Superficial vs. Spiritual Wisdom

Superficial vs. Spiritual Wisdom
1 Corinthians 2:12-13

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. 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.

All this week, I've been wrestling with these words of 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.

Initially, what Paul is saying seems so illusive, so erudite, so remote from the practical problems with which we struggle that I was tempted to jump over this passage and move on to chapter 3. However, an expository preacher does not have the luxury of skipping over tough passages. Also, I sensed a still, small, inner voice urging me to keep on, saying, "Dig into that text, John. Don't rob its tremendous truth from your people, when I am so close to giving you an intellectual and spiritual breakthrough of understanding."

The breakthrough came for me when I backed off from these eleven verses, taking a look at them in the context of what had come before and what is to follow. It suddenly dawned on me that Paul is in the process of presenting a progressive argument that would touch the hearts and minds of fellow believers whose attitudes and lifestyles are not living up to the profession of faith which is theirs.

So let's make a quick review.

He opens his letter reminding them of his authority as an apostle called by the will of God. He also reminds them that they are called to be saints "together."

He wishes them grace and peace. His choice of these words as he opens his letter was not designed to carry heavy theological freight. He was simply wishing them what any civilized, socialized person would wish to a group of friends, a gracious and peaceful existence. He knew that they had become divided. He was pained by the elitism with which some prided themselves in being followers of himself or Apollos or Peter or Christ.

Instead of putting them down with his initial comments, he expresses thanks to God for them. He does not rule them out of the Kingdom of God because of their carnal, less than spiritual, sinful activities. He embraces them as brothers and sisters in Christ. He tells them how, even though he's been away from them for many months now in Ephesus, he always gives thanks to God for the generosity with which He had showered upon him: grace; riches; spiritual gifts; blamelessness; and divine faithfulness.

Wouldn't you agree this is an adult way of going about business? He is not manipulating them with shame. He is using affirmation, acknowledging some very positive elements that mark their Christian life and experience.

Now he is able to confront one of the biggest issues, one that he would come back to again and again later in this letter. He appeals to them as brothers and sisters in Christ to put aside their divisions and stand united around the person of Jesus Christ. He begs them to quit "doing their own thing." He understands human nature. He knows how easy it is for people to revert back to their own natural prejudices and former lifestyles when they get out of fellowship with the Lord.

He can understand why some would be proud followers of him. After all, they were Gentiles whom he had led to Christ and assured them that they didn't have to become Jewish proselytes, obedient to the details of the Old Testament law. He could understand how some with fairly sophisticated Jewish upbringing would love the eloquent, allegorical teachings of brilliant Apollos from Alexandria. He could understand how some of the more conservative Jews would confess Jesus to be the Messiah but take their theological directions straight from Peter at Jerusalem, whose articulation of the Gospel tended to come out of a more Hebrew mindset. And he could even understand the ultimate elitism of those rugged individualists who functioned with the spiritual snobbery that is content to own no human leader but instead claims a direct pipeline to Jesus the Messiah.

Paul disavows any endeavor to encourage party factionalism and points to the cross of Jesus Christ as a rallying point that would bring everyone together in Christian unity. He writes, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).

With this, he confronts the issue. The issue is not that the word of the cross is "moronic" to those who have not repented of sin and received Jesus Christ as Savior. It was that to the nonbeliever. Can you think of anything more "foolish" than to say God became man, nailed to the cross, and, through His life, death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins is offered? Nonetheless, that's the very essence of the Gospel. What is foolishness to some is that which is of ultimate significance to those of us whose eyes have been opened to the reality of God's love and grace. The word of the cross is the power of God to those of us who have trusted Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

This morning, we have presented to you 55 new members who have completed the half-day, new-member class with instruction and personal sharing. We have not pried into all the personal past acts and beliefs of each of these persons, but we have shared the essence of the Gospel and have alerted them that their qualification for membership in St. Andrew's is that they have repented of sin and put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. This class of members includes persons from very young to very old, variety of gender, life experiences and geographic identity. Some are long-term veterans of the faith who know a lot of what the Bible teaches. Others are brand new to the faith. What every one of them has declared is that they have put their individual trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

Paul then rhetorically makes reference to people who are known to be wise, brilliant and clever debaters, people who have the wisdom of this world. He refers to Jews who want miraculous signs and Greeks who are looking for eloquent philosophies. As appealing as all this is, he underlines the most elementary of spiritual truths, ". . .but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).

Then he gives two examples.

Example #1: "Take you for example." He talks specifically about the believers at Corinth. He notes that many sophisticated fraternities or sororities screen those applying. They want people who are wise according to worldly standards. They want powerful people. They want people of noble birth. He bluntly reminds them that not many of them were that wise, that powerful or of noble birth. In fact, later he will remind them that, if they're going to be arrogant about their spiritual sophistication, they need to remember their origins. "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

It is helpful, isn't it, to remember our roots? None of us is perfect! Every one of us is a sinner. Some of us are sinners who have never received God's grace. Some of us are sinners but for the grace of God, and we are clothed in His righteousness, based on His graciousness, not on our own brilliance, power or sophistication. We can't buy our way into the Kingdom of God by our intellect, our power or our connections. The reality is that God loves us. We are His chosen people!

Example #2: "Take me for example." Paul is saying that he knows that he is very intelligent. He can hold his own in intellectual repartee with the brightest of people, he continues to declare that he didn't come to Corinth with the goal of impressing them with how smart he was. He writes, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Do you follow me? Let's not get so haughty and prideful, so arrogant in our intellectual and spiritual sophistication. Remember the message of the Christian faith is not one of highly sophisticated philosophical musings. It is an elementary word, the word of the cross. The minute you and I forget that, we begin to develop a prideful elitism. Like our party leaders, we pride ourselves in our own intellectual sophistication.

But wait! This is not all that Paul is talking about. He now makes the transition in his argument that is extremely important. He wants to repudiate any notion that would imply that the Gospel that is so simple in its utterance ends up producing a Christianity that is a "no-nothing" religion that encourages and coddles ignorance and "anti-intellectualism." That just is not the case. Available to the Christian is a realm of discourse, a knowledge and wisdom that does not repudiate the healthy aspects of this world's wisdom but actually goes far beyond it.

Every pastor lives at the center of an unrelenting tension. It is my responsibility every time I speak to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is so straightforward, so simple, that an uneducated child, an adult with a limited IQ or a person with waning intellectual capacities can understand it. I have the responsibility to declare the kerygma, a herald's announcement of the plain, blunt facts of the Christian life. That's the starting point. It's the message of that wonderful children's song, "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know, For the Bible Tells Me So." It calls every person, no matter how sophisticated or how modest in intellectual background, to come in repentance to the cross of Jesus Christ. This is evangelism.

On the other hand, I have the responsibility for another kind of instruction that is called didache. This means teaching. This is the explanation of the significant facts that have been announced. It is a stage beyond the basic work of evangelism. It is the responsibility to take the Scriptures, which have been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit of God, and to impress these additional spiritual truths upon you in a way in which you will grow spiritually. I have a responsibility to lead you to growth that goes beyond the basics of the Christian faith without repudiating that basic foundation. There is a lot more to the Christian faith intellectually, doctrinally, theologically than the basic facts. The basic facts, when brought to life by the Holy Spirit's actions in your life, enable you to be born again, receiving the gift of God's grace. It is God's intention that you and I move forward in a growth process that takes joy in the basic facts of what God has done for you, while at the same time exposing ourselves to the deeper teachings of God's Word.

Paul has to stop at this point and remind the Corinthian believers, as he also reminds you and me in Newport Beach, that once you have come to faith in Jesus Christ, you have the privilege of growing in wisdom.

This growth is a rigorous process. This wisdom has depth to it. A Christian who is maturing in his or her faith is not coming to church on Saturday night or Sunday, adult education, or all the other activities, to be entertained by some clever, eloquent performer who orchestrates your emotions and makes you feel good. It is our responsibility to teach you. It is your responsibility to learn. That is why Paul says, "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. But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory" (1 Corinthians 2:6-7).

Paul is making some assertions that have huge implications for you and me. In the time that's left, let's look at these specific assertions.

Assertion One: There are two kinds of wisdom.

One is "temporal wisdom." It is the wisdom of this age. It is the wisdom of the rulers of this age. It is a wisdom that has limited horizons. It is propelled forward by the spiritual powers of darkness. It has a satanic dimension to it. And it is doomed to pass away.

What would be some examples of this temporal wisdom?

There are many labels we could throw around.

Naturalism tells us that we live in a closed universe of cause and effect. What we experience through our senses is all that there is.

Secular Humanism places us as human beings at the center of all reality, leaving no place for the word of the cross. We should be good to each other. It's wrong to be bad, but there's no clear definition of what is good and what is bad. It is a one-dimensional effort to somehow figure out how human beings can live together without any notion of divine or any kind of higher power. This so quickly becomes a lifestyle determined by "political correctness."

Hedonism declares a universe that has no real meaning, so "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die."

New Age Mysticism informs us that reality is found within ourselves and, with intense meditation, we will come to a greater awareness of who we are and how to function in relationship to others.

Materialism stimulates our inquisitive nature, promising that wealth and power is the purpose of living. "The one with the most toys wins."

Apostate Christianity belittles the historic biblical doctrines of the faith, yet still claims to be Christian. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong ran a full-page ad in the September 6, 2005, issue of Christian Century belittling historic biblical truth and the very fact that, after the Bible is read, we declare, "This is the word of the Lord." He writes:

In many of its details, the Bible is simply wrong! Epilepsy is not caused by demon possession. David did not write the Psalms. The earth is not the center of the universe. On other issues of great public concern, the Bible is no longer even regarded as moral. Its verses have been used to affirm war, slavery, segregation and apartheid. It defines women as inferior creatures and suggests that homosexual persons be put to death.

Church people try to ignore or suppress these biblical deficiencies, but when the Scriptures are read to a listening congregation the response is increasing incredulity. They still respond, "This is the word of the Lord."

Outside the church, this presumed authority of Scripture is generally ignored. Secular people live in a post-religious world where the idea that a literary work, written between 1000 B.C.E. and 135 C.E., can be "the Word of God," is simply too far-fetched to believe. This obvious ecclesiastical power play is no longer even passively accepted as benign. One has only to chart the evil and pain that many people have endured in history because someone regarded the Bible as the "Word of God." That claim is no longer regarded as valid.

There are those who still claim the name Christian but repudiate the notion of a Creator, Sustainer God, who breaks into human history in the person of Jesus Christ and who reveals His truth in the Scriptures, which we hold to be "the only infallible rule of faith and practice."

We could go on mentioning other evidences of temporal wisdom. What do they all hold in common? They live within time. They don't really explain where we came from, why we are here and where we are going in a way that equips us with quality for the now.

The second kind of wisdom is eternal wisdom. This is the hidden wisdom of God. It is His natural and special revelation of himself. This lasts forever and is the ultimate ground of all being in which you and I can stake our very lives. Granted, at times, we distort it and misinterpret His wisdom. When we do so, we need to come under the authority of God's revelation, finding correction of our errors through our endeavor to more fully understand the wisdom that goes beyond our temporal, limited, finite, human rationality.

Assertion Two: None of the rulers of this age fully understand this.

Sometimes the phrase "rulers of this age" is used to describe evil, supernatural powers thought to control human destiny. It appears that here Paul is referring to human leaders, since, in verse 8, he says that these are the ones who crucified Jesus and since the contrast in this whole passage is between the believer who has the Spirit and the nonbeliever who does not have the Spirit.

Not many of the rulers of this world understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Power does have a way of corrupting. As has been said, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I do know that, when your citizenship is in the Kingdom of God and you bow your head before His sovereignty, there are those rulers of the kingdom of humankind who are threatened by your allegiance to the Lord. They do not understand this. The currency of the kingdom of humankind is a different currency.

Some of us discover this reality when we travel. One summer I spent two weeks in Scotland. I used British Sterling to buy my meals, to pay for my lodging, to rent a car, to pay bridge tolls, to purchase tickets on ferries, to have my laundry done. At the airport, I tried to change as much of my leftover Sterling as possible into the currency of the European Union. However, I still had some left in my wallet; and when I arrived in Madrid, I tried to buy a newspaper with it at the airport newsstand. It was refused. I tried to give it as a tip to the bellboy at the hotel. He wanted nothing to do with it. It was the currency of another land. What had gotten me in and out of everywhere in Scotland was reputed as irrelevant in those countries of the European Union. I have jar on my dresser at home filled with coins and paper currency of various nations of the world, valuable currency if I ever returned to them but useless to me here-not even worth the time and energy to go to a bank and try to make an exchange.

The eternal wisdom of the Kingdom of God is viewed as foolishness to the kingdom of this earth. It is currency that is irrelevant. It doesn't make sense. It is puzzling.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this was the trouble Jimmy Carter got into when he, as a Christian running for president, very candidly admitted to the editors of Playboy Magazine that, although he had been faithful as a husband to his wife, he occasionally had "sexual lust in his heart." Those of us who are biblical followers of Jesus understand clearly what he said. We've been there too. Even as he was acknowledging his faithfulness to his marriage vows, he wanted to make very clear that he was not a perfect person, that he needed the forgiveness of Jesus Christ on a daily basis. Remember how the world laughed at him? He was right on theologically but became a joke to nonbelievers. Even now, 25 years out of the presidency, he becomes front-page news when he goes into a ghetto here or abroad and gives a week of his time at manual labor, helping the underprivileged through Habitat For Humanity. Incumbent presidents and Hollywood celebrities take those photo opportunities to be seen with a hammer in hand and work for an hour or two enhancing their images, but they don't do it for a week at a time. That's not the stuff of people in power. To a follower of Jesus, whatever his political party association may be, someone like Jimmy Carter is simply fleshing out his faith alongside the rest of us who are not as prominent and newsworthy. Don't be surprised when some people view you as odd when you are faithful to your Lord.

Assertion Three: No one can figure this wisdom out on his or her own.

It is impossible to come to this truth of God without God's specific revelation. Paul paraphrases an Old Testament statement when he writes, "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'-these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God" (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).

This is the wisdom of the before time, end time and after time. Paul is saying that the most brilliant of persons living in time alone could never come up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, the most brilliant persons who have ever walked the face of this earth cannot, in a clear and rational way, articulate the notion of before time and after time, much less be able to figure out the strange mysteries of the Creator, Sustainer God, who was before time, will be after all time is over and who functions in His triune nature here within the very midst of time.

Eternal truth is not perceived through the eye. We can see nature. It gives us wonderful pleasure. We enjoy art. Some of our most satisfying sensations come through the eye. We can study science. It is dependent upon observable data. However, when we see nature defaced into that which is ugly and observes science gone crazy in nuclear holocaust or physical disease or in legal transgression, we need healing that goes beyond our gifts of observation.

The moral word is not one of expediency alone. The ear can hear the great music, but there is a music of grace that goes beyond that which triggers the most rapturous of aesthetic ecstasy.

The human heart can be filled with enormous piety, compassion and even love, but it cannot ultimately set right that which is wrong.

For all of this, we need God's revelation of himself.

Einstein could probe the frontiers of science but couldn't come up with the message of Christ's substitutionary atonement on the cross, which has healing power for all time and even beyond!

Assertion Four: God has revealed His wisdom to us by His Spirit.

Tell me about yourself. Tell me your deepest inner thoughts, will you? I doubt that you will. They are secret, aren't they? They are your private thoughts. No one is going to know them, unless you reveal yourself honestly. And no one can make you do that, can they? You can play games, can't you? And you've done some of that. We all reveal facts about ourselves that fake people out. We all know how to do it, don't we? You can show off the knowledgeable or the ignorant you. You can show the wealthy or the poor you. You selectively choose to reveal what you want to reveal. That is your right, to own your own thoughts. No one has the power to rape your inner private self.

I notice this in my counseling ministry. There are layers on one's self that a person reveals. Seldom do they get down to the deepest level in the first interview or two. That is one reason why we advise long-term therapy. There is so much about a person that remains hidden.

Paul makes this human analogy when he writes, "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" (1 Corinthians 2:11).

You have no opportunity to know who God really is and what He is thinking unless He initiates His self-disclosure to you. He has done it. The result is the wisdom of God that you can only discover through His self-disclosure.

Assertion Five: You have received not the spirit of this world but the Spirit of God.

Paul writes, "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. 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" (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).

Have you ever employed a tutor to teach you things that are simply hidden to your own rational understandings?

Let me reveal something about myself to you. I am not gifted in languages. I have taken three years of Latin, two years of German, two years of Greek and one year of Hebrew twice. In order to pass my required studies in German and in Hebrew, I was forced to employ a tutor. Languages do not come naturally for me.

There are those of us who need someone who can sit down and explain how to do a particular math problem or someone who can explain to you the mystery of aerodynamics.

God has given you a tutor. If you have received Jesus Christ as Savior, you have the Holy Spirit in your life. He is the very essence of God himself, who has been given to you by God to impart not human wisdom, but spiritual truth. The Holy Spirit is not going to supernaturally teach me Latin, German, Greek, Hebrew without my effort. Nor is the Holy Spirit going to do your physics for you or write your English literature paper or even fill out your annual tax forms. The Holy Spirit will give you wisdom that will help you use your time more wisely and maximize the intellectual gifts that are yours. He will help clear your mind, so that you can study. But the Holy Spirit's primary function is to interpret spiritual truth, so that you can come to Jesus Christ, grow in Jesus Christ, be enabled by Jesus Christ to face temptation, to be gifted in Jesus Christ and used by Jesus Christ in a way that validates your very creation.

Assertion Six: The unspiritual person does not receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The unspiritual person does not receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit for they are foolishness to him. That person is not able to understand them, because they are "spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Why is this? The unspiritual person lives only in the temporal. The Kingdom of God understandings are moronic or idiotic to him or her. The spiritual person lives with a sensitivity to the eternal.

For example, when I teach from God's Word, if a person receives Jesus Christ as Savior, it will have a tremendous impact on how that person uses their money, sexuality and power; a nonbeliever becomes threatened. An unspiritual person rejects that. They accuse me of going from preaching to meddling. It's their own business what they do with their money, their sex life and their power. They don't realize that every good and perfect gift they have comes from the Lord, and He owns it all, and He can take it back at any moment. They won't let go. It's theirs. They don't understand the joy of liberality, that sees one's self only as a temporary recipient and steward of what God has given. The concept of tithing is absurd. The fact that one could experience joy in giving himself or herself to the Lord and to others doesn't make any sense. The flip side is that the nonspiritual person doesn't understand why unlimited money, unlimited sex and unlimited power doesn't satisfy them.

Assertion Seven: The spiritual person has the very mind of Christ.

Paul concludes the progression of his argument to this point by declaring that a person who is spiritually alive has the Holy Spirit operative in his or her life to the point that you actually have the mind of Christ. He warns, as we will discover when we get into 1 Corinthians 3, that we who are believers in Jesus can quench the Holy Spirit. We can revert back to a previous stage in our spiritual development in which we function as infants, as babies, not ready for the deeper things of God's Word. But the exciting fact is that you and I are capable, as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit, to have the very mind of Christ, wisdom going beyond the wisdom of the most brilliant person on the face of this earth, because ours in the wisdom of God himself. I may be able to understand the Theory of Relativity or even the physics involved in aerodynamics; but because I am Christ's and my life is open to Him, I have an understanding that goes beyond the wisdom of this world. And you, too, are entitled to it. You could call it a "spiritual depth perception"-a special capacity to probe the depths of spiritual truth aided by the Holy Spirit.

You see, do you not, we're talking about the economy of an "upside down kingdom." God's kingdom is different than the kingdom of this world. His wisdom is of an eternal nature. The wisdom of this world is temporal.

I invite you today, if you have never received Jesus Christ as Savior, to open your life to Him; acknowledge your need of His forgiveness, His healing, His wisdom, letting go of that false pride, that arrogance which demands that you have your way as one living in the economy of this world's kingdom. Or if you have received Him but have smothered the Holy Spirit with a blanket of self-interest, elitism, arrogance, pride, doubt, party spirit, admit it for what it is. Stop looking back to a better day spiritually. Repent! Welcome the Lord once again into the very center of your life. Acknowledge how much He loves you and wants you to reciprocate that love. And live with the wisdom which comes from the Holy Spirit! May these words of the hymn writer Kate B. Wilkinson by your prayer and mine:

May the mind of Christ my Savior
live in me from day to day,
by his love and power controlling
all I do and say.

May the Word of God dwell richly
in my heart from hour to hour,
so that all may see I triumph
only through his power.

May the peace of God my Father
rule my life in everything,
that I may be calm to comfort
sick and sorrowing.

May I run the race before me,
strong and brave to face the foe,
looking only unto Jesus
as I onward go.


John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.