From First and Second Corinthians
For the message about 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 discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
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? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
In several letters Paul uses the cross like the needle of a compass to give orientation and direction to his thought and writing. From here he plots a course through the varied pastoral problems of his congregations. By this he brings the values of the gospel into contact with the questions of the people. With it he challenges attitudes and ambitions of the wider world. When we get to 2 Corinthians, we shall find Paul reflecting on the cross as a pattern for Christian ministry. Here in the first Epistle, he contrasts the crucifixion with “wisdom.”
For the cross is “foolishness.” To preach about it is, by human standards, mad. People in the ancient world knew well about crucifixion. It was a public way to dispose of rebels and criminals with the fullest possible measure of suffering and shame. It would have seemed utterly crazy that the world should be saved in such a wretched and awful way.
There is, thank God, no very close equivalent to crucifixion in our time. But to speak of the cross in New Testament times might be rather like our discussing hanging or the electric chair. These are not subjects for polite company or dignified discourse. If you want to impress people with your wisdom, you do not take pride in execution or praise a man whom the state has killed. Do that, and you cause only scandal and offense. Nothing there will entice “the wise,” “the scribe,” and “the debater of this age.” Neither Jews nor Greeks attributed much value to those who were crucified.
For Greek culture valued learning and sophistication. It was important to sound clever. Jews looked for a messiah to do deeds of power. They wanted a leader who would achieve something on his people’s behalf. By both of these standards the crucifixion was mere madness and weakness.
Yet Paul knew, and he wanted to remind the Corinthians, that the cross has a paradoxical strength. In dying, God was weak as a way of showing power. God looked a fool, but there was meaning in the madness. Christians who had heard the call of the good news and begun to discover Christ’s saving love would find the cross a place of wisdom and hope. Never again need they think that God judges by appearances. Never again need they confuse spiritual power with human pomp and pride. At the cross the church can gather as a united people, rich and poor, the wise and the weak, as one body in Christ.