But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 (NET)
As we attempt to come to a deeper understanding of what the Apostle Paul is here attempting to communicate, we need to keep in mind what it is that he has been setting forth. Paul has been writing about the cross. He has called the message of the cross “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1:18). In reference to this same cross however, Paul reports on God’s plan to “destroy the wisdom of the wise” and “thwart the cleverness of the intelligent” (1:19). He has reminded his readers that while the “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom” (1:22), he preaches “about a crucified Christ” (1:23). The implication of that, echoing the “foolishness” mentioned before, is that the cross is not a miraculous sign for the Jew, nor the sign or indication of wisdom to the Greeks.
For the Jew, in fact, it was quite the contrary, as the cross was a sign merely that a person had failed in their messianic quest, getting him and his followers crucified. The Gentiles (the Greeks) would have looked at all of these attempted overthrows and revolutions, in the face of Roman power, in expectation of their God acting on their behalf, as foolishness. The dominant Greek philosophies of stoicism and Epicureanism would have questioned the need for all the hope and all the bother. Stoicism postulated a God that was far away and apathetic to the plight of humanity. The epicureans said that the purpose of life is to pursue pleasure. Clearly, their constant expectation of God’s action in Messiah and its underlying revolutionary fervor that took thousands of the Jews to their death, fit neither one of those models. It is for these reasons that the message of the cross, of the crucified Christ, was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23b).
In the face of all of this, Paul continues on to write that “to those who are called” (1:24a), that is, to those that are gifted with the faith, by the Holy Spirit, that will give them ears to hear, Christ is both “the power of God” (1:24b), thus fulfilling the Jewish requirement for a miraculous sign, and “the wisdom of God” (1:24c), thus fulfilling the Greek need for wisdom. To this, Paul adds, “Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position” (1:26). We must notice that Paul writes “not many,” which would imply that some that he was addressing were wise and powerful and privileged, while also making mention of the fact that this is added shortly after Paul’s mention of “those who are called.” In this, we are able to see that to them, because Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, it did not matter that none but a few of the called ones may not have been wise or powerful or born to positions of privilege. In union with Christ, which will be evidenced by calling Him Lord and being His witness, we are made to share in His Resurrection power, thereby sharing with Him and through Him in the power and wisdom of God. It is for that reason that Paul will later add, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:31b).
Having communicated these things about those who are called, and asking his brothers and sisters in Corinth to reflect on their own calling, Paul quickly shifts his focus away from his readers, and away from himself, and away from us. Instead, he once again looks to our Lord Jesus Christ. We must remember the context that he has created for what he is writing, that being the message of the cross, its inherent foolishness, and the stumbling block of a crucified Christ (Messiah). Keeping that in mind as we return to the text, we are able to clearly see that Paul speaks of Jesus as he goes on to write, “But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something” (1:27-28).
We are repeatedly taught to see ourselves here, when perhaps this should not be the case. As Christians, we wear such things as badges of honor, and speak these words with some type of feigned humility, referring to ourselves as foolish and weak and low and despised and regarded as nothing. Of course, we don’t really believe it when we say it, so ironically, they become a source of pride, and worse, alongside Paul’s talk about “human wisdom” and the like, such thinking becomes an excuse for laziness, for the eschewing of the pursuit of knowledge, and for remaining in a state of ignorance. With that said, is it not better to see these words, in the context of what we find in this first chapter of Corinthians, in full reference to Christ?
The message of Christ’s cross was foolish, but it is what God chose to shame the wise. Was it not our Lord Jesus that allowed Himself to be subjected to the weakness of the torture and the suffering of the cross? In His day, there was nothing more despised than the cross. Those who went to the cross were understood to be attempting to overthrow all that was good and right. Crucifixion was not something that was mentioned in polite company. One who hung upon its frame was the lowest of the low. In the Roman empire, Caesar sent men to the cross to show that they were nothing, that they had no power, and that he was the power. When Jesus went to the cross, He took that very thing that Caesar used to show forth the nothingness of those who dared opposed him, turned Caesar’s own symbol of power against him, set aside the man that was himself regarded in that day as savior, lord, and son of god, and in His Resurrection showed forth that He was the true Savior, Lord, and Son of God.
It is only as we are in union with Christ, called to believe in Him by faith and crucified with Him, that we can identify ourselves with the words of these verses, calling ourselves foolish, weak, and low. Because these things are predicated on what Christ did, it is for that reason “that no one can boast in His presence” (1:29). If we do not see Christ here, first and foremost, and instead maintain an anthropocentric view, reading ourselves far too heavily into the Scriptures, we miss the beauty of Paul’s continuing message of the cross. Yes, Paul said it was foolishness and that its method of promulgation was also foolishness; but more importantly, Paul also said that it was the power of God and the means by which He extended His salvation.