The Message of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, Paul shows the heart of his message was that God sent his son into the word to die on the Cross in order to provide atonement for sin. To a Jew, Greek or Roman living in the first century, almost every word of this familiar summary of the Gospel would be radical, strange, or even foolish. A god cannot die, and he certainly would not die by crucifixion. What God did through Jesus runs counter to both Jewish and Gentile expectations about how gods are supposed to behave, or what the God of the Hebrew Bible does. The Gospel has some awkward facts, the object of our worship was executed as a criminal of the worst kind! In fact, he intentionally allowed himself to be destroyed in the most shameful way possible.

Jesus on the CrossPaul does not shy away from these inconvenient facts of the Gospel in order to gain more converts because God has chosen foolish things in order to make foolish the wisdom of this world. The Gospel is not the sort of thing a religious person would have invented in the first century.

The Cross divides all of humanity into two groups, those who are “perishing” and those who “are being saved.” Perishing (ἀπόλλυμι) is a strong word chosen to highlight the present judgment of those who have rejected the Cross.  The word used in the Septuagint for a sacrifice that is completely consumed in fire (Lev 7:10, for example). It is used for God’s judgment of the unrighteous (Sodom, Gen 18:24, several times). Psalm 2:12 used the verb for God’s destruction of the nations that have challenged the Lord’s anointed. The verb is in the present tense, indicating these people are under God’s judgment now because of their rejection of the cross.

Paul describes himself and his readers as “those who are being saved,” emphasizing the presentness of salvation. The verb is again in the present tense, all people are either (at this moment) either in need of salvation because they reject the Cross or being saved by the power of the Cross.

This division in humanity is based on the reaction to the Cross. The Cross is foolish to the ones who are perishing. Two related nouns (μωρία, 1:18 and μωρός, 1:27) refer to some idea that is senseless to believe, perhaps with the sense of ridiculous (the earth is hollow and lizard people are controlling our thoughts; a child telling a story about fairy tale creatures to a genius scientist, etc.) To believe in something foolish is a waste of time, since it cannot possibly be true.

Why is the Cross foolishness? In the Greco-Roman world, self-sacrifice was not considered a virtue. The idea a person might willingly shame themselves by voluntarily sacrificing themselves on a Cross is unthinkable and so radically offensive no rational person could believe it.

To those who are being saved, the Cross is the power of God. A death on the Cross was such an offensive and shameful death that it would have been shocking for Paul call it the “power of God for salvation.”  D. A. Carson suggested the analogy of someone today claiming the Holocaust was “the power of God” (The Cross and the Christian Message, 12). No one in the world today would say the Holocaust is “the power of God.” Such a statement would be a jarring and offensive statement. Anyone making that sort of claim would not just be laughed at, but vilified and persecuted for such a claim.

Yet this is what Paul claims, because God chooses foolish things in order to silence the wise. He quotes Isaiah 29:14, a saying embedded in a context of the judgment on Judah for worship with their lips but not their heart (29:13); since their hearts are not right they are about to face God’s judgment. The Corinthians may have heard this as a pronouncement on the wise of this age (which is true), but since the object of God’s wrath in Isaiah Judah, it is possible Paul’s point here is that the church is also going to be silence because of their foolishness!

How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? Some American evangelical Christians like to use apologetics to present faith in Jesus as rational and reasonable to a rational mind. Others try to use secular culture to present the Gospel in a way which appeals to the modern, or post-modern mind (those “Mars Hill” ministries, for example). Would Paul have created a rational argument for the prove the need of the violent death of Jesus on the Cross? Would he have hosted a poetry slam in one of his churches for people to express their repressed feelings about religion? How can we “embrace the foolishness” and still reach our culture?

11 thoughts on “The Message of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

  1. Thank you for your explanation on “those who are perishing” and “those who are being saved.” It provides an answer to those who would accuse Christians of being self-righteous individuals who judge and condemn all other people. If we evangelize to people with the mindset that I am saved and you are dead in your sin, I can see why people reject it, but when you approach it with the mindset that all these things are present tense, everything changes. I was perishing in my sins, and I am not saved, but rather, I am still being saved because I am still a sinner who needs constant grace. This message is radical, in that I am no longer on a different level than someone else who is perishing – we are both perishing together, but God has extended the same offer to both of us. He is the one who did all the work; therefore, our minds need “to be reoriented to the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus,” just like the Corinthians (Longenecker 117).
    I do not believe that Paul would have formed a rational argument for why God accomplishes His will in the way that He did, because our God is not a rational god by human standards. He sees the entire picture because He is in every moment throughout history at the same time, so we will never know why God uses the things that He does. I think that the reason God chooses to accomplish His will with what the world sees as “foolishness,” is because it requires His followers to have blind faith in Him. We say that He is a good god and that He is sovereign, but we want Him to be sovereign according to our plan. Isaiah 41:10 states, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” The Jews knew this, but they wanted a savior who would deliver them from their physical bondage to the Romans, so when God sent His son to deliver them from their spiritual bondage to sin, they rejected Him because Jesus did not fit in their plan. We must embrace the “foolishness” and show those who are perishing that it is demonstrated throughout history that God has everything in control.

  2. In the Greco-roman time period and culture, it was very common to believe in a god or many gods. Jews believed in one God, Yahweh, and Christians believe that as well. Most people believed in a god of some sort, whether it was the true God or not. Their struggle was to believe in the Christ Jesus the messiah, but their initial belief in God was present. Today, the struggle is simply believing in God. With scientific arguments, spirituality and other explanations, it is very hard to convince them that the “foolishness” of believing in the existence of God is authentic and true. Once that bridge is crossed, then we can approach the “foolishness” of the cross issue with people. Another barrier we face as american Christians is that we are so afraid of offending people. If we embrace this timid culture, how are we supposed to preach an offensive gospel that spotlights the sin in our lives? No one wants to hear that they are a sinner, a bad person, deserving death. THAT message is very offensive to Americans because everyone is “good, perfect and beautiful just the way they are”. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, receive attention, and to feel complete in their identity. Maybe, this is something appetizing that we can share with people, that Christ is the one that gave us enough attention, enough to DIE for us, and that in him we are complete. This sounds good to the listener, but it is true at the same time, without giving a “half’ or “fluffy” gospel.
    I think another way in which we might be able to reach this culture with the foolishness of the gospel is emphasizing the empathy that Jesus has with us coming to earth as a human. He empathizes with our struggles, was an outsider, was rejected, and suffered on our behalf.

  3. Rachel Smith

    How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? (P. Long, blog – The Message of the Cross). In the modern world, the ‘foolishness of the cross’ is still a stumbling block to some. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18. Two millennia later, it still does not make logical sense for the eternal God to send His Son to die for sinners! Today, the quest for honour is not exactly the same as the social honour system of the Corinthians; yet we still understand the desire to be respected and honoured. To believe that our only way to heaven is salvation by grace through faith in the Son of God who died a shameful death for us, can be a hard concept to wrestle with, especially for those who are surrounded by a culture that teaches self reliance as the most honourable way to live.

  4. How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? (P. Long, blog – The Message of the Cross). In today’s world, we often find it hard to believe in the one true God in our whole being with everything that is being said and going on around us. There are people who would rather question God in our modern world. In this world, we cannot listen to a command and be okay with it. We must question every word in it and try to find the meaning behind it. We tend to overanalyze and make situations into what they are not. Everyone is searching to be the wisest human they can be rather than entrusting their lives with God. People continue to want more and more rather than see and believe what is right in front of them as The Jews and Romans did, “For Jews requested a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22 NKJV). There is a day where most Christian’s come together and believe in what Jesus did for us. That day is Easter and each Christian seems to remember that Jesus died on the cross for us and rose again and celebrate that fact. But, sadly, after that day has passed we often go back into our old ways of thinking and trying to understand God. When we do not need to understand Him and His actions. All we need to do is believe in Him and what He did for us. He created us in His image He did not create us to be equal to Him. He made us to love Him and to love what He did for us but again we are not thankful for Jesus dying for our sins. We instead question His motives and intentions.

  5. How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? (P. Long- The Message of the Cross). Today’s society wants answers right away, as they can look up anything they want on google and boom-they have an answer. Today’s society also wants everything to make them feel butterflies, rainbows, and to only gratify themselves. In today’s society, everyone says they want to “keep it 100,” but when someone speaks something convicting to a person, they want to run and hide. For those reasons and many more, that is why I think churches struggle with presenting the Gospel in an honest way and “without foolishness.” According to TTP, Paul had no problem addressing the issues that needed to be addressed and he did not beat around the bush. What would modern churches look like today if we spoke like Paul did? Sadly, there probably wouldn’t be as many people in them and the churches would be smaller, like in 1 Corinthians. Many Christians want to go to church and sing songs about surrendering to Jesus, but do they know what the Scripture says about it? God is a righteous God.

  6. The message of the Gospel is foolishness to the world. Galatians 5:17 states, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” People living their lives for flesh, for the world, will see the message of the cross as foolishness. For some people, no amount of apologetics, no amount of scientific proof or rational argument will sway them. It comes down to living in the flesh vs living in the spirit. They will always be in conflict with one another. In today’s preaching, it can often be observed that a pastor will compromise the scripture in order to make people feel comfortable. Things such as same sex marriage, pride, selfishness, gossip, and many other topics very clear in the bible, are taken as “old news” and no longer used. One example I have heard is the argument that women should be pastors and elders. Whether I agree or disagree with that point is irrelevant, my point is that when scripture was brought up that goes against this belief, many will say that it’s just outdated. That is the “foolishness” of the scripture in modern preaching.

    • I would have to challenge you on this post because the examples that you used are not correct. Homosexuality, gossip and even pride are actually relevant and more so than not. That’s one of the reasons many people don’t want to koin the Christian faith. I see this in a very different light, I think that Pastors will go the extra mile to make that person feel uncomfortable whether it be extending bible verses against homosexuality etc. I appreciate what you were trying to say, I think we all have different perceptions.

  7. I struggle with this. I don’t like the word division, (humanity divided). But I realize that this is where the world is currently at, although I don’t think God intended for it to be that way. In order to even reply or begin to understand 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, you have too understand the word “fool, or foolishness.” This word is used five times in eight verses. In the Greek language, fool is translated to “Moros” . Moros is actually from the root word of moron (moronic). (Bible Hub). The definition of fool would be: dull, flat, mentally inert or lacking a grip on reality. In modern day, the “foolishness” might sometimes be portrayed by people who decided to question or want more facts about the cross. I also think that a lot of people think of the cross as moronic, because it offends them. This means that they have to give up their pride and know that salvation is only given by God and not humans. Another thing that might bother people is that salvation is extended to everyone not a specific group. Salvation isn’t just for the white man or the Hispanic family, it is extended to anyone who is saved, and who does not reject the cross. There are some people in the world like myself who wholeheartedly believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. There are some people who don’t believe this, and will never. But the common ground we all meet at is the foot of the cross. At the foot of the cross, we all look around realize we are even.(even in a sense of how God looks at us.) I struggle with believing we as Christians should rassle with salvation for other people. Salvation is a personal covenant if you will between you and God, your saying I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and I profess that I am a sinner. All of this becomes very personal. We are not to down someone because they question the cross, we are supposed to pray for everyone’s salvation. (1 Tim 2:1-4). God is just and knows about each of our personal salvation. Here on earth, we are to receive the message of the cross, believe this, profess to the kingdom and make disciples of all nations. We are not to condemn, or be little even those who reject the cross, because that would make us “foolish”.

  8. I never thought of what Jesus did on the cross is foolish. After reading this blog post, it put the crucifixion into perspective for me. I can now see how confusing it would be to believe in such a thing. It was foolish to believe in this in the 1 century and even the present day.
    I will answer the question of how would Paul display the gospel today? I can see this question is difficult to answer, but the way I see it is that Paul was called as an apostle of Jesus. Kind of in the same way every other pastor today, they feel called to love people and preach the gospel. Pastors every day are saving people because of the power of the gospel. I see Paul doing the same thing. Paul would have most likely taken the path of an evangelistic pastoral role. Paul would not have softened the gospel, he would still preach for what it is and not apologize for it.
    But how can we get people to understand that the cross may seem foolish, but it is so powerful? We need to explain how Jesus dying on the cross as a sacrifice for us who are full of sin. It is also a covenant, that he has forgiven us for sinning against him and that if we believe this, we will spend eternity forgiven with him.

  9. As believers and evangelists, we should not try to “rationalize” the Gospel or Jesus’ death on the cross. In fact, I am growing quite tired of leaders in ministry who are sugar-coating the Gospel and what we believe. I understand adapting the way you present it in a way that will not rationalize why Jesus did what He did, but in a way that certain people will understand the story better. If you speak to a group of kindergarteners about the Gospel in the same way that you would to an adult, they may not fully understand what you are talking about. However, we should not be rationalizing the act of Jesus’ death on the cross in order to portray it as less foolish than it seems. As you said in this post, “God chooses foolish things in order to silence the wise.” If the act of Jesus’ death in every way did not make sense because of the culture and time period and everything in between, that doesn’t mean it is incorrect. God does radical things and He can do anything (and anything He wants for that matter)! Applying this concept to our own lives, God can call us to do things that may seem foolish to the world, but it is for a much greater purpose than we realize. Sometimes it takes a foolish act to get the attention of people who need to hear the Gospel. There should be no beating around the bush when it comes to the Gospel and Jesus’ death because the Words of the Bible are the flat out truth. Altering it to make sense of it for people would be altering its truth in a way. Maybe we need to start sharing the Gospel with more passion and confidence, knowing that it sounds crazy but it’s undeniably true! People need to start hearing the full truth in order to come to know who Jesus really is and what He has done for us! “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

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