The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 1:1-31 (1 Corinthians 1:1-31)

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1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

The nature of true Christian preaching.

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1 Corinthians 1:20 (1 Corinthians 1:20)

Where is the wise? etc. ( Isaiah 33:18 ); rather, Where is a wise man? i.e. a scribe, etc., which is even more incisive. These questions are triumphant, like the "Where is the King of Hamath and of Arpad?" The same impassioned form of speech recurs in 1 Corinthians 15:55 and in Romans 3:27 . The questions would come home to the Jews, who regarded their rabbis and the "pupils of the wise as exalted beings who could look down on all poor ignorant persons ( amharatsim, or "people of the land"); and to the Greeks, who regarded none but the philosophers as "wise." The scribe . With the Jews of that day" the scribe" was" the theologian," the ideal of dignified learning and orthodoxy, though for the most part he mistook elaborate ignorance for profound knowledge. The disputer. The word would specially suit the disputatious Greeks, clever dialecticians. The verb from which this word is derived occurs in Mark 8:11 , and the abstract substantive ("an eager discussion") in Acts 28:29 . If St. Paul has Isaiah 33:18 in his mind, the word "disputer" corresponds to "the counter of the towers" (comp. Psalms 48:12 ). Even the rabbis say that when Messiah comes human wisdom is to become needless. Of the world; rather, of this age, or aeon. The old dispensation, then so rapidly waning to its close, was called "this age" ( olam hazzeh ) ; the next or Messianic age was called "the age to come" ( olam habba ) . The Messianic age had dawned at the birth of Christ, but the old covenant was not finally annulled till his second coming at the fall of Jerusalem. Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? rather, Did not God (by the cross) stultify the wisdom, etc.? The oxymoron, or sharp contrast of terms—a figure of which St. Paul is fond (see 1 Timothy 5:6 ; Romans 1:20 , etc.; and my 'Life of St. Paul,' 1:628)—is here clearly marked in the Greek. The thought was as familiar to the old prophets ( Isaiah 44:25 ) as to St. Paul ( Romans 1:22 ); and even Horace saw that heathen philosophy was sometimes no better than insaniens sapientia (Horace, 'Od.,' 1.34, 2).

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1 Corinthians 1:20-21 (1 Corinthians 1:20-21)

Philosophy and the gospel.

"Where is the wise?" etc. The "wise" ( σοφός ) here refers specially to the sages of Greece. They were called at first "wise men," and afterwards assumed a more modest title, "lovers of wisdom," philosophers. The "scribe" refers to the learned among the Jews. The appeal of the text, therefore, is to the wisdom or the philosophy of the world, including that of the Greek or Jew. Here we have—

I. Philosophy CHALLENGED by the gospel. The apostle here challenges the wise men of the world to accomplish the end which the gospel had in view. That end was the impartation to men of the saving knowledge of God. Where, unaided, had it ever succeeded in accomplishing this? Who amongst the wise will come forward to give one single instance?

II. Philosophy CONFOUNDED by the gospel. "Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?"

1. By doing what philosophy could not do. "The world by wisdom knew not God." Though the pages of nature lay open to the eye, with God's signature on the whole, man failed to discover him.

2. By doing by the simplest instrumentality what philosophy could not do. The proclamation of the history of Jesus of Nazareth, and that by a few simple men regarded as the offscouring of all things, did the work. Hath not God in this way "made foolish the wisdom of the world"?

III. Philosophy SUPERSEDED by the gospel. "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." The preaching is not foolish in itself, only in the estimation of the would be wise men. The great want of men is salvation—the restoration of the soul to the knowledge, the likeness, the fellowship of God. This want philosophy cannot supply; but the gospel does. It has done so, it is doing so, and it will continue to do so.

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1 Corinthians 1:18-31 (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

How St. Paul regarded the preaching of the gospel.

By an easy movement he advances to the gospel, to the mode of preaching it as essential to its Divine success, and thus reaches the climax of his reasoning in the first chapter. Other functions of his apostleship will come hereafter into view—the resolute disciplinarian, the firm, administrator, the tender but unyielding executive of the Head of the Church. At present, however, one thing absorbs him, namely, the Divine institution of preaching. What is his foremost relation to these Corinthians? It is that of a preacher of Christ's gospel. And how had he preached it? "Not with wisdom of words"—not as a speculative thinker, not as a Greek rhetorician, not in the spirit of worldly eloquence—"lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect." Two things are prominently set forth—the gospel and its manner of presentation; and Christ is in each of them, and in each of them alike, so that not only the substance of the gospel, but the mode of its exhibition, must conform to his sovereignty as the Head of the Church. All preaching of the gospel is not gospel preaching. Looking at the character in the light St. Paul viewed it, the preacher was an original creation of Christ, a new force ordained and anointed of him, and introduced by him for the proclamation of the gospel. It dated no further back than Pentecost; it was of universal adaptation; it was to command all languages, and speak to the simplest instincts, not of men, but of man as man; and this original creation, this new force, was to continue through all time, and never surrender its rights and prerogatives to any successor. And the spirit and matter of fulfilling this grand office were thoroughly unworldly, so much so, indeed, that, it would strike the Greek as "foolishness," and prove to the Jew "a stumbling block." But in contrast with the Greek and his search after wisdom, and with the Jew in his love of national signs as the elect race of Jehovah, Christ was preached as "the power of God and the wisdom of God." The word "power" is not used except in connection with the preaching of "Christ crucified," and its value in the argument is assured by its specialty of application. All the aid of contrast and comparison is given to this one word. Power, God's power, is the designation of preaching Christ crucified. Over against it are put "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble," and the array of dissimilarity is lengthened out by "foolish things," "weak things," "base things," and "things despised." But what bearing has this condensed energy of a single idea and its rapid accumulation of phraseological forms on the partisanship of these Corinthians? Has not the apostle wandered from the main idea of the chapter—the "contentions among you"? Nay, this very partisanship is the exact opposite of Paul, Peter, Apollos, in preaching the gospel, and they can never consent to this abuse of their position. Nay, further, it is in downright antagonism to "Christ crucified." There is no "power" in it, no "wisdom." It is the idolatry of the senses. It is the intellect of the senses repeating the folly of Greek and Jew in another but equally fatal shape. It is mere seeking to find themselves and their glory in man. Directly opposite to this, St. Paul argues, we preach "Christ crucified," so that "no flesh should glory in his presence." A great lesson it is in the true spirituality of Christianity as the only strength and safeguard of the Church. If Christ is "made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption;" if Christ become "the power of God" to our hearts in this fourfold form of the "riches of grace;" the root of all worldliness is destroyed, partisanship is at an end, because self-seeking is ended, and henceforth that Scripture has a very real import to us, "He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord." A man may admire others for their own sakes, and this admiration may be very helpful. To admire others because our image is projected upon them can only augment our own weakness. Our praise in such cases is but the echo of our self admiration, and echoes are dying sounds.—L.

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1 Corinthians 1:17-25 (1 Corinthians 1:17-25)

The preaching of the cross.

I. THE CROSS IS TO BE PREACHED . The gospel cannot be preached unless the cross is. The cross is the central fact. The con, verging point of the Scriptures is found in "Christ crucified." Without the cross Christianity becomes meaningless and powerless. Salvation and the cross are indissolubly linked: the cross speaks of the shedding of blood, "and without shedding of blood is no remission" ( Hebrews 9:22 ).

II. THE CROSS IS TO BE PLAINLY PREACHED . As "not many wise" are called, it is but reasonable that the unwise and simple minded should be specially borne in mind. The offence of the cross is not to be lessened by "wisdom of words." Knowledge of the meaning of the cross is the deepest need of the world; all things should be subordinated to conveying that knowledge with utmost clearness and fulness. Men cannot be saved by eloquence, or philosophy, or learning; they can by the cross. "The great preachers have been natural orators, not rhetoricians or actors." The greatest care is necessary lest, by the character of our preaching, the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. Some preaching seems designed for the very purpose, and succeeds deplorably.

III. THE CROSS IS TO BE PREACHED , NOTWITHSTANDING ITS UNFAVOURABLE RECEPTION Some, indeed, receive it with all gladness, but our obligation to preach it is not dependent upon its reception. We may always remember that the cross is what men want , though it may not be what they wish.

1. To the Jew the cross was a stumbling block, He looked rather for a military than for a martyr Messiah—one who would deliver by sound of trumpet and sword, not by ignominy and death. If he is to believe, he must have signs from heaven ( 1 Corinthians 1:22 ), miraculous interventions, and not a reiteration of the event which was the greatest scandal to his mind, and most grievously shocked his prejudices and anticipations. The Jew put the cross very low down. We can make anything into a stumbling block if we will only put it low enough.

2. To the Greek the cross seemed foolishness. That the great revelation for which he and the world had been looking so long should come through a crucified Jew, and be most closely associated with that crucifixion itself, appeared to him too absurd, he would have welcomed a philosopher with a new philosophy, he sought after wisdom—that is, his wisdom. In the cross there was too profound a wisdom for even his keen eye to discern, and so he called it folly. He thought the cross was shallow, because he was shallow himself, though he little suspected it. Further, he desired philosophic demonstration about matters of religion, and had a great horror of "faith." And his pride was wounded (and that which wounds our pride is always folly). That all must come to God by the same way, making a similar confession of sin and impotence, was in conflict with his most cherished ideas. The approach of barbarians to the cross made it a way of foolishness to the Greek. There are many "Greeks" now.

IV. THE CROSS IS TO BE PREACHED WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT IT OPERATES AS A GREAT TEST OF CONDITION . The character of its reception indicates the condition of those who hear. To some it is foolishness—but only to those that are perishing. Only to them! They are so utterly blind that the brightness of the cross is blackness. To others it is the power of God and the wisdom of God—and they are the saved. They are "both Jews and Greeks" ( 1 Corinthians 1:24 ). The new nature has conquered the old. All is changed when the heart is. These Jews sought for power; these Greeks sought for wisdom; and here both were found when Jew and Greek responded to the Divine call.

1. We may well ask ourselves—What is the cross to us? The answer will indicate whether we are perishing or being saved. The preaching of the cross to us is a personal test.

2. In preaching the cross, we should strive and pray that it may not be foolishness to our hearers, knowing what this would indicate.

3. In preaching the cross, we must not be too disconcerted if men receive our message as one of foolishness. This will not indicate faultiness in the cross, but in those who hear its story, though of course there may be faultiness in our mode of telling that story.

V. THE CROSS IS TO BE PREACHED WITH THE REMEMBRANCE OF THE FAILURE OF EARTHLY WISDOM . Ancient schemes of philosophers having some external indication of wisdom, what has become of them? "Where is the wise?" etc. Where are the scribes and their improvements upon the Divine Law? God has made in the course of the ages all such "wisdom" to become folly—recognized folly. "The world by wisdom knew not God." Human wisdom gave the world no more piety, but much more pride. Human wisdom has failed most egregiously all along the line to redeem and regenerate men. Calvin bluntly says, "We must here carefully notice these two things—that the knowledge of all the sciences is mere smoke where the heavenly science is wanting, and man with all his acuteness is as stupid for obtaining of himself a knowledge of the mysteries of God as an ass is unqualified for understanding musical harmonies." If the cross fails, failure is universal.—H.

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1 Corinthians 1:17-25 (1 Corinthians 1:17-25)

Man's wisdom and God's.

The mention of baptism leads the apostle to speak of his preaching at Corinth. His mission was "not to baptize, but to preach the gospel," and he proceeds to vindicate his discharge of that mission as against those who preferred the "wisdom of this world."

I. THE THEME OF EVANGELICAL PREACHING . He calls it "the word of the cross;" "Christ crucified". Here at Corinth, even more than elsewhere, Paul felt the necessity of adhering to the simplicity of the gospel and disclaiming the "wisdom of words" upon which others laid stress. The central point in his teaching was that which he delighted to sum up in the expression, "the cross of Christ." He did not keep the Crucifixion out of sight as a thing to be ashamed of, but gloried in it as the distinguishing feature of the good news he proclaimed. The humiliation and death of the Saviour of men, his "becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" ( Philippians 2:8 ), is the very kernel of the gospel, the key which unlocks the mystery of his work. Paul might have told them of a purer morality than their moralists had taught, and a sublimer philosophy than Socrates or Plato had imagined; but this would at best have stirred only a few minds to new thought, and made a few earnest hearts feel that perfection was further off than ever. It was otherwise when he could speak to them of the cross of Christ, with all that it implied; for in this is the Divine answer to the great life query which men had striven in vain to answer—How can man be just with God? Here is the One dying for the many, the Son of God suffering as a substitute for sinners, and thus salvation actually accomplished. To preach this was truly to bring glad tidings. The example of the apostle is a pattern for all preachers. Let us not think to recommend Christianity by hiding the cross or reducing it to a figure of speech, as if the death of Christ were merely a testimony to the sincerity of his life. Christianity without the cross is no real evangel to men. You may admire the spotless life of Jesus, rejoice in his wonderful teaching, bless him for his Divine philanthropy, and weep over his undeserved fate; but this would simply make him a greater Socrates or a greater Paul. It is his atoning death above all that makes him more to us than any of the illustrious teachers or martyrs of history. But while this is true, we must not suppose that preaching Christ means nothing more than a simple recital of the way of salvation. Paul's letters are virtually summaries of his oral teaching; and in them we see how the one theme expands into the whole circle of Christian truth, how Christ appears as Prophet, Priest, and King, and how the gospel is applied to the trials and duties of actual life. Let us not make narrow what God has made so broad. Let us not stunt and deform our spiritual life by feeding only on one kind of nourishment, and refusing the large provision he has made for us. We shall preach Christ aright only by exhibiting the fulness that dwells in him.

II. THE METHOD OF EVANGELICAL PREACHING . Whilst the main reference in this passage is to the theme of the preacher, there is also a reference to the manner in which that theme is presented. "Not in wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made void." We may preach Christ in such a way as to neutralize the gospel's peculiar power.

1. We may do this by merely speculating about the death of Christ. Philosophical essays on the work of Christ, and disquisitions on Christian doctrine, have their place and value; but they must not usurp the place of simple preaching. They appeal only to the intellect, whereas the sermon appeals to the heart and conscience as well. As a matter of experience, it is found that the style of preaching here condemned is productive of little spiritual fruit.

2. We may do this by a rhetoric which hides the cross. The gospel may be so adorned that men's attention is drawn to the gaudy trappings or to the preacher himself, instead of being fixed on the truth; and in so far as this is the case its influence is lost. The flowers with which we bedeck the cross too often hide it. The right idea of preaching may be gathered from the two words translated "preach" in this passage. The first means "to bring glad tidings"—the good news of a Saviour for sinners ( εὐαγγελίζεσθαι , 1 Corinthians 1:17 ); the second signifies "to proclaim as a herald" the facts of salvation and the invitations and promises founded upon them ( κηρύσειν , 1 Corinthians 1:23 ). Evangelical preaching is a publication of the good news to men, a direct setting forth of Christ in all his offices. Thus presented, the cross is full of power to draw men to the Saviour ( John 12:32 ).

III. HOW THE GOSPEL ARREARS TO THOSE THAT REJECT IT . The preaching of the cross affects men according to their prepossessions. Bent of mind, education, surroundings, largely determine their attitude towards Christ. Two classes are mentioned by the apostle who rejected the gospel for two different reasons.

1. The Jews. "Jews ask for signs," i.e. they crave for some outward miraculous exhibition to call forth their wonder. "Master, we would see a sign from thee" ( Matthew 12:38 ) was their constant demand of Jesus; and, in so far as the demand was a legitimate one, it was complied with. Peter on the day of Pentecost could speak of Jesus of Nazareth as "a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs" ( Acts 2:22 ). The chief sign of all was the cross; but the Jews did not understand it. They stumbled at it as a "scandal," which they could not get over, and which seemed to them to say the opposite of what God intended. The cross was in their eyes the token of humiliation and shame. They looked for a Messiah attended by far different manifestations, and they would not believe in One who had been crucified. There are still those among us who, like the Jews, seek after signs. They crave for the outward, the visible, the sensational—for something to dazzle and startle. The Roman Catholic will go hundreds of miles to visit the spot where "our Lady" is supposed to have appeared, will gaze with devout reverence on the curdled blood of Januarius turning liquid before his eyes, and will touch with awe the relics of some saint, believing that they will cure his diseases. The Protestant, disdaining these superstitions, shows the same spirit in other ways. He may love the sensuous in worship and the sensational in preaching. He may run after the man who is an adept in oratorical jugglery, who knows the day and the hour when the world is to end, etc. Whatever is novel, unusual, popular, is sure to find such sign seekers among its ardent supporters. To men of this temper the cross of Christ is still a "stumbling block." For it speaks of humiliation, of obedience unto death, of a quiet unostentatious doing of the will of God; and this is the very thing such people feel to be distasteful. To go with Jesus into the garden, and there drink the cup God puts to our lips; to endure with him the contradiction of sinners, and be exposed to shame and hissing; to go after him, denying ourselves and bearing our cross;—this is the meaning of the sign. Is it any wonder if men stumble at it?

2. The Greeks. "Greeks seek after wisdom." The idea of a crucified Saviour was to them foolishness. Accustomed to the speculations of their own philosophers, set forth with learning and subtlety, these lovers of wisdom applied to the doctrine of the cross a purely intellectual test. It was in their eyes a new philosophy, and Jesus of Nazareth was to be tried by the same rules as the founders of their own schools. To these critical Greeks Paul had nothing to offer but the story of him who was crucified (compare our Lord's words to the Greeks, John 12:23 , etc.). The cross for them, as for the Jews, had but one language—it spoke of the lowest infamy; and to preach salvation by a cross would be in their view the sheerest absurdity. These Greeks have still their representatives in modern life. There are those who glorify human intellect, and think themselves capable of solving all mysteries. How many of our men of science seem to lose their heads when they come to speak of Christianity! They have nothing but a sneer for a "theology of blood;" and their quarrel with Jesus is that, after giving the world such splendid precepts, he should have imagined that he could save men by letting them crucify him. In forms less extreme than this the same spirit may be traced. Many hearers of the Word have more regard to the mental grasp of the preacher, the literary finish of the discourse, or the manner in which it is delivered, than to the scriptural and edifying character of the truth preached. The simple preaching of Christ crucified is to their thinking comparative folly. Let us not be carried away by this craving for wisdom. "When once the idolatry of talent enters the Church, then farewell to spirituality; when men ask their teachers, not for that which will make them more bumble and Godlike, but for the excitement of an intellectual banquet, then farewell to Christian progress" (F. W. Robertson). Observe the apostle's statement with regard to these despisers of the cross: "In the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God." Men groped after him, but could not find him. It was part of the Divine scheme that the wisdom of the world should have free scope to work; and only when it had exhausted itself was the world ripe for the bringing in of the gospel. This was a part of the preparation for Christ. Human wisdom is still inadequate. It cannot save a single soul. Men perish as they speculate; men die as they frame theories of life. In God's view, man's wisdom is folly; in man's view, God's wisdom is folly. Which is the wiser?

IV. HOW THE GOSPEL APPEARS TO THOSE THAT RECEIVE IT . They are described as "called" ( 1 Corinthians 1:24 ), as "believers" ( 1 Corinthians 1:21 ), as "being saved" ( 1 Corinthians 1:18 ); each term presenting a different aspect of their condition. They are called by God out of the world into the fellowship of Christ; being called, they believe in him; and believing, they are in the way of salvation. There is no salvation without faith, and no faith without the calling of God by his Word and Spirit. Now, to all such Christ is "the Power of God, and the Wisdom of God." The Jew stumbled at the cross as a thing of weakness; the believer rejoices in it as a thing of power. It has done for him what all other appliances failed to accomplish. It has made him a new creature, bringing him out of darkness and death into light and life. Every one who has been cured by a particular medicine is a witness to the efficacy of that medicine; so every saved sinner bears testimony to the power of the cross. And there is wisdom here as well as power—"the wisdom of God." Christ crucified is not a philosophy, but a fact; yet through this fact there shines the highest wisdom. We can well understand how the Greek mind, once brought to the obedience of faith, would revel in this view of the cross. He would learn to see in Christ "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" ( Colossians 2:3 ). In him "God is just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" ( Romans 3:26 ). In him we have the highest exemplification of that great law of the kingdom: "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted" ( Matthew 23:1-39 . 12). All that the ancient philosophies had been striving after—the knowledge of God, the nature of man, and the meaning of human life—is to be found in Christ and him crucified. Here is the centre of all knowledge, round which all else revolves in order and beauty. Here is the shrine where the wise men of the earth must fall down and worship—the touchstone by which their speculations must be tried. Here is "the wisdom of God," outshining every other manifestation in creation and providence—that wisdom by which we become wise unto salvation.—B.

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