Paul has been addressing the first of many problems in the church in Corinth; and it’s the problem of divisions in the church. He had heard disturbing reports that the congregation had divided itself into different groups or parties of cliques, with one group boasting that they follow Paul; another group boasting that they follow Apollos; and group boasting that they follow Cephas; and still another group boasting that they follow Christ. They were divided; and they were quarrelling with one another; and they were exalting themselves over one another. Instead of loving and serving one another, instead of being humble towards one another, and instead of protecting the unity of Christ’s church, they were quarrelling with one another and the church had splintered into these different groups.
And we’ve seen that Paul’s approach has been to show them that it’s wrong to boast about this preacher and that preacher, because whatever success a preacher may have in his ministry is due not to the preacher’s wisdom or ability but to the power of God.
So, do you remember last week? Paul said that when he went to Corinth, he didn’t rely on excellence of speech. That is, he didn’t rely on eloquence and lofty speech and all those clever techniques which the sophists used in those days. He didn’t rely on excellence of speech to lead them to Christ. Nor did he rely on excellence of wisdom. That is, he didn’t come to them with the latest ideas and he didn’t try to impress them with human wisdom; he didn’t come to them as a philosopher, even though that kind of thing impressed many of the people in Corinth. No, he didn’t rely on excellence of wisdom to lead them to Christ. So, he didn’t rely on his own powers and abilities and wisdom and knowledge to lead them to Christ. What did he rely on? He relied on the power of God the Holy Spirit who is able to work powerfully through the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified in order to convince and convert sinners to a true faith in Christ: a faith that rests on God’s power and not on human ingenuity. Paul was saying to his readers: if you’re ever tempted to boast about men and about this preacher over against that preacher, then you need to remember that instead of boasting in men, you should boast in the Lord who alone is able to give salvation.
Well, even though Paul has been addressing the problem of divisions in the church since verse 10 of chapter 1, he’s still not finished. He still has more to say on this subject. And once again he tackles the problem of divisions in the church by talking about wisdom. But instead of talking about human wisdom, he’s now talking about God’s wisdom. And he’s also talking about how we need the Holy Spirit to enable us to know God’s wisdom. So, let’s look at what he has to say; and we can divide the passage into two parts: verses 6 to 9 and verses 10 to 16.
Wisdom Among the Mature
Let’s look at verses 6 to 9 first. As we’ve seen before, those who rely on human wisdom — in other words, those who rely on what makes sense to them and what seems reasonable to them and who stand in judgment over the Bible, instead of submitting to it — those who rely on human wisdom regard the gospel as weak and foolish. So, the Jews demand miraculous signs: that’s what makes sense to them; show us a powerful sign and then we’ll believe. The Greeks, on the other hand, demand wisdom: that’s what makes sense to them; give us a fine-sounding argument and then we’ll believe. Well, to those who want powerful signs and wisdom, the message of the cross seems only weak and foolish. Nevertheless, says Paul in verse 6, we do have a message of wisdom. We do have wisdom to impart and to teach. Paul was able to speak a message of wisdom among the mature.
Now, who is he referring to? Who are the mature? Well, we might assume that he’s referring to a special class of believer: to believers who have grown in their faith so that they no longer have a childlike faith, or a childish faith, but have a strong, firm and mature faith. We might assume that Paul is saying there are two types of believer: those with an immature faith, who are still babes in Christ, and who aren’t ready for this message of wisdom or any other kind of advanced teaching. That’s one group. And then there’s this other group: those with a mature faith who are ready for this advanced teaching. We might assume that; but that would be to misunderstand Paul, because he’s not referring to a special class of believer here. He’s talking about believers in general; he’s referring to all believers. You see, the word which is translated ‘mature’ by the NIV should really be translated as ‘perfect’. Paul is saying that among the ‘perfect’ — that is, among believers — he has a message of wisdom to teach.
Now you might want to object and say: ‘Hang on, Colin. Believers aren’t perfect, are they?’ Well, we’re not: that’s why we need to confess our sins before the Lord whenever we pray. We need to confess our sins, because we’re far from perfect and we sin against the Lord continually. However, just as believers are ‘holy’ in the sight of the Lord, because we’re washed and cleansed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, so we’re also perfect in the sight of the Lord. He regards us as perfect for the sake of Christ our Saviour whose perfect righteousness covers us and covers over all of our guilt in the sight of God. And so, when Paul refers in verse 6 to those who are mature, or to those who are perfect, he’s referring to believers: to all believers.
Not the Wisdom of This Age
And so, Paul is saying in verse 6 that he spoke a message of wisdom among the believers in Corinth. So, what is this message of wisdom? Well, according to Paul in the rest of verse 6, it’s not the wisdom of this age or the wisdom of the rulers of this age. Now, when Paul mentions ‘this age’ here, he’s referring to what he calls in Galatians 1 ‘this present evil age’. This present evil age began when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord in the Garden of Eden; and it will continue until the day the Lord Jesus comes again and makes everything new in the new heaven and earth. This present evil age is characterised by sin and unrighteousness and by death. And the wisdom which Paul spoke among the believers in Corinth had nothing to do with the wisdom of this present evil age. Those who belong to this present evil age may claim to be wise; and they may claim to understand the world and everything in it. They may claim to be wise; but the message of wisdom which Paul spoke among the believers in Corinth had nothing to do with the wisdom of this age.
The Wisdom of God
So, what is his message of wisdom? Well, in verse 7 he calls it ‘God’s secret wisdom’. Now, there’s that word ‘secret’ again which we came across recently when we were studying Mark 4. Do you remember? In the parable of the seed and the sower, the Lord told his disciples that the ‘secret’ of God’s kingdom had been given to them. And when we studied that passage together, I said that ‘mystery’ is a better translation than ‘secret’, because a mystery in the Bible refers to something which cannot be known by natural means. We can’t work it out or come to know it by ourselves, no matter how bright or intelligent we are. It’s beyond our knowing. And so, although those who belong to this present evil age claim to be wise; though they claim to understand the world and everything in it; and though they can explore the depths of the deepest ocean and can send spaceships to the moon; and though we have libraries and libraries filled with books and books containing all that we’ve learned; nevertheless, despite what we know, they cannot work out or figure out God’s secret wisdom, because this is a mystery which is beyond our knowing. And the only way we can know God’s mysterious wisdom is if he chooses to reveal it to us.
So, think of a wrapped present. You look at it and you can’t tell what’s inside. No matter how long you look at it, you cannot figure out what’s inside the wrapped box. And the only way to find out what’s inside is by taking off the wrapping paper and by opening the box in order to reveal what’s inside. And there’s no way we can know God’s mystery unless he reveals it to us.
Well, says Paul in verse 7, that secret, mysterious wisdom of God: that’s what I taught when I was in Corinth. So, I didn’t come with human wisdom, or with the wisdom of this age; I came to you with God’s mysterious wisdom.
And according to Paul in verse 7, this mysterious wisdom was once hidden. That’s what made it a mystery: it was hidden from the world so that no one in the world could find it or discover it or work it out for themselves. But look: God destined it for our glory before time began. So, before the world was made, God knew this mysterious wisdom; he possessed it. And this mysterious wisdom which God possessed before the world was made would somehow lead to our glory. And when Paul refers to ‘our glory’, he’s referring to our glorification, when we will be glorified in God’s presence in the new heaven and earth.
None of the rulers of this age understood it, says Paul in verse 8. He’s talking about the Jewish and Roman rulers who crucified the Lord Jesus. None of them understood this wisdom, otherwise they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord. But since they didn’t understand God’s mysterious wisdom, they rejected the Lord and sent him to the cross.
And this proves the truth of the words which Paul quotes in verse 9: no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him. In other words, he kept what he has prepared for his people a secret, a mystery, a thing which cannot be known by natural means, so that even those Jewish and Roman rulers couldn’t know it.
So, what is this mysterious wisdom of God, which God knew before the world began and which will lead eventually to our glorification in the presence of God? What is this mystery which the world cannot know, but which Paul was able to teach to the believers in Corinth? What is it?
Well, it’s the gospel. It’s the gospel. The message of how the Lord of glory — who ruled and reigned in heaven over all that he had made — left the glory of heaven and entered the world as one of us; how he suffered and died in the place of sinners to pay for their sins in full; how he was raised from the dead to give them life; how he will come again one day to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new; and how even now he sends his Spirit into our hearts to enable us to repent and believe so that we receive the assurance of sins forgiven and the sure and certain hope that one day we will be glorified in God’s presence. That’s God’s mysterious wisdom, which no one who relies on human wisdom and the wisdom of this age can know. We can explore the depths of the deepest ocean, we can send spaceships to the moon, we can fill libraries and libraries with books containing all we know, but here’s something which no one could imagine or work out or know: that God would do such a thing for sinners like us to rescue us from this present evil age so that we might live with him in the new heaven and earth. We could not know it and we could not grasp it; it’s entirely beyond our knowing.
But that’s the wisdom Paul taught the believers in Corinth; and it’s the wisdom which is still proclaimed around the world today. To Jews and Greeks — to those who rely on what makes sense to them — it seems like foolishness. To your neighbours and to the people you work with and to your friends who rely on human wisdom, it seems like foolishness; and they will treat you like a fool for believing it. But in fact this is the wisdom of God and it’s the power of God, because whoever knows the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, and believes will be saved.
But it’s as if believers and unbelievers are living in different worlds and we’re unable to communicate to one another. Think of those movies, when aliens from another plant come to earth and they’re not able to understand us; and we’re not able to understand them. Well, it’s as if believers and unbelievers live in different worlds, because unbelievers are unable to understand what we know and believe. Unbelievers have their wisdom and all that makes sense to them. And believers have the wisdom of God — the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified — and it makes no sense to those who don’t believe. They cannot understand it. Relying on their own wisdom, they’ll never come to know God and his salvation. And even when they hear God’s wisdom — in other words, when they hear the message of the cross — it makes no sense to them.
So, it seems we’re living in two different worlds and the message of God’s wisdom is incomprehensible to those who don’t believe and who are relying on human wisdom and the wisdom of this age. However, Paul goes on in verses 10 to 16 to outline for us the work of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is able to make God’s wisdom known to the world.
And so, look again at verse 9 and add verse 10 to it:
No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him….
No one by themselves and relying on the wisdom of the world can work it out and discover it for themselves.
But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.
There it is: there’s the difference the Holy Spirit makes. The Holy Spirit made known and disclosed God’s secret, mysterious wisdom which is the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. The Holy Spirit was able to take this mystery and make it known in the world.
Verses 10b and 11
And in the rest of verse 10 and into 11, Paul explains that the Holy Spirit knows God’s wisdom. So, he tells us that the Spirit of God searches all things, even the deep things of God. Think of one of those special submarines which is sent down into the oceans to search the depths of the sea and to explore the bottom of the ocean and the onboard camera captures pictures and videos of all these strange creatures which live in the dark and on the seafloor. That submarine is searching the depths of the ocean and it’s exploring the sea floor in order to find out and to know what’s living there. Well, the Holy Spirit is able to search out and to explore and investigate the depths of God so that God’s wisdom is not a mystery to the Holy Spirit, but is known to him.
And then Paul compares the Holy Spirit who knows God’s thoughts to the way we know our own thoughts. So, just as no one knows me and my thoughts as I know myself, so no one knows God and his thoughts as the Holy Spirit does. I know my thoughts better than anyone else; and the Holy Spirit knows God’s thought better than anyone else. And that’s obvious — isn’t it? — because the Holy Spirit is God. And so, in these two verses — verses 10 and 11 — Paul explains that the Holy Spirit is able to search out and to explore and to discover and to know God’s thoughts and God’s wisdom.
Verses 12 and 13
And then, in verses 12 and 13, Paul explains how the Holy Spirit has enabled Paul and the other apostles to receive and to know God’s wisdom for themselves; and to teach it to others too.
So, he says in verse 12 that we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God. When he refers to ‘the spirit of the world’, he referring to the basic attitude or we might say the mind-set of the world which is in rebellion to God. It’s the spirit or the attitude of this present evil age which rejects God. We haven’t received that spirit, says Paul. Instead we’ve received God’s Spirit so that we might understand what God has freely given us.
What has God freely given us? Well, he’s given us the gospel of Jesus Christ and everything that comes with it, including the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of everlasting life. Paul says we — and he’s probably referring to the apostles, because the Lord Jesus, when he was on the earth, said the apostles would receive the Spirit to guide them into all truth — so, we have received the Holy Spirit to enable us to understand all that the gospel entails.
And then he goes on to say in verse 13:
This is what we speak.
In other words, this gospel and all that it entails is what we apostles speak and preach. And we preach it, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Holy Spirit. So, not only has Paul received from the Holy Spirit the ability to understand the gospel for himself, but the Holy Spirit has given him the ability to speak and to preach and to make known the gospel to others. So, when he went to Corinth, and wherever he went, he did not need to rely on eloquence to lead people to Christ; he didn’t need to rely on all those clever techniques which the sophists used in those days to impress the people. And he didn’t need to rely on human wisdom and the latest ideas to lead them to Christ, the way the philosophers in those days used to do. He didn’t need to rely on those kinds of things, because he was able to rely entirely on the Holy Spirit, who gave him the ability to make known the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified.
And, of course, why would he even consider relying on eloquence and human wisdom to lead people to Christ, after he had received the Holy Spirit to help him to understand and to teach the gospel and all it entails? Why would he give up what he had learned from the Spirit sent from God and rely on lesser things to try to convince and convert sinners to Christ. Why would he disregard what he had learned from the Spirit? After all, the Spirit had given him the ability to express spiritual truths in spiritual words. Do you see that at the end of verse 13? And, of course, this is entirely fitting, isn’t it? Since he’s to preach spiritual truths, then there’s no point relying on human words, or words and ideas and techniques which are taught by mere men. No, in order to preach spiritual truths, he needs to rely on spiritual words, or words taught by the Holy Spirit.
Verses 14 to 16
So, the Holy Spirit knows the thoughts of God. And the Holy Spirit has taught these things to Paul and his fellow workers. And then, in verses 14 to 16, Paul explains that the Holy Spirit is necessary to enable those who hear to respond to the gospel with faith.
And so, he tells us in verse 14 that the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. In other words, he can’t accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. It seems like foolishness to him; and he can’t understand it. So, the person without the Spirit — unbelievers, in other words — cannot understand the gospel. It’s not that they will not accept it; or that they refuse to accept it. Paul is saying they cannot understand it. Once again, it’s as if we’re from different planets and they can’t understand the gospel message when they hear it. Or as John Calvin says: faced with the message of the gospel, they’re like a donkey at a concert. Just as the donkey can’t appreciate the music, so unbelievers can’t understand the gospel. It’s beyond their understanding. And it just seems like foolishness to them.
So, do remember the different reactions to the Lord Jesus when he was on the earth? Some saw what he did and heard what he said, and they concluded he was evil, possessed by demons. Others saw what he did and heard what he said, and they concluded he was mad. Or when Paul went to Athens and spoke to them about faith in the Lord Jesus, some of the people responded by saying:
What is this babbler trying to say?
They weren’t able to understand it. And this has been our experience too, hasn’t it? The truth of God’s word is set out plainly, as plainly as possible, but those without the Spirit just don’t understand it.
And they don’t understand it, says Paul, because these things are spiritually discerned: they can only be discerned and understood by the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit must come and enable them to understand and to believe what they hear. Without his help, they’re unable to understand.
However, the spiritual man — that is, the man or woman with the Spirit of God; Christians, in other words — the spiritual man is able to make judgments about all things. Paul doesn’t mean we’re to judge and condemn other people; he means we’re able to discern and to appreciate all things in connection with the gospel. The person without the Spirit cannot understand the gospel; but the person who has the Spirit of God is now able to understand the gospel and judge its worth and appreciate its value. Meanwhile the spiritual man or woman is judged by no one. In other words, no one without the Spirit of God is able to understand why the believer believes the gospel. They can’t understand why we believe, because they cannot understand the gospel. They don’t know the mind of God or anything about God’s secret, mysterious wisdom. But we have the mind of Christ, because the Holy Spirit has made known the thoughts and plans and purposes of God and his willingness to pardon and give eternal life to all who repent and believe the good news. —
So, what are we to make of all of this? Well, two things. Firstly, since all of this is true, we see why Paul, when he went to Corinth, or when he went anywhere to preach the gospel, did not rely on the wisdom of the world, or the wisdom of this present evil age. There’s no point relying on excellence of speech or eloquence or lofty speech, on all the clever techniques which the sophists relied on in those days. And there’s no point relying on excellence of wisdom and on fine-sounding arguments and all things the philosophers relied on in those days. There’s no point relying on these things, because the things of God are spiritually discerned. They can only be received and believed by those who have the Spirt of God to help them. And so Paul did not rely on human ingenuity or wisdom, and preachers today are not to rely on such things, because such things cannot help. Instead Paul relied on and preachers today are to rely on the Spirit of God to convince men and women and boys and girls of the truth of the gospel. Instead of relying on eloquence and human wisdom, preachers are to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to persuade sinners of the truth of these things. They’re to set forth the word of God plainly, believing that the Holy Spirit will use the preaching of his word to convince sinners; and believing too that in the end, there will be a great harvest of those who heard and who believed and who were saved from the coming wrath through the wisdom of God.
Secondly, let’s remember Paul’s purpose in writing this. He’s writing to address the problem of divisions in the church. The people in Corinth were boasting about this preacher and that preacher. However, whatever success a preacher may have is due not to the power of the preacher to persuade, but to the power of the Holy Spirit to enable sinners to understand what can only be spiritually discerned. So, no more boasting about men, for he who boasts, should boast in the Lord who died to pay for our sins, and who was raised to give us life, and who sends his Spirit to enable sinners to believe.