26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."
Our society has perfected a cult of fame like no other time in the history of the world. We have created entire industries that are built around this cult of fame. In the American, western society, we have spent a great deal of time separating the important people from the nobodies. Most people spend a great deal of their time either trying to become a somebody, or stay a somebody. Very few Americans actually choose to be a nobody or want to voluntarily stay that way.
Corinth was a city that was not all that different from modern America in many ways. They, like many in our society, had an obsession with being somebodies. There were the typical ways of becoming a somebody such as being born into a wealthy or powerful family. In Corinth, though, they also gave special attention to those who could speak well, reason well, and argue well. They idolized intellect and rhetorical skills. They were the people who became the somebodies in Corinth, those who were wise by human standards.
Paul calls his original readers to remember that before they became Christians, most of them would have been counted in the nobody category. Most of them weren’t from wealthy, powerful, or influentially political backgrounds. Probably none of them were famous or intellectual speakers. They were not wise, influential, or of noble birth, in words that echo Jeremiah’s from Jeremiah 9:23, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches’”.
Paul has laid out the human situation, but God, he says has turned things upside down. He has changed things dramatically in making the nobodies of the world, somebodies. God took the foolish to shame the wise of the world. He chose the weak to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised to shame the important things of the world. God has a way of using the weak and incapable so that everyone can understand that things are happening because of His power and strength, not our own abilities. The important thing for them to realize was that God took the initiative in all of this. He came and chose them, he called them, he justified them. It is only because of God’s gift that God has given them the same status in his eyes that Jesus Christ holds (this is part of what Paul means by saying you are in Christ Jesus).
What Paul is teaching the Corinthians here is really at the very heart of the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus and his victory over death. Christ lived a perfect life, defeated death, and made that resurrection life available in both the present age and in the eternal age to all who would believe in his life. But this is exactly what so many in Corinth were apparently struggling with. In order to truly grasp the life of Christ one must understand that there is no value to their own life. The only life of value, the only life that can bring them to God or show the wisdom of God is the life of Christ. In Philippians 3:1-7, Paul lays out the truth that not only was the things about his life that seemed to be of worldly value, not valuable, they actually counted against him as a loss because they induced him into thinking that there was some sort of value in his life. What he learned is what the people of Corinth and all people must learn. Our lives, regardless of how important or valuable they might seem, are of no value when it comes to reconciling with God or attaining to the resurrection. Only the life of Christ can do that.
When the Corinthians began to argue about who they followed, the underlying motivation was to exalt themselves. When we argue about the supremacy of our position or group or whatever it may be, it is usually really a way of puffing our self up. Paul reminds the Corinthians, in no uncertain terms, that any status they may have is solely at the discretion, mercy, and grace of God. By human standards, they were nothing. Why would they then, begin to think that what they are matters. That’s worldly thinking. That’s the sure sign of someone who is no longer viewing the world from a Godly perspective. They have, in fact, got nothing to boast about. Everything they have is a gift from God (Paul will state this again in 4:7), a gift they did not deserve. You can’t rightly brag about anything that you didn’t earn or do on your own.
Paul’s point is that anyone in Christ, has no ground on which to stand and boast about themselves. This was common in their culture. Someone who wanted to make themselves appear as a somebody, would boast about how important or talented they were, or at the very least about how important they were because of the importance of the one they followed. No Christian, however, should boast or even worry about their status, because they, more than anyone, should realize that everything they have is a gift from God. This should be quite instructive for those of us who live in a time when the concept of self-esteem is so valued. There is nothing more important, we are told, than having a high self-esteem. Even many Christians have bought into that way of thinking. I have seem entire “Christian” curriculums aimed at improving someone’s self-esteem. Yet, this is a mindset that is completely contrary to the gospel of Christ. Christians don’t need self-esteem, we need a sober estimation that there is nothing of value in our lives. Rather than trying to polish the brass on the titanic of our lives, we need to realize that our identity comes from being in Christ. That is where our comfort, our value, and our identity come from, and that is all a gift from God that we cannot nor ever will earn.
Paul, in bringing up this topic, is alluding to two Old Testament passages. The first is Deuteronomy 7, where God reminds Israel that they are what they are, only because God has chosen them. Paul also quotes from Jeremiah 9:23-24, where Jeremiah speaks out against the exact type of boasting that Paul is warning against. Anyone who would boast, says Jeremiah, should boast that they know and understand the Lord. Throughout this whole line of reasoning, Paul is drawing upon the theme of wisdom from Proverbs 1-9, in which wisdom is depicted as a human. In Paul’s thinking, Jesus Christ, is the true wisdom. Being in Christ means being, at last, a genuine human being, called and chosen to live by God’s wisdom rather than the world’s.
In what areas of your life are you still trying to be somebody in the eyes of the world? What do you need to do or give up to realize that the only boasting you need to do is the kind of boasting that talks about what God has done for you?