.
The Messengers Were Foolish – Vs. 26-29
People who change the world try to do so with the same array of tools:
- Power – usually military
- Intelligence – new philosophy; new social systems
- Religion – prophets that come and go
In contrast, the messengers of the gospel and the recipients of the message (Apostles, disciples, and the Christians that follow throughout the ages) have no such credentials.
- Not many wise or great thinkers
- Not many powerful or rich
Paul says that God has deliberately chosen the weak, the lowly and the powerless to bring the message that ultimately changes people's lives in ways that no other "message" can. The messengers may seem foolish in the eyes of the world, but the results of their message in the lives of those who believe cannot be denied.
Their power and wisdom was a message to the world that God could take something weak, despised and foolish, and transform it into something powerful, holy and wise. This is something that great leaders in the world had failed to do with all of their abilities because of the method they used. And yet, they considered God's method foolish…
The Method Was Foolish – Vs. 30-31
Vs. 30-31 – But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."
God's ways are not man's ways.
How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable are His ways.
- Romans 11:33
Man is either reasonable and logical, looking for the connections between everything; or, he is totally selfish and hedonistic, searching only for the pleasure and satisfaction something will bring. Humans fluctuate between these two extremes, and judge things in this context. God is spiritual. He does things on another plane, beyond human reasoning or feeling.
The method used by God to save man from the consequences of sin, which are guilt, shame, fear, suffering and ultimately death and condemnation, does not answer to man's reasoning or feelings. It isn't subject to logic; it is rather foolish by man's standards. The method is called "imputation" and the motivation is God's unconditional love.
Paul summarizes the idea of imputation in verse 30 by saying all the things we need to be in order to be saved from death:
- Knowledgeable – wise
- Acceptable – righteous
- Purified – sanctified
- Free from sin – redeemed
Jesus becomes all of these things for us, and through faith in Him these things are imputed or put upon us as if we truly possessed them, and thus become saved.
In other words, things that we as humans could never obtain through any method (like absolute purity, rightness with God, freedom from sin of any kind, knowledge of God, etc.) God gives to us freely because we are associated with Christ (in Christ) through faith.
Jesus obtains these by living a perfect human life, offering Himself in a sacrificial death and appearing after a miraculous resurrection. We, on the other hand, freely receive these blessings through faith, which is a response that humans can make. And God has devised this way of doing things because He continues to love those who hate and disobey Him.
Man would have never figured this out, and continues to laugh at this method as the solution to man's problems to this very day! The method seems foolish, but for those who are "in Christ" it is a solution for which they continually praise or "boast" in the Lord.
I think the greatest insult to me as an individual in this society is to be considered irrelevant. It seems that the "serious" people who are in charge of solving the problems of the world put preachers at the bottom of the list of those who might offer a solution to hate, fear, unhappiness and disorder. This is probably one of the main reasons why some do not go into ministry on a full time basis.
We are irrelevant, or "foolish," because:
- Our message requires belief in what is unseen.
- Our messengers are without influence, power or prestige.
- Our method demands the relinquishing of human effort in favor of total dependence on God.
And yet, for those that believe:
- The unseen has become real and powerful in their lives.
- The method has removed fear and guilt, and replaced it with hope, a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
- The converts themselves have become messengers for the foolish things of God, confounding the wise and powerful of this world.
I think that we should rejoice if we are considered foolish or irrelevant because this means that they have at least recognized us for who we truly are: Christians! Jesus says that we should rejoice if we are persecuted for being His disciples.
How does the world see you? Are you one of its own? Are you wise, strong, noble and relevant, or are you one of the foolish ones that believe in God's message and method preached by one of His messengers?
How will you resolve your fears, your judgment and your eternal life? Will you rely on yourself, ignore it or let the foolishness of God clothe you with forgiveness, salvation and eternal life?
If you believe in Jesus and God's work through Him, then you're one of the foolish ones, and your foolish faith will be rewarded.