The Superiority of God’s Wisdom
For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1:18)
When man elevates his own wisdom he automatically attempts to lower God’s wisdom, which looks to him like foolishness, because it conflicts with his own thinking. That God would take human form, be crucified, and raised in order to provide for man’s forgiveness of sin and entrance into heaven is an idea far too simple, foolish, and humbling for the natural man to accept. That one man (even the Son of God) could die on a piece of wood on a nondescript hill in a nondescript part of the world and thereby determine the destiny of every person who has ever lived seems stupid. It allows no place for man’s merit, man’s attainment, man’s understanding, or man’s pride. This word of the cross is foolishness (moria, from which we get moron). It is moronic, absolute nonsense, to unbelievers who rely on their own wisdom—to those who are perishing. That phrase is a graphic description of Christ rejectors, who are in the process of being destroyed in eternal judgment.
Word in verse 18 is from the same Greek term (logos) as “speech” in verse 17. Paul is contrasting man’s word, which reflects man’s wisdom, and God’s Word, which reflects God’s wisdom. Consequently the word of the cross includes the entire gospel message and work, God’s plan and provision for man’s redemption. In its fullest sense it is God’s total revelation, for His revelation centers in the cross. God’s whole redemption story and His whole redemption process seem foolish to unbelievers. And because Christ’s work on the cross is the pinnacle of God’s revealed Word and work, to reject the cross is to reject His revelation, and to perish.
When Paul first came to Corinth he continued to face the maelstrom of philosophies with which he had contended in Athens (Acts 17:18–21). But he had “determined to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The response of some in Corinth was the same as that of some in Athens: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, [they] began to sneer” (Acts 17:32). But Paul did not change his message to suit his hearers. The Corinthians, like the Athenians and most other Greeks, had more than enough philosophy. They did not need Paul’s opinions added to their own, and the apostle was determined not to give them his opinions but the word of the cross. He would give them nothing but God’s profoundly simple, but historical and objective, truth—not another man’s complex and subjective speculations.
Human wisdom cannot understand the cross. Peter, for example, did not understand the cross when he first heard Jesus speak of it. In fact Peter took Jesus “aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You’ ” (Matt. 16:22). Peter’s own understanding about the Messiah had no place for the cross. He thought the Messiah would soon set up an earthly kingdom and that everything would be pleasant for His followers. But Peter’s wisdom was contrary to God’s wisdom, and anything contrary to God’s wisdom works for Satan. Jesus’ reply to His disciple was quick and sharp: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (v. 23). When the soldiers came to the garden to arrest Jesus, Peter still did not understand. He still tried to interfere with God’s plan. Drawing his sword, he cut off a slave’s ear—for which Jesus again rebuked him (John 18:10–11). Only after the resurrection and ascension did Peter understand and accept the cross (Acts 2:23–24; 3:13–15). He now had God’s Spirit and God’s wisdom, and no longer relied on his own. Years later he would write, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
To the natural mind, whether Jewish or Gentile, the cross is offensive and unacceptable. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God. All men are either in the process of being saved (salvation present is not complete until the redemption of the body—Rom. 8:23; 13:11) or of being destroyed. One’s view of the cross determines which.
Paul proceeds (1:19–2:5) to give five reasons why God’s wisdom is superior to man’s: its permanence, its power, its paradox, its purpose, and its presentation.
18 Paul now addresses the quest for wisdom, saying in effect, “Let’s face it. Anyone who loves the way the world works and the wisdom promoted by the scholars of this world would never have dreamed up the message of the cross—that people can be saved through a crucified Messiah. Nor would anyone who loves the world’s way ever follow the message of the cross. Rather, to them it is foolishness, but that only goes to show that they are perishing.”
In other words, the message of Christ crucified “is foolishness” to the world. Why? The answer seems obvious. Who in their right mind would say that the way to get peace with God is to build a relationship with someone who suffered the type of death reserved only for the worst criminals in the Roman Empire? Such an attitude is not unlike suggesting to people today to count as their hero someone condemned to the electric chair or to death by lethal injection.
Yet it is precisely by that means that God has displayed his “power,” his dynamis (GK 1539). This is a favorite word of the apostle, especially as applied to the message of the gospel. For example, the gospel “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Ro 1:16). Or again, God has put his message “in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Co 4:7). Or one more example, Paul prays that believers may know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph 1:19–20). If we want true power in our lives—power over sin, death, and Satan—then what we need is Jesus, crucified, risen, and coming again.
18 The “for” that begins this sentence ties it to v. 17 as an explanation of the final clause in that verse. Unfortunately our paragraph break and the limits of English tend to cause us to miss the subtle contrast that Paul intends. At the end of v. 17 he had said (literally): “not in the wisdom of logos (word, rhetoric, reason), lest the cross of Christ be invalidated.” Now he says, “For the logos (word, message) of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” There is a logos (speech) that belongs to wisdom and there is a logos (message) whose content is the cross; but they are mutually exclusive.
From the standpoint of his new position in Christ, Paul with this sentence sets forth the two basic groups of humankind. Formerly, as a Jew, it was Jew and Gentile (just as for the Greco-Roman it was Greek/Roman and barbarian). Now it is “us who are being saved” and “those who are perishing.”7 The former groups, Jew and Gentile, continue to exist (indeed, in v. 22 they will serve as representatives for the two most common human “idolatries”), but apart from Christ they now both belong to the “perishing.” In Pauline theology the new division is not so much predicated on their response to the message of the cross as it is on the event of the cross and resurrection itself. That is, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for Paul marked the “turning of the ages,” whereby God decisively judged and condemned the present age and is in process of bringing it to an end. Those who still belong to it, therefore, are in process of “perishing” with it. From this “old-age” point of view the message of the cross is foolishness.
On the other hand, those who are “being saved,” because they have been called (v. 24) and believe (v. 21), have come to see their present existence as the result of God’s power, which was also effected by God through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, of course, it is not just “those” who are being saved, but us, a word that includes himself but especially serves to remind the Corinthians of who they are.
The contrast between “foolishness” and “power” is not precise, of course. The greater precision (between folly and wisdom, power and weakness) will come later in the paragraph (vv. 22–25). For now the contrast has been set up by the language of v. 17, between “wisdom of word” and “the cross being emptied” (the NIV rightly adds “of its power”).
1:18 / Paul sets up a rhetorical contrast scheme that captures the heart of the gospel as he understands it. He begins the sentence with the word For, showing that it is an extension of his statement in verse 17. Now Paul explains that declaration more precisely in relation to the theme of “the word of the cross,” or the message of the cross. In speaking of the proclamation of the saving death of Jesus Christ, Paul refers to humanity in two groups. The division he envisions is eschatological, for it supersedes older divisions that were real, but humanly constructed—e.g., Jew and Gentile, Greco-Roman and barbarian, slave and free, male and female—and this eschatological division occurs as an act of God. Thus, on the one hand, there are those who regard the word of the cross as foolishness; Paul says they are perishing. The word typically translated foolishness (Gk. mōria) refers to something stronger or more problematic than that which is merely silliness or simplistic. The English word “moron” comes from the Greek root of this word, so perhaps it should be translated “moronity” to ensure that we see the degree of disdain that those who are perishing have for the message of the cross. On the other hand, there are those who are being saved. Paul includes himself and most likely those to whom he is writing in this group. The passive voice of the verb “being saved” acknowledges that God is the actor, the one who is saving. Moreover, in the scheme of this contrast, perishing versus being saved, one finds foolishness contrasted with the power of God. The natural opposite of foolishness in this context would be “wisdom,” so if the Corinthians are paying careful attention they will be surprised at this.
Paul’s rhetoric trips the logic of his readers. Remarkably, Paul says that it is what God does, not what humans know, that saves. God acted in the cross of Christ, and that action produces a division among humanity that itself reveals God’s unexpected power. Paul is not decrying the value of sensible reflection; rather, he is insisting that humans cannot discern the reality of God through their reason based only upon their own experience. God’s self-revelation in the cross is the key to comprehending God, it is the necessary starting point for valid comprehension of the divine, and without the cross we are bound to misunderstand God. The apostle himself employs reason, but always in reflection on the significance of God’s revelation in and through the cross. Paul’s point was not popular among many in the first-century church—witness the attraction to law-observance in Galatia and the fascination with power in 2 Corinthians. Often today people still do not like this message.
1:18 the message of the cross. Picking up on the connection made between “gospelizing” and Christ’s cross in verse 17, Paul summarizes the gospel as the “message [lit., ‘word’] of the cross.” In this context “word” functions as a synonym for preaching, while “cross” identifies the origin of the message. Paul’s aim here is to show how Christ’s cross should have a transformative effect on believers. Paul’s proclamation reveals a wisdom that differs 180 degrees from human wisdom because it is generated by Christ’s work on the cross.
foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Paul’s deliberate play on grammar can easily be lost in translation. The force of the middle voice in the descriptive participle “perishing” is most likely reflexive, thus highlighting the effect of their own actions (those destroying themselves). In clear contrast to this stands the passive participle describing those who are “being saved.” The passive voice underscores that salvation is not self-caused but granted.4 In other words, if Paul deliberately uses a reflexive middle, the grammatical construction throws the situation into the sharpest relief. The opposite of foolishness is not human wisdom but God’s power. The contrast is between self-destroying pride and God-empowering transformation.
18. 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.
Every word in this text is significant, for each contributes to one powerful message. The conjunction for serves as a link to Paul’s reference to the cross of Christ (v. 17) and makes verse 18 explanatory. When Paul writes the word of the cross, he separates it from the phrase wisdom of words (v. 17). Although the two terms translated “word” and “words” have the same original form (logos) in Greek, in context they have nothing in common. In fact, they are opposites. The word of the cross is the message that proclaims an event of historical and theological significance. It points to Christ who died the death of a criminal but whose death concerns the eternal destiny of man. But the wisdom of words that the orator utters is of human origin and is opposed to the message of the cross.
“The word of the cross is foolishness.” For Paul’s Gentile contemporaries, the account of Christ’s death on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem was folly. They classified Jesus as a criminal or a degenerate slave, for only such social deviates were crucified by the Romans. Paul’s message of the cross, therefore, was foolishness to the Greeks (v. 23).
“[Foolishness] to those who are perishing.” The present participle are perishing denotes action that is in the process of occurring. This expression has both a subjective and an objective element: subjectively, the people repudiating Paul’s message regard it as folly; objectively, the effect of the rejection is irrevocable doom (2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:10). They are not on the verge of perishing but in actuality are perishing.
By contrast, the Corinthians are not perishing. They have been called and sanctified (v. 2); they belong to a different class because they have accepted the “word of the cross” and believe the gospel. Therefore, Paul encourages his readers. He includes himself when he says:
“But to us who are being saved.” Notice that the clause who are being saved serves as an explanation of the personal pronoun us. Paul places himself on the same level as the Corinthians and affirms that they are being saved. But were they not saved when God called them? What precisely does Paul teach concerning the time of salvation? What tense of the verb to save is used? A few examples illuminate Paul’s teaching:
Past: “For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:24)
“By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5, 8)
“By his mercy he saved us” (Titus 3:5).
Present: “Through which [gospel] you are being saved” (1 Cor. 15:2)
“Those who are being saved” (2 Cor. 2:15).
Future: “How much more shall we be saved?” (Rom. 5:9)
“Thus all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).
Believers, then, are saved in principle during their life on earth. Throughout their earthly sojourn they cherish this blessed assurance, for they are on the way to being saved completely (compare Heb. 1:14). Complete salvation comes to them when they leave this earthly scene and enter the presence of God.
“It is the power of God.” Paul confidently tells his readers: “to us belongs God’s power.” This language resembles what Paul uses in his epistle to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (1:16). God’s power becomes effective when Christ’s gospel is proclaimed and people accept this message in faith. “The word of the cross” has power to raise the sinner from spiritual death and to provide newness of life. In essence, God is dynamically providing salvation for his people.
However, Paul’s sophisticated contemporaries thought he was proclaiming utter folly by connecting God’s power to the weakness of the cross. Adopting Jesus’ methodology of turning to the Scriptures for proof, Paul confirms his teaching by citing a passage from the Old Testament.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 40–41). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 268–269). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (pp. 68–69). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Soards, M. L. (2011). 1 Corinthians (pp. 39–40). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Vang, P. (2014). 1 Corinthians. (M. L. Strauss, Ed.) (pp. 28–29). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 53–55). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.