2:1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God.

I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom – ‘We must understand verses 1-5 in their historical and cultural context. Compared to the Greek orators of his day, Paul’s speaking didn’t measure up (In person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing 2 Cor 10:10). Yet Paul’s sermons demonstrated rhetorical power and a sensitive shaping of his message to fit the audience. Further, in his writing including this epistle to the Corinthians Paul frequently employed literary devices that would be very much at home in Greek letters of his day (his letters are weighty and forceful 2 Cor 10:10). Thus keeping Christ and the cross at the heart of ones message is not at odds with effective communication. Instead, Paul is decrying the empty sophistry of Greek teachers who loved to debate points while paying no regard to the truth. It is possible that some members of the Corinthian church were attracted to such speaking arts; Paul was not.’

This disdain that Paul had for eloquence may account for certain ‘faults’ of style that are apparent in some of his letters: his sentences sometimes lack verbs, or were left incomplete. This contrasts with, for example, the Letter to the Hebrews, in which a concern for good style is much more apparent. As with the writers of Scripture, so perhaps with the preachers of the word: some will be better stylists than others.

‘The world of Paul’s day was deeply enamored with public oratory by virtuoso rhetors known as sophists. Because Christianity placed such an emphasis on public preaching, its speakers would inevitably be judged by sophisticated audiences according to the canons of rhetoric. Therefore, as a missionary, Paul needed to determine whether classical rhetoric was essential for Christian proclamation.’ (DPL)

Paul shows his use of judicial rhetoric in Acts 24:1-21.

‘Since preaching calls for faith, it is vitally important that its issues not be obscured with eloquent wisdom and lofty words. (1 Cor 1:17 2:1-4) Paul refused to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but sought to commend himself to every man’s conscience by the open statement of the truth. (2 Cor 4:2) The radical upheaval within the heart and consciousness of man which is the new birth does not come about by the persuasive influence of rhetoric but by the straightforward presentation of the gospel in all its simplicity and power.’ (NBD)

‘Paul here disapproves of mere rhetoric, but his own writing, including 1 Corinthians, displays extensive knowledge and use of rhetorical forms.’ (NT Background Commentary)

‘Even the most renowned speakers (e.g., Dio Chrysostom) regularly disavowed their own speaking abilities in order to lower audience expectations; then they spoke brilliantly. Rhetoricians recommended this technique. Because Paul in the context is boasting in his weakness, he does not praise his speaking or philosophical ability. (cf. Ex 4:10) But this reserve need not mean-and the skillfulness of his argumentation shows that it cannot mean-that his argumentation style was weak, even if his delivery (voice quality and gestures) were inadequate (which is likely-2 Cor 10:10).’ (NT Background Commentary)

Paul is not advocating anti-intellectualism

‘Because argument is insufficient, it does not follow that it is unnecessary.  What the Holy Spirit does in the new birth is not to make a person a Christian regardless of the evidence, but on the contrary to clear away the mists from his eyes and enable him to attend to the evidence.’ (Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World)

As I proclaimed to you the testimony about God – Manuscript evidence is roughly equally divided between martyrion (‘God’s testimony’; cf. 1 Cor 1:6) and mysterion (‘God’s mystery’; cf. 1 Cor 2:7).  In either case, the main point is clear: the gospel is truth from God, ‘which has been committed to our trust.  Our responsibility is to present it as clearly, coherently and cogently as we can…And all the time, as we do this, we will be trusting the Holy Spirit of truth to dispel people’s ignorance, overcome their prejudices and convince them about Christ.’

‘The preaching of the gospel is frequently regarded in the New Testament as an activity like that of a herald. Viewed in this way it is the passing on of a message given. But it is also frequently regarded as the bearing witness to given facts. Preaching the gospel is not delivering edifying discourses, beautifully put together. It is bearing witness to what God has done in Christ for man’s salvation.’ (Morris)

2:2 For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

‘Let this be the resolution of every minister of the gospel’

We may remark here,

  1. That this should be the resolution of every minister of the gospel. This is his business. It is not to be a politician; not to engage in the strifes and controversies of men; it is not to be a good farmer, or scholar merely; not to mingle with his people in festive circles and enjoyments; not to be a man of taste and philosophy, and distinguished mainly for refinement of manners; not to be a profound philosopher or metaphysician, but to make Christ crucified the grand object of his attention, and seek always and everywhere to make him known.
  2. He is not to be ashamed anywhere of the humbling doctrine that Christ was crucified. In this he is to glory. Though the world may ridicule; though philosophers may sneer; though the rich and the gay may deride it, yet this is to be the grand object of interest to him, and at no time, and in no society is he to be ashamed of it.
  3. It matters not what are the amusements of society around him; what fields of science, of gain, or ambition, are open before him, the minister of Christ is to know Christ and him crucified alone. If he cultivates science, it is to be that he may the more successfully explain and vindicate the gospel. If he becomes in any manner familiar with the works of art, and of taste, it is that he may more successfully show to those who cultivate them, the superior beauty and excellency of the cross. If he studies the plans and the employments of men, it is that he may more successfully meet them in those plans, and more successfully speak to them of the great plan of redemption.
  4. The preaching of the cross is the only kind of preaching that will be attended with success. That which has in it much respecting the divine mission, the dignity, the works, the doctrines, the person, and the atonement of Christ, will be successful. So it was in the time of the apostles; so it was in the Reformation; so it was in the Moravian missions; so it has been in all revivals of religion. There is a power about that kind of preaching which philosophy and human reason have not. “Christ is God’s great ordinance” for the salvation of the world; and we meet the crimes and alleviate the woes of the world, just in proportion as we hold the cross up as appointed to overcome the one, and to pour the balm of consolation into the other. (Barnes)

I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified – This is a powerful statement of Paul’s singlemindedness. We are not, of course, to understand him to mean that Christ crucified was all he ever talked about. It is not that he talked exclusively about Christ crucified, but rather that he talked especially about Christ crucified.  We know that his aim was the declare ‘the whole counsel of God’, Acts 20:27. Still less did he use this theme as some kind of magical mantra. Rather, he means that Christ crucified – neglected and scorned by the worldly-wise – was the central and dominating theme of all his preaching. And, in addition, he means that he preached this theme in a manner unadorned by the tricks and techniques of the rhetoricians and the Sophists.

‘On first blush this may seem rather narrow and limited. After all, Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth and would have engaged in pastoral work alongside evangelism. However, as 1 Corinthians 1:10–4:17 itself demonstrates, for Paul even the most practical ills, such as divisions and problems of leadership in the church, are remedied by focusing on the cross. For Paul, Christ crucified is more than just the means of forgiveness and salvation; rather, it informs his total vision of the Christian life and ministry.’ (PNTC)

Whereas it is the cross as the means of vicarious atonement which is emphasised elsewhere (e.g. Rom 3), here it is ‘the counter cultureness of the cross due to the shame, brutality, lower classness, and criminality associated with it, particularly in a Roman colony like Corinth. (College Press)

Answering objections

Paul’s decision regarding Christ and his cross implies a choosing of this path from various alternatives.  As Stott (The Contemporary Christian) points out, we too must have the same resolve, in the light of various objections:-

  1. the intellectual objection, which is the foolishness of the cross, 1 Cor 1:23 (cf. Acts 17:32).  To the unbelieving Jew it was inconceivable the Messiah could die an accursed death.  To the unbelieving Gentile it was ludicrous that an immortal god could die.  The Corinthian correspondence shows that intellectual pride was one of the great sins of the Corinthians.  So it is in more recent times: philosopher A.J. Ayer can call the Christian doctrines of sin and atonement ‘intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous’.  In the face of criticism, we must resist ‘the temptation to trim the gospel of Christ crucified, to eliminate its more objectionable features, and to try to make it more palatable to sensitive modern palates.’
  2. the religious objection, which is the exclusiveness of the gospel.  Corinth had over two dozen temples, each devoted to a different deity.  In this regard it was like its neighbour Athens – ‘full of idols’ (Acts 17:16).  The Corinthians would have been happy for Paul to add his god to their pantheon.  But he wanted them to know that one true and living God, and to reject all rivals to him (1 Cor 8:5f).  He felt a godly jealousy about this, 2 Cor 11:2f.  Jesus Christ will not share his glory with another.  In our own day, new gods have risen up to replace the discarded gods of Corinth and Athens.  The is a pluralistic clamour, a pressure to call a truce between rival religions.  ‘But we as Christians cannot surrender either the finality or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. There is simply nobody else like him; he incarnation, atonement and resurrection have no parallels.  In consequence, he is the only mediator between God and the human race.’
  3. the personal objection, which is the humbling of human pride.  In all religions, apart from Christianity, is the notion that we are capable of contributing to our own salvation.  This leads to pride, and to resistance to humbling ourselves before Christ and his cross.  The Corinthians were a proud people: proud of their city, which had been beautifully rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46BC; proud that their city had been promoted over Athens to be the capital of the region; proud of their trade, their culture, and their religious zeal.  Then along comes this Christian missionary, who tells them that neither the wisdom, their wealth, nor their religion could save them.  No wonder most of the converts were from the lower echelons of society, 1 Cor 1:26-29.  And still today the proud must be stripped naked if they are to appear before God; declared bankrupt if they wish to experience heaven’s riches.’
  4. the moral objection, which is the call to repentance and holiness.  Corinth was full of merchants, travellers and sailors.  The exercised little moral constraint.  Aphrodite, the goddess of love, encouraged sexual promiscuity.  Corinth could hardly be expected to welcome the gospel, with its call to repentance, and its warnings to the impenitent (1 Cor 6:9f).  So it is today: people deny the existence of moral absolutes, and regard Christianity as the enemy of personal freedom.
  5. the political objection, which is the lordship of Christ.  Jesus himself was condemned in a Roman court for claiming to be a king in rivalry to Caesar.  Similarly, Paul and Silas were accused in Philippi of subverting Roman laws and customs (Acts 16:21) and in Thessalonica for ‘defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus’ (Acts 17:7).  There was, of course but truth and falsehood in these accusations.  On the one hand, neither Jesus nor the apostles ever stirred up rebellion against Rome, while, on the other hand, the Christian message was (and is) deeply subversive of earthly powers.  We ourselves submit conscientiously to the state, but we will not put it in the place that belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.  ‘It is Christ we worship, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given.  For he died and rose in order to be Lord of all.’

‘The historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion had probably been put less prominently forward by the seekers after human wisdom in the Corinthian church, to avoid offending learned heathens and Jews.’ (JFB)

‘Yet, as his letters show, Paul’s preaching of Christ is not simply a constant retelling of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (Rom 10:9). Rather, Paul takes his starting point in Jesus Christ and preaches Christ as his person and work illumine all other vital issues and questions. “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is the heart of God’s plan of redemption; from this heart, renewing power pulses into every area of life.’ (DPL, art. ‘Preaching from Paul Today’, S. Greidanus).

We need more ministers of Paul’s spirit

‘And if we had more ministers of Paul’s spirit in their preaching, we should see more of Christianity in the people’s religion. But when some ministers preach, as if they had taken up the reverse of Paul’s determination, even to know, and to make known any thing, every thing, save Christ and him crucified; is it any wonder, if many of their hearers may say, as they did about the Holy Ghost, and his dispensation, Acts 19:2. We have not so much as heard whether there be any Jesus Christ, and that crucified? And such may justly say also of the Spirit, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost: for the Spirit is received only by believers on Christ, John 7:39.; and by the hearing of faith, and not by the works of the law, Gal. 3:2.’ (Traill)

What does it mean to preach Christ and him crucified?

A brief response from Peter Mead:-

2:3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. 2:4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 2:5 so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God.

I came to you = ‘I was with you’. Both his message (v2) and his presentation of it were likewise unimpressive. His sense of inadequacy came partly from the nature of his message, and partly from the various trials which he encountered in preaching that message. It was, especially, a sense of profound responsibility, a fear that he might not discharge his ministry aright and was, accordingly a fear of God rather than of man. See Eph 6:5; Php 2:12.

Weakness and fear, and with much trembling – It is clear from the account in Acts that Paul had experienced much discouragement just before he came to Corinth. He had made no great impression on the Corinthians as far as his appearance and bearing were concerned, 2 Cor 10:10.

Robertson and Plummer suggest further reasons for Paul’s nervousness: ‘Paul may have experienced shyness in venturing unaccompanied into strange surroundings, (cf. Acts 17:15; 23:5) coupled with anxiety as to the tidings which Timothy and Silvanus might bring. (cf. 2 Cor 11:13) There was also the thought of the appalling wickedness of Corinth, of his poor success at Athens, and of the deadly hostility of the Jews to the infant Church of Thessalonica.’ (Acts 17:5,13)

‘When Paul first reached Corinth he was experiencing a great deal of discouragement. At Philippi he had a promising beginning smashed by the opposition of fanatical Jews. The same thing had happened at Thessalonica and at Beroea. In Athens he had had little success. SMall wonder that when he came to budy, proud, intellectual Corinth he came “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling”.’ (Morris)

This verse ‘seems to be Paul’s affirmation that the nature of his ministry with the Corinthians fit snugly into the pattern of God’s modus operandi, namely God’s exercise of his sovereign power in spite of the surrounding culture’s disdain and ridicule of his ways. The terms fear and trembling, unfortunately separated by the NIV translation, belong together. Based upon the meaning of these two words in Php 2:12 and Eph 6:5, Paul is pointing in 2:3 to his deeply rooted sense of responsibility and wholeheartedness, as well as the awesomeness of the task given him.’ (College Press)

‘There was no attempt to establish a power base, raise an army and conquer territory as a first step to evangelization. The apostles were not Spanish conquistadors. Yes, Constantine conquered as much territory as he could and used his political and military power to advance what he understood to be “the gospel.” In the seventh century Islam used that methodology as it burst on the Middle Eastern world with a conquering army. Charlemagne followed Constantine’s lead. But Paul went to what is now Greece and Turkey in total weakness. For Paul “fear and trembling” meant that he went in humility, trusting in the grace of God, not in earthly power or in his own abilities or good works. In Philippians 2:12 Paul commands his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” “Fear and trembling” was not a special psychological condition experienced by Paul uniquely on the road from Athens to Corinth; but it was for him the appropriate spiritual attitude for all Christians as they fulfilled their callings.’ (Bailey)

This is the first mention of the Holy Spirit in this epistle.  He will feature very much as this chapter progresses.

My message (logos) has already be defined as the message of the cross, 1 Cor 1:18. Paul is sure that neither the content of his message nor his method of presenting it were determined by the opinions and standards of worldly wisdom.

My preaching (kerygma) probably describes Paul’s form of preaching, just as ‘my message’ described its content.

Wise and persuasive words – we know from the records of Paul’s preaching preserved in Acts, as well as from his epistles, that Paul did not disdain reason and logic. He himself was trained in the wisdom literature of Scripture, and often referred to the importance of wisdom in the Christian life, 1 Cor 12:8; Rom 11:33; Eph 1:8,17; 3:10; Col 1:9,28; 2:3; 4:5. Rather, he opposes that wisdom which has cut itself off from the source of all true understanding, namely God himself.

After Paul had left Corinth, the task of leading the church had fallen to Apollos, an learned man from Alexandria. Whereas Paul’s preaching had been with studied simplicity, that of Apollos was, perhaps, much more rhetorical. (Ac 18:24, 27f) There was no fundamental difference in the message preached, 1 Cor 3:6,8, but the difference in style and presentation was enough to cause some partisanship amongst the Corinthians.

‘He deliberately avoided the very thing that now fascinates them, “the persuasion of wisdom.” But his preaching did not thereby lack “persuasion.” What it lacked was the kind of persuasion found among the sophists and rhetoricians, where the power lay in the person and his delivery. Paul’s preaching, on the other hand, despite his personal appearance and whatever its actual form, produced the desired results, namely it brought about the faith of the Corinthians.’ (Fee)

‘Anyone familiar with the use of logic in Paul’s own letters as well as the Lukan summary of Pauline preaching in Acts realizes that all of the extant testimony indicates that Paul was not opposed to human reasoning and logical thinking. Paul’s theology and training as a Jew would have included an appreciation of the wisdom literature in Scripture, and he himself acknowledges the importance of wisdom in the individual and corporate lives of believers. (cf. 1 Cor 12:8; Rom 11:33; Eph 1:8,17; 3:10; Col 1:9,28;2:3; 4:5).  Rather, Paul’s concern is with believers being persuaded by a style and type of wisdom which does not originate with God.’ (College Press)

‘What a number of elaborate sermons have been preached to no purpose! Even the truth that is in them is rendered, in a great measure, useless, by the wisdom of words with which it is clothed; while plain, colloquial addresses to the populace, by men fearing God, and speaking of divine things in fervour and charity, has been attended with the demonstration of the Spirit; and souls have been rescued from sin and Satan.’ (Joseph Milner)

Demonstration of the Spirit’s power – lit. ‘demonstration of the Spirit and power.’ ‘Pneuma’ could refer to the human spirit (as opposed to outward display), but the reference to God’s power in v5 suggests that the reference is to the Holy Spirit. The context of weakness would suggest that Paul is not referring to signs and wonders, cf Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12, since that would be contrary to the very argument he is advancing. It is more likely that he is referring to their conversion, with its associated gift of the Spirit and accompanying manifestations (Fee). As in Eph 1:17f, Paul’s thought is that it is the Spirit alone who can open the heart to receive the gospel.

Demonstration – setting forth, exhibition of proof. ‘Paul relied, therefore, for success, not on his skill in argument or persuasion, nor upon any of the resources of human wisdom, but on the testimony which the Spirit bore to the truth. The Holy Ghost demonstrated the gospel to be true.’ (Hodge)

‘”Persuasion” is man’s means of moving his fellow-man. Ministers should rather seek God’s, which is “demonstration,” inspiring implicit faith by the power of the Spirit (then exhibited outwardly by miracles, and inwardly by the working on the heart, now in the latter only, the more important way), Mt 7:29; Acts 6:10; Rom 15:19).’ (JFB)

A demonstration of the Spirit’s power – Paul’s preaching went far beyond what human logic and persuasion could achieve; it carried conviction because of the power of the Spirit.

Not persuasion but demonstration. ‘Persuasion is man’s means of moving his fellow man. God’s means is demonstration, leaving no doubt, and inspiring implicit faith, by the powerful working of the Spirit (then exhibited both outwardly by miracles, and inwardly by working on the heart, now in the latter and the more important way only, Mt 7:29; Acts 6:10; Heb 4:12; compare also Rom 15:19). The same power accompanies divine truth now, producing certain persuasion and conversion, when the Spirit demonstrates by it.’ (JFB)

‘It is the Divine Spirit alone who who thus reveals the truth of salvation; cf Eph 1:17-18. We have to represent this Spirit to ourselves acting at once in him who speaks and in him who hears, in such a way as to make the light pass, through the intervention of the spoken word, from the mind of the one into the mind of the other.’ (Godet)

Speaking of the need for ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’ in preaching, D.M. Lloyd-Jones said, ‘What is this? It is the Holy Spirit falling upon the preacher in a special manner. It is an access of power. It is God giving power, and enabling, through the Spirit, to the preacher in order that he may do this work in a manner that lifts it up beyond the efforts and endeavours of man to a position in which the preacher is being used by the Spirit and becomes the channel through whom the Spirit works.’ (Preaching and Preachers, 305).

‘The gospel is preached in the ears of all. It only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be the converters of souls. Nor does it lie the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted; till we should exhaust our lungs and die. But never a soul would be converted unless there be a mysterious power go with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O, sirs, we might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity, unless the Holy Ghost go with the Word, to give it power to convert the soul.’ (Spurgeon, Q in Stott, I Believe in Preaching, 335)

See Lk 1:15 ff; 3:15 ff; 4:18 ff; Acts 1:8 1 Thess 1:5.

So that = ‘in order that.’ If Paul’s preaching had been with logic and persuasion, then his hearers would have been led to put their trust in these things. But it came with God’s power, so that they might trust in that.

Human wisdom may indeed attempt to persuade men of the truth of the gospel. But intellectual conviction is something very different from a living faith in God.

Questions for the preacher

‘There are searching questions here for the preacher.

  • Is our preaching genuine proclamation?
  • Do we proclaim the mighty acts whereby God has borne witness to himself in Jesus?
  • Do we obscure our proclamation with lofty words (1) or anything else?
  • Have we made a firm decision to make Jesus Christ and him crucified both the theme of our preaching and the centre of our living?
  • Do we experience proper tentativeness and do we taste our own vulnerability as preachers of the gospel in a pagan, hostile world?
  • Does our preaching demonstrate the power of the Spirit?
  • Do the results of our preaching demonstrate the power of the Spirit? Are people’s lives being changed?
  • Do they know the power of the Spirit in their own lives?’

(Prior, bulleting added)

Wisdom from God

2:6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing.

Paul has argued up to this point that the gospel does not depend on human wisdom. This, in fact, is why it is despised by the wise and influential of this world.  ‘God has judged wisdom (1:18–21), outsmarted wisdom (1:22–25), and called only a few of the wise to be members of Christ’s body in Corinth (1:26–31), and given that Paul’s manner of preaching in Corinth was emphatically not according to wisdom (2:1–5).’ (Ciampa & Rosner)

The apostle now proceeds to show that, nevertheless, the gospel has tremendous profundity and dignity, because it is an expression of the wisdom of God. ‘From 1 Cor 1:18 he has been painting in vivid colours the contrast between the wisdom of the worlds and god’s wisdom. He has exposed the emptiness of all man-made and man-centred schemes of salvation. He has effectively emptied such human wisdom of all ultimate value and of any consequent attractiveness. The net impact might well have been the conclusion that Paul was not interested in wisdom of any kind – none except the “foolishness” of the gospel. The single word “however” therefore introduces Paul’s riposte to any such conclusion.’ (Prior)

Soards describes this passage as ‘a storm-center for contemporary interpretation.’  Fee notes that it has suffered much at the hands of scholars, preachers, and ordinary Bible readers alike.  Partly, this is due to the language used: ‘wisdom, mystery, hidden, rulers of this age, deep things of God, spiritual/natural man, the mind of Christ,’ and so on.  We need to understand the Paul is probably making use of the language of others, but filling with his own meaning.

‘The argument of this paragraph is full of bite. The Corinthians, enamored by wisdom and thinking of themselves as “spiritual,” are less than enchanted with Paul’s message, which they regard as mere “milk.” With fine irony Paul demolishes these various misperceptions and false boastings. The gospel of the crucified Messiah is wisdom all right, he affirms, but not of the kind they are now pursuing.’ (Fee)

Thiselton, Blomberg and others suggest that words such as ‘wisdom’, mature’, ‘secret’, and ‘spiritual’ had become catchwords amongst the Corinthians.  Paul is eager to reclaim them for the gospel; to redefine them in order to show that they are applicable to all believers.

Blomberg observes that in the present passage Paul is distinguishing between the spiritual person and the natural person; between the saved and the unsaved.  In 1 Cor 3:1-4 the distinction will be between the spiritual and the ‘carnal’ person; the mature believer and the immature believer.  Note, then, that he is using the term ‘spiritual’ more widely here, and more narrowly later.  It is important to avoid ‘the hermeneutical error of interpreting a passage in light of what its author has not yet said and therefore may not yet be thinking.’

The first words run, in the original, as follows: ‘Wisdom, however, we speak…’  There is nothing corresponding to the NIV’s ‘a message of’.

We – Note the switch from ‘I’ to ‘we’. It may well be that Paul is now writing as the representative of the apostles.  For more on Paul’s use of the first person plural in this passage, see note on v10.

The mature – Blomberg speaks for many commentators when he says that ‘the mature in this context must be all Christians, at least in principle, and not just some elite group of believers. But the irony is that the Corinthians are not living according to this reality but as if they were still unsaved and in the grip of the world’s values.’

Note Blomberg’s important qualification: ‘at least in principle’.  On the one hand, it is perilous to divide Christians into two divisions, lower and higher.  On the other hand, the mature can understand the wisdom of God in the gospel, even though the spiritual ‘babes’ (1 Cor 3:1) cannot. The latter are still fed on milk, whereas the former are nourished by solid food. ‘Pythagoras divided his disciples into those who were babes and those who were teleioi. That is to say it describes a person who is a mature student.’ (DSB) Paul taught that maturity is something to be striven for, rather than completely attained in this life, Php 3:8-15.

According to Thiselton, Paul’s reference to ‘the mature’ may well be ironic.  Certain among the Corinthians fancied that they had achieved some advanced stage of spirituality; were operating on some higher plane.  But, says Paul, they actually exhibit the attention-seeking attitude (“Look at me; see how clever I am!”) of children (cf. 3:2).

What is meant by the wisdom of this age? What are its characteristics? Why does it appear to be wise, but is not really?

By the rulers of this age – Are human rulers, or demonic powers, meant here?  In the light of v8, the former is more probable.

They are, writes Carson, ‘those who rule the outlook and values of any age—the “wise man,” the “scholar,” and the “philosopher” of 1:20 and the “wise,” the “influential,” and those “of noble birth” of 1 Cor 1:26.’

Thiselton: ‘the main emphasis of this allusion to “rulers” may best be understood as referring to political, social, and spiritual structures that overwhelm the powers of mere individuals.’  In today’s individualistic world, individualism seems to rule; but we are all under the sway of such powers more than we often imagine.  It is only by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit that their hold over us can be loosened.

However, we should understand that demonic power lie behind opposition to the gospel (cf. Eph 2:2) – so Blomberg.  Paul means such as the Jewish and Roman leaders, who out of their very ignorance crucified Christ, v8. Powerful and wise they may be in their own eyes and those of the world, but they are coming to nothing.

‘The contrast is between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God, not between the rudimental and the higher doctrines of the gospel…What are these higher doctrines which Paul (allegedly) preached only to the elite of the church? Some say one thing, and some another. But there are no higher doctrines than those taught in this epistle and in those to the Romans and Ephesians, all addressed to the mass of the people. The New Testament makes no difference between…higher and lower doctrines. It does indeed speak of a distinction between milk and strong meat, but that is a distinction…between one mode of instruction and another.’ (Charles Hodge)

‘It is plain from this whole discussion, that by the wisdom of the world, Paul means that knowledge of God and divine things which men derive from reason. It is also plain that what he says of the worthlessness of that knowledge has reference to it as a means of salvation. The objection urged against him was, that he did not teach philosophy. His answer is, philosophy cannot save men. Whatever may be its value within its own sphere and for its own ends, it is worse than useless as a substitute for the gospel. He was not for banishing philosophy from the schools, but from the pulpit.’ (Charles Hodge)

Who are coming to nothing – ‘They have no part in the age to come. The Corinthian Christians are part of and destined for the new age. To embrace human wisdom, then, is bad eschatology, for it is an alignment with a party that God opposes and whose fate is set.’ (Ciampa & Rosner)

The wisdom of Spirit

All the knowledge and wisdom of this world cannot give us real understanding. They, and their wisdom, are coming to nothing, v6. But the Holy Spirit can:-

  1.  This was planned by God, v7
  2.  It is utterly different from the wisdom of the world, v8
  3.  It is wonderful beyond our comprehension, v9
  4.  The Holy Spirit reveals the deep things of God, v10
  5.  Without his help they remain foolishness to us, v14
  6.  We have a new understanding and a new outlook – ‘the mind of Christ’, v16.


2:7 Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory.

The wisdom which is revealed in the gospel is:

  1. not human, but divine;
  2. not accidental, but planned;
  3. not discovered, but revealed;
  4. not shameful, but glorious.

God’s secret wisdom –  ‘Secret translates en mystēriō, ‘in a mystery’, where ‘mystery’ does not mean a puzzle we find difficult to solve. It means a secret we are wholly unable to penetrate, but which God has now revealed.’ (Morris)

It is not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age (v6). Nor is it ‘the wisdom of the wise’ (1 Cor 1:19) or ‘the wisdom of the world’ (1 Cor 1:20).  It is the wisdom of God, cf. 1 Cor 1:21, 24.  It is nothing other than the message of ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’.

God’s wisdom is secret – that is, unknown to man until revealed by God. The word is ‘musterion‘, which means ‘something whose meaning is hidden from those who have not been initiated, but crystal clear to those who have. It would describe a ceremony carried out in some society whose meaning was quite clear to the members of the society, but unintelligible to the outsider. What Paul is saying is, “We go on to explain things which only the man who has already given his heart to Christ can understand.”‘ (DSB)

A wisdom that has been hidden – and remains hidden to unbelievers.

‘In 1 Cor 2:7 Paul speaks of a secret, hidden wisdom that has been predestined for the believers’ glory. This wisdom is the entire plan of salvation that was unknown to the demonic forces of this world, who, if they had known about it, would have attempted to thwart it. (1 Cor 2:8) It was God’s eternal purpose (eternal, because God is eternal) to effect salvation through the death of Christ. It was divinely wise because the death of Christ satisfied God’s love and justice at the same time, broke the power of evil, transferred believers into God’s kingdom and ultimately saves them. It was God’s determination that this be so.’ (DPL)

‘Judaism believed that God’s Wisdom existed before the world and that God had created the world through this Wisdom.’ (NT Background Commentary)

Carson discusses how the NT can teach both that the message of the gospel was hidden until revealed in Christ, and also that it had been taught in the OT.  Indeed, both ideas come together in Rom 16:25-25.  The answer is that although Christ is indeed prophesied in the OT, this was in veiled terms, such that Paul himself, though schooled in the ancient Scriptures, could not clearly see to whom they pointed until his Damascus Road experience.

The gospel is no afterthought; it was destined…before time began. God had by his grace conceived a plan for our salvation (significantly referred to as our glory) and by his sovereign power brought that plan to fruition. See how the extremes of time are brought together: God’s decree in timeless past secures our glory in timeless future. See also the contrast between the wise of this world and those wise in God’s sight: they are doomed to destruction, but we are destined for glory. Our future exaltation is already anticipated in our inward enlightenment, 2 Cor 3:18.

‘While it is well known that Paul’s theological perspectives were profoundly influenced by his doctrine of the last things, his eschatology, it is noteworthy in 1 Cor 2:7 that his doctrine of first things is also prominent. That is, to fully appreciate Paul’s own perspective in 1 Corinthians, the interpreter needs to dwell not only on Paul’s doctrine of God’s activity at the ends of the ages (e.g., 10:11), but also God’s activity before the outset of the ages.’ (College Press)

For our glory – ‘For the purpose of our glorification’ (Harrisville).  The great exposition of God’s eternal plan for salvation is found in Ephesians 1, where Paul repeatedly says that its ultimate aim is for God’s glory. (Eph 1:6,12,14) Here, however, he focusses on the fact that believers will share in the glory of God. This is in dramatic contrast to the destiny of the wise and powerful of this world, who ‘are coming to nothing’, v6.

Hodge regards this ‘glory’ as virtually synonymous with salvation.  ‘The word “glory” is often used for all the benefits of salvation. It includes all the excellence and blessedness which Christ has secured for his people, Rom 5:2. The idea that the scheme of redemption, which the apostle here calls the wisdom of God, was from eternity formed in the divine mind, far out of the reach of human penetration, and has under the gospel been made known for the salvation of man, is one often presented by the apostle, Rom 16:25-26; Eph 3:9.’ (Charles Hodge)

Stott, however, stresses the eschatological aspects of ‘glory’.  He points out that ‘doxa‘ is ‘essentially an eschatological word: “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). It includes the resurrection body, which will be a body of glory (1 Cor. 15:43; Phil. 3:21), and the renewal of the universe (Rom. 8:18ff., 30; 2 Cor. 4:17). So God’s wisdom for the mature is not just the good news of justification: it relates to our glorification as well. It alludes to the regeneration of all things through sharing in the glory of God. It concerns what God has prepared for those who love him (9b).’

This eschatological emphasis is confirmed by what Paul goes on to say about ‘the things that God has prepared for those who love him’ (v9).

There is a wonderful sweep to Paul’s teaching here.  He gazes from eternity to eternity.  He contemplates the far distant future (‘our glory’) as the fulfilment of God’s plan formulated in the far distant past (‘before time began’).

‘Thus, Paul explains that the message of salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ was God’s eternal purpose, predestined for humanity, and available to humans not through nature or reason but only as disclosed by God in the reality of the cross of Christ. Implicit in this description are the crucial theological notions of the providence and sovereignty of God.’ (Soards)

God’s wisdom tells us how to live, as well as what to believe

It is clear from reading the letter as a whole that the Corinthians were not only beset with false beliefs, but that these beliefs were associated with various practical problems, such as divisiveness, immorality, idolatry, and so on.  Similarly as Ciampa and Rosner point out, the same relationship is found in Romans 1, where the rejection of wisdom from God (Rom 1:21f) leads to sexual immorality (Rom 1:24-27) and idolatry (Rom 1:23,25).

2:8 None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

None of the rulers of this age understood it – i.e. understood the wisdom referred to in v7. Paul refers several times to the agents of Christ’s crucifixion. ‘The proximate agents of the crucifixion can be the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:8; Col 2:15) or, from another point of view, the “Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.” (1 Thess 2:14-15) Paul alludes directly to the trial when he says that Christ Jesus “witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate.” (1 Tim 6:13) Other epistolary texts emphasize the innocence of Jesus and the plight of those who caused him to suffer.’ (1 Pet 2:22-24; Heb 6:6; 10:26-29; Rev 1:7) (DPL)

As Soards remarks, Paul’s expression ‘the rulers of this age’ sounds an eschatological note.

On those who crucified Jesus acting in ignorance, see Lk 23:34; Jn 16:3; Acts 3:17; 13:27.

For all their much-vaunted wisdom, the worldly rulers were in such ignorance that they completely misunderstood Jesus and his mission. If they had any real understanding at all, they would never have done so.

A great deal of worldly wisdom, without spiritual insight – what does it lead to? Sorrow, tragedy, violence.

In fact, worldly wisdom, being ignorant of the things of God, is not only indaqueste, but actually evil.  ‘The crucified the Lord of Glory’.  And yet there is a deeper irony, for the evil they did in ignorance was precisely the centre of God’s work of salvation.  For the good news is ‘the word of the cross.’

The Lord of glory is a most striking title. It may be the loftiest title ever applied to Christ.  It means ‘the Lord whose essential attribute is glory’. It is used of God himself in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. Cf. Ps 24:10; Acts 7:2; Jas 2:1; Eph 1:17. Paul assigns to Christ the highest honour of all. Do we?

We have in one phrase the depth of Christ’s outward humiliation (they crucified him) and the glory of his essential glory (he is the Lord of glory). Such a deed could only be done in ignorance, Lk 23:34; Acts 3:17.

Why is Jesus called ‘the Lord of Glory’?

Summarising Derek Prime’s answer:-

  1. Because he now reigns in glory, John 17:5; Acts 2:33; Heb. 2:9.
  2. Because he perfectly reflects the Father’s glory, John 1:14.
  3. Because his own essential character is glory, Isa. 40:3; cf. Matt. 3:3; Isa. 44:6; cf. Rev. 1:17; Eccles. 12:14; cf. 1 Cor. 4:5, etc.).
  4. Because he leads his people to glory, John 14:2; Rom. 8:18; Eph. 2:6; Heb. 6:20; 1 Peter 5:1, 10.

‘Great and excellent is the glory of Jesus Christ, the scriptures every where proclaim his glory:yea, we may observe a notable climax, or gradation, in those scriptures that speak of his glory. The prophet Isaiah, speaking of him, calls him glorious; Isa 4:2 “In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious.” John, speaking of his glory, rises a step higher, and ascribeth to him a “glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father,” Jn 1:14. i.e. a glory meet for, and becoming the Son of God:proper to him, and incommunicable to any other. The apostle James rises yet higher, and does not only call him glorious, or glorious as the only begotten of the Father, but the glory, Jas 2:1. glory in the abstract; “My brethren, (saith he) have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory, with respect of persons;” For the word “Lord,” which is in our translation, is a supplement; Christ is glory itself, yea, the glory emphatically so stiled; the glory of heaven; the glory of Sion; the glory of our souls for ever. The author to the Hebrews goes yet higher, and calls him not simply the glory, but “the brightness of the Father’s glory,” Heb 1:3. as though he should say, the radiancy, sparkling, or beaming forth of his Father’s glory; the very splendour or refulgency of divine glory. O what a glorious Lord is our Lord Jesus Christ! the bright, sparkling diamond of heaven; who shines in glory there, above the glory of angels and saints, as the glory of the sun excels the lesser, twinkling stars. When he appeared to Paul, Acts 26:13 “I saw (saith he) a light from heaven above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me:” Needs must the glory of Christ be unspeakable, who reflects glory upon all that are with him, Jn 17:24. and stamps glory upon all that belong to him. His works on earth were glorious works, Lk 13:17. the purchased liberty of his people, a glorious liberty, Rom 8:21. the church his mystical body, a glorious church, Eph 5:27. the gospel which reveals him is a glorious gospel, 1 Tim 1:11.’ (Flavel)

What else do the ungodly do, that they would not if only understood God’s being, nature, and purposes?

2:9 But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” 2:10 God has revealed these to us by the Spirit.

The source of this quotation is uncertain. It appears to be a free rendering of Isa 64:4 and isa 65:17. Paul is asserting that none of our faculties eyes, ears, or understanding can give us any idea of the wonderful things that God has made ready for those who love him. Note that ‘not gnosis but love is the touchstone of Christian maturity and spirituality’ (Barrett). Note again the theme of fore-ordination, reinforcing the idea from v7 that God planned these things before time began.

God’s wisdom ‘is altogether beyond the reach of human eyes, ears and minds. It cannot be grasped either by scientific investigation or by poetic imagination. It is absolutely unattainable by our little, finite, fallen and fallible minds.’ (Stott)  It is invisible, inaudible, inconceivable.

What God has prepared for those who love him – ‘The corporate life of the redeemed with God is described in a number of pictures:

  1. the eschatological banquet (Mt 8:11; Mk 14:25; Lk 14:15-24; 22:30)
  2. wedding feast (Mt 25:10; Rev 19:9)
  3. paradise restored (Lk 23:43; Rev 2:7; 22:1f)
  4. the new Jerusalem.’ (Heb 12:22; Rev 21)

(NBD, art. ‘Eschatology’)

‘Has prepared’ ‘reinforces the earlier thought that God is working out his plan (v7).’ (Morris)

Can we be characterised as ‘those who love God?’

‘For the Corinthians, knowledge mattered more than love; for Paul, the key to knowing all that God has prepared for us is in loving him.’ (Prior)

‘There is nothing lost by love to God. ‘Eye has not seen, &c., the things which God has prepared for them that love him.’ 1 Cor 2:9. Such glorious rewards are laid up for them that love God, that as Augustine says, ‘they not only transcend our reason, but faith itself is not able to comprehend them.’ A crown is the highest ensign of worldly glory; but God has promised a ‘crown of life to them that love him,’ and a never-fading crown. Jas 1:12; 1 Pet 5:4.’ (Thomas Watson)

Hugh Palmer (oral ministry) remarks that in an earlier version of the Anglican Funeral Service the minister was expected to quote verse 9 without verse 10.  This, of course, radically changes Paul’s meaning and intent.

For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 2:11 For who among men knows the things of a man except the man’s spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.

Paul’s discussion will be dominated by the Holy Spirit for the remainder of the chapter.  This discussion defines for us what it means to be ‘spiritual’: true spirituality does not come from within, from one’s own inner self, but from without, from the Holy Spirit of God.

God has revealed it to us by his Spirit – The deep things of God are not accessed by some super-spiritual elite: they are available to the humblest believer who is taught by the Holy Spirit.  We all come to Christ in the same way, and on the same level.  We all come to him through the cross.  And the reception of God’s wisdom operates on exactly the same basis.

‘The Isaiah verse is not a reference to what we will discover in the future by way of God’s individual purposes for his people, nor to unanticipated gifts, because Paul uses the past tense when he states but God has revealed it to us, the apostles, through the activity of the Holy Spirit.’ (cf. 1 Pet 1:12) (NBC)

‘Intelligent men may understand the outline of doctrines; but without the Holy Spirit’s revelation to the heart, these will be to them a mere outline – a skeleton, correct perhaps, but wanting life.’ (JFB)

The expression ‘to us’ comes first in the Gk, and is thus emphasised. The rulers and wise men of this age were in total ignorance, but to us believers (or, less inclusively, to us apostles) have been revealed the gracious purposes of God. The fact that they have been revealed excludes all boasting on our part.

Who are the 'we' in this passage?
To whom does Paul refer when he uses the 2nd-person plural here in this verse and elsewhere in this passage?

Some think that Paul is referring to all (mature) Christians.  So Kistemaker: ‘The pronoun is not limited to the apostles and their helpers but includes all believers.’

But I tend to agree with those who think that Paul is referring to the apostolic band – himself and the other apostles.  Stott, for examples, writes: ‘It cannot refer to all Christian people, for we are not all recipients of direct divine revelation.’  Stott finds another ‘plural of apostolic authority’ in 1 Cor 15:11 (see also Eph 2:20).  Although not mentioned by Stott, it is also telling that Paul writes here in the past tense: ‘God has revealed…’  According to Hodge, the referent is, as in Eph 3:5, to ‘the holy apostles and prophets’.

(As a variation on this interpretation, Richard Oster (College Press) thinks that in 1 Cor 2:10, 12, 16 Paul is referring to his readers, while in those verses in which he uses the Greek word ‘laleo‘ (speak/address) – 1 Cor 2:6,7,13; 3:1 – he is thinking of his distinctive work as an apostle.)

1.  Why do I think that when Paul refers to “we” in this passage he is probably referring to the apostolic band, rather than, say, to all believers?
1:1 – 2:5 is written mainly in the first person singular (“I”).  This suggests that Paul is thinking of his own personal ministry in Corinth.  It is true that he uses the first person plural in 1:18 to refer to all believers (“us who are being saved”).  But at 2:6 there is a more decisive change to the first person plural (“we”), and we need to account for that change.
Paul will go on, in chapter 3, to refer to himself, Apollos, and Peter as ‘God’s fellow-workers’, and to the Corinthians as ‘God’s field, God’s building’ (v9).  It would make good sense for this distinction between “we” and “you” to be already anticipated in 2:6-16.  This identification of himself as a member of a group of authoritative teachers continues into chapter 4, where Paul says that they have been ‘entrusted with the secret things of God’ (4:1).  This expression is so similar top what he has written in 2:6-16 (see v7, for example) that I am inclined to think that Paul is referring to the same group of teachers in that passage.
2.  Is this important?
While I wouldn’t stake my life on the interpretation I have just outlined, it does help to highlight the distinction between the ‘primary’ teachers of the Christian faith (whom I have called the ‘apostolic band’) and the ‘secondary’ teachers of the faith (who would include today’s evangelists, teachers and prophets).  The first group has the kind of authority that Paul refers to in 1 Cor 9:1 (“Am I not an apostle?  Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”; see also 1 Jn 1:1 – “…we have heard…we have seen…our hands have touched”).  They were the people whom the Holy Spirit inspired to write the New Testament Scriptures (1 Cor 2:13).  The second group has a derived authority: their teaching must be tested by Scripture itself and by the church (a number of tests for evaluating prophetic utterances are set out in 1 Cor 14).
As I say, I wouldn’t die for it, and nothing essential is lost if we understand “we” in this passage to include believers more generally.  But I do think that it is supported by the context, and that it clarifies the distinction between the primary authority of Scripture and the secondary authority of ‘word ministries’ both then and now.

‘There has not only been an objective, public act of divine self-disclosure in the crucifixion of God’s own Son, but there must also be a private work of God, by his Spirit, in the mind and heart of the individual. That is what distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever, the “mature” from the people of this age and the rulers of this age. If we “see” the truth of the gospel, therefore, it has nothing to do with our brilliance or insight; it has to do with the Spirit of God. If we should express unqualified gratitude to God for the gift of his Son, we should express no less gratitude to God for the gift of the Spirit who enables us to grasp the gospel of his Son.’ (Carson)

The Spirit searches all things – There is untranslated ‘For’ at the beginning of this sentence.

The role of the Holy Spirit is emphasised, and Paul will now focus more particularly on his work, by indicating a fourfold ministry. First, the Holy Spirit searches. When Paul says that the Spirit searches all things, he means, ‘not that he conducts searches with a view to obtaining information’ (Morris), but that the Spirit penetrates all secrets, all mysteries, even the deep things of God. No human creature can fathom the depths of the divine counsel, but the Spirit can, and it is he who reveals the mystery of the Gospel to us.

The deep things of God – Knowledge of ‘deep things’ became an important claim of the Gnostics in the 2nd century, and such thinking may already have been current during the time of Paul’s ministry.  Paul would then be stating here that the knowledge of such things is discovered not by proto-gnostic teachers, but by the Holy Spirit himself (Stott).

Soards says that Paul is using a ‘like for like’ argument here, of the kind often used in Greco-Roman rhetoric.  Just as the human knows the human, so only God knows God.  God’s Spirit is therefore necessary in order for God to be made known to humans.

Thistelton: ‘Contemplation of “the depths” of God requires patience, attention, sensitivity, imagination, openness, understanding, desire for God, and worship. Does God’s sharing of revealed understanding through Christ call forth the serious, attentive seeking that it invites?’

The man’s spirit within him – Blomberg explains: ‘A person’s “spirit” (usually synonymous in the New Testament with one’s “soul”) is the invisible, immaterial part of a human being which survives the death of the body. But during life, and after being reunited with one’s resurrection body, one’s spirit is integrally related to the material aspect of human existence. Put simply, there is an ultimate dichotomy between body and spirit/soul in every human but a fundamental interrelatedness of both elements. Hellenistic philosophy often neglected the latter; contemporary psychology often ignores the former.’

No one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God – Nobody can knows what is going on deep inside a person, except the person himself. No-one can accurately and reliably read another person’s mind.  Try it!  Similarly, no-one can know what is going on within the Godhead, except the Spirit of God himself.

‘The Spirit knows God from the inside…Because the Spirit who reveals is truly God, what he reveals is the truth of God.’ (Morris)

‘Only God’s Spirit knows what is in his heart, but because believers have God’s Spirit, they can know his heart too. This was a radical statement for most of ancient Judaism, because most Jewish teachers did not believe that the Spirit was active in their day. “Spirit” had a broad variety of meanings, including “attitude,” “disposition;” hence “spirit of the world” need not refer to any particular spiritual being (unlike God’s Spirit).’ (NT Background Commentary)

‘In 2004 I was invited by the archbishop of Canterbury to join an international bridge-building conference of fifteen Muslim scholars and fifteen Christian scholars. We met for a week in Doha, the capital of the Sheikdom of Qatar in the Arabian Gulf. One evening an Egyptian Muslim scholar joined my Christian friend and me at dinner. During a lull in our conversation, she asked, “Gentlemen, can one of you explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to me? I have been trying to find an explanation that I can understand for twenty-five years and have failed. Can you help me?” After negotiating with my friend as to which of us would venture to answer this serious, friendly question, I offered a brief discussion of the text before us with its Pauline parable of the human person. I told my questioner that in the Qur’an one can read about “God,” “the Word of God” and the “Spirit of God.” The Islamic tradition has chosen not to reflect on how those three Quranic descriptions of the divine come together. That choice is their privilege, and I respect their freedom in that decision, I told her. But in the Christian tradition we also have God, his Word and his Spirit, and we have chosen to reflect on how these three form a unity. Greatly relieved the professor replied, “At last! Someone has given me an explanation of the Trinity that I can understand. I am so grateful.” I quickly assured her that thanks were not due to me, but to St. Paul, who gave us the text (with its parable).’ (Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes)

The deep things of God

In the second chapter of this letter, Paul puts great emphasis on how profound, secret, and inaccessible to human understanding the blessings of the gospel are. What has been made known to us in the gospel is what “God has prepared for those who love him” (v. 9 NIV), and far from being conformable to human wisdom, it is something that

no eye has seen,
nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,

words which most Christians probably associate with heaven but which Paul clearly intends with reference to the present revelation of the gospel. If this divine wisdom has now been handed over to us in the gospel, it is by miracle, because the origins of these things lie so deep within the heart of God that only God can know them. The mystery of the gospel is locked up inside of God and can be communicated only by someone who is God. Paul underlines this three different ways:

We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (1 Cor. 2:7)

These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 2:10–11)

“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:16)

The predestining Father determined this mystery; and the depth-searching Spirit has access to these depths because he is as intimate with God as my spirit is with me. But that same Spirit has revealed them to us, and we therefore have come into harmony with the mind of Christ, the one who knows the mind of the Lord.

(Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything)

2:12 Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God.

The spirit of the world probably means ‘the temper of the world’, the spirit of human wisdom. World here is ‘cosmos‘ (not ‘aion‘, as in v7f). A second ministry of the Spirit is taught here: the Holy Spirit indwells.

We have…received…the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us – ‘Paul’s point is just that only an individual knows his or her own unexpressed thoughts, so that the only way we can commune with God and know his thoughts is through his indwelling Spirit. And even then, we may learn only what he chooses to disclose (“what God has freely given”—v. 12b).’ (Blomberg)

The Spirit who is from God – According to Thiselton, this should be translated more emphatically: ‘the Spirit who proceeds from God’, or similar.  The Spirit thus proceeds ‘as the transcendent, holy “Other,” who is not merely an immanent human spirit or a divine cosmic spark or “world soul” of Stoic philosophy. It is not the spirit of the world that we received, but the Spirit who issues from God (v. 12)…The context demands that we signal a clear-cut contrast in Paul between an immanent “cosmic spirit” and the transcendent Holy Spirit who proceeds from God. We may compare John 15:26, “Spirit of truth, who issues [or proceeds] from the Father,” and “proceeds” in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.’

Have you received the Holy Spirit?  ‘Have you received the spirit which is of God, wrought by the Holy Ghost in your soul? The necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart may be clearly seen from this fact, that all which has been done by God the Father, and by God the Son, must be ineffectual to us, unless the Spirit shall reveal these things to our souls. What effect does the doctrine of election have upon any man until the Spirit of God enters into him? Election is a dead letter in my consciousness until the Spirit of God calls me out of darkness into marvellous light. Then through my calling, I see my election, and knowing myself to be called of God, I know myself to have been chosen in the eternal purpose. A covenant was made with the Lord Jesus Christ, by his Father; but what avails that covenant to us until the Holy Spirit brings us its blessings, and opens our hearts to receive them? There hang the blessings on the nail-Christ Jesus; but being short of stature, we cannot reach them; the Spirit of God takes them down and hands them to us, and thus they become actually ours. Covenant blessings in themselves are like the manna in the skies, far out of mortal reach, but the Spirit of God opens the windows of heaven and scatters the living bread around the camp of the spiritual Israel. Christ’s finished work is like wine stored in the wine vat; through unbelief we can neither draw nor drink. The Holy Spirit dips our vessel into this precious wine, and then we drink; but without the Spirit we are as truly dead in sin as though the Father never had elected, and though the Son had never bought us with his blood. The Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary to our well being. Let us walk lovingly towards him and tremble at the thought of grieving him.’ (Spurgeon)

‘In verses 12-14 Paul uses six important verbs to describe the ministry of the Spirit in those who teach and those who hear the gospel: the former he enables to know, to declare and to explain; the latter he enables to receive, to understand and to appreciate. Without such ministry from the Spirit there can be no communication and no growth into maturity: the truth is incomprehensible and the things of the Spirit are even regarded as foolishness (14). (Prior)

2:13 And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but with those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people.

Here is a third ministry of the Spirit: the Holy Spirit teaches. See Jn 14:26; 16:13.

‘It is a remarkable tribute to his own preaching when he says that it consists of the secret revelation of the greatest of things: the teaching of the Holy Spirit, the totality of our salvation, the priceless treasures of Christ. He does so that the Corinthians might know how much it ought to be valued.’ (Calvin)

This is what we speak – or, ‘this is what we impart’.  If v12 has spoken of the Spirit revealing God’s truth, the present verse speaks of him enabling that truth to be imparted.  Again, it is natural to think that Paul is referring to himself and his fellow-apostles.

Not in words taught us by human wisdom

Words taught by the Spirit – A clear statement of ‘verbal inspiration’.  This doctrine, correctly understood, does not mean (a) that every statement in the Bible is to be understood literally; (b) that every statement in the Bible is true; or (c) that the Holy Spirit dictated the words of the Bible to its various human authors.  It means that the very words of the Bible (and not the authors themselves, and not merely the ideas which the words clothe) come from the Spirit of God, and bear his truth and authority.  (See Stott’s discussion)

‘The Spirit’s activity extends to providing the actual words used, and is not confined to the supplying of general ideas.’ (Morris)

Expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words is a difficult expression, leading to various translations and interpretations.  Thistelton: ‘intepreting things of the Spirit to people of the Spirit’.

Morris thinks that the participle synkrinontes should be translated ‘combining’, and that the phrase as a whole should be translated something like ‘combining spiritual things with spiritual words’.  The thought would then be consistent with what Paul has just expressed: the Spirit enables us to put the things of God into words.

It could mean ‘teaching spiritual truths to spiritually-minded men’. This seems consistent with the thought of the next verse.  For God’s truth to have its effect, the Spirit must work both in those who speak and also those who hear.  As Stott puts it: ‘The same Holy Spirit who was active in the apostles who wrote the letters was also active in those who received and read them. The Holy Spirit was working at both ends of the communication process—inspiring the apostles and enlightening their hearers and readers.’

Revelation and illumination.  Stott illustrates: ‘Supposing you were to bring a blindfolded friend to an unveiling ceremony. Two actions would be necessary before your friend could read the words on the plaque. First, the plaque would have to be unveiled (which is ‘revelation’). Secondly, your friend’s blindfold would need to be removed (which is ‘illumination’).’

But do we as Christians delight in such teaching? Do we yearn for a deeper understanding of the ways and works of God? Do we relish solid, nutritious, teaching?

As Soards says: ‘Implicit in Paul’s remarks is an understanding of the missional character of the presence and the power of the Spirit. The Spirit and the truths about God are not grasped and possessed by humans, rather, they themselves grasp humanity and direct persons toward others as the agents of God’s saving work.’

2:14 The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

The man without the Spirit is lit. psychikos, ‘the natural person’ – the worldly man, whose horizons are limited to the things of this life, who ‘lives on an entirely human level’ (Thistelton). who relies on human faculties alone. Such a person not only does not, but cannot embrace spiritual things, because he lacks the equipment to do so. He ‘may be of the noblest character and attainments in the estimation of the world, yet he lacks the one thing needful. He is described as the natural man because his nature is unchanged by grace. He is a stranger to the New Birth.’ (Jn 3:3-8) (Wilson)

Blomberg: ‘William Barclay’s definition of the person without the Spirit (psychikos) remains both timeless and timely. This kind of individual “lives as if there was nothing beyond the physical life and there were no needs other than material needs.” Such a person “thinks that nothing is more important than the satisfaction of the sex urge” and thus “cannot understand the meaning of chastity.” One “who ranks the amassing of material things as the supreme end of life cannot understand generosity,” and one “who has never a thought beyond this world cannot understand the things of God.”’

‘That is, the Spirit of God, from whom the teaching of the Gospel comes, is the only true interpreter for opening it up to us. If follows that in passing judgement on it the minds of men must necessarily be in darkness, until they are enlightened by the Spirit of God. The inference from this is that all men are by nature without the Spirit of God; otherwise the argument would fall to the ground. Of course, the light of reasons, such as it is, which is a necessity of life for all of us, is from the Spirit of God. But here we are speaking of that special revelation of heavenly wisdom, of which God thinks only his sons are worthy. Because of that there is all the less ground for tolerating the ignorance of those who think that the Gospel is offered to all men universally in such a way that it is free to all without distinction to lay hold of salvation by faith.’ (Calvin)

Does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God – ‘The verb (dechomai) has an air of welcome about it; it is the usual word for the reception of a guest. But ‘the natural man’ does not welcome the things of the Spirit; he refuses them, he rejects them. He is not equipped to discern the activities of God’s Spirit; to him they are no more than foolishness (cf. 1 Cor 1:18, 21, 23).’ (Morris)

‘He knows not what it is to be transformed by the renewing of the mind, Rom 12:2, or what the inward workings of the Spirit mean; these are riddles and paradoxes to him. He may have more insight into the things of the world than a believer, but he does not see the deep things of God. A swine may see an acorn under a tree, but he cannot see a star. He who is taught of Christ sees the arcana imperii state secrets, the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.’ (Thomas Watson)

‘These things of God are not only contrary to corrupt and carnal reason, but they are also above right reason. Grace indeed uses nature, but nature can do nothing without grace. The mind of a natural man has not only a native blindness, by reason whereof it cannot discern the things of the Spirit, but also a natural enmity, Rom 8:7, and hates the light, Jn 3:19,20.’ (Thomas Watson)

They are foolishness to him – Cf. Eph 4:18.

They are spiritually discerned – spiritually examined, judged, investigated, scrutinized.

‘The unspiritual are out of court as religious critics; they are deaf men judging music.’ (Findlay)

‘Discernment by Spirit-led men is seen in the incident where Jehoshaphat asks for a “prophet of the Lord” after the false prophets have spoken (1 Kings 22:7) and is emphasized especially in the New Testament. (see Jn 10:4-5; 1 Cor 2:14) In 1 Cor 14:29,32, the prophets will be judged by other prophets, for “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets,” and in 1 Jn 4:1 the believer is to “test the spirits to see if they come from God.” In the final analysis all agree that only Spiritled individuals can discern clearly whether a prophet or preacher is truly sent from God.’ (Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral)

Here, in vv14-16, is a fourth ministry of the Spirit: the Holy Spirit matures. The ‘spiritual man’ (v15) is the person is achieving a spiritual insight into things, who is not blinkered or side-tracked by worldly opinion, who has ‘the mind of Christ’, v16.

‘The natural man may have excellent notions in divinity but God must teach us to know the mysteries of the gospel after a spiritual manner. A man may see the figures upon a dial, but he cannot tell how the day goes unless the sun shines; so we may read many truths in the Bible, but we cannot know them savingly, till God by his Spirit shines upon our soul. God teaches not only our ear, but our heart; he not only informs our mind, but inclines our will. We never learn aught till God teach us.’ (Thomas Watson)

2:15 The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. 2:16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him? But we have the mind of Christ.

Paul may be quoting a self-congratulatory saying of the Corinthians themselves, but endorses it only with a ‘decisive twist’ (Thistelton).  The truly spiritual person does indeed discern all things, but only so far as the Holy Spirit has formed in that person ‘the mind of Christ’, v16.

The spiritual manpneumatikos, ‘the spiritual person’; the Christian.

Makes judgements about all things – has spiritual discernment; is able to bring God’s perspective to bear on all aspects of life.

He…is not subject to any man’s judgement – This is to be taken in the sense of ‘any natural man’. ‘It is clear enough from the whole tenor of Paul’s writings that he did not believe that men in whom was the Spirit of God could not be called upon to account for their actions (cf 1 Cor 14:29). Much of this Epistle is nothing else than a criticism (even though a loving and a spiritual criticism) of spiritual men. His point is that the spiritual man cannot be judged by the natural man, for precisely the same reason that he himself can judge all things. He has the Spirit of God within him and the natural man has not…Because the natural man cannot know spiritual things (v14), he cannot judge the spiritual man.’ (Leon Morris).

As Blomberg remarks, ‘verse 15b must be interpreted in light of the entire context: Christians are not subject to any merely human evaluation, that is, one that does not take God’s perspective into account.’

This ‘does not suggest that unsaved people cannot point out flaws in the believers life (they often do), but that the unsaved man really cannot penetrate into the full understanding of what the Christians life is all about’ (Wiersbe).

‘We may ask, who is the spiritual man, and where are we to find a man endowed with so much light, that he is capable of judging everything, when we are well aware of the fact that we are always beset with a great deal of ignorance, and are liable to the danger of going wrong, and, more than that, when even the most excellent of men repeatedly fall and come to grief? The answer is easy: Paul does not make this apply to everything, as if he delivers all who are renewed by the Spirit of God from every kind of error; but he simply wishes to teach that human intelligence is useless for assessing the teachings of religion, and that the right to judge in this way belongs to the Spirit of God alone. Therefore, a man judges aright and with assurance, according to whether he is born again, and according to the measure of grace bestowed on him – and no more.’ (Calvin)

‘When the Spirit enters a man’s life everything is changed. One new thing that appears is the ability to make a right judgement…Because the Spirit of God equips him…The spiritual man has the point of reference within himself. He is thus able to judge “all things.” The force of “all” should not be overlooked. The spiritual principle is the basis of his judgement on what men call the secular, as well as the sacred.’ (Leon Morris)

Who has known the mind of the Lord…? – The quote is from Isa 40:13. There, of course, Jehovah is being referred to. But Paul moves easily into a reference to the mind of Christ, showing again what a lofty view of the Saviour he had (Morris). ‘To have the mind of Christ means to look at life from the Saviour’s point of view, having his values and desires in mind. It means to think God’s thoughts and not think as the world thinks’ (Wiersbe).

We have the mind of Christ – The Spirit reveals Christ to us, and enables us to see everything else from Christ’s perspective.

‘Those who experience the illuminating and transforming power of the Spirit are granted Christ’s own capacity of spiritual discernment and the freedom that comes with it.’ (Soards)

‘The thrust of his argument here is to buttress the assertion of 1 Cor 2:15. The reasons Paul’s detractors cannot successfully scrutinize him and find fault is that, according to Scripture, the mind of the Lord (noun kyriou) is in no need of examination and improvement, and Paul asserts that he indeed has the mind of Christ (noun Christou). This, then, demonstrates why he and others who are spiritual cannot be subject to the human judgment of his detractors.’ (College Press)

‘To the Corinthians, Paul brought the mind of Christ and made them share in the divine gospel wisdom. Will they now fall back into their former state and with worldly wisdom tell the Lord how to improve his mind and to make the gospel wisdom what they think it ought to be?’ (Lenski) Wilson adds at this point: ‘All those who still rely on their own ideas to “improve” the gospel cannot escape this grace indictment of blasphemy.’

Paul alludes on a number of occasions to the mind of Christ. We are to model our thinking on the teaching and example of Christ, Php 2:5. To have the mind of Christ is to think as he thought, to see things as he sees them. Our outlook on the world becomes aligned to his outlook.

‘No one can comprehend God (Rom 11:34) but through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, believers have insight into some of God’s plans, thoughts, and actions-they, in fact, have the “mind of Christ.” Through the Holy Spirit we can begin to know God’s thoughts, talk with him, and expect his answers to our prayers. Are you spending enough time with Christ to have his very mind in you? An intimate relationship with Christ comes only from spending time consistently in his presence and in his Word.’ (HBA)

‘The passage 6-16 has dealt with the fact that God is a ‘speaking’ God (cf. Dt. 4:33-36) who has chosen to disclose his heart and mind through his servants, the apostles. Attributing the words of the apostles ‘we do speak’ and ‘we speak’ (both in the present tense, vs 6, 13) to the wisdom of God which has been revealed, points to the fact that the apostles spoke the word of God – which is why the church historically has held the view that what the apostles said is what God says.’ (NBC)

‘Thus the minister of a sovereign could say, after an intimate conversation with his king, I am in full possession of my master’s mind. From this moment, therefore, to criticize the servant is to criticize the master.’ (Godet)

Apostle disputes prophet?
Derek Flood concludes from this passage that we Christians are entitled to contradict even the prophets, for ‘we have the mind of Christ’.  And this, according to Flood, is exactly what Paul does.  ‘Paul quotes from Isaiah, who thunders, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him!?” implying that we cannot question (1 Cor 2:16 quoting Isaiah 40:13).  However, rather than agreeing with the prophet’s authority, Paul instead defiantly shoots back in response to Isaiah the retort: “But we have the mind of Christ!” (v. 17). While Isaiah effectively cries out “Who dares to challenge the Bible?” Paul answers defiantly “We who have the mind of Christ, that’s who!”’  (Disarming Scripture, p109).

Although even so conservative a publication as the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament can speak of a ‘disjunction’ between the times of Isaiah and those of Paul, we think that the question is explicable in terms of progressive revelation (i.e. the NT revelation building on that of the OT), rather than in terms of contradiction.

Hays (Interpretation) sees a ‘double meaning’ here.  ‘On one level, the quotation reinforces Paul’s point that the natural mind is incapable of understanding God’s designs (cf. Rom. 11:34, quoting the same text).’  But, at the same time, the quotation introduces a second and rather different point.  ‘The LXX phrase “mind (nous) of the Lord” translates the Hebrew phrase “spirit (ruach) of the Lord.” Given the whole context, it is evident that Paul understands the terms “mind” and “spirit” to be synonymous. Because he also understands “the Lord” to be Jesus, and because Christians have received the Spirit, he can move forward to his final audacious claim: “We have the mind (=spirit) of Christ.” Therefore, in a real sense, it has been given to us to know the mind of the Lord.’  In other words, Paul both affirms the words of Isaiah (‘No-one has known the mind of the Lord’) and takes it forward (‘But we do, for we have the mind of Christ’).

Spiritual elitism

‘Here it certainly sounds as though Paul has fallen into the insidious trap of trying to outdo the elitist boasters. But in order to understand rightly what it means to have the mind of Christ, we must remember who “Christ” is for Paul: the crucified one. To have the mind of the Lord is to participate in the pattern of the cross (cf. Phil. 2:1–11), for the wisdom of God is manifest definitively in the death of Jesus. Consequently, the privileged spiritual knowledge of which Paul speaks should result in the renunciation of all privilege, all boasting and quarreling.’ (Hays)

Although, as Blomberg says, this passage has been used to support many forms of spiritual elitism, any such notion is almost the exact opposite of what Paul means.  Such elitism may take the form of some division of believers into two tiers – the ‘basic’ version and the ‘mature’ version.  But such ‘division’ would lead to the very divisiveness against which Paul so firmly sets himself.  He has made it clear that he only recognises two classes of human being@ those who are being saved and those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18).

A little more subtly, it may be characterised by some ‘key’ to a happy, fulfilled life, some strategy for church growth, and so on.  Then again, it may emerge in ‘single-issue’ personalities who push the absolute supremacy of apologetics, say, or foreign missions, or social activism, or the teachings of some Christian ‘guru’ as the single over-arching commitment of the church.  In all these cases, there is a real danger of exalting human wisdom and personalities, and of moving away from the centrality of Christ and his cross.

Blomberg concludes: ‘That so many Christians today tolerate such imbalance is an indictment of the lack of effective, comprehensive, week-in and week-out teaching ministries of our local congregations, a lack which leaves believers feeling that they need seminars and specialists to teach them what they have become convinced they could not otherwise learn on their own.’

Hyper-intellectualism and anti-intellectualism

If the besetting sin of theological liberalism is the former, then that of evangelicalism is the latter.  But, although this passage makes it absolutely clear that unaided human reason does not and cannot lead us to God, Paul should not be understood as disparaging human learning in general.  After all, in this very passage he uses forms of argumentation that were current in the Greco-Roman world of his day.  This passage should not be used to buttress a merely individual and personal approach to understanding Scripture (“What this passage means ‘for me’).  We should not privilege our own private judgement against the consecrated labours of scholars and commentators.  Spurgeon put it pithily: Why would I boast about what God has said to me, while at the same time ignoring what he has said to others?  We need to value, and use, sensible principles of biblical interpretation.

As Blomberg says, verses 13-16 cannot be used to support anti-intellectualism.  They do not constitute a denial of human knowledge or wisdom, only a denial that this can lead us to, and in, saving faith.  Paul does not mean that an unsaved person cannot provide true information and interpretations of the Bible, only that he cannot form a Christian perspective on things.  Nor does Paul mean that the Christian believer can by-pass ordinary means of gaining knowledge (including careful study, and close reasoning), only that these things on their own cannot bring him to a knowledge of God’s truth, or to real holiness of life.

Biblical literacy

We have the Spirit of truth.  If, as Paul teaches here, all Christians are recipients of the Holy Spirit, who searches, reveals, and teaches the mind of God, how is it that so many of us are Biblically illiterate?  As Blomberg writes: ‘It is deeply ironic that the generation with the greatest number of accurate, understandable translations of the Bible, replete with study helps from brief annotations to massive commentaries, should be one of the most biblically illiterate societies in the history of the church. When we are dependent on a handful of prominent leaders, we then become unable to reject false teaching or to discipline immoral behavior by our favorite authorities.’

Why then do Christians sometimes disagree?

Stott writes:-

If the Holy Spirit is the enlightening Spirit, and if we have the mind of Christ, why is it that we still disagree with one another?’ My general answer is this, that we actually agree with one another a great deal more than we disagree, and that we would agree more still if we fulfilled the following five conditions.

  1. We must accept the supreme authority of Scripture. The big and painful Christian divisions are between the so-called reformed and unreformed churches, that is, between those churches which are determined to submit to Scripture and those which are unwilling to do so, or which elevate traditions and opinions to the same level as Scripture. Among churches that do submit to the supremacy of Scripture we are perhaps 90% agreed.
  2. We must remember that the chief purpose of Scripture is to bear witness to Jesus Christ as the Saviour of sinners. So, in the central truths concerning Christ and salvation, Scripture is plain or ‘perspicuous’. It is in the realm of the adiaphora, matters indifferent because of secondary importance, that we must give one another liberty of belief.
  3. We must develop sound principles of biblical interpretation. It is often said that ‘you can make the Bible teach anything you like’. I reply: ‘Yes, you are right, you can make the Bible teach anything, but only if you are unscrupulous enough.’ If, however, we apply proper principles of interpretation to Scripture, we find that far from our manipulating it, it controls us.
    In particular, we must learn to look for the natural sense (whether literal or figurative), the original sense (as the author intended and his readers would have understood him) and the general sense (in harmony with the rest).
  4. We must study Scripture together. The church is the hermeneutical community, in which God means his Word to be received and interpreted. We can help one another to understand it, especially if we reflect on it cross-culturally. This is what Paul meant when he prayed that we might be able with all the saints to grasp the full dimensions of God’s love (Eph. 3:18). We could never do this alone. We need one another.
  5. We must come to the biblical text with a humble, open, receptive spirit, ready for God to break through our cultural defences, to challenge and to change us. For if we come to Scripture with our minds made up and closed, we will never hear the thunderclap of his Word. All we will hear is what we want to hear, the soothing echoes of our own cultural prejudice.

The spiritual discernment the Holy Spirit promises to the students of Scripture is not given in defiance of these five conditions; it rather presupposes them.