The Wisdom We Speak

Last week our text was 1 Corinthians 2:1–5, and the main point was that we should make it our aim to base our own and other's faith not on the wisdom of men but on the power of God. I came down really hard on the "wisdom of men" or as Paul calls it in 1:20, "the wisdom of the world."

One of our visitors last week was a former student and a friend of mine, Paul Widen, and his wife, JoLane. As they walked out after the service I asked him what he was doing now after seminary and he said he was studying philosophy at the university. Later in the week when we sent out letters to our guests I added the note: "I really do believe in philosophy, in spite of all I said about the 'wisdom of men.' Come back this week and get the other side of the coin."

Lovers and Seekers of Wisdom

As most of you know the word "philosophy" means "love of wisdom." Christians would be hard put to oppose philosophy in principle since the next verse after last week's text, 1 Corinthians 2:6, says, "Yet we do speak wisdom!" There is a wisdom which we are commanded to seek and which we should cherish and which we speak. In that sense all Christians should be amateur philosophers—lovers and seekers of wisdom.

My son, if you will receive my sayings,
and treasure my commandments within you,
make your ear attentive to wisdom,
incline your heart to understanding;
for if you cry for discernment,
lift your voice for understanding;
if you seek her as silver,
and search for her as for hidden treasures;
then you will discern the fear of the Lord,
and discover the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom. (Proverbs 2:1–6)

Of course, there always have been and are today philosophers who have taught utter nonsense. So the university faculties don't enjoy a very high esteem among ordinary folk. But let me give this one caution. Probably for every university philosopher who teaches irrelevant or unchristian things, there are a hundred ordinary folk whose view of life is just as godless and destructive. The difference is, the ordinary American pagan only corrupts his children and acquaintances, while the teacher has a much larger audience.

The point is: watch out lest Satan deceive us into thinking that the "wisdom of men" or the "wisdom of the world" is only found in the ivory towers of our universities. Brothers and sisters, it is everywhere, and we must be on guard against it even in our own minds. It was to Christians that Paul said, "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

You recall I argued from 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 that there can be no saving faith that rests on the wisdom of men, because the wisdom of men considers salvation through a crucified Christ to be foolishness, and the reason it does is because, on the one hand, the death of Christ is a severe indictment of our hopeless, sinful condition, and utter insufficiency, but, on the other hand, the wisdom of the world is devoted 100% to achieving and maintaining its own self-sufficiency and ground for boasting. It should be evident from this that:

  1. No group of people has a corner on this sort of wisdom: it is the mark of poor and rich, educated and uneducated, old and young, and every race. Apart from the work of God's Spirit we all (whether consciously or unconsciously) are bent on using our minds to show off or at least to save face—to preserve a semblance of cool self-sufficiency.
  2. A second thing that should be evident from this understanding of "the wisdom of men" is that it is not the use of the mind per se that is evil but what the mind is used for, what it comes up with, what it is motivated by. Which means that the alternative to a proud use of the mind should not be no use but rather a humble use. The alternative to proud competence is not incompetence but humble competence.

The Bible may condemn the wisdom of men but it will not surrender wisdom to the enemy. The Bible may claim that man's mind is darkened but its remedy is not mindlessness; it is light. That's why Paul goes on to 1 Corinthians 2:6–13 after leveling his guns against the wisdom of men in 1:18–2:5. And that's why we must go on and not leave things where they were last Sunday. Let's look together at 1 Corinthians 2:6ff.

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. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written,

'What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,' God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. (RSV)

As I pondered over this text it seemed to me that Paul was answering at least four questions about "the wisdom we speak," which I would like to answer with him. I think it would be helpful to answer them in this order:

  1. Who cannot receive or know this wisdom?
  2. Who can receive and know it?
  3. How is it imparted from God to this group?
  4. What is it?
  5. To these I add my own at the end: So what? What difference does it make to me or you if we know this wisdom or not?

Who Cannot Receive the Wisdom of God?

First then, Who cannot receive or know this wisdom which Paul speaks? Two times in our text Paul refers to the "rulers of this age." The wisdom we speak is not "of the rulers of this age" (v.6). And none of the rulers of this age knew it (grasped it) for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (v.8). Why this special interest here in the rulers who put Jesus to death? Why not refer to the Athenian philosophers that laughed him to scorn earlier at the Areopagus?

Probably for two reasons.

1) The Corinthian church was being misled by false teachers who had caused them to be caught up with not only wisdom but also power—the stuff that rulers have. You can see this in 1:26, 27, "Not many of you were powerful . . . God chose what is weak in the world to shame the powerful." You can also see it in 1 Corinthians 4:8 where Paul puts in his own words what they are claiming for themselves: "Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings (rulers)!" In other words, you claim to experience in this age already things that God has reserved for the age to come! So with biting irony he says, "And would that you did reign as kings so that we might reign with you!" In other words, Paul knows that he surely has not attained the status of a ruler, and in ironically wishing that they had, he implies that they had not yet attained it either, no matter how powerful or wise they thought they were. So Paul refers to the rulers of this age to show that the wisdom that can get one into power will not get you to God. That's the first reason for focusing on rulers of this age.

2) The second reason for focusing on rulers of this age is because the rulers who put Jesus to death are probably the most vivid example of the fact that you can measure a person's true wisdom by whether they recognize Jesus as the Lord of glory: "If they had known the wisdom of God they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." You can tell whether a person's mind is dominated by the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God by whether he acknowledges the crucified Christ to be not a criminal but the Lord of glory.

In answer to our first question then (Who cannot receive or know the wisdom of God which Paul speaks?) our answer would be: people who are so enamored by the wisdom that leads to power and acclaim that they do not recognize Jesus as the Lord of glorythese cannot receive God's wisdom. It is not simply being in a position of power that closes one off to this wisdom—God has chosen to save powerful people and to give some of his people earthly power. It is not having power but hunger for power that blinds a person to the glory of God in the suffering Messiah. It is not having acclaim among men but hungering for that acclaim that makes Jesus as he is unbelievable.

We can see this if we go back and look at how some of the rulers of the people related to Jesus. For example, in John 5:42–44 Jesus exposed why the Jewish leaders could not believe him: "I know that you have not the love of God within you; I have come in my Father's name and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name him you will receive. How can you believe who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" Or to put it another way, you can't believe on Jesus as the Lord of glory when you are more eager to maintain your own glory than you are to seek and find God's.

Another example of why the rulers were blind to the divine authority and glory of Jesus is in Mark 11:27–33.

And they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, and scribes, and elders came to Him, and began saying to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority to do these things?" And Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question, and you answer Me, and then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men? Answer Me." And they began reasoning with one another, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Then why did you not believe him?' But shall we say, 'From men?"'—they were afraid of the multitude, for all considered John to have been a prophet indeed. And answering Jesus, they said, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." (NASB)

The amazing characteristic of these priests, scribes, and elders is an utter indifference to the truth and a desire to maintain their image. Jesus asked them a question and instead of asking themselves, What is the true answer? they asked themselves, How can we avoid being thought inconsistent? (For if we say John's authority is from heaven, then to be consistent we should believe him); and they asked themselves, How can we avoid being hurt? (For if we say John's authority was only human we might be stoned). Pride on the one hand, fear on the other, but no love for the truth. They were more interested in being thought wise by men than in seeking true wisdom from Jesus! And so Jesus says, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." In other words, it is possible to be so enamored by the wisdom that leads to power and acclaim that all access to the wisdom of God in the Lord of glory is cut off. Like Jesus said in Matthew 11:25, "I thank Thee Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes." So in Matthew 16:17 when Peter, unlike the Jewish rulers, confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, or we could say the Lord of glory, Jesus said, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven."

In answer to our first question then: no one can receive the wisdom we speak who loves power and acclaim so much that they do not see that the suffering Jesus is really the Lord of glory.

Who Can Receive the Wisdom of God?

The second question Paul answers in this text (1 Corinthians 2) about the wisdom we speak is, Who can receive it? Or, who can understand it in such a way that it is welcomed and affirmed, not rejected as foolish?

In verse 6 Paul says, "We do speak a wisdom among the mature." The King James Version says, "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect." In our day that is a very misleading translation because perfection implies flawlessness and sinlessness, but that is surely not what Paul meant because then he would have no one to talk to. The RSV, NIV, and NASB are right to render the Greek teleios as "mature." These are the ones who grasp and welcome the wisdom we speak. Who are they?

I think verse 13 gives the answer, but there is a translation problem here. The Revised Standard Version says, "We impart this (divine wisdom) in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit," or more literally "to those who are spiritual." If this is correct then the "mature" of verse 6 are explained as the "spiritual" of verse 13. We speak a wisdom among the mature, that is, we interpret the wisdom revealed by the Spirit to spiritual people.

But the footnote in the RSV as well as the texts of other versions show that verse 13 can be translated differently. Instead of "interpreting spiritual truths to spiritual people," the last line can be translated "comparing spiritual things with spiritual." The problem is not two different Greek texts. The problem is that the same Greek words really can mean both things and so only context can decide.

I think the correct translation is that Paul is communicating spiritual truths to spiritual people and that these spiritual people are the same as the mature of verse 6. These are the ones who can grasp and receive divine wisdom. The reason I think this is that the verses immediately following verse 13, namely 14–16, talk not about comparing spiritual things with spiritual but rather talk about what sort of people will receive the spiritual things Paul has to say. "The natural man will not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him" (v. 14). This is why in v. 13 Paul says he can only interpret spiritual things to spiritual people—they are the opposite of natural people.

A second reason I think v. 13 refers to spiritual people who are the same as the mature in v. 6 who receive God's wisdom, is that in 3:1 "spiritual people" are contrasted with babes in Christ. "And I, brothers, was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as to fleshly (or carnal), as to babes in Christ." It is clear that being a babe is the opposite of being "mature." But in 3:1 the opposite of being a babe is being "spiritual." Therefore being mature and being spiritual are probably the same. So one answer to the question, Who can receive the wisdom of God which we speak? is the mature, that is, the spiritual.

But now what is it that characterizes this group and enables them to embrace the wisdom we speak? When Paul speaks of a "spiritual" person he does not mean an especially religious person, or a person who spends much time in prayer and Bible reading. He means a person who is led by the Spirit of God and bears the fruit of the Spirit. We know this from Galatians 5:16–6:1 where Paul calls believers to walk by the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, and to bear the fruit of the Spirit, and then in 6:1 says, "If anyone is overtaken in a trespass you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness." In other words, the spiritual people are the people in whom God is at work producing the fruit of meekness, love, joy, peace, kindness, and the rest.

It is helpful to see here too that in Galatians 5:19 and following the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit is the works of the flesh, like enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, etc. So the opposite of the spiritual person who is bearing the fruit of the Spirit is the fleshly (or carnal) person who is doing the works of the flesh. One is being transformed by the Spirit of God, the other is enslaved to his old, self-sufficient nature called the flesh.

This is helpful because when we come back now to 1 Corinthians 3:1 we see exactly this sort of contrast: "I, brothers, was not able to speak to you as spiritual but as fleshly." Here is the same contrast as in Galatians 5. The upshot of this contrast is that we can now see in more detail what it is that characterizes the people who do receive the wisdom of God, namely, the mature or the spiritual. They are the people who are characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

This was a surprising discovery for me, namely, that the prerequisite for grasping the wisdom of God is not a certain level of intelligence, or education, or experience. The prerequisite is moral, not intellectual. It has as much to do with what you love as with what you think. Not education but sanctification is what makes one receptive to the wisdom we speak. Not natural ability but spiritual humility opens a person to the wisdom of God.

Notice how Paul develops this in 1 Corinthians 3:2, 3. "I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, because you were not able, but neither still now are you able, for still you are fleshly. For where there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and walking as mere men?" In other words, the only people who are going to be able to receive the solid food of the wisdom we speak are the people who by the power of God's Spirit have overcome jealousy and strife.

In God's order of things you cannot separate the holiness of your life from the depth of your understanding. God has revealed his very wisdom, but he has chosen to do so only among the mature, that is, the spiritual—not a religious elite or a pious clique—but any and all who by resting in God's promises are becoming loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, meek, and self-controlled. This is the person who will have a heart for God's wisdom rather than man's.

There is a remarkable confirmation of this in the book of James (3:13–17). Look how in this text the wisdom of God is described in moral terms.

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

Therefore, in answer to our second question, the people who can receive the wisdom we speak are the people in whom the Holy Spirit is at work overcoming jealousy and envy and strife and selfishness and replacing them with the fruit of love and meekness and patience and goodness. These are the mature, the spiritual—the ones who see Christ in all his suffering and meekness as the Lord of glory.

How Is the Wisdom of God Imparted?

But now how is it that a human being, even a spiritual one, can know the wisdom of God? This is the third question Paul answers in 1 Corinthians 2. How can a person make such a high and exalted claim as to know the very mind of God?

Verses 9 and 10 of 1 Corinthians 2 give the answer: "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit." The answer is revelation. The wisdom of God would have never been discovered by man on his own. It would have never occurred to him. For as verse 7 says, it is a "secret and hidden wisdom," or it is a wisdom "in a mystery and concealed." So the only way for a mere man to know it is for God to reveal it. Revelation is the act of God whereby what once was concealed from men is now made known to them.

Paul tells us something about this process in verses 10–13. He uses an analogy: among men a person's thoughts and concerns are only known to the spirit of that person. And only if he wills can another person become privy to what those thoughts and concerns are. If he desires he can reveal his thoughts. So it is with God: no one knows his mind except his own Spirit. But God has willed to impart his wisdom by his Spirit. Verse 12: "We did not receive the spirit of the world but the Spirit of God in order that we might know the things graciously given to us by God."

There are two ways to understand who the we is in that verse. Some think it means all Christians, i.e., people indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Others think the we is the persons that God inspired in the days of the apostles, who then taught the rest of the believers with authority and wrote the New Testament books. It may not be possible to decide with complete certainty but I think the second view is correct because of how verse 13 continues the thought of verse 12. The flow of thought seems to go like this: God gave us the Holy Spirit to reveal to us apostles things no one ever imagined and now in turn as God's inspired and authoritative spokesmen we speak in words taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to spiritual people.

So the way we come to know the wisdom of God is that God revealed it to the apostles by the Spirit and they taught it to others who were prepared to receive it by that same Spirit. In our day the teaching of the apostles and the wisdom of God is thus given to us through their writings in the New Testament. That is the answer to our third question, How we come to know the wisdom of God.

What Is the Wisdom of God?

The final question, which shows the importance of all the others is, What is the wisdom of God? I think it will take an eternity to answer that question. We will never exhaust the wisdom of God, no matter how much we discover. But from verses 7 and 9 we can say something—something very encouraging and full of hope. Verse 7: "We speak a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God foreordained before the ages for our glory!" Whatever else the wisdom of God is, it is surely this: it is the exercise of the infinite, eternal mind of God devising for his people a glorious future. Christ was meek and lowly, despised and wounded for our transgression, but he was the Lord of glory! So it is with those who love him: they may be despised and rejected and suffer now but they are the children of glory. As Paul said in Romans 8:18, "I consider that the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."

Imagine a father—a tremendously brilliant father, whose son is coming home. And all the brilliance and insight of this father is in the sway of his love so that every fiber of his wisdom will be employed to make his son gloriously happy. By his wisdom he knows every inclination and desire and preference of his son, he knows the joys that will go down deepest and last longest. He has all the power he needs to shape everything to his son's delight. If you can imagine what such a homecoming might be, you have a little inkling of what the wisdom of God has foreordained and prepared for his children. "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor ever even entered our farthest imagination, God has prepared for those who love Him!"

So What?

Finally, remember this: the rulers of this age who did not receive the wisdom of God, who did not see in Jesus the Lord of glory and the hope of glory, are coming to nothing (v. 6). They are doomed to pass away. It is not for such that the wisdom of God has promised and prepared a glorious future. Rather it is for those who love him, for those who cherish Christ precisely in his suffering, as the Lord of glory. These are the ones who have ears to hear the wisdom of God and who will be glorified by it in the age to come. So let us make every effort to lay aside all hunger for power and all jealousy and strife and in meekness open ourselves to the wisdom of God.

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