Summarizing the Letter Thus Far
Let me try to sum up what we have seen so far in this letter and try to put today's text in relation to what has gone before.
To "Those Sanctified in Christ Jesus"
In 1:2 Paul addresses the church as "those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints." He does this even though he knows that there are professing believers who are not genuine mixed in with the true believers of this church (11:19—"There must be factions that those who are genuine among you may be recognized." 2 Corinthians 13:5—"Examine yourselves, to see if you are in the faith.") He gives them the benefit of the doubt, and in the judgment of charity talks to the whole church as those who have been called.
A Hopeful and Humbling Opening
In 1:8 he says that one of the marks of the called is that they will be sustained to the end—that is, they will persevere in faith because God is faithful to his call. Those whom he calls he will glorify! Verse 8: "He will sustain [confirm] you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (9) God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
So he begins his letter on a hopeful and humbling note: God is the one who called you into the fellowship of his Son, and God is the one who will confirm you in that relationship and keep you there. It is humbling because God is the one who brought us to Christ, and it is hopeful because God's very faithfulness is at stake in keeping us there.
Aiming to Overcome All Pride
Then we saw in 1:10–17 that there were divisions and boasting in Corinth, and people were lining up behind their favorite teacher and boasting (v. 12), "'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas.'"
So virtually everything Paul says in the rest of the first four chapters is aimed to overcome this pride. This tendency to boast in men.
Mainly Paul focuses their attention on the cross:
- Verse 13, "Was Paul crucified for you?" (So don't boast in me!)
- Verse 17, "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." (Don't boast in a man's oratory or intellect; look for the cross in his preaching and in his life.)
- Verse 18: "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God." And almost the same, verse 23: "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (Don't boast in what is exalted among men. God's power and wisdom have come in a form that puts boasting in men to an end.)
So he concludes in verse 29, "so that no human being might boast in the presence of God." And again in verse 31, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." That is the goal of the first chapters of this book!
The Cross as a Present Place of Execution
But he is not done. In 2:1–5 he picks up the same theme as verse 17—his preaching is not "in lofty words of wisdom" (v. 1). He came "in weakness and fear and trembling" (v. 3). And again he makes the cross the basis for this kind of ministry: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
Paul wanted his own life to be an illustration of what the Corinthians needed to learn. They were boasting in each other and puffed up one over the other. They had not learned that the cross is not just a past place of substitution, but a present place of execution—for their pride and boasting.
Correcting a False Impression
Now which way will Paul turn in 2:6ff.? We saw last Sunday evening that what he does next is correct a possible false impression. At least seven times so far Paul has assaulted "wisdom."
- 1:17—"Christ did not send me to preach with eloquent wisdom."
- 1:20—"Where is the wise man?"
- 1:21—"The world did not know God through wisdom."
- 1:22—"Jews demand signs, Greeks seek wisdom, but . . . "
- 1:26—"Not many of you were wise . . . (v. 27) God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise."
- 2:1—"I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom."
- 2:4—"My words were not in plausible words of wisdom."
The false impression that you could get here is that there is no place for wisdom in the Christian faith. But Paul corrects that impression in what follows, but he does it in a way that takes back none of the humbling words he has spoken so far. His aim is still to guard against any ground of boasting in man. "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord" is still the watchword of these chapters.
The Wisdom Paul Imparts
He says in verse 6, "Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age." And he says in verse 7 that he imparts "a secret and hidden wisdom of God." And in verse 13 he says, "We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit."
So he distinguishes the wisdom he teaches from the "wisdom of this age" (v. 6) or "human wisdom" (v. 13). He calls the wisdom he imparts (v. 7) the "wisdom of God."
In verse 7 he says that this wisdom has to do with "what God decreed before the ages for our glory." And in verse 9 he says that "no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God prepared for those who love him." In other words, this wisdom did not come from man. No one could ever find it out by mere human brainpower. It comes from God and must be revealed.
That's what verse 10 says, "God has revealed [this] to us through the Spirit." So there is no basis for boasting in this wisdom. It's a gift! Look at 4:7b, "What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?"
There is a Christian wisdom. It is the very wisdom of God. It is a free gift by his Spirit through revelation. And so it cannot be boasted in as though some superior intelligence figured it out.
Putting Together Paul's Two Definitions of Wisdom
What is this wisdom? We have seen two definitions. Now we need to put them together.
- In past weeks we have seen the definition given in 1:23–24, "Over against the wisdom of the world that serves to stir up boasting, he says, "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, the power of God and the wisdom of God." So what is the wisdom of God? Christ crucified, and the preaching of Christ crucified.
- The other definition of God's wisdom is given in 2:7–9. Verse 7: God decreed this wisdom for our glorification. And verse 9 says that it is something no eye has seen nor ear heard nor man ever dreamed of, namely, what God has prepared for those who love him. So in both verses 7 and 9 the wisdom of God is the revelation of what is in store for believers in the age to come—something unimaginably great!
Now how do these two aspects of God's wisdom fit together—the preaching of Christ crucified and the hope of unimaginable glory? Verse 8 gives the clue: "None of the rulers of this age understood this [wisdom of God]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory."
The Cross as the Path to Glory
Here the two things are brought together: the crucifixion and the Lord of glory. What the rulers of this age could not and cannot see is that the path to glory is through the cross. This is the wisdom of God that is foolishness to men—the inheriting of an unimaginably glorious future in the presence of God, obtained by pride-abandoning faith in a scorned, weak, foolish-looking, crucified Jewish teacher who was the very Lord of glory.
The reason (v. 7) Paul calls this wisdom of God a "secret and hidden" wisdom is that the relationship between the age of glory and the humiliating execution of the Messiah was not fully revealed until the days when Christ and his apostles began to unfold it. But now it is being revealed by the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, and they are imparting it (v. 13) to others—to us.
That brings us to today's text, verses 14–16.
Breaking Down the Last Foothold of Boasting
Paul has stressed in verses 9–13 that the wisdom of God is a gift from the Holy Spirit, not a product of the human mind. In other words we are dependent on the Holy Spirit and should not boast in man—not Paul or Apollos or Cephas. But might not someone boast in the ability to understand or receive this wisdom?
A lot of people are willing to talk of salvation or revelation or wisdom as a gift of God, and give him the credit for it. But when it comes to the receiving of that salvation or revelation or wisdom, they are take credit for that themselves. And so a foothold for boasting is retained.
But as long as I have meditated on verses 14–16, I cannot escape the impression that the reason these verses are written is to abolish that last refuge of self-reliance. Not only is the wisdom of God a gift because it comes through revelation (that's the point of verses 9–13a); it is also a gift because the ability to recognize it as wisdom and receive it is a work of the Holy Spirit.
Interpreting Spiritual Truths to Spiritual People
Paul ends verse 13 by saying that he interprets spiritual truths (which I take to mean "the wisdom of God," the revelation he has received from the Holy Spirit—which is why it is called spiritual)—he interprets spiritual truths to "those who possess the Spirit," or literally, "spiritual people." It's the same words used at the beginning of verse 15, "the spiritual (man)."
In other words the last part of verse 13 seems to say that the only people who are willing and able to receive what Paul has to teach are spiritual people, that is, people who have the Holy Spirit.
Verse 14–16 are written to confirm and explain that.
Unpacking the Meaning of 2 Corinthians 2:14–16
Let me try to take these phrases one at a time and unpack some of their meaning:
"The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God."
The unspiritual man is the natural man, the man who is merely human, who is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He does not receive the things of the Spirit, that is, he is unwilling to approve and welcome the wisdom of God revealed by the Spirit. Why? The verse goes on:
"For they are folly to him."
This recalls 1:18, "The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." And verse 23, "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles."
Paul has never left behind his main concern: the proud opposition in the human heart to the word of the cross. By nature (as natural people, without the Holy Spirit) we think the preaching of Christ crucified is foolish. This proves to be a great bondage to us, as the text goes on in verse 14 to say:
"and he is not able to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
Notice the shift from "he does not" receive them to "he cannot" understand them. This is what I meant by bondage. Apart from the Holy Spirit, our moral character is so proud and so evil and so rebellious toward the humbling word of the cross that not only DO we not receive it, but we CANNOT, therefore, even grasp its true worth and significance. We are in bondage to the irrational impulses of pride, and the result is blindness to the truth and beauty of the cross.
And the blindness is blameworthy. It is culpable blindness. The CANNOT of this verse does not remove moral accountability. The natural man is responsible to receive and trust in the the word of the cross, because the only thing holding him back is his blameworthy bent toward pride. And pride does not remove accountability.
When it says at the end of verse 14 that the things of the Spirit of God are spiritually discerned, it means that what a natural man needs is the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart to liberate him from his irrational pride and free him to own up to the wisdom and power of the cross of Christ. Without the Spirit, we are so rebellious against the cross and against the Lord of glory that we will not and cannot recognize the truth and beauty of a crucified Christ.
The Difference Between the Natural and Spiritual Man
That is the plight of the natural man. Now what is the difference between the natural man and the spiritual man? Look at 1:23–24. Without using the words "natural" and "spiritual," Paul describes the natural man and the spiritual man and what the difference in response to the gospel is:
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles [that is the response of the natural man], but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God [that is the response of the spiritual man].
But now what is the difference between these two people? Why does one respond to the gospel with rejection and the other with acceptance? Answer: One is called.
So, putting these verses together with 2:14–16, we can say that the difference between those who receive the things of the Spirit and those who don't is that one is called and spiritual and one is not called and therefore natural. And I infer from this that the call of God is that act by which the Spirit invades our life and overcomes the rebellion and pride that keeps us from seeing the truth and beauty of Christ.
The Life of the Spiritual Man
Verses 15–16 describe what a person does who receives that call and becomes spiritual by the invasion of the Spirit in their life. Let me paraphrase these two verses to try to bring out the meaning very quickly:
The spiritual man, the person changed by the Spirit and called into fellowship with Christ, judges all things, that is, he approves (not merely judges) all the things of the Spirit that he hears taught by the apostles or reads in their writings.
But he himself is judged by one, that is, no natural man approves the faith and life of the spiritual man. Just as the cross and the glory of Christ is a foolishness to natural men, so those who love these things seem fools too. And so spiritual men are judged wrongly by the world.
For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? That is, no natural man, apart from the Holy Spirit has any access to the mind of God. Verse 11b: "No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God."
Nevertheless, because the Spirit has been given to us, and has changed our proud rebellion into willing submission, we yearn for the unimaginable glory of God and we see the cross as the very wisdom and power of God. That is, we have the mind of Christ.
How We Should Respond
Now what should we do with this truth this morning?
If you are among those who see in Christ and hear in the word of the cross the beauty and wisdom and power of God and cast yourself on it for hope and life and joy, then the point of the text for you is to increase your reliance on him—to remind you that your willingness to receive the things of the Spirit is a gift of God. It was he that overcame your rebellion and subdued your pride, and freed you to see the glory of the cross.
But if you are still among those who do not embrace the cross as the very wisdom of God and who do not welcome the things of the Spirit into your life, then the point of the text for you is an urgent warning and invitation:
- consider this morning what a hopeless condition you are in without Christ,
- consider how perfectly suited the gospel is to your need, the Lord of glory dying in the place of sinners,
- consider how dangerous it is to be held back by pride,
- consider the unimaginably glorious future that God has for those who love him,
- forsake pride,
- drop the props of self-exaltation,
- look to Christ, believe, and be saved.