The Cause of Division: the Intrusion of Man’s Wisdom
1 Corinthians 1:17 – 3:17
The Cause of Division. The strife and division in Corinth had a root. Paul gets down to what that is in ch.3. The Corinthians were carnal (or, fleshly), and as a result of their carnality, they had modeled their Christianity after the philosophy of the Greek world that they were surrounded by. They had brought human thinking into the arena of spiritual things. They had reduced Christianity to a set of ideas and concepts to be debated and discussed; but their consciences were not being affected by the Word of God! This is where philosophy goes wrong; it believes that man has the intellectual capacity to form correct ideas about God. He can’t. His mind is that of a creature, and a creature cannot rise above himself without a revelation from God. Now a person can know about God, but only by receiving God’s revelation to man. In his writings on First Corinthians, J.N. Darby wrote the following line that has become quite well known:
“I do not believe that a single thought of God ever enters into man’s mind by intellect. It is always by conscience, not by intellect.”
When the revelation of God is presented to man, man has a choice; to receive it or reject it. If he receives it, his conscience is affected, and he is made more responsible by it. If he rejects it, his ignorance grows. We are not saying that the Word of God isn’t to be discussed; surely it is. We are not saying that our brains are not to function in the studying of it; surely they are. But the things of God cannot merely consist of ideas bantered around in the intellect without the conscience engaged! Once the mind becomes insubject to the Word of God, differences of understanding will arise. Why? Because the ideas are not truth; rather, they are vain speculations. Getting away from the Word of God leads to differences of judgment. The next step is for the saints to gather themselves around a prominent person who can articulate their views, and immediately it ends in a schism in the assembly. This is the effect of human wisdom intruding into the things of God! How do we guard against it? Every one of us must submit ourselves to the Word of God.
We need to remember this in apologetics. Are we entering the philosophical arena to do battle with the world using the world’s wisdom? The cross must be there; its ignominy, its shame, and its reproach. Without it the flesh is unjudged, and God is not glorified. We must sanctify the Lord God in our hearts, and “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” but we cannot abandon the cross by the way; it must be “with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15). We must be careful with this in the gospel as well. If we present a philosophical gospel, it does not affect the conscience, because it bypasses the cross.
- The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Salvation (1:17-31)
- The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Teaching and Preaching (2:1-5)
- The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Understanding (2:6-16)
- The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Service (3:1-17)
The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Salvation (1:17-31)
vv.17-32 Paul gives four things in which man’s wisdom has no part, and if brought in, it would actually nullify their value: (1) Paul’s ministry, (2) the cross of Christ, (3) the sovereign call of God, and (4) the believer’s standing “in Christ”. All four of these things are completely opposed to the wisdom of man.
The Ministry of the Apostle Paul (v.17)
17 For Christ has not sent me to baptise, but to preach glad tidings; not in wisdom of word, that the cross of the Christ may not be made vain. v.17 When Paul says “Christ sent me not to baptize” he is contrasting his special commission with that of the twelve. The twelve were commissioned by a risen Christ on earth; “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). Baptism makes us disciples in the kingdom, which is connected with this earth. When Paul was called, a new order of things began that was heavenly in character. He was “sent” (that is what ‘apostle’ means) by a risen Christ in heaven, not on the earth. It isn’t that Paul didn’t baptize, or didn’t understand baptism. In fact, no one explains baptism more profoundly than Paul; read Rom. 6, Gal. 3, and Col. 2. But that was not the focus of Paul’s ministry. There are only two outward Christian ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This second ordinance is what Paul received in a special way from Christ; “For I received from the Lord, that which I also delivered to you, etc.” (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Both baptism and the Eucharist speak of Christ’s death, but one has to do with individuals in the kingdom, the other collective for the Church of God. Baptism is connected more with this earth and has no part in Paul’s ministry; he came to preach the Gospel. He was careful to insure that his preaching was not done in a fleshly way. If Paul were to bring human wisdom into his ministry it would nullify the cross. Why? You can’t borrow resources from the flesh to preach the end of the flesh. He goes on to explain in vv.18-25.
The Cross of Christ (vv.18-25)
The Cross of Christ is more than the place where our sins were put away. It has incredible significance in many aspects. There we see: (1) the inflexible holiness of God shown in His hatred and judgment of sin, (2) the boundless love of God for the sinner manifest in giving Jesus to suffer and die, (3) the audacity and enmity of Satan who thought he could exterminate the woman’s seed, (4) the utter depravity of the First Man who under the best possible circumstances and in spite of the greatest display of love and grace, without cause crucified the Son of God, and (5) the perfection of the Second Man displayed in His humility in suffering that shameful death, and His ultimate obedience to His Father’s will.
18 For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but to us that are saved it is God’s power. v.18 The preaching of the cross is fundamentally opposed to man’s wisdom, because the cross teaches that man is utterly ruined, and the flesh claims to be something great. Therefore, to “them that perish” the story and moral import of the cross is foolishness. The cross is a shameful thing; an offense to every human thought. To think that God would send His Son into this world to stoop to the level of a mere man, and then to be delivered up to die a torturous death is, to the natural man, complete foolishness. That God would punish His own Son for the sins of mere men is absolute foolishness to those without faith. Why? Because the wisdom of man denies (1) the holiness of God and (2) the sinfulness of man. The unbeliever shrinks back from it because he cannot stand what it means; it condemns him. The cross says “if one died for all, then were all dead” (2 Cor. 5:14). If God the Son needed to stoop down to the extreme humiliation of the cross to save us, what does that say for the race of Adam? It says we were utterly helpless. The flesh will not accept such a conclusion. But to “us that are [to be] saved” the cross is everything to us. It is the declaration of God’s righteousness, the symbol of His love, the end of any hope for the flesh, and the foundation of our eternal salvation; in short, it is “the power of God“. Man in the flesh shrinks back from the cross, hating what it means to him; but the Christian runs to it, clings to it, and sees the true meaning of it through the eyes of faith! Translational note: W. Kelly remarks that the proper translation is “to us that are to be saved”, indicating that salvation here is looked at as not complete until the Lord comes. That fits well because 1 Cor. 1:1 – 10:14 is a wilderness portion.
vv.19-21 The preaching of the cross has flipped the whole system of man’s wisdom over on its head. Paul shows this in two steps:
- vv.19-20 First, he draws out a principle from the Old Testament; the illustration of Israel under attack by the Assyrian, to show two paths and their outcomes: to rely on human wisdom, and to rely on the Word of God.
- v.21 Secondly, Paul brings the same two principles forward into the New Testament and applies them to the preaching of the cross.
19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and set aside the understanding of the understanding ones.” [Isa. 29:14] 20 Where is the wise? where scribe? where disputer of this world? has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? vv.19-20 Paul quotes from Isa. 29:14 to show in principle that God specifically intends to undo the system of man’s wisdom. Historically, this verse is Jehovah’s judgment on Israel for going to Egypt for assistance (man’s wisdom) instead of depending on the Lord for protection from the Assyrians. Prophetically, the warning is to the apostate Jews who rely on human wisdom to contract with the Beast for protection from the apocalyptic Assyrian. Humanly speaking it is foolishness to trust the Lord. But the Lord says, as it were, “I am going to prove to you that all your wisdom and intelligence apart from obedience to my Word will come to nothing.” The next verse (v.20) is not exactly a quotation, but a strong allusion to Isa. 33:18 where Israel has been delivered from the Assyrian by Jehovah. They are looking back and remarking on the change from when they were under siege to the time of their deliverance. They “meditate” on the terror that they had endured: “Where is the scribe? where is the receiver? where is he that counted the towers?” i.e. those who carefully counted and distributed the dwindling food and military supplies during the siege. Paul is showing the two outcomes: those who use human wisdom will fall; but those who rely on the Word of God will stand victorious! In the final analysis, God is going to make it clear which “wisdom” is truly foolish; it will be the world’s wisdom.
21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom has not known God, God has been pleased by the foolishness of the preaching to save those that believe. v.21 Now Paul brings the same two principles forward into the New Testament, to the cross. The world, by their own wisdom, never came to the knowledge of God. After 4000 years of testing, the First Man was proved utterly bankrupt. This test was completed at the cross. The First Man could never by his own wisdom pull himself up by his bootstraps to “know God”. Now with the dispensational testing out of the way, God is “pleased” to make the very outcome of man’s “wisdom” (a crucified Christ) to be the apparently “foolish” object of Christian preaching, and by that preaching “to save those that believe”. Wow… what a plan! This is “the wisdom of God” (Rom. 11:33-36). Note: it isn’t that the medium of preaching is foolish, but the subject of our preaching is foolish according to man’s wisdom. This is not an encouragement to act or speak foolishly while giving the Gospel, as if it would somehow help to “save” those listening.
22 Since Jews indeed ask for signs, and Greeks seek wisdom; v.22 Power and wisdom are two of the things which man admires. Both branches of the human race have unique tendencies. The Jews looked for a display of power (Matt. 12:38); and thus were waiting for a messiah to arrive with great worldly glory. The Greeks sought after philosophical wisdom (Acts 17:21); and thus worshipped only gods that they could conceive of in their imagination. That is why neither group received the Savior when He came.
23 but “we” preach Christ crucified, to Jews an offence, and to nations foolishness; v.23 Paul says “we preach” something that is totally incompatible with either of these tendencies: “Christ crucified”. In that way the cross is a scandal or “an offense” to the Jew to think that God in flesh would suffer ultimate shame and weakness. It is “foolishness” to the Gentiles because it doesn’t makes sense that God would lower Himself to the point of death. Life out of death is illogical.
24 but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ God’s power and God’s wisdom. v.24 But to those who are called by God, whether of the Jewish tendency or the Greek, Christ has displayed the wisdom and power of God in the very scene of the cross. However, it is impossible for the natural man to see it because he has not given up on the First Man.
25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. v.25 This verse is not saying that God has one ounce of foolishness or weakness. His foolishness in man’s estimation is far above the mind of man. His weakness in man’s estimation is far above the ability of man. Basically, Paul is saying that man’s wisdom cannot even come close to understanding God’s purposes and ways.
By weakness and defeat,
He won the meed and crown;
Trod all our foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down.
The Sovereign Call of God (vv.26-29)
26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there are not many wise according to flesh, not many powerful, not many high-born. v.26 The third thing Paul would have them consider is their own calling. The sovereign call of God does not fall along the lines of nature. Instead, generally speaking God sovereignly elects those who are poor, despised, uneducated, etc. Very few of the elect are:
- “Wise“, that is intellectual and well educated
- “Mighty“, that is wealthy or political
- “Noble“, that is important or of high social status.
Not many of these people have been chosen. See Matt. 11:25; 19:24, Gen. 19:1, and Jud. 6:15. A good example of this is those who were left in the land of Israel after the two captivities; only “the poor of the land” were left (2 Kings 25:12). Queen Victoria was a godly woman. She used to sew the letter ‘M’ on all her clothes. She said “I love the letter ‘M’ because of this verse; ‘not many noble’. If it weren’t for that ‘M’ I wouldn’t have been saved.”
27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world, that he may put to shame the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world, that he may put to shame the strong things; 28 and the ignoble things of the world, and the despised, has God chosen, and things that are not, that he may annul the things that are; 29 so that no flesh should boast before God. vv.27-29 God has chosen to use the things that men despise to illuminate the futility of their wisdom. “Crazy” Noah and his funny looking boat saved mankind and the animals from the flood (Gen. 7). A shepherd boy with sling and stone brought down Goliath (1 Sam. 17). A young lad’s lunch was used to feed five-thousand (John 6). A blind man befuddled the wisest Pharisees in Jerusalem (John 9). Ignorant and unlearned fishermen confounded the elders of Israel (Acts 4:13-16). Why? God will not have any flesh glory in His presence. “Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?” (Isa. 2:22).
The Believer’s Standing “in Christ” and Its Associated Blessings (vv.30-31)
30 But of him are “ye” in Christ Jesus, who has been made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and holiness, and redemption; v.30 The fourth and final thing that Paul presents is our standing and portion in Christ. This blessing is not “of man” but “of Him“; i.e. of God. Every need is met in the person of Christ. The believer has all that there is to have, in Christ! When God looks for perfection in any moral attribute He looks at His Son who has glorified Him in all these things: wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption. And we have Christ, so we possess all these things by virtue of our standing in His place! Do we want wisdom? We have it in the Person of Christ when we learn His mind. There is no need to turn to the philosophy of this world. Do we want righteousness? Christ Himself is our righteousness. This is a higher character of righteousness than what we have through the work of Christ; it is the righteousness we have through His Person. Do we want sanctification? We have the perfect example of a holy life and One who is working now to sanctify us through His truth (John 17:19). Do we need redemption? We have it through His work, and we see in His position now, our place beyond the reach of every foe.
31 that according as it is written, “He that boasts, let him boast in the Lord.” [Jer. 9:24] v.31 Since all that we have is “in Christ”, what room is there for carnal boasting? None. What a perfect answer to the intrusion of man’s wisdom into the things of God. To say “I need something from the First Man” is to say “Christ is not enough”. But how wonderful that Christ is enough, and He is more than enough. All our boasting is in Him!
Two theological influences on the early Church. There were elements of Christian truth that appealed to both the Jew and the Greek. To the Jewish mind, the acts of power displayed by the apostles were very intriguing. To the Greek mind, the theological framework of Christianity was intriguing (wisdom). The meaning of the cross decimated both because God used something outwardly weak and outwardly foolish to save those that believe. However, the early Church was caught in a tug-of-war between these two influences. The Jewish influence eventually gained strength in Antioch (the theological right), and the Greek influence gained strength in Alexandria (the theological left). The Jewish influence tended to emphasize that which was literal and earthly; e.g. the humanity of Christ. The Greek influence tended to emphasize that which was allegorical and unearthly. This conundrum manifested itself early on in serious Christological disagreements. The Jewish mind would affirm the humanity of Christ; that Jesus was a real man, but would not admit that He was God. The Greek mind was familiar with the concept of a logos, and would happily admit to Jesus’ deity, but would not go so far as to say He was a real man. Some would say “Jesus was God come down to earth, He had a physical form, He made physical footprints, and seemed in every way to be a man… but He wasn’t”. The Jews would say “Jesus was a prophet sent from God, with divine power and a divine commission to act on God’s behalf… but He wasn’t God.” After a number of heresies, thankfully the truth as to the Person of Christ was maintained (Nicene Creed) but the lasting stamp of Greek philosophy was left on the Church, which colored her doctrine and interpretation of the Bible for the next 1400 years! God finally gave us relief from the Augustinian and allegorical hermeneutic in the early 1800’s during the time of the recovery of dispensational, prophetic, and Church truth. The recovery of dispensational truth was resisted by two attacks of Satan:
- Entrenchment of the left. It stirred up the liberals to be more consistent and biblical in their theology; thus the formulation of Covenant Theology as a systematic framework.
- Over-correction of the right. Many false cults and Adventist groups (ultra-right) emerged taking many away from orthodox Christian doctrine.
Where is the truth? It is found in the Word of God… it has always been there. The muck and mire of man’s wisdom has come in to cloud over the wisdom of God. But the cross – the essential meaning of it – clears all that muck away, and there, shining in its golden beauty is the wisdom of God in a Mystery. So we see a beautiful progression in the epistles:
- Romans – the cross and its essential meaning,
- 1 & 2 Corinthians – clearing away the muck of liberalism (Greek mind),
- Galatians – clearing away the mire of legalism (Jewish mind),
- Ephesians & Colossians – revealing the wisdom of God in a Mystery!
The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Teaching and Preaching (2:1-5)
¶ And “I”, when I came to you, brethren, came not in excellency of word, or wisdom, announcing to you the testimony of God. v.1 Paul next turns to address the futility of man’s wisdom with regard to presenting the truth. Not only is man’s wisdom counter-productive to the salvation of lost souls (ch.1), but it is also counter-productive to preaching and teaching the truth (ch.2). In vv.1-5 we have the presentation of the gospel to sinners, and in vv.6-16 the edification of believers in the assembly. Paul demonstrates this by the example of his own testimony among the Corinthians. Paul had not come with great oratory skills (“excellency of word”) or philosophical reasoning (“excellency of wisdom”). Instead, Paul ensured that he spoke nothing but the pure word of God. Not that he didn’t ever give expositions of the word, but when he did, there was no human justification or motivation in anything.
How did Paul present the truth? In the next four verses we get four points regarding Paul’s teaching and preaching and how it stood in contrast to human wisdom. The four P’s of presentation are:
- v.2 The premise of the message… that man is nothing, Christ is everything.
- v.3 The posture of the messenger… in weakness and trembling.
- v.4 The procedure of its delivery… by demonstration, not oration.
- v.5 The purpose of the whole operation… to establish souls in the Word of God.
These are the very things for which Paul was reproached by the Corinthians. This serves as not only instruction for how to preach and teach, but a rebuke to fleshly ministry.
2 For I did not judge it well to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and “him” crucified. v.2 The premise. Paul would not incorporate any knowledge in his teaching that did not connect itself with the Person of Christ. This was a safeguard against the intrusion of human wisdom into Christian doctrine. Paul does not say he would know nothing but the cross, as some wrongly apply it. He would know nothing but Jesus Christ, and even then he would always teach in connection with His humiliation. Crucifixion is the lowest and most humiliated position in which a person can be found. It is not that Paul never spoke about anything but the cross, but rather that everything he spoke was in keeping with the moral significance of the cross; the end of the first man. Whenever we separate doctrine on any subject from the Person of Christ we are in danger of getting proud thoughts. For example; the error of Covenant Theology comes from denying the essential meaning of the cross. The cross means that God is done looking for fruit from the first man (the first man will always fail) and, secondly, all salvation and success comes from Christ (Christ will always succeed). Covenant Theology teaches that man in going to succeed in this period of time, and that the Church is going to fix up the world and bring in the kingdom! This is utterly false, but it stems from not believing what God says about the depravity of man, and the glory of Christ. Paul would not bring in the “deep things of God” (v.10) when speaking to sinners or spiritual babes. Why? Because they had not accepted the meaning of Christ crucified (the foundation), and therefore, would not be able to take in the truth connected with Christ glorified.
Human Wisdom in Two Ways. Paul avoided in his ministry the very error of the Corinthian teachers. The Greek philosophers were accustomed to tossing around ideas that actually glorify man. That is wisdom of argument; an internal use. The Greeks also would clothe their arguments in great oratory techniques. That is the wisdom of presentation; an external use. For example, man knows how to play on the emotions of the audience – to have them laughing one minute, then crying the next – in order to make them feel what they are hearing is truth, when it may be total rubbish.
3 And “I” was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; v.3 The posture. When Paul spoke it was with boldness and fervency (Acts 17:16), but there was no sense of self-sufficiency or resting on the arm of the flesh. There was a sense of felt weakness in the presence of God that characterized his style. Notice that the word ‘fear’ here is phobos – a fear that ought to characterize us, as in “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). But in 2 Tim. 1:7 the word is not fear but ‘cowardice’ which is deilia – a fear of man that ought never to characterize us. When we sense the need that exists among God’s people, we will, as Paul did, tremble as we minister the Word.
4 and my word and my preaching, not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; v.4 The procedure. Rather than use oratory techniques to persuade the Corinthians, Paul opted to show them the truth by demonstration of the Spirit. Paul allowed the Spirit of God to use him as a vessel to show those he addressed the truth from the Word of God. This is a mark of a true teacher or preacher. They not only use the Word of God, but instruct their audience to find the basis for their doctrine in the abiding Word of God. A preacher does not merely say “you need to be saved”, he shows the sinner why from scripture. A teacher does not merely answer questions, he shows others the principles and answers from scripture! This procedure allows the Spirit of God to work, and not the flesh. And that is where the real power of God is… in the application of the Word of God.
Following are a few examples of bringing human wisdom into our delivery of the truth:
- Getting a famous worldly person (e.g. a football player) to market the truth.
- Using techniques that play on the emotions.
- Using music or special effects to stir up the emotions.
5 that your faith might not stand in men’s wisdom, but in God’s power. v.5 The purpose. If Paul had used human wisdom in his presentation, the peoples’ faith would rest on human wisdom… a very flimsy foundation. But instead, he left all that aside and taught by the power of the Spirit. The result? The recipient can rest on the convicting power of the Word of God. If we are convinced by intellectual arguments without our conscience engaged, we may go on for a time, but then will be turned aside by another more convincing argument. A true teacher wants his hearers to be settled in their souls because God said it.
The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Understanding (2:6-16)
God’s Wisdom Hidden in the Mystery (vv.6-7)
¶ 6 But we speak wisdom among the perfect; but wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who come to nought. v.6 There is a wisdom which can be learned by the believer. It is not that we are to muddle along in mental darkness while we wait for the Lord to come. We should never get the idea that the scheme of Christianity is shallow. No, Paul spoke wisdom, a far deeper and higher wisdom than the world’s, but he did so to those who were “perfect” or full-grown (Phil. 3:15). This is in contrast to many of the Corinthians who were “babes”. One who is full-grown has accepted the new position before God “in Christ”, and they have accepted the moral implications of the cross with regard to the First Man, they see that they are a new creature in Christ. They have given up on self and the world’s wisdom, and recognize that all their blessing hinges – not upon man – but on the Person of Christ. In terms of Old Testament typical teaching, they have crossed the Jordan river; they see their death and resurrection with Christ! To these Paul would speak the wisdom of God. To these Paul went far beyond Christ crucified (although never at opposition to it) and spoke of Christ glorified! But God’s wisdom runs totally contrary to and above all the wisdom of this world, and of world-leaders. They along with their institutions “come to nought”, but what God is doing in His wisdom is eternal!
Practical note. A teacher needs discernment when speaking to souls. Often in a crowd there is a mix; some spiritual babes, and others full-grown. Paul was careful not to preach God’s wisdom to the babes; they needed to hear about the cross. But he would also not hold back those who were more spiritually mature. Teachers need to make sure that all the teaching in the assembly isn’t reduced to the understanding of the youngest spiritual listener. At the same time, if the general state of the assembly is carnal, teachers do well to teach the moral implications of the cross. This requires discernment.
7 But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, that hidden wisdom which God had predetermined before the ages for our glory: v.7 God’s wisdom is hidden in a mystery. What is that mystery? The counsels of God in Christ. It is something hidden from previous generations. It could not be His messianic glories as Son of David, because those were prophesied about. It could not be His glories as universal Son of Man, because those were foretold as well (Dan. 2 & 7). The Mystery is something altogether new to the saints of God, and yet ironically, it is older than anything prophesied about in the Old Testament! Often we think of a “mystery” as something that is difficult to discover or decipher. Paul does not use the word in this way. Rather, it refers to a secret counsel of God that was previously unknown in the Old Testament, but now revealed and made plain. The teaching of “the Mystery” is found in Ephesians and Colossians, although it is mentioned in Romans and here in 1 Corinthians. See note on the Mystery. To summarize, the Mystery is God’s purpose to put the rule of the entire universe under the headship of Christ as a glorified man, and to give Christ a companion perfectly suited to Him, composed of Jews and Gentiles formed into one new organism, to share all that Christ possesses and to remain in that special relationship for all eternity! This wisdom was “predetermined before the ages” in the counsel of the Triune God long before the foundations of the world were laid, or the dispensational ways of God unfolded. God waited until the trial of the First Man had ended at the cross before He unveiled this masterpiece founded on the faithfulness of the Second Man. It was “for our glory” because we Christians are that companion of Christ, the Church! Paul does not expound the Mystery here, but simply contrasts it to the wisdom of this world. He could not expound the Mystery to them because they were “babes” and “carnal”.
The Impossibility of the Natural Man Learning the Wisdom of God (vv.8-9)
8 which none of the princes of this age knew, (for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;) v.8 This wisdom of God in the Mystery is not discoverable by the mind and intellect of man. Try as he might, man could never dream up a plan as grand, as glorious, and as perfect as God’s. And why could they now know it? Because they stumbled at Christ, the stumbling block. He is God’s wisdom and power (1 Cor. 1:24), and they rejected that lowly, humble man. There is nothing in the scheme of God that exalts or puffs up the flesh. Paul gives the proof of it; “for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”. The height of man’s wisdom led them to take the object of God’s wisdom and humiliate Him to the maximum degree possible. The Lord of glory – the One destined for universal glory – they crucified. How far short their thoughts fell from the wisdom of God. And even then, their ignorant (though responsible) act was used by God to lay the foundation for His own glorious plan! “This age“ is the Mosaic age, and it will run on to the appearing of Christ. It became evil with the rejection and crucifixion of our Lord. The “princes of this age” are a class of persons who are leading this world down a path into destruction. They are the ones who set out a philosophical charter for society to follow. That same class is what stirred up the people in our Lord’s day; the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. Note: I have wondered how to read this. Is it saying that had the princes of this age known God’s plans they would not have crucified the Lord in order to frustrate those plans? Or if they had known it, it would have meant they were believers and as such would never have committed such an awful crime? I’m leaning toward the second view.
9 but according as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen, and ear not heard, and which have not come into man’s heart, which God has prepared for them that love him,” [Isa. 64:4] v.9 Next Paul quotes from scripture (Isa. 64:4) to delineate the various human approaches that will never allow a person to learn God’s wisdom. Often this verse is quoted incorrectly to say “when we get to heaven things are going to be so great it will far exceed what we have ever seen or hear in this lifetime”. This is certainly true, but it is a totally wrong use of this scripture. In fact, in context, this chapter says that we can understand the things God has prepared for us … by His Spirit! In any case, these three things are the ways the natural man gets his knowledge:
- The Eye – learning through observation. Man can look around him at creation, at his fellow man, but he will never learn anything of the wisdom of God. A good example of this was Eliphaz (Job 2:11) who seemed to get his understanding of the world through his own experiences. It is possible to learn something of God from creation (Rom. 1:20) but never the wisdom of God in the Mystery.
- The Ear – learning through tradition. Man ascribes value to myths and folklore that is passed down. Even the Jews placed more value on their traditions than on the Word of God (Matt. 15:3). A good example of this was Zophar (Job 2:11) who lived by principles passed down to him in a legal way.
- The Heart – learning through intuition. Man can listen to his own mind, and fashion a view of God based on the imaginations of his heart… but it will be a distorted view. He can listen to his conscience, but it will never yield an understanding of the wisdom of God. A good example of this was Bildad (Job 2:11) who spoke through his conscience.
The wisdom of God in the Mystery (the “things God has prepared for them that love him”) cannot be discovered by natural senses. Paul explains in the following verses how the wisdom of God can actually be learned.
J.N. Darby pointed out that in vv.10-16 “you get three distinct steps: the Spirit of God revealing, whether to Paul or others; then the Spirit of God communicating what was revealed; and last, the receiving by the Spirit.” It reveals one unbroken chain by which the wisdom of God is communicated to us. Every link of that chain is characterized by the power of the Spirit of God. If man’s wisdom came in at any point, the wisdom of God would not reach us.
Step #1: Revelation by the Spirit (vv.10-12)
10 but God has revealed to us by his Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. v.10 It wasn’t until the trial of the first man was completed at the cross that the Holy Spirit was sent down and the Mystery revealed. Who was it revealed to? The “us” in this verse refers to the New Testament apostles and prophets (see Eph. 3:3-5). If it meant all believers then anyone today could receive a revelation. But thank God the cannon is complete. The Spirit of God has two functions: to give understanding and to give power. For instance, in ch.12 we learn that the Spirit is the power that enables the members of the body to use their gifts. But here the Spirit works to communicate the truth. It takes the Spirit, a Divine Person, to communicate “the deep things of God”; i.e. an angel couldn’t communicate the subject of the eternal counsels of God. Therefore, the Spirit alone is the suitable instrument to give the truth by revelation to the apostles. The Mystery, etc. (not prophecy) are the “deep things” of God… revealed last in time, they were conceived earliest in the heart and mind of God.
11 For who of men hath known the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? thus also the things of God knows no one except the Spirit of God. v.11 To illustrate why the Spirit of God is the only suitable instrument to reveal the truth of God, Paul gives a very simple example. Who knows what is really going on inside you? No one. Others can conjecture about it, but none can say what is in another’s mind with certainty. The only one who knows exactly where you are at is you (excluding God, of course); your spirit which is in you. You are the only qualified person to tell others what you mean or how you feel! In the same way, the Spirit of God (God Himself) is the only qualified Person to reveal the truth of God to the apostles. And by the same token, the Spirit is the only qualified interpreter of scripture as well. Do you question the Spirit’s ability? Sadly, many Christians do.
12 But “we” have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God, that we may know the things which have been freely given to us of God: v.12 The “we” in this verse would seem to be primarily the apostles, but might also include all believers, because all believers have the Spirit of God. God has given us His Spirit so that we might “know” [G1492 – ‘perceive, know subjectively’] the things that God has for us to enjoy. The Spirit is what “makes good” the Word of God to the soul. This indicates a difference between the New Testament and Old Testament writers. The Old Testament writers in many cases did not understand what they were writing (1 Pet. 1:10-12) but the New Testament writers understood it first (they were indwelt with the Spirit) and then they wrote the Word by inspiration. The scriptures are “freely given to us of God” in that there is no amount of human or fleshly energy involved in receiving the truth; either on the apostles’ part in revelation, or on our part in understanding it. There was no digging in the ground for golden plates or any such thing. Some in Corinth were dabbling with the “the spirit of the world” which seeks to produce results in the First Man… what a poor substitute for that Spirit which gives knowledge of the wisdom of God!
Step #2: Inspiration by the Spirit (v.13)
13 which also we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, communicating spiritual things by spiritual means. v.13 The “we” in this verse comes back to the apostles and prophets only. Here we find the same truth given to the Apostles by revelation was then communicated by inspiration in words taught by the Spirit. Human means would not be suitable to convey the revealed truth of God to us! Therefore God inspired the writers of scripture (Old and New Testament) so that the communication of the truth would be flawless. Inspiration is when the Spirit of God works through a writer to record the Word of God. Inspiration is not dictation (as Muslims claim the Qua-ran was given). Dictation does not allow for human fingerprints to be woven into the divine design. Woven into the scripture are the experiences, circumstances, and even the style of each special instrument; but it is all exactly according to the mind of God, with no mistakes. For example, the Spirit used Matthew (a tax collector) to write the Gospel which is most Jewish in character. He used John Mark, a restored servant, to present Christ as the Perfect Servant, etc. Another important point is that the very “words” are inspired, not merely the ideas or thoughts. What is inspiration? Inspiration is the communication of “spiritual things” (the thoughts of God) by “spiritual means” (the actual words). We don’t understand exactly how it worked, but “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21). This is why using a literal translation (word-for-word) is important (KJV, ESV, NASB, DBY, YLT). The problem with dynamic translations (thought-for-thought) is that more often the assumed meaning of the text is transmitted by the translators (NIV, NLT). Even worse are paraphrases which are more like commentaries and are not worthy to be considered translations (MSG, TLB). Specifically, the communication referred to in v.13 is the inspiration of the Spirit, but we can take a general principle from the last phrase of this verse; “spiritual things by spiritual means”. Our communication of the truth will be spiritual if we draw all our thoughts from the Word of God. Scripture teaches a verbal, plenary inspiration. Verbal, because every word is important and meaningful. Plenary, because the Spirit employed multiple writers (~40) to write scripture. Inspired, because the words are written by the Spirit of God and carry God’s authority.
Step #3: Illumination by the Spirit (vv.14-16)
Three men. There are three men in the next few verses that are important to distinguish. The natural man is a person who is not saved; a foreigner to the grace of God. The spiritual man is a believer who is indwelt by the Spirit of God and is walking in the Spirit. The carnal man is a believer indwelt by the Spirit of God who is walking like the natural man; he is a “babe” because he has all the faculties of the spiritual man (new life, the Spirit) but is not able yet to use them.
14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him; and he cannot know them because they are spiritually discerned; v.14 The natural man does not possess the faculties to understand spiritual things. Not only is the Spirit not residing in him, but he does not even have divine life. When he hears spiritual things “they are foolishness to him”. The natural man is on a totally different frequency than the spiritual man.
15 but the spiritual discerns all things, and “he” is discerned of no one. v.15 The spiritual man can discern the meaning of scripture and its application to his own life; he “discerns all things”. He has “an unction from the Holy One” which allows him to “know all things” (1 John 2:20). The world and even carnal brethren will have no clue about the source of this wisdom. They cannot discern where he gets his discernment from! J.N. Darby said regarding the spiritual man; “The power of the Spirit in him makes his judgment true and just, but gives him motives and a walk that are unintelligible to one who has not the Spirit.”
16 For “who has known the mind of the Lord, who shall instruct him?“ [Isa. 40:13] But “we” have the mind of Christ. v.16 A quotation from Isa. 40:13 is employed to affirm that all God’s wisdom and knowledge has its source in Himself, and is far above man and his puny thoughts. This same verse is quoted in Rom. 11:34 again to emphasize the greatness of the wisdom of God, but it stops there. Here in 1 Corinthians it goes on to say that “we have the mind of Christ”! In other words, by the Spirit indwelling us, we can actually enter into communion with the mind of God! Incredible privilege! The “mind of Christ” is the ability to share His thoughts, to think in spiritual terms.
The Futility of Man’s Wisdom in Service (3:1-17)
Carnality Manifests itself in Divisions (3:1-4)
¶ And “I”, brethren, have not been able to speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly; as to babes in Christ. v.1 Paul now gets to the root of the division in Corinth … carnality. It wasn’t that they were natural, because they did have all the proper faculties of the Christian; the divine nature and the indwelling Spirit. However, they had remained in a condition of spiritual babyhood, and therefore Paul could not communicate to them as he could to those who were spiritual. What was he prevented from communicating? The wisdom of God hidden in a mystery (ch.2). In ch.2 we learned that it is impossible to communicate the wisdom of God to an unbeliever. In ch.3 we learn that it is impossible to communicate it to a carnal (or, fleshly) Christian. What is carnality? It is the state of being motivated and influenced by the flesh and the world. It is a walk according to the flesh.
Spiritual babyhood. This condition that a Christian might find themselves in, is in contrast to spiritual perfection, or “full growth”. It is a state of stunted growth. We get two causes for spiritual babyhood addressed in scripture. The Hebrews were stunted by religious prejudice (Heb. 5:12-14) – the Jewish tendency. The Corinthians were stunted by human philosophy (1 Cor. 3:1-2) – the Greek tendency.
vv.2-4 Two Consequences of Carnality. Paul next gives two consequences, and proofs, of their carnality:
- A fleshly appetite. Inability to digest spiritual meat.
- A fleshly attitude. Strife and division between brethren.
2 I have given you milk to drink, not meat, for ye have not yet been able, nor indeed are ye yet able; 3a for ye are yet carnal. vv.2-3a A fleshly appetite. The Corinthians had been given every spiritual advantage (1 Cor. 4:8-10), but they were undeveloped and immature in God’s sight. They “had not been able” and they were “not yet able” to take in the meat of Christian doctrine; not when Paul had arrived in Corinth, and not when he was writing some three or four years later. There had been no progress in their souls! It isn’t that Paul technically couldn’t teach them the Mystery (the “meat”) but that it would be no use, because they couldn’t digest it. Carnality hinders spiritual growth in the same way a severe illness can affect physical growth. Rather than digesting meat, the body must work to fight infection. The Spirit has to be engaged with warring against the flesh (Gal. 5:17) and showing us our faults instead of writing Christ on the heart (2 Cor. 3:3).
3b For whereas there are among you emulation and strife, are ye not carnal, and walk according to man? 4 For when one says, “I” am of Paul, and another, “I” of Apollos, are ye not men? vv.3b-4 A fleshly attitude. The proof of their carnal state was in the attitude that manifested itself among them. Whenever there is strife in an assembly we can be sure that there is carnality there. This bad spirit has a twofold character:
- Emulation. A competitive spirit between people manifested by each trying to out-do the other, or imitate the other’s actions. Of the two, this is the more subtle character.
- Strife. Open conflict or disagreement over issues. This is the more blatant of the two characters. Usually when strife is manifested, emulation has been going on under the surface.
“Are ye not men?” They were saints in position, but they were mere natural men in their practice. They had begun to use common expressions or party-cries, identifying themselves with notable leaders. It would appear that the Corinthians were not actually following Paul or Apollos. In 1 Cor. 4:6 shows that Paul had wisely “transferred” these things to himself and Apollos “in a figure” so as to conceal the real names of their party leaders. This makes sense too because Paul is the last person that the Corinthians would be following (1 Cor. 9:1-14). Following after prominent persons – “having men’s persons in admiration” (Jude 16) – is a mark of carnality.
How does strife erupt in an assembly? These first four chapters of 1 Corinthians outline the way strife comes in:
vv.5-17 The two-fold character of the bad attitude that existed among the Corinthians (emulation and strife) can be met by two principles that Paul unfolds in the remainder of the chapter:
- To deal with emulation (a spirit of competition) Paul explains that the Assembly is God’s husbandry (vv.5-9), and therefore the servants are not to be exalted or followed.
- To deal with strife (a spirit of conflict) Paul explains that the Assembly is God’s building (vv.10-17), and therefore fleshly things in the Assembly will come under the scrutiny and judgment of God.
The Assembly is God’s Husbandry (3:5-9)
5 Who then is Apollos, and who Paul? Ministering servants, through whom ye have believed, and as the Lord has given to each. v.5 When Paul spoke of the leaders of divisions in Corinth, he graciously transferred it to himself and Apollos. But when giving real live examples of the servants of God, he refers to himself and Apollos in actuality! They had actually accomplished real work for the glory of God, unlike the philosophers in Corinth. They were actually gifted “as the Lord has given to each” and their ministry had borne fruit “through whom ye have believed”. But even in the case of the two greatest gifts the Church has ever had, who are Paul and Apollos? Nothing but ministering servants. Ouch… this was a blow to the pride of the Corinthians. Rather than take an exalted position, Paul and Apollos took the place of lowly servants. They had a sense that they were nothing before God.
6 “I” have planted; Apollos watered; but God has given the increase. 7 So that neither the planter is anything, nor the waterer; but God the giver of the increase. vv.6-7 The Corinthians were not giving glory to the right person. They were making much of the vessel, and not understanding that all blessing comes from God. Similar to farming, the service of God involves different types of activity. It is not God’s way to have copious numbers of identical servants. It is His wisdom to divide the work up into different parts, and still preside over the whole operation and drive it towards the accomplishment of His purpose. Paul “planted” the seed of the Word where it had never gone before. Apollos “watered” that seed by coming behind to pastor and establish them in that truth. But “the increase” or the actual spiritual progress was given by God. Planting and watering are each meaningless if God is not at work.
8 But the planter and the waterer are one; but each shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. 9 For we are God’s fellow-workmen; ye are God’s husbandry, God’s building. vv.8-9 While each servant has a different scope and responsibility, all ministry is “one thing”. This is a rebuke to the party spirit among the Corinthians which would set one minister at odds with another. Paul says, “we are all on the same team here!” The minister needs to squash any attempts to flatter themselves or depreciate others. At the same time, there is no such thing as collective rewards. God who knows us intimately and perfectly will reward each minister according to his own labor. God is interested in what we are doing for Him, not in the direction of recent public opinion. We are “God’s fellow-workmen”, not in the sense that we are God’s fellows (that would be blasphemy) but that we are fellows of one another, all under the ownership of God. The emphasis is on the word God’s. He is our employer, and we are accountable to Him. Furthermore, God has an interest in His assembly, and this is added motivation for the servant of God to be careful how he behaves among the people of God. The assembly is God’s husbandry (fruit-bearing potential) and His building (medium of public testimony). Next, Paul will take up the aspect of the assembly as God’s building.
The Assembly is God’s Building (3:10-17)
The House of God. As the Body of Christ, the saints are responsible to work out in practice the thoughts and wishes of the Head, Christ Himself. As the House (or, Building) of God, the saints are responsible to conduct themselves in behavior and doctrine that is according to the mind and character of God. The idea of a house is the idea of a public testimony. A man’s house reflects on what sort of man he is. In the same way, the House of God ought to reflect the character of God, as a witness and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Are we rendering a testimony worthy of God? The House of God is taken up in many different ways in scripture. Sometimes it is looked at as something God is building in His perfect sovereignty gradually over time, and it is not yet complete but will be complete one day. Other times it is looked at as something man is responsible to build (thus failure comes in) and it is complete at any one given time. Then again, sometimes the House of God is viewed as the universal assembly, the entire public testimony. Other times, the House of God is viewed in its local aspect, as a gathering of believers to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The context of each occurrence determines which aspect is being referred to.
The Foundation and the Importance of How We Build (vv.10-12)
10a According to the grace of God which has been given to me, as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation, but another builds upon it. v.10a The Apostle Paul had been given the special privilege to lay the foundation, in a doctrinal sense, of the Christian testimony. It required “the grace of God” or special enabling power in order to do it. Once that foundation was laid in Apostolic authority, then God left it up to man to build the walls of His house. There is no question about the soundness of the foundation, because Paul was a “wise architect” and he kept out any unwanted material, but there is a question about the soundness of the walls.
10b But let each see how he builds upon it. 11 For other foundation can no man lay besides that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. vv.10b-11 We must ask ourselves this question; “How am I building on the foundation? Is what I am building of the same pure quality as the foundation?” The foundation was the truth of the Person of Christ, in which there is no impurity at all. The Lord had said “on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Christ would not build His assembly on the grounds of some earthly covenant, because then man’s failure might come in and ruin it. Instead He chose to found the Church on the most stable thing there is; the truth of His own Person; “thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Notice that it doesn’t say “let each see how much he builds” but “let each see how he builds”. God is concerned more with quality than He is with quantity. Quality workmanship in the House of God consists of practice and doctrine based upon the Word of God, not based on the wisdom of man.
Good Work and Bad Work – Tried By Fire (vv.12-15)
12 Now if any one build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, straw, 13 the work of each shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire shall try the work of each what it is. vv.12-13 The idea that “anything goes” in Christendom is totally false. The Lord is going to judge that which professes His name, and the true character of our labors will be manifested. “Fire” in scripture speaks of judgment. Here it is the fire of refinement, which consumes all the impurities and leaves the precious materials behind. The fire will be applied to our work at the judgment seat of Christ, and that is where rewards will be weighed. But the manifestation and enjoyment of those rewards is in “the day“ of Christ’s appearing, and all through the Millennium. In the measure that we are faithful over the “few things” committed to our trust in this life, we will be rewarded with increased responsibility (“many things”) in the Millennial kingdom of Christ (Matt. 25:21). Gold (divine righteousness, Exo. 25:11), silver (redemption, Exo. 26:19), and precious stones (the glories of Christ, Exo. 28:17) are those things that will never perish. Wood (human pride, Dan. 4:10), grass (human glory, 1 Pet. 1:24), and straw (human strength, Exo. 5:7) will all be burned up.
14 If the work of any one which he has built upon the foundation shall abide, he shall receive a reward. 15 If the work of any one shall be consumed, he shall suffer loss, but “he” shall be saved, but so as through the fire. vv.14-15 There are two possible outcomes for the believer at the judgment seat of Christ: he will either “receive a reward”, or he shall “suffer loss”. It is not a question of losing one’s salvation, because it says of the loser that “he shall be saved”. We find in ch.4 that every man will receive “praise of God”, and so we know that every true believer will at one time or another do something or act on some motive that God will find to reward. This was a strong word for the consciences of the people in Corinth. Those elements of human wisdom brought into the assembly which the Corinthians esteemed so highly were nothing but wood, hay, and stubble, and they would all be burned up!
Saved as by fire. Notice that the worldly-minded Christian in v.15 is “saved, so as by fire”… what does that mean? We must understand that salvation in the fullest sense has to do with our state of mind as well as our position before God. A person who is sheltered by the blood of Christ but is still looking to the wisdom of this world to produce fruit for God is not saved in the fullest sense, although their eternal destiny is secure. God will use the fire of the judgment seat to teach them one final lesson that they were never able to learn on this earth. As they watch a great portion of their life’s work, based on all those things they had been so convinced of, go up in smoke, they will finally and experimentally learn that “all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). Then their confidence will come fully to rest on the unshakable foundation, and in that way they shall be saved, so as by fire. At the rapture our bodies are made fit for heaven, but at the judgment seat of Christ our minds are made fit for heaven! Note: the fire is applied to the works, not the person. Past Catholic doctrine twists this verse around to support the idea of Purgatory. There will be no personal judgment of believing souls in the intermediate state!
Two Facts that Guard Against Carelessness in the House of God (vv.16-17)
vv.16-17 Next Paul give two things that would guard against a careless attitude in the House of God.
- God Himself inhabits the assembly as His Temple.
- God’s Temple is holy and He will destroy those who defile it.
16 Do ye not know that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? v.16 1st Thing. God Himself inhabits the assembly, through the Spirit of God which is with us collectively. This is different than the indwelling of the Spirit, which is individual and consequent on a person believing the Gospel. Both are found in one verse in, John 14:17, where the Lord, speaking of the Spirit of truth, said “he abides with you, and shall be in you.” We have it pictured again in Acts 2 when the great wind filled all the house collectively (v.2), and tongues of fire sat on each individual (v.3). Here it is the collective truth; God inhabits His assembly collectively by the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). It is an awesome privilege, but also a solemn responsibility to be the Temple of God. Not only does the quality of our building reflect publicly on the Name of God, but His very presence is among us. The Spirit of God is present in this way wherever Christians are, whether in reality or only in profession. The Spirit of God is present to direct worship and ministry, in the measure that He is given liberty. This is why it is possible for the Holy Ghost to minister even when a vessel is not sealed. Such was the case with the Reverend William Haslam, an English country parson who was suddenly converted one Sunday in 1851 by his own preaching! But the emphasis here is on the responsibility we have because the Spirit is among us collectively.
17 If any one corrupt the temple of God, “him” shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are “ye”. v.17 2nd Thing. The Temple of God is holy. This has always been the leading feature of the House of God; in the Old Testament (Psa. 93:5), in the Church period (1 Cor. 3:17), and in the Millennium (Ezek. 43:12). Holiness therefore is the paramount principle; hatred of evil, and love of good. Some would try to elevate unity as a higher principle than holiness… but there can be no unity of God unless it be in separation from evil. To show how seriously God takes the holiness of His Temple, Paul tells us the end of those who defile or corrupt it; “him shall God destroy”. We know that no believer will be destroyed, so this is talking about a false-professor or an apostate. To be destroyed by God (eternal banishment) is infinitely worse than to “suffer loss”. What are some examples of a defiler? Perhaps men like Arius and others who brought in evil doctrine concerning the Person of Christ (“damnable heresies”, 2 Peter 2:1).
Three types of Builders. In these verses we have three types of builders marked out; each designated by the words “if any one” (vv.14,15,17).
- The Gainer. This is a true workman who builds according to the wisdom of God. He will receive reward! Corresponds to “the spiritual man”.
- The Loser. This is a true workman who builds according to the wisdom of this world. He will suffer loss. Corresponds to “the carnal man”.
- The Defiler. This is a false workman who purposefully introduces destructive doctrines into the Christian profession. Corresponds to “the natural man” only he is worse, because he maligns the truth.