Read 1 Corinthians 2: 6-16 here
Our passage today picks up immediately from the verses we discussed last week. By way of very quick recap, following the greeting (1:1-9), where among other things, Paul asserts his authority, by virtue of his calling, as an apostle, the body of the letter (1:10-2:5) has Paul addressing the division or quarreling in the church. And here, we are following Gordon Fee who argues that the division is primarily between the church as a whole (though, likely not every member) disagreeing with Paul.
And a primary element of this division, or quarreling, seems to be a congregation that is enamored with wisdom as indicating spiritual maturity (Paul also briefly mentions an infatuation with signs, but we’ll leave that for now). In other words, there are those in the church who think that the demonstration of wisdom is the indication of spiritual authority. Which might seem fine, but the Corinthians’ understanding of wisdom is not a biblical wisdom, but the sort of wisdom that the world values. And Paul says that the world’s wisdom is not God’s wisdom. And that brings us to our passage today.
Now the first thing that I would say – and this is probably obvious – is that these verses are largely marked by contrasts. More specifically, Paul is contrasting the ways of the world (in which the Corinthians seem mired) with the ways of God. The most explicit way that Paul identifies this is between the wisdom of the world (and, therefore, the Corinthians) and the wisdom of God. The first part of our passage, vv. 6-10a describe this basic contrast. Paul says:
6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom…1 Corinthians 2: 6-7
We’ve already encountered this contrast in last week’s passage and we spoke briefly of the significance of the term, “wisdom.” We noted that the Corinthians’ understanding of wisdom was likely rooted in the Greek concept of sophia. We also mentioned in passing that that this may indicate some proto-Gnostic leanings in the Corinthian congregation. And, in short, Paul is demonstrating that the Corinthians’ love of sophia (wisdom) is not true wisdom at all. This theme is strewn throughout the passage:
- 6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom…
- 7a God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden…
- 11b In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God..
- 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand…
- 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.
- 14 The person without the Spirit … cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.
Now we won’t get into the details of a possible relationship with Gnosticism here (though, remember, Gnosticism (here, at best, proto-Gnosticism) is concerned with knowledge or secret knowledge that leads to enlightenment). But we can see the language of this kind of thinking or philosophy throughout (wisdom, mystery, thoughts, understanding). In other words, Paul is using their own terms, their own “language” to demonstrate the error of their thinking.
And what’s important for our purposes (and I think what Paul is trying to highlight) is that the true wisdom or knowledge comes from God. That is, what comes from God is true wisdom (and we discussed this last week, and before). But what he’s also saying is that true wisdom comes only from God.
In vv. 10b-13, Paul says that believers are let in on this mystery by the Holy Spirit. We read:
10b The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.1 Corinthians 2: 10b-13
With these verses, Paul seems to be doing a couple of things. Firstly, Paul tells his readers (and us) that the “deep things of God,” the “thoughts of God,” are only made known to human beings by the Spirit of God. In other words, the true wisdom is a matter of God’s grace, not human accomplishment. Indeed, as the “thoughts of God” can only be known (and, subsequently made known) by the Spirit of God, human beings cannot know the wisdom of God except by God’s revelation.
We don’t need to spend a lot of time on this here, but this simple statement highlights a couple of elements of theology. The first is that of total depravity – or the notion that there is no part of human being that is not touched or corrupted by sin. And the second is that of God’s grace. To put it another way, Paul is highlighting the truth that human beings cannot achieve true or saving wisdom except by God’s intervention and grace.
This may seem so obvious to us that it doesn’t need to be mentioned. However, Paul brings it up presumably precisely because of the Corinthians’ propensity to pride. But we will talk more about this later.
So here, we get a second contrast – that wisdom is not a human achievement or accomplishment, but a gift of God, dependent solely on God’s grace.
The second thing that Paul seems to be doing with this passage is addressing the perception or accusation that Paul’s authority as an apostle is lacking (something we discussed in the last couple of weeks). As we said last week, it appears that some have decided that Paul’s teaching doesn’t reflect the kind of ideal Hellenistic wisdom that they so appreciate. To this, Paul says:
13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.1 Corinthians 2: 13
So here, Paul is asserting, as he does earlier in the letter, that his words (and therefore, his authority) is because of what is given to him by the Holy Spirit. And the way Paul says this is important. Firstly, notice that Paul says that what he speaks is “not in words taught…by human wisdom…” Here, we might note that “words” is the Greek word Logos, which is a favourite of the Gnostics (or again, the proto-Gnostics). That it is not Logos again highlights the contrast between worldly wisdom and true (or Godly) wisdom. But Paul goes on to say instead that what he teaches is “words taught by the Spirit,” and “Spirit-taught words.” Now we’re not going to get into the details of the Greek, but it’s worth noting that the NIV may lead us to identify the repetition of “words.” However, this repetition is unique to the NIV. Other translations use, for example, “truths,” “thoughts,” or even “things.”
So Paul’s emphasis doesn’t seem to be on “words” or Logos. Instead, in the Greek, we notice the repetition of the word (or variations of) “spiritual.” Paul’s emphasis, therefore, is that his teaching is spiritual.
We touched on this briefly last week, and we will see much more of it later in the letter. But here we seem to see Paul setting up a third contrast. And that has to do with what it means to be truly spiritual. The Corinthians seem to have decided that, not only does Paul’s teaching not display enough “wisdom,” but they also seem to have decided Paul is not “spiritual” enough.
So as Paul asserts that his teaching, what he speaks, is authoritative because it is given by God’s Spirit, he in the same breath asserts that this is in fact what it means to be spiritual. And without delving into what that looks like (because Paul doesn’t talk about it here), the important point is that his “spirituality” is given by God.
The final set of verses expand on the idea that God’s wisdom must be revealed by God. In vv. 14-16, Paul says:
14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.1 Corinthians 2: 14-16
Turning to the commentators here (Fee, Thiselton, Witherington), they seem to agree that “the person without the Spirit” refers to those who are not believers. Rather, those who are of the world and not of God (and by this, again, I mean non-believers as opposed to believers who we might judge as “worldly), find God’s wisdom to be foolishness. And of course, this again highlights the contrast that Paul is making between worldly wisdom and God’s true wisdom.
But more than that, we might anticipate that Paul is addressing those within the church who are creating hierarchies based on who has access to more wisdom (or whatever else, as we will see later). Instead, and here I’m paraphrasing and probably making some assumptions, believers (who have all responded to the revelation about God’s wisdom) are free from judgements based on the wisdom of the world.
Now obviously there is quite a lot going on in these few verses. So if we can sum up the main ideas that I think Paul is bringing up, we might note the following:
- God’s wisdom is not the world’s wisdom. We’ve talked about this at length and therefore, probably don’t need to discuss it further.
- God’s wisdom is revealed by God’s grace. The revelation that leads to salvation is not because of anything that we have achieved or accomplished. God’s revelation doesn’t depend on the one who receives it – one’s intelligence, insight, or anything else. It depends solely on the goodness of the Giver.
- Therefore, it is a matter of thanksgiving, not pride. Because God’s revelation and God’s salvation is purely a matter of God’s grace, there is no grounds for any recipient to be proud of having received God’s gift (imagine if we thought someone else’s generosity in giving a gift was cause for our boasting about ourselves).
If we reflect on these verses a little bit, there are several thoughts that I could perhaps share. The first has to do with the nature of wisdom. We talked a little bit about this last week as well. And remember that the Corinthians had particular ideas or assumptions about wisdom. And those ideas and assumptions were likely shaped by the world in which they found themselves – the world of Corinth. And what Paul is saying, in part, is those ideas about wisdom are not, in fact, the true wisdom which God reveals.
For Paul, true wisdom is found only in Jesus Christ. Once again, we’ve explored this idea at length. When we think about the picture of Jesus that we get in the gospels (for example), we see Jesus doing things in ways that are very different than what people expected or wanted. The example of Jesus’ life and death shows us a very different picture of wisdom.
But Paul is saying something far deeper than that Jesus is our example. For Paul, Jesus doesn’t just demonstrate wisdom – He’s not merely an example of wisdom. Rather, wisdom is personified in Jesus – Jesus is wisdom. Now I cannot explain exactly how that works out. But think about what Paul means when he says (and this is in last week’s passage):
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.1 Corinthians 1: 22-24
1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.1 Corinthians 2: 1-2
So without going on much more about this, in the past, we’ve suggested that the biblical idea of wisdom has something to do with the knowledge and understanding of how to live life well. And what I’m suggesting is that Paul is saying that this can only be done in Jesus.
The second thought or reflection I want to share about this passage has to do with the notion that this wisdom is only given by, and can only be received by, the Holy Spirit. Again, as we’ve talked about this at length, I won’t go on about it too much. But what I’d like us to reflect on is, “what does it mean for us to remain in a posture of receiving?”
I wonder if, for various reasons, we are prone to think about the life of faith as something we have to accomplish, something we have to achieve. Do we think about the Christian walk as something we have to get better at?
Now of course there is a degree of truth to that. It takes effort and intention to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us. It takes effort and intention to forsake the ways of sin, the ways of the world, and live into God’s kingdom and God’s purposes. And it takes effort and intention to embrace this community into which we have been saved. Scripture tells us that we are indeed called to respond. And we seek to do that with all of our being.
So I’m not saying that we don’t have to try or that we cannot do anything. But what I am suggesting is that our first orientation is to receive. Our first inclination should be to be open to what God is doing.
So I invite us all to be attentive to God and His work in us and the world. The place where we most do this is in prayer. In prayer, though we of course bring our concerns and petitions to God, we must most be open to His leading, His working, and His wisdom. But we also seek to do this in all aspects of our living. So my prayer for all of us is that we would seek to find ourselves solely in Him.