One of the many things that continually deepens my confidence in the Bible as God's Word is its ability to lay bare the complex workings of the human mind and heart. The psychological wisdom of the Word of God is inexhaustible. It is always more relevant and up to date than the newest paradigm for interpreting emotional disorders.
Paul's Insight into the Human Heart
Today's text is another example of Paul's insight into the complex and seemingly contradictory workings of my heart—and yours.
The Problem of Boasting at Corinth
You remember that the main problem at Corinth that Paul has been dealing with is boasting—boasting in men.
We saw it first in 1:12, "I belong to Paul," "I belong to Apollos," "I belong to Cephas." We saw him denounce it explicitly in 1:29, " . . . that no human being might boast in the presence of God." And we saw its positive alternative in 1:31, "Let him who boasts boast of the Lord." He picked up the problem again in 3:4, "When one says, 'I belong to Paul,' and another 'I belong to Apollos,' are you not merely men?" And now he closes chapter 3 on the same issue. Verse 21: "So let no one boast of men."
So here is this boasting in many people at Corinth—the psychological disposition to put oneself forward as noteworthy to get the praise of men, or, failing that, to hop on the bandwagon of some noteworthy teacher to get some share some of his praise vicariously.
The Threefold Ugliness of Boasting
The ugliness of this disposition is threefold:
- It is ruining the souls of those who have it because their souls were made to exult in God not men. It's as though a complex solar space device made to transmit distant interstellar sound waves got hijacked and put in some cheap radio station to transmit raunchy rock music all day. It's not what we were made for. Boasting is prostitution of the human soul.
- It is rending the fabric of community life into factions because of jealousy and strife (3:3). The first community act Adam performed after choosing to be self-reliant rather than God-reliant was to blame his wife Eve for the trouble they were in. And that is the way it has gone ever since. Pride destroys relationships.
- It is robbing God of his glory, because the boast that is going to man should be going to him.
Two Kinds of Reasons Not to Boast
So Paul says again (but not for the last time) in verse 21, "So let no one boast of men." And he surrounds this command with reasons why such boasting should stop. He gives one kind of reasons before the command, in verses 18–20. And he gives another kind of reasons after the command, in verses 20b–23. When you begin to grasp these two kinds of reasons for not boasting and then ask how they relate to each other, you start to see how deep and up-to-date Paul's psychological wisdom is. So let's look at them one at a time and then see how they relate to each other.
Threatening Reasons Not to Boast
First, in verses 18–20 Paul gives at least two reasons why we should give up boasting in men, particularly in the wisdom of men, either in ourselves or vicariously in our favorite teacher.
The Wisdom of Man Is Foolishness
The first reason is that the wisdom of man that supports human boasting is not really wisdom, but foolishness. Verses 18b–19a: "If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God."
We saw all this spelled out in chapter 1, especially verse 18: "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing." And in verse 25: "The foolishness of God is wiser than men." So if you want to be really wise, Paul says, wise in God's eyes, you have to believe things and do things that the world will regard as foolish—that a crucified Jewish teacher is the Lord of the universe; and that the way to joy is the Calvary road.
The world's wisdom that supports boasting and accents man's self-sufficiency is no wisdom at all. So don't boast in men.
Boasting in Men Is a Dead End Street
The second reason to give up boasting in men is that it is a dead end street. Verse 19b (a quote from Job 5:13), "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and (a quote from Psalm 94:11), "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." In other words the wisdom of man may get him to the moon, but it gets him nowhere in what matters most: his relation to God. Human wisdom feeds pride and pride drives a person away from God. And what is there away from God? A snare and futility. A dead end street.
The Root of Boasting That Paul Is Attacking
So those are the two reasons for not boasting in men that come before the command in verse 21a. The wisdom of the world is not really wisdom but folly, and it's a dead end street. If you ponder what it is about this worldly wisdom that makes it foolish and futile, the answer of verses 18–20 is that it is self-exalting. You can see that in verse 18b: "If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise." So the problem is that people are exalting themselves: thinking themselves wise in this age.
So in verses 18–20, the root of boasting seems to be an inflated view of one's own wisdom, or perhaps of one's teacher's wisdom. And so Paul opposes it by saying that you are not as wise as you think you are and your supposed wisdom is a dead end street.
A Reassuring Reason Not to Boast
Now this is very different from what we see in verses 21b–23. Paul is also giving reasons for not boasting after his command not to boast, but it looks as though the root of the problem is very different from the root in verses 18–20.
The reason Paul gives in verse 21b for not boasting is this: "For all things are yours." This is strange at first thought. It sounds reassuring, comforting. But the reasons for not boasting in verse 19 and 20 were threatening: "God catches the wise in their craftiness." And: "The thoughts of the wise are futile." The tone is one of warning and alarm.
But the tone now after the command not to boast (in v. 21b) is reassuring; it's full of relief and hope.
The first argument goes like this: Don't boast in men because man's wisdom is folly and God traps people who take that path (v. 19). The second argument goes like this: Don't boast in men because all things are yours (v. 21).
In the first argument the root of boasting seems to be self-exaltation ("I am wise in the eyes of the world!" v. 18). But now what is the root of boasting in this second argument in verse 21b?
The Root of Boasting That Paul Is Attacking
Suppose you are standing in the hall bragging about your Sunday School teacher and putting another teacher down, and I walk up to you and say (trying to paraphrase Paul's argument here), "Why do you feel the need to talk like that? Don't you know that everything in this universe is yours? Don't you know that every teacher in this church belongs to you—and the world and life and death and present and future?"
What's the root of boasting that I am trying to sever in saying that? What am I assuming—what's Paul assuming—about the cause of boasting when I say, "Don't you know that all things are yours? You don't need to boast in man"?
I think Paul is assuming that the root of boasting is a feeling of insecurity. In other words, Paul pictures the boasters as people who feel threatened or endangered by hostile or hopeless circumstances. They feel that some other teacher besides their own might shine brighter and call some of their distinctives into question. They feel that the world and unknown future events and death itself are menacing. And so they try to shore up their security by touting their own wisdom or the wisdom of their leader.
The Massive Security of Belonging to Christ
And so Paul says that the problem is that they don't realize the massive—and I mean massive—security of belonging to Christ. Why stoop to boast in men when all things—absolutely all things—are yours? Which I think means (on the basis of Romans 8:28 and 32) all things work together as your servants for your good.
Putting the Two Arguments Together
Now let's try to put these two arguments together. How do they fit? Is Paul talking about two different people? In verses 18–20 is he talking about a person who feels self-sufficient, and in verses 21–23 about a person who feels insecure? Does he have two different kinds of people in view: one cocky and the other fearful?
One Kind People Addressed in Two Ways
I don't think so. There is no indication of that in the text. He warns the self-sufficient who proudly boast in men how foolish and dangerous that is (vv. 18–20); then he tells them not to boast like this (v. 21a); and then without any turn to another group he says in v. 21b, "For all things are yours."
So how can the same people be addressed as though the root of boasting were both cocky self-sufficiency and fearful insecurity? I think the answer is found in the first line of verse 18: "Let no one deceive himself!"
Cocky, self-sufficient people, who boast in the wisdom of men, have deceived themselves. How? By denying their deeply rooted insecurity. These aren't two kinds of people in this text. They are one kind of people driven by two contrary forces held together by the glue of self-deception.
Two Forces Held Together by Self-Deception
One force is a built-in sense of insecurity, and vulnerability, and fear in a world beyond their control and threatening to their happiness. This comes with our creaturehood and is compounded by our sin. Every one of us has it. The other force driving these boasters is the feeling that we have got things under control—that man is the master of his fate, that human wisdom will suffice to solve our problems, that we have got it all together—or we know someone who does!
And the glue that holds these forces together in one heart? Self-deception. "Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise."
Two Roots of Human Pride That Must Be Severed
So when Paul wants to dismantle the soul-destroying, community-rending, God-dishonoring pride at Corinth, he must do at least two things not just one thing. He must overcome the deception of human self-sufficiency, and he must solve the problem of human insecurity. That is what he is trying to do here in this text.
Let me put it another way. Human pride is rooted in two kinds of self-deception. One is the deception that I can handle my own problems. And the other is the deception that nobody can handle my problems.
Or to put it another way, there are two ways for the pride of man to dishonor Christ. One is to feel no need for him. And the other is to feel your need is so great he can't meet it. The one says, I don't need a crucified Christ to help me. The other says a crucified Christ can't help me. The one looks strong. The other looks weak. Both are demeaning to the grace of God.
The Grace of God as Indictment and Deliverance
Why? Because the grace of God means these two things:
- We do need help; let's admit it.
- And the help is there; let's accept it.
Grace always means these two things: humility, we do need help; and encouragement, the help is there.
Indictment and deliverance! That's the work of saving grace! Indictment: "If you think you are wise, become a fool!" Deliverance: "All things are yours!"
The Master-Pastor and Counselor at Work
Watch Paul the master-pastor and counselor bring his counsel to a great God-centered end.
To the Self-Sufficient
To the self-sufficient he says, "Your wisdom is folly. Give it up. Become a fool. Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God."
To the Fearful and Insecure
And then to the fearful and insecure and threatened he says, "Boasting in men is a cheap substitute for inheriting the universe. Don't you realize that God has made all things to serve your joy?
- Every teacher exists for your benefit.
- The whole world in all its secular corruption conspires in vain against your soul, for Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33).
- The sting of death is gone; your last enemy unwittingly must serve your entrance into glory.
- Nothing present and nothing future can separate you from the love of God.
- Those whom he justified he will glorify.
- 'He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him freely give us all things.'"
Denying One Last Ground for Boasting
And just to make sure that we don't make this grace a ground for boasting in in ourselves, Paul adds in verse 23: "And you are Christ's." In other words, the only reason any of these benefits comes to us is because we are his. Christ has made all the universe to exist for our joy, because we exist for his. Therefore let him who boasts boast in the Lord! Not in man.
Going One Final Step Further
But Paul the master-pastor and counselor is not yet done dealing with the problem of pride. He takes us out of our deception of self-sufficiency. He lifts us up to see the universe as our inheritance. He takes us higher yet to see Christ as the source and goal of it all. But there is one more step. The chapter ends with the words, "And Christ is God's."
In the end Jesus Christ will hand over the kingdom to the Father and God the Father will be all in all (15:28). "From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever and ever (Romans 11:36).
Applying This to What Lies Before Us
I close with an application of this text to the challenge before us in SPA*N the NINETIES. A challenge which I would put like this:
How can we, in a new sanctuary, be the kind of people who spread the humbling, hope-giving grace of God to as many people and peoples as possible?
This text is designed to help us avoid two dangers. One is the danger of shifting our boast off of God and onto the building. To begin to glory less in Christ and more in architecture. To become space-focused instead of grace-focused.
To that danger the text says: boasting in human achievements is a dead end street. If you forget that you exist for Christ, and that your boast should be in him alone, then your new sanctuary will be nothing but a monument to human folly. Do not be deceived. What is exalted among men is an abomination to God.
The other danger we face is the paralysis of fear. The disabling thought that there is too much against us and we can't do it. Money is against us. Time is against us. Parking is against us. Inflation is against us. Detraction from mission giving is against us. Fatigue is against us. Result: the paralysis of hopelessness.
To this danger the text gives an answer that, if I had written it, would be called fund-raising hype or grandstanding or political exaggeration. But I didn't write it. God did. And it is dead serious, and razor accurate: "All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the things present or things to come, all are yours, and you are Christ's and Christ is God's."
Boast not, and fear not. Be humble and be brave.
For those who live to spread my praise to all nations, says the Lord, nothing shall be lacking.