Paul opens this epistle by addressing the divisions within the Corinthian Church and their allegiances to various apostles. After stating he is happy he did not baptize many so that the factions wouldn't be larger, the apostle states, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect" (1:17). He then writes the following:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent."He begins by stating "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1:18). He elucidates this with a quote from the prophet Isaiah, and I think it would be edifying if we looked at the fullness of this quote:
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, "He who glories, let him glory in the LORD." [1 Corinthians 1:18-31; NKJV]
Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden. [Isaiah 29:14]What was this "marvelous work"? It is the cross and its message, the very thing Paul is addressing.
It is said that God will destroy the wisdom of the wise. Paul asks, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" (1:20) God did this with Divine Wisdom, which took flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), ultimately sacrificing Himself on the cross. The "wisdom of God" was not recognized by the wisdom of the world (1:21), for it is written that "He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him" (John 1:10). The world, always seeking to understand creation, did not recognize its Creator even when He appeared to them, and this will be the judgment of the supposed wise ones and scribes. Yet this "foolishness," which the world perceives the message of the cross to be, is used by the pleasure of God to "save those who believe" (1:21), for "those who believe in His name" will "become children of God" (John 1:12).
The Jews seek signs (Matt 16:1), the Greeks worldly wisdom (Acts 17:21), yet the Christians preach only a crucified savior who rose from the dead (1:22-23). This is a stumbling block for the Jews, who believe an executed man to be cursed (Deut 21:23), as well as the Greeks, who mock such ideas (Acts 17:32). However, it is "to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1:24). This is because "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1:25). That which man considers foolishness is the Holy Wisdom of God, and that which man considers weak is the power of God in extending His sovereignty throughout salvation. The world creates its own standards and attempts to judge God by them, and yet it is He through whom all things came into being (John 1:3), and the universe turns only by the standards He has set.
When Paul first came to Corinth, there were not many who were strong, influential nor of noble status (1:26). Yet it is exactly among these people, these "foolish" and "weak" and "base things of the world" and "the things which are despised" by worldly standards, that God will use to "put to shame the wise" and "the things which are mighty" and to "bring to nothing the things that are" (1:27-28). As Paul asked at the beginning of this section, "Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age?" (1:20), for the majority of them have rejected this message. Indeed, one needn't review the gospels to know that the scribes and "wise" ones of society (the Pharisees) rejected who Christ was, and His glory was given instead through simple fishermen, tax collectors, and sinners. Those which society considered true theologians rejected the reality of the resurrection, yet it was the sinners and lowly members of society who embraced it. Paul will write a little later in this epistle:
However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. [1 Corinthians 2:6-8]Why did God choose this to begin the ministry of His gospel? Paul states plainly: "that no flesh should glory in His presence" (1:29). The Corinthian Christians have, by the message of the cross, "been saved through faith," not by themselves for "it is the gift of God," and most definitely not by works "lest anyone should boast" (Eph 2:8-9). Paul emphasizes this with, "But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, 'He who glories, let him glory in the LORD'" (1:30-31). The quotation he uses is from the prophet Jeremiah, the full context of which reads:
Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight," says the LORD. [Jeremiah 9:23-24]The scribes and philosophers revel in their wisdom, the strong in their might, and the rich in their wealth, but none of these are what God sees - indeed, they mean nothing to Him. That which the world considers great God considers to be nothing. What matters to the Lord is that a man "understands and knows" Him. We do this through Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of Wisdom (1:30) and who, through His death and resurrection, paid for our righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1:31). Nowhere did Paul exhort this better than in his letter to the Philippians:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]This is the message of the cross: God coming down to earth so that He may bring those who believe up to paradise. We are "reconciled to God through the death of His Son," and having been reconciled "shall be saved by His life" (Rom 5:10). He has restored a new Israel, not bound by circumcision but faith, for "if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:29).
Even today, this is a stumbling block. Atheists scoff at the very notion of God, and even secularists emphasize a more man-centered gospel which dumbs down the actions of God in our salvation. Groups such as Islam deny the crucifixion and mock the very notion that God would have any interest entering into His creation. This is always even more obvious around the Easter season, as the world resists that little reminder of what they should be. It is of no matter for us - all is in God's hands, and He will reward those to whom the message is receive. As the prophet Isaiah said, and which Paul will quote later on in the same epistle: "For since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, nor has the eye seen any God besides You, Who acts for the one who waits for Him" (Isa 64:4).