There are certain matters which are of cultural and historical significance and we need to see that the Corinthian culture left tremendous marks on those who believed in the “wisdom of God” (sophia theou). As a cultural background we see two broad types of “wise people” who had established standings among the Jews and the Greeks. Generally speaking the Greeks adored the suzētētēs (debater; rhetorically skilled speaker) and the Jews had the grammateus (scribe; scholar of the Torah).
Further we can also learn from the pagan view of salvation as a significant aspect to the situation at Corinth. Witherington points out that salvation had a lot more present overtones in the pagan world and “late Judaism” (111; Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995]). It was about health, riches, liberation from a current crises, or progeny questions. This background might shed more light on the mindset of the believers at Corinth and there seemingly confusion of the resurrection of the dead (see ch. 15).
In v.26 Paul writes that “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” which tells us that some were wise, powerful, and of noble birth. This then would also bear tremendous challenges on the ekklēsia in Corinth. How should they deal know with those social barriers? And how do they live out the Christian calling in a culture which is defined by such standards?
Three metaphors which have historical and cultural bearing on the passage under discussion are: (1) juridical; (2) religious; and (3) slavery imagery. In v. 30 those three aspects of culture are used by the apostle to explain what salvation is all about (Witherington, 117).
Right from the beginning the apostle points out the foolishness of the cross to those who are perishing, but that this same foolishness is the power of God for salvation to those who believe. In other words the kerygma of the cross is utter nonsense to the unbeliever, yet the most precious message heard by those who are called into the fellowship of God’s Son.
In vv. 19-21 he gives proof from Scripture (v.19 quoting Isa 29:14: God destroys the wisdom of the wise) and uses Isa 33:18, which in its own context relates to the vainness to oppose the people of God. In v.20 he asks “Where is the one who is wise?” referring to the general rubric of wise people and then refers to the suzētētēs (debater; rhetorically skilled speaker) and grammateus (scribe; scholar of the Torah) to describe the wise people among the Greeks and the Jews respectively. It is through the foolishness of the preached word of a crucified Messhiah that God is saving those whom he calls.
Here Paul explains that the Gospel is neither for the Jews nor for the Greeks to be understood on their own terms of wisdom (vv. 22-23) – the Gospel does not make sense to unregenerate people – but that to those whom God called the Gospel is the wisdom and power of God (vv.24-25).
The faith community does not consist of many who are wise, powerful, or of noble birth, indicating that there are some who had such privileges (v.26). If we take these three terms we see that the foolish (those who had no formal education), the weak (in political and social terms) and despised are the very people of God – the result of God’s election. Those who are “nothing” (that’s how the elite would term the lowly) are chosen by God so that no human being has reason to boast before his/her creator (v.29). The Corinthian believers need to see that their new identity is in Christ “our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption” (v.30). This section then is closed and confirmed with a quotation from Jer 9:23 “Thus says the Lord: ‘let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’”
In 2:1-5 St. Paul reminds his readers that he came not with lofty speech (skills in rhetoric), but “in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” His proclamation of the Gospel should be solely grounded in the power of the Spirit, so that their faith could be firmly established in God’s very own power instead of any human construct.
This passage has a lot to say to the church today. Social, racial, and economical barriers should not be found in the Church of God. God’s elected family does not know any such hindrances in relationship and we are to live on equal terms!
Another aspect to keep in mind is that we should not be surprised if our unbelieving neighbors and friends ridicule us for our “foolish” belief in a crucified Messiah. The Gospel is foolishness if seen in worldly standards. This should not be shocking but a word of encouragement to us. We need to see that our role in witnessing to Christ is not to convince people (by great rhetorical speeches; emotional manipulations, etc.) but to let the Spirit work through us.
Finally, the Gospel is the central message of the church we need to communicate – without apology or human defense. Without the Gospel there is no Christianity.