Note of the Day – August 10

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note dealt with 1:21]

1 Corinthians 1:23-24

“…but we proclaim (the) Anointed (One) put to the stake—for the Yehudeans {Jews}, something (which) trips (them up), and for the nations [v.l. Greeks] (some)thing stupid; but for the ones called (by God), Yehudeans {Jews} and Greeks (both), (it is the) power of God and (the) wisdom of God…”

In verse 22, Paul has expanded upon the declaration of v. 21 (cf. the prior note) by introducing the distinction, frequent in his letters, between Jews and Greeks (or the “nations”, i.e. non-Jews, Gentiles):

“the Yehudeans {Jews} ask (for) a sign, and the Greeks seek (after) wisdom…”

We can see how this parallel plays out in verses 23-24:

  • Israelites/Jews
    • ask for a sign [shmei=on]
      • the proclamation of the cross is
        • something which trips (them) up [ska/ndalon]
  • Greeks/Nations
    • seek after wisdom
      • the proclamation of the cross is
        • something stupid/foolish [mwri/a]

Here the “sign” (shmei=on) for Jews probably should be understood in relation to their Messianic expectations. As in much eschatological thinking, the coming of the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) and the end-time Judgment by God would be marked by various signs, from the fulfillment of Scriptural prophecies to various natural phenomena, as well as the appearance of certain figures in history (coinciding with specific historical events). For the use of shmei=on in this context in the New Testament, cf. Mark 13:4, 22 (par Matt 24:3, 24, 30; Lk 21:7, 11, 25); John 6:14; Rev 12:1, 3. On several occasions in the Gospels, people ask Jesus for a sign to demonstrate that he is one chosen by God (as a Prophet, etc), probably also in a specific Messianic sense—Mark 8:11-12 par; Lk 11:16, 29-30 par; 23:8; John 2:18; 6:30 [cf. verse 14]; 12:18 (for more on this subject, cf. my recent series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Often by shmei=on is meant specifically a miraculous or supernatural event. In this regard, it is interesting that Paul himself refers to a demonstration of (God’s) power as ‘proof’ of the Spirit working/speaking through him (1 Cor 1:24; 4:19-20; 2 Cor 13:3-4).

The “sign”—that Jesus, a crucified man, is actually the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ)—turns out to be a ska/ndalon for Jews, something that “trips them up” (in a figurative sense). That Jews found the identification of Jesus as the Messiah highly problematic is clear enough from the many references in the book of Acts where the apostles and other early missionaries take pains to proclaim and demonstrate this fact (from the Scriptures)—cf. Acts 2:36; 3:18, 20; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:23, and also earlier in the Lukan Gospel (Lk 24:26-27, 44-47). In Paul’s line of argument, this Jewish dynamic (sign vs. ‘stumbling-block’) is parallel to the (main) contrast between wisdom (sofi/a) and “stupidity” (mwri/a). For non-Jews (Greeks/Gentiles), unfamiliar with the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the veneration of a man put to death by crucifixion was simply absurd. Such a death, nailed to the stake (cross), was an agonizing and humiliating punishment, reserved for slaves and the lower classes, as well as for rebels and traitors against the state, and was often inflicted to make a particularly public example of such criminals. Paul, of course, was fully aware of the shameful stigma attached to crucifixion and makes powerful use of the fact, for example, in Galatians 3:10-14.

In verse 24, Paul neatly ties together both strands of his comparison:

“but for the (one)s called (by God), Jews and Greeks (both)…”

This summarizes one his most cherished theological points: that for believers in Christ, the ethnic/religious distinction of Jew vs. non-Jew has been completely eliminated. The doctrine is at the core of his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, especially; though the formula expressed in Gal 3:28, 1 Cor 12:13, and Col 2:12 (with its baptismal context) may have existed earlier. Perhaps the clearest Pauline statement to this effect is found in Ephesians 2:11-22. The second half of v. 24 also expresses a kind of union:

“…the Anointed {Christ} (is the) power of God and (the) wisdom of God”

There are two ways to consider this joining of expressions:

1. “power of God” (du/nami$ tou= qeou=) relates to the Jewish strand, while “wisdom of God” (sofi/a tou= qeou=) relates to the Greek strand. The latter point seems clear enough. And, if we understand the “sign” in v. 23 in terms of a supernatural manifestation of God in the person of the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ), according to Jewish expectation, then the identification fits here as well. From a Christian standpoint the “power of God” is manifest primarily in two respects:

  • In the resurrection (and exaltation) of Jesus, which, in turn, relates to his death (crucifixion) in two ways:
    (a) It defeats/overcomes the power of death, preserving the life of Jesus
    (b) It makes right again (justifies/vindicates) the injustice of Jesus’ suffering and death
  • In the power of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) to effect salvation for those who trust in him. This relates to Paul’s idea of believers being “in Christ” (and Christ in the believer), with the symbolic/spiritual participation of the believer in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

2. The “power of God” and “wisdom of God” are two aspects of the Gospel message which are summed up in the person of Christ. In Romans 1:16, the Gospel (“good message”, eu)agge/lion) is called “the power of God unto salvation [du/nami$ qeou= ei)$ swthri/on]”. The essential identification of the Gospel with the wisdom of God has already been made here in 1 Corinthians, and continues as a central theme of 1:18-2:16. The terms power (du/nami$) and wisdom (sofi/a) are both associated with the Gospel in various ways in this passage.

The force of the declaration in verse 24b should not be missed—it is not the Gospel (or account/proclamation) per se which is the power and wisdom for believers, but Christ himself. This helps to explain Paul’s statement in v. 17, that to rely upon human wisdom in the communication of the Gospel (i.e. how the message is delivered) effectively risks “emptying” the content (and power) of the message—it shifts attention away from the central point of the message: the person of Jesus, who he is, and what God has done for humankind through him. And it is Jesus’ death (by crucifixion) which is the most difficult and challenging part of this message. It may be somewhat hard for us to recognize this last point today, so far removed from the historical and cultural context of crucifixion, and so familiar with the idea of Jesus’ death on the cross; but in Paul’s day, so close in time to the events, and influenced by the vital Messianic and eschatological expectations of the period, it has a very special significance. A Messiah who would be put to death (especially a death by crucifixion) was totally foreign to Jewish thought, as is clear enough from the evidence in the Gospels (and the book of Acts) and contemporary Jewish writings (I have discussed this in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”, cf. the supplemental article on the suffering and death of the Messiah). This meant that, for Christians, Jesus was (and had to be) understood as a very different kind of Savior/Redeemer figure: one who delivered people from bondage (to sin and evil) at a spiritual level, through his sacrificial and atoning death on the cross.

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