In 1 Corinthians, Paul used the theology of the Old Testament to confront the glory-seeking leaders in Corinth. The storyline of Scripture had relevance even for these steeped in Roman culture. Their foolish wisdom, unfounded pride, and boasting were not compatible with God’s wisdom and zealous pursuit of glory among His people.
(1) In 1 Cor 1:19, Paul quoted Isa 29:14 to establish that the cross is the means of salvation only for those who are dependent upon God exclusively. Isaiah challenged Judah’s self-sufficiency and willingness to ally themselves with pagan nations so that together they might thwart the rising Assyrian threat. The people of Israel thought themselves wise, crafty, self-sufficient. Isaiah called them foolish. While the Corinthians were boasting in their self-sufficiency and cultural connections, they were implicitly aligning themselves with those who are perishing. The Corinthians were in jeopardy of violating the very wisdom of God, the humility of Jesus. Paul reminded them of God’s posture toward the self-sufficient, saying with Isaiah, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts” (1 Cor 1:19).
(2) In 1 Cor 1:31, Paul quoted Jer 9:24 to exhort the Corinthians that they must boast only in the Lord. Many in Jeremiah’s day thought themselves secure in the Lord despite their idolatry and the rise of the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah confronted them for their lack of spiritual wisdom. The people of Judah did not have the insight to boast in the Lord and obey His law. In 1 Cor 1:31, Paul used Jer 9:24 to demonstrate that knowledge of God’s wisdom was the result of the Spirit’s act of revelation, not human greatness. “The one who boasts must boast in the Lord,” Paul declared (1 Cor 1:31). Paul cited Jer 9:24 again in 2 Cor 10:17, asserting that he boasted in the Lord in his ministry to the Corinthians. Paul thus employed Jer 9:24 and its theme of boasting exclusively in the Lord to bookend his correspondence with the Corinthians.
(3) In 1 Cor 2:9, Paul quoted Isa 52:15 to establish a historical precedent for God’s generosity in revealing Himself to humanity. In Isaiah 52, Isaiah spoke of God’s revelation to the rulers of the earth in the day of His servant. Paul understood that day of revelation to have arrived in Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation—what the leaders of the ancient world thought foolishness. He wrote, “What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, and what has never come into a man’s heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9). Paul argued that since God freely gave knowledge to the Corinthians by the Spirit, why would they need to align themselves behind this leader or that one, boasting in mere humans? Paul’s use of Isa 52:15 in 1 Cor 2:9 served to correct the Corinthians’ problem of boasting, and the resulting divisions, which had been his concern beginning in 1 Cor 1:10.
(4) In 1 Cor 2:16, Paul quoted Isa 40:13 to establish that those without the Spirit cannot know what God has freely given to His people by the Spirit. Isaiah 40 represented a turning point in the prophet’s argument. The Lord had disciplined His people and would restore them. Isaiah described God’s supremacy over creation and the events of history. Who has known His mind or could direct God (Isa 40:13)? Paul’s point was that since the Corinthians were justified in Christ—and had thus received the Spirit—they were able to evaluate all matters from a spiritual perspective. Their pagan neighbors, on the other hand, would continue to look down on the church so long as those neighbors did not have the Spirit. Paul’s use of Isa 40:13 was thus an implicit warning: stop worrying about what the pagans think of you because they will never understand the church. “We have the mind of Christ,” Paul said (1 Cor 2:16).
(5) In 1 Cor 3:19-20, Paul cited phrases from Job and Psalms to portray God’s wisdom in judging believers in the church. Eliphaz warned Job that since God “catches the wise in their craftiness” (Job 5:13), Job should cease any crafty arguments to vindicate himself before God. In Psalm 94, the psalmist described the Lord as the perfect Judge, fully aware of the secrets of human beings. The psalmist’s phrase, “the Lord knows man’s thoughts; they are meaningless” (Ps 94:11), caught Paul’s attention. Paul warned those boasting in mere humans, and those receiving the praise of mere humans, that no one could simultaneously operate by worldly and spiritual wisdom—despite the fact that the Corinthians thought they could do so.