This is a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1987. 7 pages.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

In close conjunction with the immediately foregoing — note 'For' — Paul con­tinues:

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.🔗

In connection with this remarkable passage note the following:

  1. Why do those who are perishing consider the message of the cross — that is, of Christ Crucified — foolishness? First, because in their thinking, the only avenue that leads to satisfaction, happiness, riches, fulfilment, great­ness, etc., is self-assertion, not self-denial. Secondly, because by the world — especially the world of Paul's day — death by crucifixion was reserved for slaves, captives, traitors, rebels; hence was considered shameful.
  2. 'to those who are perishing ... to us who are being saved.'

    For similar language see Acts 2:47; 2 Corinthians 2:15. It is the progress, whether in perishing or in being saved, upon which the emphasis falls. This is contrary to a certain brand of revival hoopla prevalent in our own day, with its over-emphasis on exact date conversions, creating the impression that once a person is 'saved', continuing struggle against sin and further progress in sanctification have become unnecessary. Could the erroneous interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 have something to do with this error? (See my commentary on Romans, pp 225-239.)
  3. After the words 'the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing', we probably expect, 'but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom of God'. Now the apostle does not fail to do justice to the concept of divine wisdom revealed in the plan of salvation and in the execution of that plan (see verses 21, 24). Yet here in verse 18 he shows that not only did God in his wisdom devise this plan, but his power enables him also to carry it out. For a similar thought see Romans 1:16.

Divine wisdom and power are certainly implied in verses,

19, 20a. For it is Written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; and the intelligence of the intelligent will I demolish. 1Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age?'🔗

In order to understand this passage it should be viewed in relation to its Old Testament background. The apostle is quoting — at least alluding to — the following passages:

The wisdom of the wise will perish; the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.Isaiah 29:14. cf. 19:12

This introduces us to the 'Growth of Assyria' period in Israel's history (approximately 736-686 B.C.). The prophetic activity of Isaiah began shortly before and ended shortly after this period. In fact the entire century (736-636 B.C.) can be described as the Assyrian century.

When the ruthless Assyrian conqueror was terrorizing the nations, and when Judah, unwilling to join in a coalition against him, was threatened by Israel and Syria, and therefore was thinking seriously of inviting Assyrian help, it was Isaiah who, in the name of Jehovah, admonished his king and people to trust only in Jehovah. King Ahaz disregarded this advice and asked the Assyrian king to come to his assistance (2 Chronicles 28:16). The Assyrian wolf accepted only too gladly, and in 722 B.C. Samaria fell. As everyone could easily see, Judah was next! Accordingly, Judah's politicians now turn to Egypt for help, as they did again and again. See Isaiah 30:2, 3, 5; 31:1; 36:6, 9. Once more it is Isaiah who, in the name of his Sender, says, 'No, God's people must place their trust in Jehovah alone, not in Egypt'. In the life of Hezekiah this preaching finally bears fruit. Jehovah rewards the faith of this king by destroying the Assyrian hosts (Isaiah 36 and 37).

We return for a moment to the time when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, after capturing all the many fortified Judean cities that surrounded Jerusalem, also threatened to take Jerusalem. By the mouth of his field commander, he conveyed a message to Hezekiah's representatives, contain­ing these, and many other, words: 'On whom are you depending that you rebel against me? ...The Lord himself ordered me to march against this country and destroy it ... Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim?' (Isaiah 36:5-13, abbreviated). Bear in mind this expression 'Where are...?'

In a letter addressed to Hezekiah the proud Assyrian monarch repeated his scornful sentiments. Hezekiah then goes up to the temple and spreads out the blasphemous letter before the Lord. In a moving prayer he implored, 'Give ear, O Lord, and ... listen to all the words which Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God' (See Isaiah 37:14-17).

The result was this: 'the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people arose the next morning — there were all the dead bodies' (Isaiah 37:36).

Isaiah, reflecting on all this, pictures the people in astonishment saying:

'Where is the scribe who (was to have) counted the tribute (collected from the Jews)? Where is he who (was to have) weighed the tribute? Where is he who (was to have) counted the towers (which the Assyrians had figured on destroying)? '(Isaiah 33:18). Note this expression 'Where is...?' The meaning of this 'Where are...?' and 'Where is...?' must be, 'Having been put to shame by their dismal failure to take Jerusalem, the indicated officials were nowhere to be found.'

In order to provide an adequate background for the understanding of what Paul is here saying it was necessary to give a rather complete summary of the historical background on which he bases his lesson and from which he borrows his language. Note Paul's triple 'Where is?' in verse 20a. It should be borne in mind that the apostle, in writing 1 Corinthians, addresses both Jews and Gentiles. Accordingly he borrows from background which proves that both the Jews, in constantly placing their trust in Assyria or in Egypt, and the Gentiles, in relying on their own vaunted power and skill, landed in the pit of ruin and despair. He is saying that the same principle applies even today; that is, in the new dispensation.

What the apostle means is this, that God himself, by means of the work of redemption centering in Christ Crucified is destroying the so-called 'wisdom' of the wise, and the 'intelligence' of the intelligent, a wisdom and intelli­gence which is forever unable to save man. Where, then, is the wise man, whether Jew (rabbi) or Gentile (philosopher)? Where the scholar, probably meaning the Jewish scribe? Where the Greek travelling teacher always ready for a debate? No wonder that the apostle adds:

20b. Has not God made Foolish the Wisdom of the World?🔗

That this is the proper interpretation is confirmed by verse.

21. For since, in the Wisdom of God, the World by its Wisdom did not get to know God, God was pleased through the Foolishness of Preaching to save those who Believe.🔗

This passage probably has the following meaning:

In accordance with God's plan, in which his wisdom is revealed, mankind, by means of its vaunted wisdom, did not get to know God; hence could not be saved. On the other hand, salvation, full and free, was being bestowed on all who, by the exercise of genuine faith, embraced the message of the cross, the very gospel which by the world is considered foolishness.

Now the separate elements:

  1. The word For indicates that verse 21 confirms the sense of that which precedes: the bankruptcy of worldly wisdom, its total inability to save man.
  2. Since 'the world' (mankind, lost in sin) was unable to produce a means that would enable people to acquire a saving knowledge of God, God ... did what? Did he say, 'It's their own fault; so let them perish!'? No — and here Paul's message becomes very beautiful and comforting — 'God was pleased ... to save...!' Speaking about grace and salvation Dr H. B avinck states, 'These are the objects of God's delight, but he does not delight in sin, neither has he pleasure in punishment.'2
  3. in the wisdom of God. It was in accordance with God's wise plan that the world by its wisdom did not get to know God, and that God himself revealed the mystery of salvation.
  4. the world by its wisdom did not get to know God. It did not thereby learn to acknowledge — confess, place its trust in, obey and love — God. cf. John 17:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:8. Worldly 'wisdom' is, accor­dingly, totally inadequate as a means of salvation.
  5. God was pleased through the foolishness of preaching... Foolishness not really, but in the estimation of the world. 'Of preaching,' that is, of the gospel proclamation, heralded loud and clear. For the essence of this pro­clamation see verses 22 and 23.
  6. to save; that is, to deliver from the greatest evil and to place in possess­ion of the greatest good. For a more detailed analysis of the concept salva­tion or of to save, see my commentary on Romans, p 60.
  7. those who believe; that is, who repose their trust in, rely on, and embrace (God) by living faith. Such faith is always 'the gift of God.' It is never a product of man's labour, merits, or ingenuity. It is true, nevertheless, that faith must be exercised by man. God does not believe for him. But see my commentary on Ephesians, pp 120-125.

22-24. For Jews Desire Signs, and Greeks seek Wisdom, but we Preach Christ Crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and Foolishness to Gentiles, but to those very ones who are called, whether Jews or Greeks, Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God.🔗

In confirmation of the immediately preceding note — note 'For' — Paul continues:

  1. Jews desire signs. That this was true follows from such passages as Matthew 12:38; 16:1; Mark 8:11; Luke 11:16; John 2:18; 6:30. A miracle is called a sign when it points away from itself to the One who performed it. It is a sign because it signifies the Doer's greatness. The Jews wanted to receive outward evidence that the claims Jesus made about himself were true.

    Now Jesus did, indeed, perform signs, many and great. Did he not heal people afflicted with sicknesses of every variety? Did he not cleanse lepers and raise the dead? So he even told the Jews, 'Believe me because of the works themselves' (John 14:11). These works certainly contained all the evidence these people had a right to expect. See John 9:31-33; 10:37, 38; 11:39-44; 20:30, 31; Acts 2:22; 4:21. But what the Jews wanted were signs that would exactly match their (the Jews') prerequisites. They must be signs 'from heaven'. Did they want Jesus to cause the moon to jump over the stars? Besides, to the Jews a crucified Messiah was an absolute impossibility, a con­tradiction in terms.
  2. and Greeks seek wisdom. Greeks, that is, Gentiles, were always trying to discover wisdom; that is, what they regarded to be such. A philosophical system would be popular for a while, and then would be discarded in favour of another one; and this, a little later, would be replaced by still another, etc. These 'Greeks' were ever seeking, but never really finding. No wonder, for they sought it among men. So did the Jews, of course, by placing their con­fidence in the rabbis. Both Jews and Greeks reposed their trust in 'the arm of flesh'. By doing this they found no satisfying answer to man's deepest, most vexing question, 'How can a sinner become accepted by God?'
  3. but we preach Christ crucified. 'We preach', says the apostle; that is, 'We loudly proclaim', Christ crucified; yes, crucified once, at a definite date in history, but retaining his power and value as the crucified One forever.
  4. a stumbling block to Jews. See Romans 9:33; 11:9; 14:13; 16:17. Paul speaks of 'the offence of the cross' (Galatians 5:11). What the apostle is saying is that to the Jews Christ crucified is a stumbling block or snare, trap, obstacle to faith, and therefore an enticement to reject (the Christ). The gospel pro­claimed by Paul and the other evangelists must have hurt the pride of the Jews, who, at least to some extent, were convinced that by means of their meritorious works they could earn their way into the heavenly kingdom.
  5. and foolishness to Gentiles. Even though the Greeks were well aware of the fact that none of their philosophical systems had solved man's deepest problem, they regarded the gospel of a crucified Saviour as being sheer non­sense. To be saved, how humiliating! By another, how degrading! By a crucified one at that, what unmitigated silliness!
  6. but to those very ones who are called... Paul refers to those who were by God effectively drawn to salvation; cf. verses 1, 2, 9.
  7. whether Jews or Greeks. With respect to salvation nationality makes no difference. For more on this see Commentary on Romans (especially on Romans 10:12), p 346.
  8. Christ the power of God... Christ crucified is certainly the source, heart and centre of power, for this power does what nothing else was, is, or will ever be able to do, namely, draw sinners out of the realm of darkness and cause them to enter the realm of light and love. This result was accom­plished by the atoning and substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. Indeed,

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There's power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o'er evil a victory win?
There's wonderful power in the blood.
There is power, power, wonder-working power,
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.L. E. Jones

  1. and the wisdom of God. Consider the problem. Man is a sinner, a very grievous sinner. God's righteousness demands that justice be done to sin; that is, that sin against the high majesty of God be punished; yes, be adequately punished. Nevertheless, God's love demands that a way be opened whereby man can be saved. But he cannot save himself. If he is to be saved, it is God who must save him. Surely nothing less was required than the wisdom of God to provide a solution to this problem. And the righteous and holy, but also loving and merciful, God did bring about that solution. It was such a marvellous love solution that Paul, reflecting on it, in writing to the Ephesians tells them:

(I pray) that you, being rooted and founded in love, may be strong, together with all the saints, to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled to all the fulness of God.Ephesians 3:17-19

Again and again Paul, in his epistles, expresses himself on the doctrine of Christ's death in the place of all those who repose their trust in the Saviour. In his Corinthian correspondence see especially 1 Corinthians 2:2; 2 Corin­thians 5:21; and elsewhere: Romans 1:17; 3:21-24; 5:1; 8:1-4, 32; Galatians 2:20; 3:13, 14; Philippians 2:5-8; Titus 2:13, 14: Yet, it was not Paul who originated this doctrine. Jesus himself announced it in words clear and simple: Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 10:11, 15-18. And did not even Isaiah proclaim this same truth? See chapter 53. And Jesus, quoting a rele­vant passage from that chapter (Isaiah 53:12) describes it as having been written about himself (Luke 22:37)!

Continuing his remarks about Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God, Paul writes:

25. For the Foolishness of God is Wiser than Men, and the Weak­ness of God is Stronger than Men.🔗

The meaning is obviously: Anent Christ crucified, as unbelievers see it a foolish idea, descriptive of a very weak Redeemer, this so-called foolishness is actually wiser than men's wisdom, and this apparent weakness is really stronger than men's power.

The wisdom of God in devising and carrying out the plan of salvation centering in Christ crucified, and the power displayed by this gospel, its influence upon human hearts and lives, is set forth in the following verses (26-30):

26. For consider your Call, Brothers: not many of you were wise according to human standards, not many (were) powerful, not many (were) of noble birth.🔗

'Consider your call', that is, 'Reflect on what you were at the time when the gospel reached you and was effectively applied to your hearts and lives'. That the apostle is addressing believers — so that we have the right to inter­pret this 'call' as the effective one — appears from his word of address, 'brothers.'

The remainder of the sentence may be paraphrased as follows: 'Not many of you were highly educated, not many were politically or socially prominent and influential, not many were of noble rank or high descent. Nevertheless, such wisdom was displayed in that redemptive plan of God, centering in Christ crucified, and so powerful was the proclamation of that good news, that you were converted.'

The apostle does not say, 'Not any', but 'not many'. There were, indeed, exceptions. Among them may well have been such individuals as Gaius and Erastus (Rom 16:23).

Paul continues:

27, 28. On the contrary, that which in the estimation of the world is foolish, God chose for himself in order that he might put to shame those who are wise; and that which in the estimation of the world is weak, God chose for himself in order that he might put to shame that which is powerful; and that which in the estimation of the world is insignificant and despised, God chose for himself, namely, that which is nothing, in order that he might render inef­fective that which is something...🔗

  1. Paul is thinking about people, not about things. That this is true is clear not only from the context in general but also from the fact that he starts out by referring to 'those who are wise' and in verse 29 ends with 'that no flesh', no weak human being, 'may boast before God'. The rendering 'the foolish things of the world', 'the weak things of the world', etc. should, accordingly, be avoided.
  2. In order to bring out the real meaning of this passage it may well be best to adhere as closely as possible to the original, even with respect to word order. Note, in this connection, that in the original 'that which in the estima­tion of the world is foolish' occurs at the very beginning of the sentence, undoubtedly for the sake of emphasis. In the present case I can see no good reason to deviate from this order. An excellent rendering of this passage, one which does justice to both points a. and b., is the Dutch (Nieuwe Vertaling).

​​Perhaps the best way to show that in order to accomplish his purpose God frequently makes use of that which in the world's estimation amounts to little or nothing, would be to give a list of examples from Scripture. The reader can easily supply additional illustrations:

  1. A youth, sold into slavery by his brothers, becomes second in command of the country of Egypt and a blessing to many, including these very brothers (Genesis 37:23-28; 41:41-43).
  2. A band of 300 men defeats a huge army (Judges 7:7, 19-23).
  3. The 'baby of the family' is anointed king (1 Samuel 16:12, 13).
  4. A pebble kills a giant (1 Samuel 17:40, 45-51).
  5. 'A little oil' is multiplied to such an extent that a widow can pay all her debts and provide for the needs of her family (2 Kings 4:1-7).
  6. A bath in Jordan cleanses a leper (2 Kings 5:8-14).
  7. A man for whom the instrument of execution has already been pre­pared is, at the king's command, imposingly paraded through the city by the very man who had doomed him. The would-be executioner is himself hanged on 'the gallows' he had prepared for his rival (Esther 5:14; 6:6-11; ch 7).
  8. A tiny seed becomes a lodging place for the birds of heaven (Matthew 13:31-32).
  9. Five loaves and two fishes feed a multitude of more than five thousand (Matthew 14:15-21). cf. 15:29-39.
  10. A little child becomes an example to grown-ups (Matthew 18:1-6). 
  11. A young woman of humble position becomes the mother of the Lord (Luke 1:27, 48).A 'little flock' inherits a kingdom (Luke 12:32).
  12. A despised town becomes the home of 'the King of kings and Lord of lords' (John 1:45-51).A cross, symbol of disgrace and instrument of torture, becomes the symbol of grace and the instrument of salvation (1 Corinthians 1:17, 18, Galatians 5:11).

29. So that No Flesh May Boast before God.🔗

A very logical conclusion indeed! The apostle has shown just now that it is God who chooses for himself those who in themselves are weak and foolish and insignificant. A little earlier (see verse 12) he has exposed the sinfulness of those Corinthians who were hero-worshippers. ('I belong to Paul'; 'I, to Apollos', etc.), as if their salvation depended upon human leaders. Now he informs them that they should ponder all this, 'so that no flesh may boast before God.'

Boasting about ourselves is wrong. So is also boasting about human leaders. So very weak are we and so very insignificant are those leaders, especially when compared to God, who is the sole source of our salvation and of all good things we receive, that 'no mere flesh', no weak, human being 3should ever take it upon himself to boast before him.

In connection with God and the riches believers have in him the apostle continues,

30. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us Wisdom from God; that is, (our) Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption.🔗

A correct interpretation of this passage is impossible unless we bear in mind that the apostle is still warning the addressed against the evil of boast­ing. See verses 29 and 31. Accordingly, what he is saying in verse 30 amounts to this, 'What you, Corinthians, now are, namely, no longer foolish, weak, etc., but wise, strong, etc., is not what you have made of yourselves. On the contrary, it is the result of what God did for you. It was he who chose you for himself (see verses 27, 28) in Christ Jesus. Because of intimate spiritual union with the Anointed Saviour you have reached the blessings of salva­tion.'

Conclusion: because of God's 'wisdom', that is, his wise plan, Christ Jesus has become the source of our righteousness (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21), sanctification (1 Corinthians 6:11), and redemption (Galatians 3:13).

The next line, a free quotation from Jeremiah 9:23, 24, and perhaps also from the LXX version of 1 Regn (= 1 Samuel) 2:10, follows naturally:

31. Therefore, as it Written, 'Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.'🔗


  1. ^ Or confound. But 'destroy ... demolish' preserves the alliteration of the original. 
  2. ^  Doctrine of God, Grand Rapids, 1979, p 390.
  3. ^ Sarx is here used in the sense of weak, earthly, perishable creature. For various uses of this term in Paul's epistles see Commentary on Romans, p 217, footnote 187.

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