This is the fifth post in the series on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The overarching question we are asking in this series is: What does this letter teach us about being a community of faith in diverse cultural contexts? And the passage for this post is 1 Corinthians 2:6-3:4. Paul’s instructions are relevant for us today- guiding us how to demonstrate maturity in faith in a multi-cultural and multi-denominational setting.
In the previous section (1:18-2:5) Paul had focused the Corinthians’ attention on the power embedded within the message of the cross rather than on ideas that were being put forward as “wisdom.” This was because the message about Jesus’ death detailed what God had done for us in that death- ignoble and revolting as crucifixion was. Thinking about crucifixion in a positive light went against the grain of conventional wisdom and sensibilities. But, since Jesus’ death on the cross opened the door to people encountering the Spirit of God which resulted in changing their lives, the message of the cross qualified as true wisdom. The power embedded in the message of the cross to change lives stood in stark contrast to the powerless but emotionally charged sophistry that had surfaced in the Corinthian community. Certain teachers were teaching erroneous ideas, presenting these ideas with great fanfare. Their approach was deceptive, making their “wisdom” appear attractive while being flawed and powerless. As a result they were causing divisions in the community. We get clues as to what these teachings were about as we proceed into the epistle. What motivated these teachers? Their purpose was to advance their standing, influence, and power in the Corinthian community (compare with Acts 20:30).
In this section Paul modifies his statement in 2:1-5, a statement which made it sound as if Paul placed little value on wisdom. In this modification Paul stated that he placed a high value on wisdom- but only on godly wisdom. As we will see, godly wisdom produces a mature spirituality, not the immature spirituality that the Corinthians were displaying.
6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
3 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
To develop his point Paul creates a dichotomy between those who are shaped by their natural inclinations as well as the thoughts and beliefs of the dominant social community with those who are shaped by God’s thoughts. Paul refers to these whose lives were shaped by God’s thoughts and who reflected the character of God in their life as teleos– which can mean mature or adult- and spiritual. Later in this passage, in 3:1-4 Paul refers to those who live according to their natural inclinations as unspiritual, as people of the flesh, and as infants.
Paul continues by contrasting the wisdom of God with the wisdom of this age and the wisdom of the rulers of this age (v.8). The wisdom of this age refers to what we would refer to as conventional wisdom. It refers to the values that “everybody” shares as well as the things everyone assumes to be true. Paul adds a jab at the wisdom of the rulers of this age. The reason for this is because the rulers of this age contribute to the way the wisdom of the age is constructed.
So, who are the rulers of this age? Commentators say this phrase can refer to political rulers as well as the unseen spiritual forces of darkness. Both sets of rulers are destined to perish. I am inclined to think Paul was specifically talking about the spiritual forces of darkness because Paul states that these rulers were involved in deciding on Jesus’ crucifixion (none of the rulers of this age understood this). Humanly speaking, there were relatively few in political power who were involved in deciding to crucify Jesus. So, a position can be made for saying Paul’s focus was primarily on the spiritual rulers of this age.
One advantage in this interpretation is that it highlights the fact that the world is not a neutral place. Unseen spiritual forces exist and they are actively steering people toward evil. We are not to be obsessed or worried with their activity, we are simply to be aware that they exist. We are not to forget that the Holy Spirit is also in the world, and the Spirit is with us and in us. We provide a vital balance in this ongoing spiritual conflict – existing in his world as salt and light, steering people toward God and toward what is wholesome, good, and to what actually builds community- not tears it down.
Paul proceeds to talk about the things that God has prepared for us. He also talks about the Spirit knowing the deep things of God. The question arises: Can we come to know the things God has prepared for us as well as the deep things of God? According to verse 12, we surely can. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. The Spirit is the one who helps us understand and appreciate what these are. With regard to the word “gifts,” I do not think Paul is referring to the “gifts of the Spirit” that are the focus of his discussion in chapter 12. Due to what has been Paul’s previous focus and the relational morass in 1 Cor. 3:1-4, Paul likely is referring to the many spiritual blessings that we have received in Christ (look at Eph 1:3). These blessings come to us because of the Spirit’s working within us. Among these gifts is the Spirit enabling us to see what Christ is like- his character. The Spirit then puts within us the desire to see Christ’s character developed in us. In addition, the Spirit shows us what Jesus is passionate about so that he can create within us these same passions. But all of this only happens to those who are growing in grace through the dynamic activity of the Spirit. The “unspiritual” do not receive these insights and experience these changes in character because they deem them foolish. Remember, the way of the cross reflects the character of God. God’s character traits are self- sacrifice, meekness, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. These are traits the rulers and the people of this age do not honor or value.
In 3:1-4 we get a glimpse of what had gone wrong in the Corinthian believing community. We see that the harmony of the community had been disrupted and they had descended into self-promotion, jealousy, quarrels, and divisions. With the Corinthian believers acting in this way, it is no wonder why Paul referred to them as infants in the faith. Their relationships reflected the same brokenness and disorder that characterized the larger Corinthian society and the Graeco-Roman world.
Let’s conclude with a few points and questions. First, as diverse as our communities are, disagreements over certain points of belief are inevitable. It seems that only in our passport countries is it possible to get the luxury of being in a believing community where everyone agrees. In the places we work we are almost always members of diverse communities. Therefore, the question we ought to ask ourselves is: Is it possible to hold differing views among ourselves in such a way that we demonstrate maturity to those who observe us from the outside? Paul would say that the answer is yes. If we are mature, we will give the freedom to one another to hold differing views. We will not strive to get others to agree with us; we will strive to model the character of Christ in the midst of our differences. In this way we are living reflections of God’s character and godly wisdom.
Second, Paul opens up a wonderful horizon to us. He says that the way is open to plumb the depths of the mind and heart of God. If this is the case, how can we respond to the Spirit so that he gives us a deeper understanding of God’s thoughts, passions, and ways? As we ask this, let us not forget the practical things we can do to seek God. Proverbs 2:1-15 gives us some good advice about how to proceed in seeking insight into the depths of God. We are to: 1) earnestly desire to know God, 2) seriously and prayerfully study the Word, 3) do what we know is right, and 4) be patient. God is faithful. He will reveal more and more about himself through the Spirit over time.
Third, we need to seek God in community. We should never forget that Paul was writing to a community of believers in Corinth. There is a time for seeking God as individuals, and there is a time for seeking him as a group. What does corporate seeking look like? Does it look like regular group Bible studies or does it look like discussing what we are thinking about and reading over a cup of coffee? Or does it include both and even more?
Fourth, since we live and work in intercultural settings, what role does working in an intercultural setting play in plumbing the depths of God’s wisdom? I gained so much by living and working in another culture. It opened my mind and eyes to seeing the world in a radically different way. This new way of seeing opened truths in the Scripture that I may not have ever seen had I not lived in a different culture.
Finally, it appears that Paul is advocating that if we are truly coming to know the mind of Christ by the constant help of the Holy Spirit we will live and relate to others in such a way that we model the life, the passions, and the teachings of our Crucified Lord. To learn these things and then to be empowered to live in such a way is an incredible honor and privilege. May the Lord help us all as we move toward this goal!