1 Corinthians

Lesson Focus:  The Holy Spirit gives us the wisdom we need to understand spiritual matters.

Human Wisdom:  1 Corinthians 2:1-8.

[1]  And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. [2]  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. [3]  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, [4]  and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, [5]  that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. [6]  Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. [7]  But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, 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.  [ESV]

[1-5]  Paul arrived in Corinth in a downcast mood that resulted from his encounter with philosophers and the unfavorable response to his message in Athens [Acts 17:16-34]. Soon after his arrival he found lodging in the home of Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish Christians and tentmakers who befriended Paul [Acts 18:2-3]. Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians the gospel, which is God’s testimony revealed through Jesus Christ. Paul openly declares that he did not come to Corinth with a message delivered in sublime eloquence and wisdom. Paul had brought the message of salvation in simple terms that everyone in his audience could understand. This approach was unusual in a Hellenistic setting, where skillful orators were admired. The two expressions (lofty speech or wisdom) refer to the words that come from a speaker’s lips and the thoughts that formulate words into sentences. Of course, Paul often demonstrates in his epistle that he possesses both eloquence and wisdom. In this context, Paul refers not to a deficiency in his own abilities but to the excesses of Greek orators and philosophers. He refuses to adopt their practices; instead he plainly preaches the message of Christ’s cross. Paul says that he came to preach the good news of the crucified Christ. Jesus Christ had chosen him to carry Christ’s name before Jews and Gentiles. He did not appoint Paul to any other task. When Paul arrived in Corinth, he continued to fulfill the responsibility which Jesus had entrusted to him, namely, to preach the gospel of Christ’s cross. As an ambassador in the full sense of the word, he knew no other task than to proclaim the message of his crucified Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The message of Christ’s crucifixion appears to be straightforward and simple, but both Jews and Gentiles rejected Paul’s appeal to believe in a crucified Christ as an offense or as foolishness. Therefore, Paul had to go beyond the historical details of the crucifixion and teach his audience the theological implications of this redemptive event in human history. He taught not only the reason for Christ’s death on the cross but also the eternal benefits for every believer: forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and the resurrection of the body. Paul bares his soul and reveals his inner thoughts in 2:3. He had nothing to offer except the message of Christ’s death on the cross. The terms fear and trembling occur often in Paul’s epistles as an expression of anxiety. Fear is a debilitating force used by Satan to hinder Christ’s servants and to distort their perception. Paul gives no details but confesses that during his stay in Corinth, he experienced fear and trembling. Paul harbored innate fear and trembling because he knew his human limitations in the tremendous task of preaching the gospel and founding a church in Corinth. He knew that while denying himself he had to trust in God to provide the necessary strength to accomplish the task. This is evident from the message conveyed in 2:4. Jesus gives the preacher the demanding task and obligation of preaching the gospel. No preacher can rely on his own insights and skills. Humility ought to characterize every pastor who leads a congregation in worship. Paul says that his speech and preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom. What is Paul conveying? He was able to present the gospel persuasively in carefully chosen words, as he proved in his speech before King Agrippa II [Acts 26:27-28]. However, in this text Paul refuses to phrase his message in persuasive words of wisdom; he thereby implies that his wisdom originates not in man but in God. Paul chooses three key words to display the spiritual power available to those who preach the Word of God. The first word is demonstration, which is a term used in a court of law for testimony. The term signifies that no one is able to refute the proof that is presented. The second word is Spirit, which appears here in this epistle for the first time. The Corinthians ought to know that their spiritual birth is the work of the Holy Spirit, that their body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that their spiritual gifts are the work of the Spirit. They have the evidence in themselves. The last word is power. In the New Testament, this word is closely associated with the Holy Spirit. For example, Jesus told the apostles that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost. Even though the expression power often signifies wonders, here it has a meaning broader than miracles. The term denotes the hand of God stretching itself out to act powerfully through the apostle in every way. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to open their spiritual eyes and observe for themselves that God is at work through his power and his Spirit. They possess visible and incontrovertible proof through the power of the gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit. In 2:5 Paul states his purpose for rejecting persuasive words and superior wisdom. He has come to the Corinthians to preach the gospel. And his preaching has resulted in their personal faith in God. Paul informs them that this gift of faith neither originates in nor is supported by human wisdom. If faith were of human origin, it would utterly fail and disappear. But faith rests on God’s power that shields the believer and strengthens him to persevere. God works faith in the hearts of the Corinthians through the preaching of Christ’s gospel. He not only has given them the gift of faith but also has brought them to conversion. God commissions Paul to strengthen their faith by instructing them in the truths of God’s Word. In brief, the Corinthians must know that faith rests not on human wisdom but on God’s power.

[6-8]  Paul contrasts divine wisdom with the wisdom of the world which has captivated some Corinthian Christians. They think that Paul’s message of Christ’s cross is simplistic and fails to measure up to the standards of worldly wisdom. By sharply differentiating two concepts of wisdom, Paul emphatically and confidently states that he and his fellow ministers have God’s wisdom which is eminently superior to the wisdom of the world. Wisdom is a mystery and unintelligible to the unbeliever. To the believer wisdom becomes plain, for God communicates it through the gospel which the apostles preach. Paul has stated earlier that Christ is wisdom from God and thus Christ has become our wisdom [1:30]. Wisdom and salvation through Christ are intimately related, for the word wisdom signifies the wise acts of God in the salvation of man. The process of salvation is a miracle to believers but a mystery to people who lack the Spirit of God. Wherever the term mystery appears in the New Testament, it usually is preceded by verbs meaning either “to reveal” or “to proclaim.” This mystery was predestined by God before the creation of this world, but He now reveals it to His people through the preaching of the gospel. Wisdom that has been hidden until the present time is now revealed through the person and work of Christ. Even though this mystery of salvation is no longer hidden, it nevertheless remains something that the human mind cannot fully grasp. This mystery relates to the love of God, which is so profound that man is unable to comprehend it completely. God in His wisdom predestined this salvation for our glory before the human race was even created. God is sovereign and demonstrates His grace and mercy to His people, whom He predestined to glory. Paul could not have put the difference between worldly wisdom and divine wisdom any clearer.

God’s Wisdom:  1 Corinthians 2:9-11.

[9]  But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, 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 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.  [ESV]

[9-11]  Heart in the New Testament does not stand for the emotions, as with us. Among the Greeks heart stood for the whole of a person’s inner life, including thought and will as well as the emotions; though sometimes it inclines to one or the other. Here the mind is perhaps most in view. Paul’s thought is that there is no method of apprehension open to man (eyes, ears, or understanding) which can give him any idea of the wonderful things that God has made ready for those who love him. The verb prepared reinforces the thought of verse 7, that God is working out His plan. The glories that come to believers are not haphazard, but are in accordance with God’s plan from of old. To us, believers, great things have been revealed which removes any suggestion of superiority on the part of the believer. There can be no feelings of pride where it is recognized that all is of God. Believers know what they know, not because of any skill or wisdom of their own, but because it has pleased God to reveal it to them. Paul speaks of the revelation as having been accomplished by the Holy Spirit. This is a kind of turning point, for while he has previously mentioned the Spirit occasionally in his argument, he now begins to dwell upon His activities. Searches does not mean that the Spirit searches with a view to obtaining information. Rather it is a way of saying that He penetrates into everything. There is nothing which is beyond His knowledge. In particular Paul specifies the depths of God. Depths is often used of the mighty depths of the sea, and thus comes to signify the unfathomable. It points us to the impossibility of any creature knowing the innermost recesses of the divine counsel. But they are known to the Spirit, and it is this Spirit who has revealed the truths of which Paul speaks. The place of the Spirit is brought out by the analogy of man’s nature in verse 11. Nobody can really know what is going on inside a man, nobody except the man’s own spirit. From outside other men can but guess. But the spirit of the man does not guess. He knows. In the same way, reasons Paul, no one outside God can know what takes place within God. Nobody can know but the Spirit of God Himself. That is to say, the Spirit knows God from the inside. There can be no question but that this passage ascribes full deity to the Spirit. And it also implies that the revelation of which Paul has been speaking is authentic. Because the Spirit who reveals is truly God, what He reveals is the truth of God.


Discerning the Difference:  1 Corinthians 2:12-16.

[12]  Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. [13]  And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. [14]  The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. [15]  The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. [16]  "For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.  [ESV]

[12-16]  Once again Paul sets Christians over against the wise heathen with an emphatic we. Whatever be the case with others, we take up our position as those who are led by God’s Spirit. The spirit of the world is not an easy expression. Some understand it to mean Satan. This would give an excellent sense. One difficulty, however, is that Satan does not seem elsewhere to be referred to in just this way (though ruler of this world [John 12:31] comes close to it). Another difficulty is that it goes beyond what is required by the context. The wisdom of the world which Paul is opposing throughout this passage is not something satanic, but something human. For such reasons it seems a little more probable that we should accept the meaning as referring to human wisdom. Believers have not received the spirit of worldly wisdom. We who are Christ’s have received the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. The Spirit of God brings assurance. The Christian has real knowledge. He does not simply act on the basis of general probabilities. The fact that the believer’s certainty is a certainty of faith does not make it any the less a certainty. What the Christian receives he passes on. So Paul says that these revealed truths are spoken by believers to others. This is not done in words taught by human wisdom. The worldly-wise way is not the way to commend the truth of God. Christian teaching is done in words taught by the Spirit. The Spirit’s activity extends to providing the actual words used, and is not confined to the supplying of general ideas. Though what is taught is a revelation from God, and though it is taught in words given by the Holy Spirit, it is not received by all. Paul gives as the reason that the natural person has their limitations. Natural has reference to human life. There is nothing evil about its associations. It does not mean anything like sinful. But it does point to an absence of spiritual discernment. It refers to the person whose horizon is bounded by the things of this life. It is the worldly-wise man again, the man who has been so much in Paul’s thoughts throughout this passage. Such a person does not accept the things of the Spirit, instead he refuses or rejects them. Such a person is not equipped to discern the activities of God’s Spirit. To him they are no more than folly or foolishness. Paul goes so far as to say that it is quite impossible for him to understand them. He gives the reason that they are spiritually discerned. The verb translated discerned is used in the legal sense of the preliminary examination prior to the main hearing. It comes to mean ‘to scrutinize’, ‘to examine’, and so ‘to judge of’. It may be that the use of a verb proper to such a preliminary examination is by way of reminding us that all human verdicts are no more than preliminary. It is God who gives the final verdict. Be that as it may, Paul is insisting that the man whose equipment is only of this world, the man who has not received the Holy Spirit of God, has not the ability to make an estimate of things spiritual. By contrast, the spiritual person can form a judgment on all things. By spiritual, Paul does not mean a man who has a different natural endowment from that of the man he has just been considering, the natural person. It is not a question of natural endowment at all, but of the working of the Spirit of God within him. When the Spirit enters a person’s life everything is changed. One new thing that appears is the ability to make a right judgment. This is not because the person is now somehow greater than he was before, but because the Spirit of God equips him. Judges in this verse is the same verb as that rendered discerned in verse 14. The spiritual person has the point of reference within himself whereby he is able to judge all things. The spiritual principle implanted by the Spirit is the basis of his judgment on what men call the secular, as well as the sacred. But it is clear from the whole tenor of Paul’s writings that he did not believe that the spiritual person should not be held accountable for their actions. Rather Paul’s point here is that the spiritual person cannot be judged by the natural person because the natural person, without the Spirit, does not have the ability to understand the actions of the spiritual person. The natural person cannot know or judge spiritual things so he cannot judge the spiritual person. This impossibility is shown by the question in verse 16: Who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? Paul has already spoken of the impossibility of knowing the thoughts of God [11]. Then his concern was to show that the Spirit does indeed have complete knowledge of the depths of God [10], and that is relevant here in verse 16. As none but the Spirit has knowledge of these depths it is manifestly impossible for the natural man to have knowledge of the spiritual person. It is because of the presence of the Spirit in the spiritual person that Paul can make the bold assertion that we have the mind of Christ. He does not mean that the Christian is able to understand all the thoughts of Christ. But he does mean that the indwelling Spirit reveals Christ. The spiritual person accordingly does not see things from the viewpoint of the natural person. He sees them from the viewpoint of Christ.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Compare and contrast human wisdom with God’s wisdom in this passage. What are the characteristics of each; the benefits of each? Why is Paul so concerned that our faith rest on the wisdom of God rather than the wisdom of man?

2.         What role does the Holy Spirit play in this passage? What is His connection to the wisdom of God and to our understanding God’s wisdom?

3.         Consider what 2:12-16 teaches about the work of evangelism. If the natural person is not able to understand spiritual truth, then how are we to bear witness to the gospel to this person? What must take place within the heart of the natural person before they can understand and accept the gospel message? Note in 2:4 how Paul’s preaching was not in words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Why was Paul so concerned that these three words described his preaching?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, ECNT, Baker.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter Varsity.

The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

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