The Gospel is “God’s Foolishness” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

By using the death of Jesus on the Cross, God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” (v. 20). Where is the wise, scribe, the debater of this age? These three questions call on the highest educated (and potentially most arrogant) people in the Greek or Jewish world. There is a tone of derision: God has made your most educated look foolish when he saved people through the folly of the Cross.

God did not choose to save those who are perishing in a way that might be expected, by using a method the intelligent of the world would have given their approval. Rather, he chose to use the foolishness of the Cross. In other words, “God’s actions make the worldly-wise look like blundering fools” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 63).

Execution by crucifixion was the most shameful death possible. If the Romans executed someone by crucifixion, they were guilty of the very worst of crimes and suffered such dishonor that it might even be shameful to admit you knew the person, let alone think they were your savior.

Romans Crucifying Their Enemies

Paul begins this paragraph with the observation “Jews demand a sign, Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jewish “demand for a sign” refers to some sign from heaven which confirms a person is approved by God. If someone claimed to be the messiah, then Pharisees might demand they do some sort of sign, as they did Jesus. If Jesus could give them a sign to convince them he was the messiah, then perhaps they would believe. The point of the apostolic signs such as Peter healing a lame man in Acts 3 was to show the messianic age has begun.

A Greek would be far more likely to believe a well-constructed, logic argument in favor of Jesus as the Messiah. When Paul teaches in Ephesus, for example, he argues persuasively from the Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah; Apollos also persuades people from the Scripture through logical arguments (Acts 18).

The Messiah crucified was a stumbling-block to the Jews and a god who is executed as a criminal is foolishness to the Greek. Many Jews expected some sort of Messiah, but no one really expected a Messiah who would be executed by the Romans. The Gentiles were to fall under the judgment of the Messiah! He was to rule over a reunited Israel like an idealized David, no one expected him to die in the most shameful way possible. Peter response to Peter in Mark 8 is an indication that even Jesus’ followers misunderstood what the messiah would do in Jerusalem.

A “stumbling-block” is something that causes you to stumble (obviously), but Paul is using it as a metaphor. The cross is the thing that causes the Jewish person to not accept Jesus as the messiah and savior. They might like Jesus’ teaching, his way of handling the Law, his views about the kingdom of God, his rejection of oral tradition, etc. But most Jews would have a hard time accepting a messiah who was unjustly executed by the High Priest!

To the Greek or Roman thinker, it is not impossible for a god to appear to be flesh and live among humans for a time. Perhaps the more intellectual Greeks disbelieved the stories of Zeus or Hermes appearing as men, but it was at least possible. But it was impossible for a god to be harmed by humans, let alone be executed as the worst of criminals!

God chose to use the most foolish thing imaginable in the first century, the Cross, to save those who are perishing. God has always used the unexpected person to achieve his goals so that it is clear he has done it not human wisdom or skills (David as the youngest son, defeats Goliath, etc.)  What God did through Jesus is to turn the world “upside down,” an idea Paul will return to throughout this letter.

The world sees the world one way, the Christian sees it much differently.

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?

Book Review: Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians (TNTC)

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1 Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. xxxiv+337 pp. Pb. $25.00   Link to IVP Academic  

This new volume in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series replaces the 1958 commentary by Leon Morris, originally published by Eerdmans. This is the second replacement volume published since the New Testament Tyndale Commentary moved to IVP Academic a few years ago (Ian Paul, Revelation).

Schreiner is well known in evangelical circles. He is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society. In addition to numerous books and articles, Schreiner has contributed major commentaries on Romans (Baker, 1998, Second Edition, 2018) and Galatians (Zondervan, 2010) as well as New Testament Theology (Baker, 2008) and a Pauline theology, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (IVP Academic 2006).

The fifty-page introduction to the commentary introduces the city of Corinth and Paul’s initial ministry there according to the book of Acts. The authorship and date of the letter are not controversial and Schreiner assumes the traditional view Paul wrote the letter from Ephesus in the spring of AD 54, before the feast of Pentecost (1 Cor 16:8). There is only a brief paragraph dismissing any pre-history of the letter as irrelevant (p. 17). His discussion of the occasion of the letter likewise follows the traditional view the content of the letter is a response to reports from Paul’s associates and response to questions from the church itself. He briefly interacts with Margaret Mitchell’s study arguing the phrase “now about” (peri de) does not necessarily refer to a question from the church, but in the commentary he treats the phrase as introducing an answer to questions (p. 11).

About half of the introduction traces the major theological themes of 1 Corinthians. The first three of these themes are the members of the Trinity, although the section on the Holy Spirit naturally deals with the problem of spiritual gifts on 1 Corinthians, a topic so important it merits a larger discussion under a separate heading. His interest is the purpose of sign gifts (edification of the church), so he does not use this section to argue for or against the cessation of tongues (See his Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter, B&H Academic, 2018) for his view on this issue). Schreiner divides his section on the church into divisions and discipline, both key themes in the letter, but the section ought to be read along with his section on “living a new life” and on “food sacrificed to idols.” In both these sections Schreiner discusses how the individual Christian lives out a life is out of step with the culture Roman world of Corinth. Although he does not make this point as strongly as I would like, this seems to be the source of much of the problems in Corinth. He follows Eckhard Schnabel’s suggestion the letter concerns conflicts within the church (divisions, lawsuits, etc.) and compromises with the word (sexual sin, marriage, food sacrificed to idols, etc.).

The body of the commentary divides the letter into two major sections: addressing the problems in the church, 1:10-6:20) and answers to contemporary issues in the church (7:1-16:4). Each subsection has a brief section setting the context of the pericope followed by a verse-by-verse commentary. Given the length of 1 Corinthians, sometimes the commentary covers several verses in a single paragraph. Schreiner’s comments are on the English text although he occasionally refers to Greek in transliteration.

Following the commentary there is a brief section labeled theology. Here Schreiner often draws on parallel material in the Pauline letters as he comments on how the pericope contributes to Christian theology and practice. For example, on 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, he observes I Corinthians 7:1-7 is similar to Paul’s description of self-sacrificial love in Ephesians 5:22-29, guarding against “militaristic and rigid understanding of submission” (p. 158).

Because of the controversial nature of Paul’s comments on headship (11:2-16), Schreiner writes a longer section of commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” In his case Schreiner does interact with other commentaries (Garland, Ciampa and Rosner). He agrees there is a social and cultural dimension to Paul’s comments, but limiting this text to only the social and cultural dimensions may “blind us to the theological dimension of the text” (p. 223). Separating social and theological realties merge in remarkable ways, says Schreiner. He argues Paul has in mind women in general rather than just wives, although he later suggests a mediating position that Paul refers to both all woman and wives. The analogy to the Trinity is not an exact parallel, but it is a parallel (p. 227). In the theology section for this pericope, he concludes “the distinctions between the sexes must be preserved; thus there is no warrant for the notion that one’s gender is simply a social construct” (p. 238). With respect to the application to veiling women in a modern context, “each culture has to work out how the theological principle articulated works out in its particular circumstances” (p. 239)

Schreiner begins his discussion of the controversial passage in 14:34-35 by rejecting any attempt to dismiss the verses as secondary (contra Fee, 780-92). For Schreiner, some women in Corinth were asking disruptive or defiant questions; the shame is not that women were speaking but rather that they were disruptive (p. 298). He cites Plutarch as an example of what the ancient world expected from a woman in public.

There are only a few footnotes, often giving cross references or pointers to monographs focusing on some detail of the text. Unlike many contemporary commentaries, Schreiner does not cite other commentaries on 1 Corinthians, although he has certainly read them and benefited from a wide range of views. This is refreshing given the recent trend toward “commentaries on the commentaries.”

Conclusion. This new commentary on 1 Corinthians is a welcome update to the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series. Although the book is brief compared to other recent commentaries, Schreiner offers enough social and cultural background to illuminate some of the more difficult sections of the letter and draws conservative, evangelical applications to contemporary issues. This commentary will serve pastors, teachers, and students as they study this important Pauline letter to their congregations.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

What Was the Problem with Food in 1 Corinthians 8:4–8?

Some people in the Corinthian church have no problem eating “food offered to idols” (εἰδωλόθυτος). This is the specific topic of chapter 8 and Paul will mention it again in 10:19. This word appears in Acts 15:29 in the list of things the Jewish Christians ask the Gentiles to avoid, and again in Rev 2:14, 20 as a description of behavior unacceptable for Christians. In all three cases, eating meat sacrificed to idols is mentioned along with sexual immorality

Food Sacrificed to IdolsThe church is not asking Paul a question about the food, but they are making a statement about the food-it is permissible to eat for sacrificed to idols since there are no other gods but God. They seem to think that any limit on their food (either what they eat or where they eat it) is foolish and a restriction of their rights (with as citizens of Corinth or as Christians). Perhaps Paul himself caused the problem with food based on his command not to associate with the immoral person. Like the misunderstanding over marriage (divorce the pagan spouse), Paul’s command may have been misunderstood to mean “do not eat with sinners.”

The word refers to meat sacrificed to a god. The leftover portion could be used in a shared meal in the god’s temple, or sold in the market. In the Jewish Temple, some meat from sacrifices was used as part of a family meal (the Passover Lamb, most significantly). There are three places where the Corinthians might have encountered meat sacrificed to idols (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 368-8).

  • The believers may be eating this food in a temple during some kind of celebration. Most temples had banquet rooms used for religious and civic celebrations, but also for privately hosted meals. These meals would have naturally included meat from sacrifices.
  • The believers may have been offered meat sacrificed to idols if they were invited to an unsaved person’s home for a meal. In this case, there is no idolatry implied in the meal, but they would be offered the food since it was widely available in the markets every day.
  • The believers may have purchased the food for themselves in the market and served it in their own homes.

There were a variety of reasons someone might be invited to a meal that are not particularly sinful. For example, what should happen if a member of the congregation were invited to a wedding celebration for a family member who was not saved? It is quite likely someone would be invited to a funeral meal for a parent held at a temple. Imagine a person who was now a Christian who is invited to attend a funeral meal for a parent at the temple of some god. Socially it would be very difficult not to attend this kind of celebration, not simply awkward, but rude and shameful.

But most likely, people would be invited to these meals because they were socially significant events in the politics of the city of Corinth. By passing on an invitation from some well-place member of Roman society, a Christian was risking shame and perhaps a loss of status in the politics of Corinth. It may be the case someone would have to attend or lose their position in the government. It is likely participation in sacrifices and sacred meal was required to hold public office.  This is far more than a chance at a decent meal!

If this is the case, there was a social distinction between those in Corinth who ate the food and those who did not. People in higher social circles would be invited to a civic banquet at a Temple, only a person with some wealth would be purchase meat in the market to serve in their homes. The material in Gooch indicates some people may have gone to several cultic sites for food and entertainment, although the food itself may not be sacrificed.

As with the divisions in the church and some of the problems with immorality, the church at Corinth was divided along social lines, mirroring pagan Corinth.

This is one of those issues which seems obscure in a contemporary context. However, outside of Western Christianity, this eating food associated with idols may be a very serious issue. I would love to see a few comments from majority world Christians who have experienced this issue first hand. If there is a kind of “guilt by association” here, what principles can be drawn from this issue in 1 Corinthians which do have some resonance with modern Western Christianity? How does the western church avoid “mirroring the pagan culture” of America

Main Themes of 1 Corinthians

Paul established the church at Corinth in Acts 18. When Paul arrives in Corinth he meets Aquilla and Priscilla, Jews who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius. Paul’s initial ministry is in the agora, working at a tentmaker.  Paul describes his initial efforts in the city as “in weakness and great fear” (1 Cor 2:3), since he was persecuted in Philippi, Thessalonica and nearly so in Berea. As usual, Paul attends synagogue meetings in the city and argues Jesus is the Messiah.  This ministry is more successful when Silas and Timothy finally arrive, allowing him to devote himself to preaching. Although he faced some opposition from the synagogue, the Lord comforted Paul in a dream, telling him there were many in the city who will respond to the Gospel (Acts 18:9-11). After Paul spends 18 months in the city, he visits Ephesus before returning to Jerusalem for a short time. When he returned to Ephesus he heard of the problems in the church at Corinth and wrote a series of letters to the church.

First Corinthians is made up of a series of issues arising from a report delivered to Paul from the household of Chloe as well as responses to a letter from the church asking about several questions about faith and practice. The report seems to have been confirmed by others since Paul takes the problems seriously, dealing with them in chapters 1-6.  Paul’s responses to the questions are covered in chapters 7-16 (“now about the matters you wrote about,” 7:1).

In chapters 1-6 Paul deals with the reported problems in the church. He deals with division over leadership (ch. 1-4), boasting over a sexually immoral man in the church (5:1-12), lawsuits among believers (6:1-11), and sexual immorality (6:12-20).  These difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices. In 1 Corinthians 3:3 Paul says the church is “still worldly,” essentially they are still thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God.

In chapters 7-16 Paul deals with questions from the church on marriage (ch. 7), food sacrificed to idols and Christian freedom (8:1-11:16), the Lord’s Supper 11:17-34), spiritual gifts (ch. 12-14), the resurrection (ch. 15) and the collection (16:1-4). Like the troubles reported to Paul, many of these issue are related to living out their new Christian faith in a Roman world. Although the matter of food sacrificed to idols seems obscure to the modern reader, Paul devotes as much as three chapters to the issue because participation in banquets at temples was such a common practice in Roman Corinth. Potentially the church is turning the Lord’s Supper into a Roman-style banquet, something which extremely dangerous from Paul’s perspective (11:17, 27-32).

Bruce Winter suggested that after Paul left Corinth the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their culture and social relationships (After Paul Left Corinth, Eerdmans, 2001). Corinthian culture was a thoroughly Roman worldview and there was enormous pressure to conform to the cultural expectations of a first century Roman city.

For example, the city hosted yearly festivals in honor of the imperial cult. Participation in these festivals was something a Roman citizen would have associated with loyalty to Rome, a loyalty that the citizens of Corinth took very seriously. Even if one was not a Roman citizen, loyalty to the Empire was important

In addition, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth. There is evidence when the games were celebrated the president of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens. In 1 Corinthians 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat. Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right or freedom to attend.  Can a Christian really participate in a meal dedicated to a god and the Empire as a follower of Christ?

First Corinthians is therefore about how to live as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit in a world which is overwhelming non-Christian. It is not the case the Corinthian church is facing persecution, but they do struggle to let Christ transform the way they think about their culture. For this reason, the letter of 1 Corinthians is one of the most applicable letters in the New Testament.