1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 (Read 1:10-2:16) Key Verse: 2:2
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Happy New Year (again)! Today we are looking at a passage that can continue to help us set our direction and priorities for the year 2019. We see Paul writing to the church at Corinth about what was really the essential core of his ministry. To Paul, the power in the gospel message is completely in the cross of Jesus, and not in any human wisdom. Paul wants to help his readers to return to the power source of the gospel, the cross. Today let’s pray to learn from Paul’s example how to set our attitude and approach to ministry. The message has two parts.
The foolishness of the gospel (1:18-31)
As you can see, this passage is from the book of I Corinthians. We call it a book, but it’s actually a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the growing young church in the Greek city of Corinth. The church was established there by Paul on his second missionary journey, which we studied in the book of Acts last March. After a relatively unfruitful time in Athens, Paul met with much greater success in Corinth, with many Gentiles believing and being baptized (Ac 18:8). Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, devoting himself to teaching and preaching until the church was established on a solid gospel foundation.
Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthian believers sometime later, while he was away from them. He had become aware of a number of problems that had cropped up in their fellowship. This book, along with 2 Corinthians, is kind of famous for having some of Paul’s tougher language toward the church, as he addressed those problems. However, what Paul teaches in this book is applicable to all believers at all time, including us today.
This particular passage has a close connection with the John’s gospel passage we studied last week, and to our 2019 ministry theme of unity. One of the problems the church in Corinth had been having was a lack of unity; some church members were quarreling and making divisions over which of the apostles or teachers of the gospel they followed. Some were saying, ““I follow Paul”; others, “I follow Apollos”; others, “I follow Cephas”; and still others, “I follow Christ.” They had begun to look too much at the human excellence of the preachers and teachers, and not at Christ himself. Paul had to remind them that Christ was not divided, and that none of the human teachers were crucified for them. While we are growing up spiritually, we are naturally drawn to teachers whose words resonate strongly with us and seem to move us more deeply. But we have to remember that the power does not lie in people’s words.
That’s where we pick up with today’s passage. Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to re-focus on the core of the gospel. Look at 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.” The gospel is the message of Jesus’ cross. As Paul will review in Chapter 15, the gospel is simply this: “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” (15:3b-4).
This gospel, Paul says, is to us who believe the very power of God. However, Paul also wants remind the Corinthians that to some people, the gospel is foolishness. It is foolishness to those who are perishing. Right away, this tells us something: it tells us that believing the gospel is not a way to make us respected and esteemed by everybody.
Why is the gospel foolishness to some people? This is what Paul goes on to explain. Look at verses 19 and 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?”
Here, Paul is talking about the important topic of wisdom. The human search for wisdom has gone on continuously from the time of Solomon, to Socrates, to today’s “life coaches” that you can hire. The word “philosophy” literally means “the love of wisdom”. Wisdom is hard to define, but we can definitely say that it’s something greater than just knowledge. Sometimes wisdom has been defined as knowledge that is applied properly in order to live righteously. Once I heard a funny example of the difference between knowledge and wisdom: Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is actually a fruit. Wisdom is not putting tomatoes in your fruit salad. “Foolishness” is the opposite of wisdom—it’s acting in a counter-productive way that seems to stem from ignorance or weakness.
Paul points out that people who were traditionally considered wise, such as the Greek philosophers and, for Jews, their teachers of the law, had as a whole not embraced the gospel. Why not? It’s because, in giving us the way of salvation in the gospel, God disregarded the achievements of human wisdom, thus frustrating or making foolish the wisdom of the world. Since human wisdom had no ability to reach up to God’s level, God disregarded it and simply revealed the gospel that was preached (21). This was God’s plan from the beginning, and was revealed to the Old Testament prophets, as Paul’s quote here from Isaiah shows.
This means that for people who are looking for wisdom in a merely human way, the gospel does not give them what they are looking for. In fact, the gospel positively irritates or offends them. 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…” Here Paul highlights a general distinction in ways that different cultures sought the truth. The Jewish tendency was to look for proof of God’s revelation through a miracle; the Greeks were more inclined to seek a philosophical style of wisdom. But the gospel gives no credit to either of these ways of seeking wisdom; so, Jews and Greeks may both call it foolishness.
Paul runs with this and even calls the preached gospel “foolishness”, not because the gospel is actually foolish but to highlight this contrast between the gospel and worldly wisdom. In the gospel’s “foolishness”, there is actually a wisdom above wisdom. Wisdom itself does not give us the power to be right with God, or to live with true righteousness, because as the Bible says, we were slaves to sin. But through Jesus’ cross, we directly receive the power of salvation; we receive righteousness from God by faith.
In God’s way of revealing the gospel, we also see God’s fairness and equal love for all kinds of people. The gospel does not favor people who are highly educated or worldly-wise or born into privileged positions, who otherwise have a lot of advantages in this world. The lowliest of the low can receive salvation through believing the good news. Jesus even highlighted this in describing his own ministry, saying in Matthew 11:5, “the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Those who accept this news receive something unconditionally great. Verse 24: “…but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” In the gospel, power and wisdom are given to us, not in our heads, but in Christ himself, who becomes our personal Savior. Given this, making divisions in the church on the basis of which human teacher seemed wisest would be a big mistake.
Paul’s conclusion in verse 25 is that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Of course, nothing God does is actually foolish or weak. But even if God could be foolish, he would still be wiser than human wisdom, and even if God could be weak, he would still be stronger than the strongest humans. So, it can be okay with us if people consider the gospel foolish; we just have to remember that real wisdom comes from the power of God for salvation in Jesus.
Next, Paul makes his argument a little more personal for the Corinthian believers. 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.” The city of Corinth was a highly developed center of culture and learning. There were a lot of humanly wise and powerful people there, like famous artists or philosophers or entrepreneurs—people that everyone looked up to and aspired to be like.
Paul points out that not many of the believers in the Corinthian church were among this cultural elite. Why is he reminding them of this? Is he putting them down to try to push them back into their places? No, he is rather getting to the sin at the root of the Corinthians’ problems—the sin of pride.
In fact, the gospel does raise people up from where they were. When I began to be discipled through one-to-one Bible study, I gained a lot of knowledge of the Bible, history, and theology. That’s good, but that is not what saves us. When we grow in wisdom and power through the gospel, we have to be very careful or we can drift away from humble dependence on God and begin to feel proud and self-sufficient. That’s the beginning of everything bad. Maybe some of the Corinthian Christians, who had formerly been people of low station in society, had begun to be high-minded. The gospel had expanded their horizons and learning in many ways, but as a result, maybe some of them began to think, “Now I can be as good as those high-class Corinthians.” But that’s the wrong target; that’s losing sight of the true goal of faith. God’s goal in the gospel is not to make us able to reach the upper echelons of human society; his goal is to make us holy.
The real source of divisions in the church is always the sin of pride. The divisive Corinthian believers wanted to take pride in being aligned with the best, most correct gospel teacher. So Paul had the Corinthians remember that the gospel leaves no room for human pride. Paul told them in verses 27-29: “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. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.” Boasting is the fundamental expression of pride. But before God, nobody can boast.
It is good to get wiser and stronger, but we have to remember that the source of all good things is not ourselves but God. Verses 30-31: “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. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’” We were searching for wisdom in all kinds of ways, maybe some of us more like Jews and others more like Greeks; but in the gospel God’s wisdom found us and saved us. It’s good to remember how lost we were before and helpless to help ourselves until we heard the gospel. Then we are so happy and free from ourselves and can freely boast about Jesus.
Nothing but Christ and his cross (2:1-16)
In Chapter 2, Paul gets more personal, describing how he kept himself from falling into the trap of pride, and what he kept his focus on as of first importance. Look at Chapter 2 verse 1. “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” At the time he first began his missionary work in Corinth, Paul was already aware of the danger of clothing the gospel in eloquence of human wisdom to try to make it more attractive. Of course, Paul said elsewhere that he did everything he could to make the gospel appealing, but he meant that the did so by modeling a holy lifestyle. Trying to be overly eloquent or use tactics of persuasion in communicating the gospel is dangerous; it can lead people to miss the very point of the gospel as a revelation of God’s power. Paul, as we know, was in fact a highly educated person, and so he took extra precautions not to make his gospel preaching an exhibition of his own smarts. He even made a specific resolution in regard to this. Look at verse 2. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
What an interesting statement. What does it mean for someone to “resolve to know nothing”? Of course, it doesn’t mean that Paul “played dumb” or pretended to be ignorant of things that he did know. I think that at least we can say it means that Paul was very careful not to “show off”, careful not to make the impression that people should believe the gospel just because he was so knowledgeable. Paul knew he had to make it clear that their salvation or belonging to Christ’s church was not a matter of human knowledge. Also, practically speaking, I’m sure he was careful not to let himself get sidetracked in his teaching or preaching into fruitless discussions of obscure or subtle points that wouldn’t build people up.
More importantly, though, is the one thing that Paul did resolve to know. What did Paul resolve to know? “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It may seem obvious, but the point of Christianity is Christ himself. We believe that Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and the work he accomplished are everything. Paul’s ministry was 100% Jesus-centered. But then, why did Paul add “and him crucified”? Paul knew there was also a temptation to talk only about the seemingly “nice” things about Jesus, maybe his healings and a selection of his easier ethical teachings, avoiding a confrontation with the meaning of Jesus’ death. To do that would be a big mistake, so Paul purposely emphasized “and him crucified”. Paul did not shrink away from the offense of Jesus’ cross. To human wisdom, Jesus’ crucifixion looks like a shameful and tragic defeat. But the cross is where Jesus did the work that saved us, becoming the lamb of God whose sacrifice took away the guilt of all our sins. When we embrace it, we find the power of God, burning away all our sins and giving us new life with resurrection power.
This is what Paul set his direction to know, in life and in ministry. What does it mean to “know” Christ crucified? Paul describes this pursuit of the knowledge of Christ in Philippians 3. Just to remind you of the famous verses Philippians 3:10-11, where Paul said: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Knowing Christ is experiential knowledge; it’s participating in his sufferings; it’s having his power working in our lives (Philippians 3:10) When this was Paul’s inner desire, he could be faithful in what he preached to others. When each of us has knowing Christ as a personal goal, we can have unity with each other. Let’s read verse 2 together. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Verse 3 says, “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.” Paul preached the gospel with the fear of God in his heart. Paul was aware of what a weak vessel he was in his flesh. He may have even had some health problems at the time. He trembled with the awesome responsibility of being an ambassador of Christ. As one who lived before God, Paul knew that he was accountable ultimately to God, not to how popular he was with people. He said, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (4-5) We’ve seen many stories of gospel preachers who had great success, but then fell into sin and destroyed their own ministry and their testimony. After success, pride can easily come in and make people think they are invincible. Then they fall. Paul could avoid this because he viewed his mission before God and never forgot that its success depended on God’s power only.
In the last part of this passage, Paul says that despite the so-called “foolishness” of the gospel, there is a very real wisdom that we learn from God in the gospel. Paul says it’s a wisdom that none of the rulers of this age can understand, and that it requires a spiritual maturity to grasp. Surely, it’s every Christian’s desire to have this wisdom. What is the content of such wisdom? Paul describes it as things that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived”. It is, he says, a mystery that has been hidden. But he also plainly says what the content of this wisdom is. Did you catch it at the end of verse 9? “the things God has prepared for those who love him”. To me, this is a description of the riches of God’s grace in our personal relationship with him. These are the things that we can know through the Holy Spirit in our inner selves, which bring joy and peace that passes all understanding.
To show how this works, Paul uses the word “spirit” more generally. Look at verse 11. “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” We can use the word “spirit” to refer to the essential inner character or nature of something. We can speak of the spirit of different cultures, the spirit of families, the spirit of a particular college, and so on. As M. Paul pointed out in our Bible study Friday, we can understand another person deeply when we share some of the same spirit with them. If two people have no spirit in common, it’s almost impossible for them to understand each other, no matter how much they talk. In verse 12 Paul refers to a spirit of this world, which is incapable of knowing the things of Christ. But we can know Christ because we received his Spirit, which is from God. We try to express what we know using spiritual words, though we always do so imperfectly. But we can know Christ in our hearts, because as verse 16 says, “we have the mind of Christ” by the Holy Spirit. When we have this great blessing of the mind of Christ, we can make judgments about all things, and no human judgment can condemn us.
In this passage we’ve seen how Paul didn’t let himself lose focus on the central thing. He fought hard against pride in himself, of relying on his own knowledge or skill in speaking. He didn’t let his success make him over-confident. What a good model this is for us and our ministry. I think we should remember that we as the church are not fighting for a place among the elite of this world, but holding out a way of salvation that is for anybody from any station of life. Let’s pray that our faith may not rest on human wisdom but on God’s power. Let’s pray to equip ourselves with a similar attitude to Paul in the gospel work we do—most of all, to know Christ and him crucified.