God’s Will and the Holy Spirit

1 Corinthians

Week of October 27, 2019

The Point:  The Holy Spirit will guide us in knowing God’s will.

Wisdom from the Spirit:  1 Corinthians 2:6-16.

[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. [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. [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]

“God’s Secret Wisdom [2:6-10]. From verse 6 to the end of chapter 2, Paul turns back to the theme of wisdom, and provides a much more positive assessment of its function. He is keen to correct any misunderstandings the Corinthians may have. He is not against wisdom in itself, but that autonomous human wisdom which stands in arrogant independence of the cross and is even opposed to its message. By contrast, God’s cross-centered wisdom is recognized and valued among the mature. This terminology introduces a set of contrasts that will be developed later in chapter 3. There, Paul contrasts the mature with infants – a contrast that reflects his distinction in the same verse between spiritual and people of the flesh. However, far from gathering a spiritual elite around him, the pronoun we, used throughout this section, applies to all who are wise enough to submit to the gospel of Christ crucified and who are therefore true believers. The verses that follow provide a set of criteria by which we can assess whether or not we are demonstrating that sort of spiritual maturity. Paul’s method is to develop a series of contrasts by which he defines the nature of mature, biblical spirituality, as he compares divine and human wisdoms in their different manifestations. In this section, we will consider the first two. Human Wisdom originates in man and is time-bound [6]. This is the first great disadvantage and Paul wants to emphasize the negative in order to woo his readers away from their false confidence. You cannot learn God’s wisdom in the world or from the world, because the world, in its rebellion against its Creator, will always rule love and reverence for God out of the equation. Worldly wisdom is always about living for self and living in the present. Cynical and hard-nosed, worldly wisdom has learned the reality of human depravity in the hard-knocks school of experience. This age and rulers of this age are however doomed to pass away. They have no ultimate future. Those who marry the spirit of the age are very soon widowed. This is a sobering thought whenever we are tempted to be impressed by contemporary, secular values. Empires rise and fall. Fashions flow and ebb. Experts come and go. Nothing makes the point more clearly than the media personality, pop star, sports hero, culture in which we life. The fall of such idols is often as meteoric as their rise, and the ideas and values they promote are as thin and transient as themselves. There is only one eternal kingdom, one city that remains, and it is built on a totally different set of values. Divine Wisdom is revealed by God and is eternal [7]. God’s secret wisdom does not originate in the thought of man at all. Because it has been hidden … before the ages, there would be no way in which we could even have begun to understand it, had it not been revealed to us. But that is very humbling. All the religions of the world are shaped by man’s desire to reach up to the ultimate by his own unaided efforts, to climb whatever ladders he has erected in order to reach his heaven. It is fashionable to see man’s religious quest as a noble expression of the human spirit, but the Bible’s consistent message is that we are not really looking for God at all [Rom. 3:10-12]. In fact, God has come down the ladder to us, to reveal His gracious rescue plan in and through His Son, Jesus Christ. God has disclosed His great mystery, decreed … for our glory, and for the most part we have regarded it as folly and walked away from His mercy, because we find it too humbling. We would know nothing of God if He had not condescended to make Himself known to us. We find the supreme revelation of this knowledge in ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. Yet this mystery, revealed in time through Christ’s birth and life, death and resurrection, was no emergency plan. It originated before time began and was destined to bring His people into His eternal glory, world without end. What a contrast Paul draws! The rulers of this age and those who follow them will lose their glory and come to nothing because of their rebellion against God and rejection of His Son. But the Lord Jesus has gained everlasting glory by His acceptance of His Father’s will, His obedience even to death on the cross, and we share in that glory as we are united to Him by faith. We are thus led on to Paul’s second set of contrasts. Human Wisdom is ignorant of God’s great plan [8]. It is a fact of history that none of the rulers of this age understood this. Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas, all stand condemned in the gospel narratives of Christ’s passion as ignorant, blind and foolish, in spite of all their natural cunning, political skill, authority and pomp. They conspired together to do away with the Son of God and so they crucified the Lord of glory. Had they known who He was, they would not have dared to carry out such a heinous action. But they did not understand precisely because they were of this age. While this does not make them innocent, it does explain the bitterness of their opposition. They had no understanding of God’s great rescue plan that was being worked out even as they hounded Jesus to His unjust and early death. Divine Wisdom centers God’s great plan in Christ’s self-giving love [9-10]. The quotation from Isaiah 64:4 is included in order to contrast what the human senses can perceive with the hidden realities of God’s provision in heaven, for the knowledge of which we are entirely dependent on spiritual revelation. Wisdom is not the product of a knowledge acquired by the senses of sight or hearing, or reached by intellectual effort. Heaven is impenetrable to such human assaults. Its realities are not given as a reward for knowledge but as the fulfilment of love. This is because love for God is the only touchstone of Christian reality and maturity. We have already noted how impressed the Corinthian church was by knowledge; its own [1:5] and that of others, but there seems to have been very little emphasis given to love. In chapter 8:1 we shall find Paul reminding his readers that ‘knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.’ By the time we reach chapter 13, we will be only too painfully aware of the jealousies, pride, litigation, greed and exploitation that seem to deny this gospel priority. It is no surprise, then, that the apostle, even at this early point in his letter, wants to stress the difference that a cross-centered spirituality makes in terms of outward-going love and sacrifice for others. No human being in his natural self-centeredness would ever think that way, but these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. This explains too why Paul was so concerned that his ministry at Corinth should be in demonstration of the Spirit and of power [2:4], for that alone turns the ‘folly’ of the cross into a message of salvation, received by faith. By way of explanation Paul teaches that the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. Only the Spirit can reveal the hidden secrets of God because only He knows the unique intimacy of the Holy Trinity in which He lives, with the Father and the Son. The Spirit does not have to grasp an idea or a revelation and attempt to pass it on accurately, in the way that human teachers do. He is the very agent of revelation, so that what He discloses in His Word is the very truth of God. Furthermore, it is the Spirit’s work to dive deep, as to the bottom of the sea, and to bring up treasures of revelation that would otherwise never be disclosed to human beings. He brings them to the surface in order to reveal their glory to all who are humble and willing to learn – to those who are truly mature and wise.

The Mind of Christ [2:11-16]. As he continues his series of contrasts between divine and human wisdom, Paul argues for the necessity of the direct ministry of the Holy Spirit in revealing God’s truth, by making use of a parallel line of human experience. Perhaps we can best grasp the important teaching of this paragraph by dividing it into three sections, with the heading of each section being one of the three great assertions made here about what it means to be a Christian. The we who are referred to throughout the verses clearly stands for every believer. We have received the Spirit [11-12]. Individual human wisdom is derived from an individual’s thought processes of enquiry and reflection. We all have an inner thought life that is unknown, even to our nearest and dearest, to everyone in fact, except God! One of the marks of love and trust in human relationships is that we opt to reveal more and more of those inner thoughts to others. But always we remain in control of that ‘revelation’ and unless we choose to open the door to others, they cannot know our thoughts. Exactly the same must be true of God, but on an infinitely greater scale [11b]. How could we ever begin to know God’s thoughts or understand His wisdom? Paul’s answer in verse 12 is that we have received the Spirit who is from God. He has already established that the spirit of the world is quite useless in such matters, since it is a spirit that depends on human thought and perception, and spiritual realities that have to do with God are beyond its range. This is a powerful reminder of our total dependence on the activity of the Spirit in the work of evangelism. We shall not find people understanding the hidden wisdom of the cross if our efforts at reaching them are conditioned by the world’s methods. All we shall succeed in doing is to enroll them in a religious, but worldly, club. Take, for example, the ‘prosperity gospel’ teaching which is so popular and so devastating to real Christian faith, in so many parts of the world. The spirit of the world encourages us all to pursue wealth as if it were the greatest goal of our lives in this world. If we accept this view, we will regard God as being the ultimate provider of wealth, health and happiness. When we come into possession of such things we will believe that it is a sign of His love for us and His approval of our lives. When we do not, we will believe that something is wrong and we need to appease God or to appeal to Him, so that He will relent and be gracious. It is essentially a type of works religion, where God’s blessing has to be earned by our efforts. What we are left with is a worldly version of Christianity or rather, more accurately, a basically worldly mind-set, covered by a thin veneer of piety. But this is not the work of the Holy Spirit, whom we received when first we trusted Christ as our Savior and submitted our lives to Him as Lord. His ministry in the believer is that we might understand the things freely given us by God. Acts 2:38 teaches us that the only way to receive the Holy Spirit is to repent and to receive forgiveness for our sins in the name of Jesus Christ. The promise is for all people, in every generation. Indeed, no one can become a Christian without receiving the Spirit of Christ [Rom. 8:9] and all who have received God’s Spirit belong to Him. Therefore, if we are to know God, He must open our minds so that we see Jesus for who He is, and for what He has done for us through His death and resurrection. Such blessings of forgiveness, reconciliation and enlightened understanding are the fruit of His work, and the sure mark of the Spirit’s activity is that we acknowledge them to be God’s free gifts and not something we can ever deserve or earn. We understand the Spirit’s language [13-14]. And we impart this, takes us back to what God has freely given us in the gospel. In all probability Paul is referring again to his strategy when he first evangelized Corinth. The language he then used was not the rhetoric of the contemporary philosophers, with its persuasive techniques and verbal fireworks. That would have been words … taught by human wisdom, and the response of the Corinthians would not then have been from real faith and would not have had any lasting significance [2:4-5]. So the apostolic method was to avoid such compromise deliberately and instead to use words … taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. It is as though the Spirit gives to us a whole new vocabulary to understand freshly revealed spiritual realities in human words and to convey them to fellow-believers. Once again, Paul is introducing a theme early on in the letter to which he intends returning in much greater detail later (see chapter 12). But who are these ‘spirituals’? It was a key issue in Corinth and remains so today, when we hear a great deal about different ‘spiritualities’, and when being ‘spiritual’ seems to have as many variant forms as one chooses to imagine. What is of primary importance here, however, is to note that the only spirituality Paul is interested in is that generated by the Holy Spirit and taught by Him. Any other type of spirituality would come under his category of human wisdom since it would owe more to human ingenuity and invention than to divine revelation. As a contrast, Paul introduces us to the opposite category of human being: the man without the Spirit, called here, the natural person. This individual’s main characteristic is negativity towards every aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. He does not accept the things of the Spirit of God … he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. This process is probably best understood in reverse order. Because he lacks spiritual discernment, which is the gift of the Spirit, the natural man cannot understand and so does not accept spiritual revelation. All he has are the human faculties of eye, ear and intellect, and without illumination he is unable to grasp the truth of the gospel. He judges the world by what he sees. He explains everything by the use of his sensory perceptions and his reason, because he believes that the world’s discernment is able to explain the world. But the spiritual person knows that the only way to explain the world is by God’s Word and that only divine wisdom can reveal to us our true purpose and significance in time and in eternity. Of course the gospel seems foolish without the Spirit’s work, since it inverts all of the natural man’s values and systems. It literally turns the world upside down or, rather, right side up, with its secret wisdom of the crucified Lord of glory. The cross is emphatically the ultimate test of all ‘spirituality’, a test at which all new age, triumphalist and legalistic spiritualities alike stumble and fall. We have the mind of Christ [15-16]. In this closing paragraph, Paul again returns to his methodology of contrast. Human wisdom is incapable of making judgments on spiritual matters, but divine wisdom has the mind of Christ. The spiritual person is not an elite super-saint, but any humble believer who lives in the power and wisdom of the cross. He judges all things. As God provides discernment for understanding His revelation, Christians are able to come to right and good judgments about all things. Because we have divinely revealed principles and standards, we can know right from wrong, wisdom from folly – and all from God’s perspective. Clearly, this does not make Christians infallible, but it is a promise of God’s direction and guidance if we are dependent on His revealed wisdom in Scripture, and on the Holy Spirit as our teacher. A Christian is not therefore to be gullible or naïve, nor is he to switch off his mind and pretend that rationality is the enemy of spirituality. We can be truly wise with the wisdom of God, because we have a solid foundation of unchanging truth and reality in the gospel, on the basis of which we can come to active conclusions. This will help us to see through the travesties of the world’s wisdom, to balance the realities of our smallness before God with the reality of the divine destiny of glory given to all who believe the gospel, and above all to assess everything by the Christ-centered spirituality of the cross. But is himself to be judged by no one. In other words, the truth of the gospel liberates us from living under the judgment of other people’s opinions of us. Of course, the natural man will make his own judgments about the gospel and those who believe it and will often not be in the least reticent about expressing them very freely. But his judgments have no authority in these areas and Christian people are not subject to them. The spiritual person is resigned to the fact that the world will not understand what his faith is all about, for who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? Spiritual things can only be spiritually discerned. The spiritually mature will not be thrown by unbelief, nor will they compromise their message to fit in with the prejudices of the current political correctness of their culture. We should not be surprised by the world’s protest against God’s self-revelation in Scripture. It is all a matter of revelation, for the spiritually mature are those who accept and live by God’s revealed secrets as found in the apostolic gospel. The gracious and loving response must surely be to point out that the issue is not whether we can accept God, but whether He will accept us. Such divine acceptance will only be through the gospel and it is the gospel that has made all the difference. The miracle of the new covenant is that we have the mind of Christ. We can know His revealed thoughts and share His wisdom. This is the honor that God confers on those whom the world will always despise, those who have knelt at the cross and submitted to God’s foolish wisdom.” [Jackman, pp. 37-47].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does Paul contrast spiritual wisdom and human wisdom? What are the characteristics and results of each wisdom? Where do you see the effects of worldly wisdom in today’s world? How can you grow in and exercise spiritual wisdom in your life?
  2. In 2:11-16, Paul makes three great assertions about what it means to be a Christian. List and explain these assertions and how they are to characterize your spiritual life.
  3. Jackman writes: “This is a powerful reminder of our total dependence on the activity of the Spirit in the work of evangelism.” What is Jackman describing? Why does he see this passage dealing with evangelism? If the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, how are we to approach the unbeliever? If the things of the Spirit of God … are folly to the unbeliever how are they going to believe in and accept the gospel? How was Paul able to present the gospel to the natural person?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, BENT, Baker.

Let’s Study 1 Corinthians, David Jackman, Banner of Truth.

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

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts