1 Corinthians: Chapter 1 (verses 17-25)

March 12, 2024

by Peter Amsterdam

In verse 16, Paul wrote that he had baptized very few of the Corinthians while he was with them. He continued this topic in verse 17.

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.1

This verse brings an end to the subjects Paul wrote about in the first 16 verses of this chapter and serves as a bridge into the next passage. Paul uses himself and his calling as an example, to further his argument. His calling was to preach the gospel. This didn’t mean that he never baptized new believers, but his focus was on preaching the message of Christ. This is the first use of the word gospel in this epistle. Its meaning here is to preach or to bring the good news. That was Paul’s commission, given to him by Christ.

Along with Paul’s call to preach, there was also a call as to how the message should be presented. He insists that the power of the gospel doesn’t lie in how elegantly it is presented. In fact, he states that Christ didn’t send him to preach with words of eloquent wisdom. He indicates that the way of expressing the message affects the reception of the message.

Having completed his introduction, Paul introduced the substance of his letter.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.2

After explaining how he had been called to preach in a way that would not take anything from the power of the “cross of Christ,” Paul begins to address the nature of that power, which is found in proclaiming the gospel. He also speaks about the “word of the cross,” which he states is experienced in God’s power within those who are saved. The “word of the cross” is a metaphor for the proclamation of the gospel which is found in Christ.

To be put to death on a cross was a painful and shameful way to die. In addition, because Jewish law taught that death “on a tree” meant a person was cursed, damned by God,3 Jesus having died on a cross was a cause of “stumbling” to the Jews, as Paul mentions later in this chapter. For the Jews as well as the Gentiles, the horror of crucifixion made the whole idea of preaching about someone who had been crucified, and a king at that, seem to be madness.

Paul compares the two groups of people: for one group, the word of the cross is “foolishness”; but for the other group, the word of the cross is the power of God. Through people’s reaction to Christ, who had died on a cross, God would reveal who was perishing or being saved.

For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”4

Quoting from the book of Isaiah,5 Paul gives support for what he has been saying. Through the cross of Christ, God’s intention is to destroy the wisdom of the wise. Paul is quoting scripture to point out that this was always God’s intention—to destroy all wisdom that was not from God, and to bring about salvation in His way. Paul’s use of the future tense, “I will destroy,” expresses the idea that worldly wisdom, which is in opposition to God and His ways, is not just another way to look at the world, but rather is resistant to God and is to be set aside. Those possessing worldly wisdom will be destroyed, according to Isaiah’s prophecy.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?6

Paul continues to point out God’s opposition to worldly wisdom by asking four questions. The first one alludes to the book of Isaiah. (1) Paul asks: Where is the one who is wise? Isaiah spoke similar words in Isaiah 19:12 to mock the Egyptian wise men who could not comprehend the ways of God. (2) Where is the scribe? The scribe might refer to a person well versed in the Mosaic law. (3) The debater of this age might refer to someone who engages in philosophical debate and discussion for its own sake.

In the fourth question, Paul asked whether God had made foolish the wisdom of the world. God had done so in the days of Isaiah by defeating the Egyptians and Assyrians. But Paul was expressing an idea broader than this. God had shown the folly of human wisdom in that human wisdom would never consider that God would allow His Son to be crucified in order to save humankind. By acting in a way that human wisdom would label “foolish,” God had frustrated human wisdom.

Paul assumes that the Christians he is writing to are following his point, and the fourth question expects the answer “yes.” God “made foolish” the wisdom of the world when Christ was crucified.

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.7

While Paul has spoken of the “power of God” in contrast to the world’s “wisdom” (verses 18–19), now he speaks of the wisdom of God. This wisdom is spelled out in the main clause (it pleased God). It is God’s decree to save believers through the death of Christ. This is God’s wisdom, and as Paul goes on to demonstrate, it is a wisdom that is alien to the wisdom “of this age.”

Paul reminds the Corinthians that men and women have not known God through their own ways. Knowing God is not just knowing about God. It is about identifying with the Lord as the only one who can save. It’s about calling “upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”8 It’s about being in a relationship with God, which brings about a whole new way of seeing, a new mindset.

The term it pleased God shows that God laid out His way for people to come to salvation. He planned that people would be saved, and how this would be achieved. The idea of God being pleased, referring to His deliberate plan, is seen elsewhere in the New Testament. He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said,This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”9 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.10

Those who are being saved (v. 18) are those who “are believing” (v. 21). Faith and commitment to Christ are the main issues. This requires turning away from human wisdom and having a commitment to God’s plan for salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. In God’s plan, people will be saved. The means of this salvation is through the folly of what we preach.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.11

By referring to these two main religious divisions of the world at the time, Paul shows that no one is excluded from what he’s been saying. It’s not that some religions are closer to God than others; rather, all people everywhere have thought that they can reach God by their preferred means.

Paul states that Jews ask for “signs.” At different points in Israel's history, God acted in their midst with powerful signs. For example, during the Exodus.12 Also, the encounter of the people with God at Mount Sinai, as well as signs in the days of Elijah.13 However, instead of trusting in God and waiting for Him to operate in whatever ways He wished, the Jewish people came to see signs as proof of God’s presence. Their demanding such proofs was condemned in the Old Testament. “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.”14

“Greeks” are synonymous with “Gentiles.” Paul says that the Greeks seek wisdom, which meant that this was characteristic of their society. Wisdom was highly esteemed in the world of the Corinthians. Paul saw that while their wisdom had led to great religiosity, it resulted in ignorance of God.

but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.15

In a world where no one, Jew or Gentile, had come to true knowledge of God, Paul says we preach Christ crucified. He now sets up a series of contrasts. The Jews and the Gentiles both end up in the place of rejecting a crucified Christ, although they get there in different ways.

For Jews, the crucified Christ is a “stumbling block.” The concept of stumbling will be an important theme later in the letter. In Paul’s day, Israel is seen to have stumbled on the stone (Christ) rather than finding salvation in Him.

In the Gentile Greek culture, where the ideal was to seek wisdom in rhetoric or religious and philosophical debate, the crucified and humiliated Christ was considered “folly” and would be rejected.

…but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.16

Those who are called have come to believe that in the crucified and risen Christ lies God’s power to transform a people who will be His forever. This wasn’t only true in Paul’s day but continues to be true today. Those who are “called” are those who “believe” (v. 21) and who are “being saved” (v. 18). This group is not distinguished by race, education, wealth, or background, for God has called all types of people, both Jews and Greeks. Those who have been called see things differently. They recognize that the crucified Christ is in fact both “the power of God” and “the wisdom of God.”

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.17

Paul rightly states that what God is and does cannot be compared to what humans might do. God turns the ways of men and women upside down, for He is wiser than can be imagined, and is able to bring His plans into effect in ways that transcend human understanding. His ways are much higher than our ways, as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isaiah 55:8–9). Nothing will obstruct Him and His good purposes for His creation.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 1 Corinthians 1:17.

2 1 Corinthians 1:18.

3 Deuteronomy 21:23, Galatians 3:13, 5:11.

4 1 Corinthians 1:19.

5 Isaiah 29:14.

6 1 Corinthians 1:20.

7 1 Corinthians 1:21.

8 1 Corinthians 1:2.

9 Matthew 17:5.

10 Luke 12:32.

11 1 Corinthians 1:22.

12 Exodus 10:1, Deuteronomy 11:2–3.

13 1 Kings 17–18.

14 Deuteronomy 6:16.

15 1 Corinthians 1:23.

16 1 Corinthians 1:24.

17 1 Corinthians 1:25.