Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 3, 2024

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Commentary

Paul brackets this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with a paradox. In verse 18 he speaks of God’s “power [dynamis]*.” However, in verse 25 the apostle also refers to God’s “weakness” [asthenes].” Between those apparently contradictory brackets, God’s people find not only the beating heart of our Lenten observance. We also find the heart of the gospel.

By beginning this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with the word gar (“for”), Paul connects it to what he has just written. In verses 10-17 he is trying to speak to the Corinthians’ bickering. In verse 10 the apostle calls them to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among” them so that they “may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

The apostle goes on to express his gratitude for never having created the potential for division by baptizing a lot of Christians. Paul understands that God, in fact, sent him not primarily to baptize people, but to proclaim the gospel to them. A gospel that Paul didn’t proclaim eloquently – “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” [kenothe].”

It’s almost as if the apostle suggests that any eloquent proclamation of the gospel is in danger of contradicting the cross’s ineloquence. He admits that Jesus’ cross is, in fact, “foolishness” [moria] to those who are perishing [apollymenois] (18).” The gospel of  the cross is no more logical than any proclamation of it is lyrical. It’s naturally absurd to think that the torturous, humiliating crucifixion of someone on a cross could save anyone. It’s not unlike someone claiming that the death of a person by lethal injection could save someone. Claiming that someone’s state-sanctioned execution is, to many of Paul’s contemporaries, utter nonsense.

But that apparent foolishness, continues Paul in verse 18b, is “to us who are being saved [sozomenois] … the power [dynamis] of God.” Such talk about power is attractive to at least some of God’s adopted sons and daughters. After all, we naturally try to amass as much political and economic power as we can. Nations like to accumulate military and diplomatic power. People and organizations, after all, naturally assume that dynamis alone will get us where we want to be and keep us where we are.

Yet Paul quickly points us away from our natural understanding of power and toward the way that God graciously exercises it. God doesn’t save God’s people through obvious acts of power such as, for example, the power God displayed by creating everything that is created by the power of God’s word.

God doesn’t save God’s people through an obvious act of power such as God displayed in parting the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through it to safety. Instead, says Paul, God saves God’s people by displaying God’s power in a way that looks nothing like power.

The cross’s display of God’s power stands in stark contrast to the Romans’ display of their power. The Roman Empire flexed its power by making its subjects weak. So it, for example, heavily taxed its citizens and gave power to its tax collectors by allowing them to line their own pockets with anything they could collect. The Roman Empire asserted its military power by periodically sending its soldiers to quell any uprisings against it.

Rome also asserted its power by crucifying anyone whom it deemed a threat to its power. It publicly humiliated the people it executed on crosses by disrobing them. The Roman Empire tortured its victims by letting their death take up to several days. It even seemed to encourage its soldiers to mock and taunt people whom they crucified. All as a sign that Rome held complete power over the people whose countries it occupied.

John’s gospel reports that Pilate even engages Jesus in a conversation about power. In John 19:10 Rome’s lackey tells Jesus, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Pilate assumes that Rome has given him all political and military power.

But Jesus rejects that notion of power gained at the point of a sword or under the hooves of a steed. In verse 11, after all, he tells Rome’s stoolpigeon, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Jesus insists that Pilate’s power is derived power. He has no power over Jesus unless God apparently weakens himself by giving it to him.

The idea of the cross and power even works its way into Jesus’ conversation with the powerful religious leaders who come to arrest him. Matthew 26 reports that one of Jesus’ “companions” exercises his power by slicing off the ear of one of those leaders’ servants. After telling his friend to sheath his power, Jesus asks him, “Do not think I cannot call on my Father and he will put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

On the way to and on the cross, in other words, Jesus displays God’s power through a kind of “weakness” [asthenes]” (25). God could have exercised God’s power to free Jesus from the cross. Jesus could have exercised his own power to climb down from the cross (as the bystanders mockingly invited him to do). But Jesus allows himself to be weak so that God can use his apparent weakness to save Jesus’ adopted siblings.

In verse 24 Paul even somewhat mysteriously calls Christ the power [dynamin] of God.” It’s not an easy concept to fully understand. But by it the apostle may mean little more than that in Christ, we see God’s power to rescue those who love power but are powerless to save ourselves.

After all, as the apostle ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, “the weakness of God [to asthenes tou Theou] is stronger [ischyroteron] than man’s [anthropon] strength.” People naturally assume that if we gain enough power, we can overcome anything. Paul, however, insists that even our greatest power is nothing compared to the strength of God’s weakness.

So Paul’s own rhetorical skills may be weak. The logic of God using the cross’s foolishness to save God’s people may be weak. But God is so determined to have God’s way with God’s people that God was willing to look weak in order to rescue us from our powerlessness to save ourselves.

Richard Carlson writes, “In the cross God has deliberately chosen to reveal God’s own self and unleash divine power whose goal is human salvation. The irony (indeed the paradox) of the divine scheme is that the cross is the last place where humanity would expect to discover God’s ultimate wisdom and power.”

Those who wish to follow Jesus to his cross naturally wish to gain and use power to our advantage. Jesus summons us to a more cruciform way. He invites his followers to put away our various swords and take up the towel he took to show apparent weakness by washing his disciples feet. He then apparently weakly let the powerful Romans torture him to death. All for the salvation of naturally power-hungry people like his friends.

Preachers might prayerfully consider returning to the theme of factionalism and division that precedes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. How, after all, do Christians naturally evaluate the strength of “our side” in various theological, ecclesiastical and ethical disagreements? Don’t we do things like count up the votes and try to persuade people to join our side so that we may have power over folks on the other side? I Corinthians 1’s Paul and Jesus summon us to a more godly way. Through the work of the Spirit, they invite us to allow ourselves to appear weak so that God’s saving power may be evident in and through us.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.

[Note: In addition to our weekly sermon commentaries, we have a special resource page for Lent and Easter for you to explore.]


Robert Harris book, Imperium A Novel of Ancient Rome, offers an interesting example of the way someone feigns weakness in order to gain power. Its Cicero challenges the vain Pompey to accept the role of the “supreme commander” of Rome in order to have a free hand in routing pirates who are disturbing the empire.

Yet Pompey is ready to grab this power at once, Cicero tells him to play act as if he’s weak. “’You will leave the city tomorrow, and you will not come back. The more reluctant you seem, the more frantic the people will be for your recall. You will be our Cincinnatus, fetched from his plow to save the country from disaster. It is one of the most potent myths in politics’.”

“Some of those present,” adds Harris, “were opposed to such a dramatic tactic, considering it too risky. But the idea of appearing modest appealed to Pompey’s vanity. For is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? The more Pompey thought about it, the more he liked it.”


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