The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. This is the thesis that Paul and Sosthenes propose near the start of their lengthy letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2), and also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2).
As we have already noted, “the word of the cross” features prominently in the authentic letters of Paul. See
It also shapes the way that Sosthenes and Paul begin to work their way through the many issues that have been festering within the community in Corinth—issues which apparently have been brought to their attention by “Chloe’s people” (1:11) and which may well have been further developed in discussions in person with Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, when they came to Ephesus (16:17). We have explored this initial argument (in 1:18–31) at
The thesis concerning “the word of the cross” continues to be advanced in the following section of the letter (2:1–16), which is offered by the lectionary as the Epistle for this coming Sunday. It is worth reading right through to the end of the chapter in v.16, rather than stopping at v.13, as the lectionary suggests, since (in my view) v.16 provides the capstone of the argument of the whole two chapters, with its citation of yet another scriptural text, from the prophet Isaiah (1 Cor 2:16, citing Isa 40:13).
It is, after all, only “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), which is at the heart of the preaching undertaken by Paul, who “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom” (2:1), who preached not trusting in his own strength, but “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4). Paul is concerned to ensure that the faith of the Corinthians “might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2:5).
It is “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” who provides the foundation, also, for the letter which Paul writes in association with Sosthenes, in which they set out “the message of the cross” (1:18). The two authors expound this central message through a sequence of clearly-shaped sections (1:18–31; 2:1–12; 3:1–20). The part of the argument as presented by Sosthenes and Paul in this chapter (2:1–12) both continues in the rhetorically-shaped form that we have seen in 1:18–31, and follows the rabbinic pattern of drawing from scripture in the argument (2:9, citing Isa 64:4), finishing with a climactic quotation that “proves” the point (Isa 40:13 at 2:16).
The rhetorical shaping is evident particularly in the oppositions that are proposed in the letter in a sequence of antithetical parallelisms. First, the Corinthians hear the declaration, “I did not come to you … in lofty words or wisdom … [rather] I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (2:1, 3). Then follows, “my speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4).
The writers declare that they speak wisdom, “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age … [but rather] God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:6–7). They continue, “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God” (2:12), and then, “we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (2:13).
Finally, the argument draws towards its conclusion with this striking application to the Corinthian situation: “those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit … [rather] those who are spiritual discern all things” (2:14–15). The antithetical parallelisms (not … but …, regularly repeated) have functioned throughout to throw the emphasis always on the second half of the pairing, for that is the point of each statement.
So the first half of each anthesis sets up the expectation with an offering that is negated, before the second half affirms what is actually being proposed by the letter-writers: they bring a demonstration of the Spirit, God’s wisdom, being taught by the Spirit, the Spirit from God, and able to discern all things through the Spirit. That’s really the short-hand summary of what the argument is, stripped of its rhetorical finesse.
Sosthenes, we presume, was one of the leaders of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:17). Paul had been well-trained in understanding Torah (Phil 3:5) and was known for being “advanced in Judaism” and “zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:14). So it should be no surprise that in this letter, they make regular use of scriptures drawn from their Jewish traditions—and follow traditional rabbinic patterns in the way they use these passages.
The two prophetic citations they make in this chapter were spoken by prophets whose names we do not know. Their oracles were included in the scroll that bears the name of the eighth century BCE prophet, Isaiah, who provided advice to kings in Judah in the decades prior to the people being taken into exile in Babylon. These later oracles may well have been shaped by prophets who traced their allegiance to Isaiah, who may well have been trained within an ongoing “school of Isaiah”. Such a school is hypothesised on the basis of Isaiah’s instructions to “bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples” (Isa 8:4).
The first oracle cited in 1 Corinthians 2 comes from the time when Israel had been in exile in Babylon for some time, and was looking with hope to the promised return to the land (Isaiah 40–55). The second oracle cited was from an earlier time, when Israel was seeking to re-establish itself as a functioning nation in a land and city that had been devastated by the destruction of invasion some decades earlier (Isaiah 55–66).
The first text, cited earlier in the argument as the subsidiary passage, is “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (Isa 64:4). These words were spoken during a prayer of petition in which the unknown prophet at the time of restoration urges God to act: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down … to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isa 64:1–2).
This prophet confesses that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” and pleads, “do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever” (Isa 64:8–9), observing that “your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation” (Isa 64:10). The prophet’s faith is expressed in the final phrase of the cited text, in that the Lord “works for those who wait for him” (Isa 64:4). It is this faith which is referenced during the argument of 1 Corinthians 2.
The second text, which provides the climax to the argument to the Corinthians, comes from the other unknown prophet, still in exile, who offers his people words of comfort, asking God to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:2).
As the voice cries out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway” 40:3) and to “lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear” (40:9), he prepares his people to receive the restorative presence of God, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (40:29).
The oracle identifies the mystery of the way that the Lord works, pondering: “Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (40:13–14).
This is the part of the text that Sosthenes and Paul deploy as their concluding “proof text”, as they remind the Corinthians that any claim to have access to “the depths of God” (1 Cor 2:10), to comprehend “what is truly God’s” (2:11), needs to be measured by “the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2:12), the “things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (2:10), which is what is communicated through “the message about the cross” (1:18), the proclamation of “Christ crucified” (1:23; 2:2).
So the argument in this section strengthens the polemic that was already present in the critique of “the world” in 1:18-31. In that section, the criticism was levelled against “the wisdom of the world” (1:20-21, 25, 27) and also against worldly power (1:24-25). In this section, the positive contribution of the Spirit to God’s wisdom is set forth; and the way that the Spirit operates is through the foolishness of the cross, which is indeed a clear insight into “the mind of the Lord”.
In this way, the letter writers articulate “the message of the cross”, consistent with Paul’s decision to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”.