The Wisdom of Men and the Power of God
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 2:1–2:16
1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
If the passage we have just read sounds somewhat familiar, it is probably because the Apostle Paul is continuing the discussion he started in chapter 1. The subject of “wisdom and power,” specifically the contrast between the human and the divine definitions of each, permeates the first four chapters of the letter we know as 1 Corinthians.
You may recall that this epistle was born out of the information that Paul had received about there being divisions within the 1st-century church in Corinth. Those divisions were the result of church members evaluating God’s messengers by worldly standards. Specifically, they were favoring form over content and were, therefore, dividing themselves into “personality cults” which were destroying the unity that the Lord called His people to maintain. Even today’s church needs to realize that Godly wisdom and worldly distinctions must not be allowed to co-exist.
Paul and his missionary team had planted a church in this unlikely city and had ministered there for a year-and-a-half “teaching the word of God among them” (cf. Acts 18:11). In time he would depart for other fields of ministry, but never was his heart far from the believers who had come to faith during his time there. Sadly, his converts had brought much of their old worldly lifestyles into the church, and—like many pastors—Paul had to help them “unlearn” some things before he could teach correctly the Word of God.
The ancient Greeks were heavily into philosophy and rhetoric. In days when there were relatively few entertainment outlets, people would often gather in public places to hear discourses and debates. When Paul first arrived in Corinth, he was doubtless considered to be just one of the many itinerant teachers of “wisdom” known as “sophists.” But as the crowds would soon find out, both the message and the manner of this little Jew from Tarsus was unlike anything they had previously encountered.
It is one of the first principles of public speaking for the speaker to begin where his audience is. The Jews in Corinth were interested in miraculous “signs” and the Greeks there sought for “wisdom” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22)...those would be his introductory points of discussion in order to gain a hearing. As we shall see in the section before us, there were two principle thoughts which provided the foundation of Paul’s teaching in Corinth, and both centered on the cross where the Lord Jesus Christ had died.
In the first place, he wanted them to understand that...
The word of the cross explains the power of God in contrast to human wisdom (2:1-5)
The use of the first-person singular and plural pronouns exposes the fact that much of this chapter is autobiographical in nature. We see this right away in verses 1 through 5, where Paul relates his earliest days in Corinth and his ministry among the people there. One cannot help but notice that in speaking of himself, Paul does so with great humility. That is because his ministry was not about himself...it was about “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Three decades earlier, it is quite likely that the unconverted Saul had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. At the time, his bitterness toward the Savior would have blinded him to the import of that event. In fact, he may have experienced a sadistic pleasure over watching Jesus die. But later on, when he would meet this risen and living One on the Damascus Road, his understanding of the cross’s significance would forever the alter the course of his life. Saul the persecutor would become Paul the preacher. You and I may not be able to claim an experience quite like that, but each of us at some point must come face-to-face with what the cross means to us.
Paul begins in verse 1 by saying, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” In other words, “I was totally stripped of any self-reliance.” Paul was not an ignorant man. Rather he was very well educated and advancing in rank among his Jewish colleagues (cf. Acts 22:3). He may have been well on his way to becoming the next leader of the party of the Pharisees. He had noteworthy credentials that would have qualified him for any number of intellectual and religious positions, but when he met Jesus he laid them every one of them aside in order to follow Him. Unlike the other teachers who would regularly pass through cities like Corinth, Paul did not call attention to himself. Instead he pointed those who heard him speak to Christ. That is because worldly wisdom cannot explain—much less comprehend—God’s plan of salvation.
Therefore, says Paul, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Even though, as we saw last week, that would be “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23), it would be the message he would consistently and unashamedly preach. Whether from the pulpit or in the marketplace, sharing the Gospel is not about talking someone into “accepting Christianity,” but rather of showing them Christ.
Paul becomes even more autobiographical in verse 3, when he confesses, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” Many young preachers have derived comfort from those words as they begin their pulpit ministries. And they are in good company. Others like Moses (cf. Exodus 4:10), Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 6:5), and Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 1:6) also testified to feelings of inadequacy when called to serve as mouthpieces for the Lord.
In their critical commentary of 1 Corinthians, Robertson and Plummer suggest that “It was not the Gospel which he had to preach that made him tremble...Nor was it fear of personal danger. It was rather ‘a trembling anxiety to perform a duty.’” And what a “sacred” duty it was.
Every minister worthy of the title is aware of the weight of sharing God’s message of salvation to an audience where there are likely some who are inwardly and outwardly laughing at the “folly” of it all. The preacher’s task is an awesome responsibility. It is also humbling, and the stakes are enormous. That is why Paul adds in verse 4, “and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but (“αλλα”) in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Indeed, the unlikely existence of the Corinthian church was a tangible and visible display of the powerful working of God’s Spirit. It was God, through His Word, who had been the one who had planted the church in that city. Paul was but the messenger in that setting.
The apostle’s overriding purpose in humbling himself in the presentation of his message is stated in verse 5: “So that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” As we noted a week ago, Paul is not advocating that Christians divorce themselves from academic and intellectual pursuits. Nor is he suggesting that believers search for an elitist “deeper knowledge” bordering on Gnosticism. The distinction he is making is between “the wisdom of men” and “the power of God.” He will elaborate on the former in the next section, but even here he is insisting that it must always yield to the latter. God’s power always trumps any wisdom man may claim to possess.
It is the word of the cross that explains the power of God in contrast to human wisdom. But Paul is just getting started. Beginning in verse 6, he goes on to show that...
The word of the cross exhibits the true wisdom of God (2:6-16)
Throughout the remainder of the chapter, Paul shifts from first person singular to the plural. In other words, his “I’s” become “we’s.” There are two reasons for this. In verses 6 through 9 he appears to be expanding his personal emphasis to include the rest of the apostles, while in verses 10 through 16 he seems to be referring to all Christians. In both cases, he is arguing for the “wisdom” that comes to believers by virtue of God’s revelation.
There are actually three things Paul wants us to know about the “wisdom” of God. The first is that it originates and culminates in God and is hidden from the world. That is brought out in verses 6 through 9.
Speaking with regard to his apostolic office and commission, twice he writes, “we impart wisdom,” and he describes what that “wisdom” is like. In verse 6, he says that “it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.” Unlike the fleeting “wisdom” that characterizes the present world-system in which we live, the true “wisdom” that comes from God is eternal. Paul adds that had the “authorities” of the present world-system been able to be comprehend the magnitude of what they were doing, they “would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” One early commentator expressed it this way: “The levity of philosophers in rejecting the cross was only surpassed by the stupidity of politicians inflicting it.” Whether by philosophical “wisdom” or political “power,” neither is a path to discovering God’s redemptive plan.
What’s more, in verse 7 Paul describes the “wisdom” that God has imparted through the apostles as being “secret and hidden” and “decreed (by God) before the ages for our glory.” The word “secret” is actually one of Paul’s favorite terms (“μυστηριον”), which elsewhere is translated “mystery.” The meaning of that term is described in Colossians 1:26 as something “hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” A “mystery” may be thought of as “a solemn, sacred secret, once concealed but now revealed.” And its “revelation” came precisely at God’s pre-ordained time.
Don’t miss the purpose statement at the end of verse 7. This “wisdom...decreed” by God has a divinely-appointed outcome: it is “for our glory.” In other words, it is the culmination of our salvation. Here again we are reminded of the so-called “Ordo Salutis” or “order of salvation” we discussed at length several weeks ago. The “wisdom” of God, described as our identity with Christ in chapter 1, verse 24, is said to have been “decreed before the ages” and is “for our glory.” From start to finish, the salvation of sinners is in the sovereign hands of an Almighty God.
In support of this notion, Paul cites a passage drawn from Isaiah 64:4: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” What we see here is the extent of our salvation from its origin through to its ultimate realization. It is an eternal deliverance that begins and ends with God, and which is hidden from the world.
In addition to this first point, the word of the cross exhibiting the true “wisdom” of God is further demonstrated in that it is revealed by the Spirit of God to those who possess the Spirit. Moving on to verses 10 through 13, Paul makes it clear that it is only those who have been united by faith with Jesus Christ and have received the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit who are able to apprehend and appropriate the “wisdom” of God.
The use of the first-person plural pronoun throughout the remainder of this chapter appears to expand in order to include not just the apostles but Christians in general. Coming off his argument in verses 6 through 9, Paul now writes, “these things (that is, what has just been said) God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” In other words, the Word of God which has been inspired by the Spirit of God must be illumined by that same Spirit if it is to be comprehended by the people of God.
On occasion, when I have opportunity, I will pull a John Grisham novel down from my bookshelf and immerse myself in one of his legal thrillers. As a writer, Grisham does a masterful job of depicting his main characters in such a way that halfway through the book the reader feels that he knows that character personally. There are times, however, when the character seems to go “off script” and say or do something that leaves the reader wondering, “what just happened?” I have found myself wanting to hit “the pause button” right then and there, pick up the phone and call John Grisham to ask what on earth he had in mind when he included that shift in the story. If I knew John Grisham, I might do that. But I don’t know him, and I am forced to accept the fact that I will never find out his intention.
But you and I can know God. In fact, until we do, His story will not make a great deal of sense to us. As Paul argues in verse 11, no one can read another person’s mind, much less the mind of God. At the end of that verse he maintains, “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” The “good news,” however is that He—that very “Spirit of God”—is precisely the One who is imparted to us when we turn to Christ. Notice again to how Paul explains it in verse 12: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but (strong contrast =‘αλλα’) the Spirit who is from God, that (purpose clause = ‘‘ινα’) we might understand the things freely given us by God.” We must understand that the only way to fully grasp the meaning of any story is to intimately know the one who wrote it.
For those who belong to Christ, God’s “wisdom” begins to take on a realistic quality. What was formerly vague—and even “mysterious”—starts to become clear and understandable. And as great and wonderful as that is, such comprehension is not an end in itself. As verse 13 adds, alluding back to the similar phrases we saw in verses 6 and 7, we are tasked by the Lord to “impart” to still others what we have come to understand. Paul explains it this way: “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”
This last phrase has been variously interpreted. The King James Version, for example reads, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” The New American Standard has, “combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.” And the Holman Christian Study Bible says “explaining spiritual things to spiritual people.” Whichever translation you prefer, the meaning is comparable. The only way to understand the Bible is to know its Author. He alone is the One who enables us to compare Scripture with Scripture and keep us from jumping onto “theological hobby-horses” that suit our own purposes. The “number one” reason people do not understand the Bible is that they do not know the Christ of whom it speaks.
Bible teachers and theologians will at times refer to “the analogy of faith” when attempting to interpret Scripture. That term has reference to a hermeneutical principle which states that, since all of Scripture is harmoniously united without contradiction, every proposed interpretation of any passage must be compared with what the other parts of the Bible teach. This is a principle that can only be applied by God’s people who are being led by “the Spirit of God.” That is because the “wisdom” of God is revealed by the Holy Spirit only to those in whom He dwells.
No one will ever grasp the full meaning of the Scripture apart from knowing the Christ of whom it speaks. In John 5:39, Jesus said to the most outwardly-religious people of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” So honestly now, do you know this Christ?
There is one more thought Paul wants for us to see with regard to the word of the cross exhibiting the true “wisdom” of God, namely that it is fully grasped only by those who are spiritually mature.
Paul actually begins a discussion in verse 14 that will carry over into chapter 3. We will go only as far as verse 16 today. Throughout this body of thought, he draws a contrast between several types of people who are distinguished by their level of spiritual maturity. He will conclude by asserting that it is only those who are spiritually mature who are able to dip deeply into the well of God’s limitless “wisdom.”
Now, let’s be clear about something. Given his displeasure for the manner in which the members of the Corinthian church were dividing themselves over their preferences for God’s messengers, the apostle is certainly not trying to divide them further. In fact, his motive is that by striving for maturity such divisions would cease to exist. Nevertheless, these so-called “levels of maturity” which existed among them needed to be identified and discussed.
The contrast in these closing verses of chapter 2 is between “the natural person” in verse 14 and “the spiritual person” in verse 15. We begin with “the natural person.” We are told that he “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
This certainly sounds like an unsaved person, and that is probably the case. The word that Paul employs (“ψυχικοs”) suggests one who lives as if there is nothing beyond this present physical life. His values are all based upon the “here and now,” with little or no thought for the future, especially the eternal future. Such a person “does not accept (or ‘welcome’) the things of the Spirit of God.” In fact, “they are folly (or ‘moronic’) to him.” No wonder he isn’t able to discern their meaning. This person has not “the Spirit of God.” And yet, there these persons were...sitting right there, shoulder-to-shoulder with the genuine believers in the Corinthian church. That same scene is still being played out Sunday after Sunday whenever and wherever the church gathers.
By way of comparison was “the spiritual person” mentioned in verse 15. The very word that Paul uses here (“πνευματικοs”) implies that this one possesses a “spiritual” nature or character. He is able to make “spiritual judgments,” while giving no cause for falling under the “scrutiny” of others.
In comparing these two types of individuals, Paul is actually “putting a human face” to his ongoing contrast between “the wisdom of the world” and “the wisdom of God” Which was begun in chapter 1:20-21. As a result, the disparity between the two becomes even more apparent.
The writer brings this section to a conclusion in verse 16 by citing a passage from Isaiah 40:12-14, in which that prophet asks a series of rhetorical questions intended to show man the limits of his finite understanding in comparison to God’s infinite “wisdom.” Paul summarizes it this way: “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” The implied answer is “no one!” In contrast with God’s dynamic and relational “wisdom,” human “wisdom” is both temporal and impersonal...it is limited by time and access.
So, by way of application, Paul adds, “But we (and I take him to mean, believers who are maturing in their faith) have the mind of Christ.” He is not in any way implying that the followers of Christ are as wise as Christ or that they may know everything as Christ knows, but he is suggesting that they do have the ability to think the Lord’s thoughts after Him. Or, as he has stated it, they have the God-granted ability to correctly discern spiritual things because of the ministry of the Spirit who indwells them. As we have already seen and repeatedly argued, Jesus “Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God” to those who are the “called” of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24).
Although the quest may at times be veiled in form or disguised in any number of ways, from creation until today the two things that people crave the most are “wisdom” and “power.” That was certainly true in 1st-century Corinth, and it remains true today. Such a desire is normal and natural, I suppose, but in our pursuits of “wisdom” and “power,” more often than not, we find ourselves on “dead-end” trails leading to anything but fulfillment.
In the opening chapter of his Confessions, Augustine expressed his search for the meaning to life in these familiar words addressed to God: “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.”
Augustine was right. Every successful pursuit for “wisdom,” “power,” and the ultimate meaning to life begins and ends with God, more specifically with His Son, Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
There is only one path that leads to that for which our heart most yearns. The Bible calls it “the Gospel,” and it centers on certain essential facts which must become intensely personal to each of us:
- First, we must recognize that the God who made us is holy and just, perfect in all His ways. In His presence no sin is allowed to exist and no sinner permitted to stand.
- Second, because of the sin of our first parents in the Garden, as well on the basis on sins that we personally commit, we are all sinners—and thereby hopelessly lost, separated from the holy and righteous God who made us. What’s more, because God is absolutely just, our sin must be punished.
- Third, God alone is able to bridge the chasm that separates sinners from His holy presence, and this He did when He gave His Son Jesus Christ to live a sinless life among us and bear the penalty of our sins when He died on the cross. That He was raised from the dead three days later affirmed God’s acceptance of His willing sacrifice as the full and sufficient payment owed by those who would trust in Him.
- But there is one more essential thing: God now commands all men everywhere to repent of their sins, believe the Gospel, and begin treasuring Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all that our hearts have always craved.
The word Gospel means “good news, and the best part of the “good news” is that God is not hiding from us. In fact, He has gone to great lengths to make Himself known and to reveal the path by which we may lay claim to Him, the very Source of “wisdom” and “power.” All three members of the Godhead have invested themselves in God’s great “rescue mission” of sinners. From 1 Corinthians, chapter 2, we are able to note...
- from verses 1 through 5, the Gospel finds its focus in the death of Jesus Christ.
- from verses 6 through 9, the Gospel is a central aspect of the eternal plan of God the Father.
- and from verses 10 through 16, the Gospel is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of God’s Word.
My sincere prayer for each of us is that we may truly know this Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. If you do not now know Him in this way then I urge you to give serious thought to the claims of the this Gospel. As Paul would later write these same Corinthians, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).