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The Message of the Cross
1 Corinthians 1:1-31, Key Verse 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.”
Who wrote this letter, and to whom is it written? (1-2) Why does Paul introduce himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus? According to verse 2, what are the characteristics of the church of God? Why does Paul emphasize these things? What was his greeting to them? (3)
On what basis does Paul give thanks for the believers in Corinth? (4-7) How did they receive their spiritual gifts? (6; Ac 18:8-11) Read verses 8-9. What does he believe about their future? How could he believe this? (9)
What is Paul’s appeal to them? (10) What report had he received about them? (11-12) How did Paul bring them back to the proper perspective? (13-16) What was the focus of Paul’s ministry? (17)
What are the two responses that people can have towards the message of the cross? (18) What is the relationship between human wisdom and God’s salvation? (19-21) What did Paul keep doing despite people’s preference? (22-23) What was his personal confidence? (24-25)
What kind of people were the Corinthians when they were called? (26) Why did God call people like them? (27-29) How and by whom had they been changed? (30) Why should we boast in the Lord? (31)
THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS
1 Corinthians 1:1-31, Key Verse: 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.”
Welcome to the book of 1 Corinthians! Since we are starting to study a new book of the Bible, one that’s in a different literary category from Luke’s gospel that we just finished, we can start with a brief introduction to the whole book and give some of the context in which it was written. This book is actually a long letter, called an epistle, written by the Apostle Paul to the church that had formed in the city of Corinth. Corinth was a large and economically important city of the Roman Empire, located in modern-day Greece. So the book is called Corinthians because it’s written to the Corinthian Christians.
Paul himself had played a role in establishing this church. You can read about that in the book of Acts. According to Acts 18, the Holy Spirit led Paul to Corinth on his second missionary journey. There he met Aquila and Priscilla, who were tent-makers, as he was, and he stayed and worked with them (Ac18:3). Soon Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (Ac18:5). When they opposed Paul, he began preaching to the Gentiles (Ac18:6). Many Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized (Ac18:8). But fear came into Paul’s heart and he didn’t want to speak anymore. Then the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God (Ac18:9-11). In this way, the church in Corinth was born. That is believed to have been around the year 50 AD. After this Paul continued on his missionary journeys. This letter is thought to have been written around 54 or 55 AD, after the church had grown on its own for some time.
Through our Easter Bible conference, we studied the gospel of Jesus’ death on a cross and resurrection. The New Testament epistles show us how the gospel is applied to the life of the church in the real world. As we will see, this letter was written by Paul to address several serious problems that had arisen in the Corinthian church. The church at Corinth was not perfect—far from it. In fact, some have even said it was positively troubled. As we study how Paul addresses these problems, we’ll see that he had faith that all the Corinthian Christians’ problems could be solved by going back to the gospel itself. We’ll see that today in the very first chapter, when Paul tells the Corinthians why they need to keep their focus on the gospel, that is, the message of the cross, even though it may even seem foolish to the world. This message has three parts.
I. Thanksgiving and an appeal for unity (1-17)
In the culture of the first century, letters began by stating the identity of the author and the recipients. Paul takes this standard form and fills it with deep meaning about spiritual identity. Verse one says, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…” Paul shows that his sense of identity is derived from his calling as an apostle, or messenger, of Jesus Christ, and that this calling came not from human decision but by God’s will. We don’t know much about Sosthenes. There was a Sosthenes in Corinth mentioned in the book of Acts, who originally opposed Paul’s work and ended up being beaten by the crowd. But it’s not clear that this is the same Sosthenes. Clearly Sosthenes was someone known to the Corinthian Christians, and Paul always wanted to send greetings from the co-workers who were with him.
What about the recipients? Verse 2 says, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:” How does Paul describe the members of the Church in Corinth? He says they had been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. Normally, we use the word “sanctification” to mean the process of working out God’s holiness over the course of a believer’s earthly life. But here, Paul uses the word in the past tense, as a completed action—believers have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. It’s because to be sanctified also means to be set apart. Though we are not finished becoming holy, Jesus has already set us apart from the world for God. Now that we ae set apart, Paul says, believers have a calling to be holy in the way they live. We can be holy because Jesus has already set us apart.
Did you notice that this letter is also addressed to “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”? Paul knew that by the power of the Holy Spirit working in him, his letter contained universal principles that apply to believers in every age and place. We are also called to be holy people.
Paul starts this letter with a blessing of grace and peace for the church (3), showing that he has only good desires for them. Then he thanks God for the specific ways God has blessed them, acknowledging God’s great work among them to give them all kinds of spiritual gifts, especially gifts of knowledge and speech. Spiritual gifts will be one of the major topics Paul treats in this letter. Here Paul assures them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gifts. As we will see, the Corinthians may have become a little too concerned with how they could obtain such gifts, instead of who had given them and what they were to be used for.
Paul concludes his thanksgiving section with confidence that God will complete the good work he started in them (8): “He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”—that is, at Jesus’ second coming in glory. This confidence may seem surprising when we read further and see all the problems that the Corinthian church faced and how urgently Paul addressed them. But this verse shows that underlying Paul’s struggle to build up the church there was actually an unshakable trust in God’s faithfulness to finish his good work in all believers. We also can thank God for all God’s people, no matter what their problems are.
Then Paul immediately begins to address one of these problems that had arisen in the Corinthian church. The problem was divisiveness, that is, a lack of unity. Verse 10 says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Jesus himself had said that the defining characteristic of his church would be the unity of love between its members. However, somehow the Corinthian church was failing to achieve this. Instead of unity, they appear to have split into parties, with some of them were saying, “I follow Paul”; others, “I follow Apollos”; others, “I follow Cephas”. The Corinthians were classifying themselves based on the different humans who preached the gospel, and coming into conflict because of comparing and judging their qualities, like which one was a better speaker or which one had planted the most churches.
It’s not different from today. People still like to take sides and debate about anything, but about politics, or even sports, and they often define their own identities based on which side they take. But it was a mistake for the Christians in Corinth to use this attitude in regard to the gospel of Jesus. When they acted like the different servants of Jesus were the heads of some kinds of political parties, they were missing the whole point of the gospel. Their divisiveness was dishonoring Jesus. So Paul harshly confronts them with a series of rhetorical questions: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” By these questions, Paul makes us realize that what any human teacher of the gospel does is so small compared to what Jesus has done. It seems the church members were also dividing themselves into factions based on who baptized them. So Paul goes on to say how he’s glad he didn’t baptize many people. He didn’t want another source of division to arise based on who was baptized by who. He doesn’t even remember clearly who he did or didn’t baptize (14-16). So the church needed to come off its obsession with human leaders and have unity simply based on everyone being saved by the same Jesus.
Now Paul gives the example of what his own focus actually is. Let’s read verse 17. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Paul only wanted to do what had real power to save, and that was preaching the gospel. As he said in Romans 10:17: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Paul even purposely tried not to display special eloquence or his own wisdom when he preached, because that would actually obscure the true power source, which is the cross. Paul wants to help the Corinthians (and us) go back to the gospel, to remember God’s power really works. That brings us to the center of this passage.
II. Christ crucified: the power and wisdom of God (18-25)
Let’s read verse 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.” Paul says the real power of God is in the message of the cross. What is this message? The people Paul was writing to already knew it, but if we skip forward to chapter 15 we can hear him repeat it. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 says the message of the cross is: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...” We also call this message “the gospel”. What is it about this message that makes it so foolish to some people, yet so wonderful and powerful to others?
People consider the message of the cross foolish because doesn’t seem to match what they are looking for. Look at verses 19-20 “For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Corinth was known as a city of many philosophers. The word “philosopher” means “lover of wisdom.” So a philosopher is someone who tries to find the right way of life by searching for wisdom. We can call them the “worldly wise” people. But when God revealed the way of salvation in the gospel, he didn’t do it based on what these philosophers had discovered. Many philosophers who heard the gospel were frustrated and didn’t like it because God hadn’t given any credit to their efforts.
Philosophical-type Greeks were not the only ones who had trouble accepting the gospel. The Jews themselves, to whom Jesus was sent, had trouble accepting it, as Paul knew well. But for them it was a different reason. Verses 22-23 say, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” Paul says that Jewish people were looking for miraculous signs, something to wow and amaze them. The gospel didn’t fit their expectations either.
The gospel, Paul says, is preaching “Christ crucified.” Think how far that is from worldly wisdom. Worldly wisdom teaches how to be praised, admired, and paid well. How to save your life, how to save your money. That’s what people think others want to hear. We also like to hear about superheroes who display amazing powers in order to defeat all the bad guys. The Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would drive out their Roman conquerors and restore the glory of the kingdom of Israel, putting Israel on top of all the nations again. But Christians talk about someone who was persecuted, humiliated, killed. No wonder it is a stumbling block.
And yet, Paul says in verse 24 that “to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks,” this Christ crucified is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” How can a message about someone being tortured and killed be full of power and wisdom? We know, don’t we? The gospel is the power of God because Jesus’ willing sacrifice was sufficient for the forgiveness of all our sins so we can have a restored relationship to God. It’s not a message to excite our worldly desires but to help us face the spiritual reality of sin and be saved.
In the message of the cross, what looks like death is actually the source of new life. If we accept this gospel, and die spiritually with Jesus to our old self, we will also rise again with Jesus to a new life. Verse 25 says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” It means that, even if it looks like God is being foolish, or weak, he is actually far surpassing human wisdom and strength. God’s paradoxical wisdom of salvation through the cross, through what looks like death and defeat, is actually above all human wisdom.
Verse 21 says, “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 gospel is simply a report of the salvation that God has accomplished all by himself. And because the gospel is a news report, it works primarily through preaching. The preacher doesn’t even have to be that smart, just faithful to report what God has done. This is the greatness of God’s way of salvation through the gospel; it does not show favoritism to smart or able people, nor partiality to any culture or personality type. With God, everybody is on a level playing field, whether rich or poor, bright or dim, civilized or barbaric. God saves everybody who believes the gospel, without any prejudice. So Paul stuck to this gospel and was careful not to depend on either human wisdom or impressive displays. We should do the same.
III. Boast in the Lord (26-31)
Why was Paul so urgent in this passage to show the contrast between the gospel and human wisdom? The Corinthian believers had already accepted the gospel, right? Yes, they had. But in the time since they first became believers, some of the Corinthians had drifted away from the power source of the gospel. It seems like they had been influenced by the Greek environment of Corinth to put too much emphasis on human wisdom. That was also why divisions had sprung up, because they had become proud and started comparing themselves to each other. If you study the Bible for many years, you can’t help but gain a certain amount of knowledge. But we have to be careful not to start thinking that that knowledge is what makes us worthy in God’s eyes. It never will be.
That’s why, to conclude this chapter, Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of their humble backgrounds. Look at verse 26: “Brothers and sisters, 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.” This is an interesting thing to learn about the Corinthians church members: though they lived in a sophisticated city, they had actually not been the most sophisticated people there. So if someone tells you they’re from a sophisticated place, like New York City or Paris, don’t automatically think they’re “all that”.
Paul didn’t remind the Corinthians of their humble backgrounds to humiliate them or to make them lose their confidence, but to make sure their confidence was on the right basis. In the gospel, the Corinthian Christians had indeed experienced the power of God. Through the gospel, their lives were improved in every way; they became wise and gifted, as Paul said at the beginning. They went from the “scum of the earth” to a “royal priesthood”. But there was a temptation that went along with this—the temptation of now becoming wise in their own eyes, of forgetting how they got where they were, of thinking they were something in themselves rather than in Christ’s mercy. This is what all believers have to guard against.
So Paul reminded the church that God did not choose them because they were able, but because they were insignificant, so that his glory and saving power would be revealed more greatly. Verses 27-29 “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
It’s human nature for each of us to try to think that we are somebody great. Giving up on that might sound like a real downer. But actually it’s not; we have much better things to celebrate and rejoice about. Look at verse 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.” Because of God’s one-sided grace, we are now spiritually united with Jesus and receive the benefit of his righteousness and holiness and salvation. Verse 31 says, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” We believers can freely boast about how much Jesus Christ has done for us. We were nothing; now it’s not that we became something, but rather that Jesus became everything to us (30).
Thank God for sending his mighty saving power into our lives through the message of the cross. I pray that our 1 Corinthians study may show us how to apply the gospel’s power even in the midst of troubles and problems. May God bless us to know the power of the message of the cross.
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