What Are You Boasting about?

1 Corinthians 1:18-31


Launching into the body of his letter of reproof and exhortation for the believers at Corinth, Paul first addresses the problem of factions within the body (1:11-17). Like every good pastor, though, he does not stop with a simple correction, but digs deeper to flesh out the theological underpinnings of their behavior.

After reiterating that his own coming to Corinth was not "to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void" (1:17), Paul expanded on this core truth-that our salvation and sanctification ought never be sources of pride, because we did not achieve them. To the worldly wise heart and mind, this does not add up, which is precisely his point: "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? 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" (1:18-21).

The Gospel message-that God's own Son would come to earth as a man and submit to death as a perfect sacrifice to take away the sins of the world so that God could freely give grace to all who believe (to be "justand the justifier" as Paul wrote in Romans 3:26)-is absolutely outside our ordinary categories of understanding. Interestingly, he specifically refers to "the word of the cross" as the difficult pill to swallow, which strikes right at the heart of the matter. That Jesus of Nazareth was a "teacher" or even a "prophet" can be accepted by an unsaved person without troubling their soul one bit. Even to present Him as "Savior" without the necessary context of sin, wrath, and judgment leaves His identity open to question. When all of this is brought together in the revealed truth of the atonement, however, our unspiritual imaginations have no answer but belief or rejection. It must be either "foolishness" or the "power of God"

To underline his point, Paul quotes a passage from Isaiah. Looking at this verse in its larger context, we read: "For the Lord has poured over a spirit of deep sleep, He has shut your eyes, the prophets; and he has covered your heads, the seers. The entire vision will be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate saying, Please read this,' he will say, I cannot for it is sealed.' Then the book will be given to one who is illiterate, saying, Please read this.' And he will say, I cannot read.' Then the Lord said, Because this people draw near with their words and honor me with lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men will perish, and the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.' Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the Lord, and whose deeds are done in a dark place, and they say, Who sees us?' or Who knows us?' You turn things around! Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay, That what is made would say to its maker, He did not make me;' Or what is formed say to him who formed it, He has no understanding?" (Isa. 29:10-16).

This is the prophet's pronouncement of a woe against Jerusalem for the people's failure to heed the word of the Lord. In it, we see more fully what Paul alludes to (and what his mostly Jewish readers should've understood at a glance). The message of the cross of Christ is "foolishness" to worldly wisdom not just because it is unique or unlikely, but because God has blinded the eyes of those who love their sin and self-righteousness more than they love mercy. They thought the ritual observance of God's Law would somehow "buy" His favor and allow them to continue indulging their sinful desires. Ritual without repentance is the logic of paganism, and it is certainly not the Gospel message. The repentant recognize their sin and seek God's mercy, seeing the ritual as visual reminder of the outflow of the heart (as God designed it).

By bringing this up, Paul told the Corinthians 1) that the message of Christ which they had received called them to repentance rather than pride, 2) and that if they had forgotten that, they should examine their hearts and ask the Lord for eyes to see His truth afresh. He has called them "saints" (1:3), and so is appealing to them as brothers, not as unbelievers. Still, his pointed words should have reminded them that the proud miss the Gospel message entirely, and only the broken (fully aware of their sin) see it and believe. The hope they had found in Christ's blood did not come from the "scribe" in the Jewish subculture, the "wise man" of the Greeks, or the "debater" of the Roman public square. As such, they should stop looking to those categories for status and embrace the joyful humility of repentant sinners.

Those ethnic and cultural peculiarities of misunderstanding are exactly where Paul goes next: "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 the 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" (1:22-25). That the Jews sought manifestations of supernatural power to confirm a messenger's authority is well attested in the gospels, but even all the signs of Jesus did not convince them (see Luke 11, among other passages). The Greek culture was driven by rhetoric and sophistry, ever searching for understanding, but lacking discernment (witness Paul's own discourse in Athens in Acts 17). The Messiah on the cross gives the lie to both of these methods of testing the worthiness of a message, presenting the full force of God's power in incredible weakness and the fullness of His revealed Word in roaring silence. Every group of men has their own objections to God's work, but the cross confounds them all to showcase absolute power and wisdom through absolute love.

Bringing things back home to Corinth, Paul instructed the church to look to their own lives as a confirmation of these truths. "For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God" (1:26-29).

This is as forceful a statement as it is tender. God, whose "power is perfected in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9), has displayed Himself in calling and using them in all their frailty. In this, He extends the work completed in Christ's sacrifice through His Body to continue confounding the world's brokers of influence. If the Church was a man-made concept, I am convinced that we would attempt to operate it exactly the opposite way from what is described here. But in God's wisdom, The Church is not "great" in the world's eyes precisely so that He gets all the glory for His work through us.

With that very thought, Paul concludes this chapter: "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'" (1:30-31). Our salvation is all of grace, from beginning to end. That last phrase comes from the book of Jeremiah: "Thus says the LORD, Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,' declares the LORD" (Jer. 9:23-24). We have nothing to proclaim but our sin and frailty and God's boundless love. Only the one who sees and confesses his abject need can see the wisdom of God for what it is.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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