This post is part of a series of posts about what it means to love God with our minds. In the process, I touch on a number of issues that are sure to raise questions. If you have questions for me regarding any of this, you can post them in the comments or feel free to contact me directly through this site or my Facebook Page.
Understanding 1 Corinthians 2-3
So far in this series of posts, I’ve made a number of references to 1 Corinthians 2 because, taken out of context, that chapter gives Christians multiple reasons to be anti-intellectual.
However, the problem is that we have taken lines out of context. I want to show you the passage with its context, but note two things in the following. First, I’m including chapter 3 because when Paul originally wrote this letter to the Corinthians, he didn’t put chapter numbers in. His was a continuous chain of thought from beginning to end, and we should honor that when we study what he said. Secondly, I’m going to quote the two chapters but will be abridging heavily by leaving out some big sections of the text. I need to do that so you don’t miss the forest for the trees, but please double-check what I say here. Read the passage yourself and make sure I’m not misrepresenting the context either.
(1) And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.
(2) For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (3) I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (4) My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, (5) so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
(6) We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing….
(13) This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. (14) The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (15) The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, (16) for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ….
(1) Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. (2) I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. (3) You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? (4) For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?…
(18) Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. (19) For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness” ; (20) and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (21) So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, (22) whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, (23) and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
1 Corinthians 2:2-6, 13-16, 3:1-4, 18-23 NIV
Paul’s resolve to know nothing except Christ was in service of his desire to avoid “eloquence and human wisdom.” Why was he wanting to avoid human wisdom? Why was he avoiding eloquence?
Paul’s resolve to know nothing except Christ was because he had come to them in “weakness and fear.” Why was he afraid? What was he afraid of?
Paul’s own reasoning was so their “faith” would rest on God’s power not human wisdom. Why was Paul avoiding human wisdom?
Paul also claimed to have more wisdom that he usually gives to people who are mature. Does this mean Paul thinks the Corinthians weren’t mature enough to handle other wisdom?
Paul attached earthly wisdom to the “age” and to the “rulers” of the age. Who were these authoritative people who taught this other wisdom?
Paul explains that spiritual truths come from the Spirit and are understood by the Spirit and that unspiritual people consider them to be foolish. Who are the unspiritual people who don’t understand the spiritual truths Paul has been teaching?
Paul overtly accuses the Corinthians of immaturity and intentionally gave them only milk. Aha! They are the immature ones. He didn’t think they could handle anything other than a simple message of Jesus.
The are still immature as proven by their jealousy and allegiance to earthly leaders. Aha! That’s why Paul can’t approach them with eloquence or fine arguments. It’s because he is trying to avoid a celebrity culture. If there is human wisdom involved, they will latch on to human authority, and he doesn’t want that. He wanted them to have allegiance to Christ above all.
The Corinthians themselves are the ones who need to change their minds about wisdom. They are the ones who think they are wise. They are the ones who think others are foolish. They are the unspiritual ones Paul mentioned earlier.
The entire reason Paul spoke against “human wisdom” and “rulers of the age” and the entire reason he emphasized spiritual truth and a simple gospel is that the Corinthians were too immature to handle anything else. They were already prone to celebrity worship. They were already prone to thinking of themselves as “wise,” so Paul intentionally worked against all that. He was afraid they would fall in love with him and not his Jesus, so he kept things simple. He was afraid they couldn’t handle anything more than milk, so that’s what he gave them. His fears were proven true when he learned later they were still quarreling with each other over which leader was best!
The study of this passage in context is evidence of a major problem among modern Christians. Coincidentally, the way Christians misread this passage is an expression of their own lack of maturity, their own need for milk instead of solid food, their own propensity to pay attention to earthly leaders.
Since the context of the passage is so clearly about Paul working against the immaturity of the Corinthians, why do so many think his resolve “to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” is a noble model for us today? Is it not because beloved preachers have taken that verse out of context and have preached compelling, eloquent messages about Paul’s simple approach to the gospel? It’s almost hypocritical the way we eloquently talk about Paul’s “simple” approach! At the very least, it completely misunderstands the context and misapplies the lesson.
Since the passage is so clearly against a celebrity culture among Christians, why do so many think Paul’s problem was with “worldly” knowledge and not the “worldly” way Christians play around with supposedly Christian knowledge? Is it not because we ourselves are stuck in a celebrity culture mindset? Is it not because we naturally think of the world as our enemy and are looking for more ways to confirm that bias? Is it not because some celebrity pastor spoke eloquently and convincingly that “worldly” knowledge really was something to be avoided?
The problem described in 1 Corinthians 2 is not a problem of “spiritual” truth versus “unspiritual” truth. The problem is with immature people pretending they know what spiritual truth is really all about!
Does Paul want you to avoid the truth of secular scientists? Not his point.
Does Paul want you to avoid reading the opinions of mainstream media? Not his point.
Does Paul want you to treat your own wisdom as better than anyone else’s? No way! That is one of his main points!
Does Paul want you to follow some earthly leader with loyalty? No way! Christ is your only loyalty.
In light of these things, let me offer up some ways to apply what we’ve just learned:
- Don’t take someone’s word for what the Bible says, especially when it comes from a small verse taken out of context.
- Don’t limit your thinking; rather, expand your maturity.
- Don’t latch on to an earthly leader; rather, learn from and live like Christ.
Isn’t it interesting that by using anti-intellectual techniques (taking verses out of context) to study this passage we end up with anti-intellectual conclusions? Isn’t it interesting that by teaching this passage with eloquence and passion, earthly leaders can build for themselves a following that’s antagonistic toward others and toward the world?
Isn’t it interesting that immature people use and abuse this passage against immaturity?
May it not be so with you.
May you strive to understand the Word of God correctly. May you challenge those who abuse it. May you grow in maturity as you strive to learn and apply what is really taught. And may your loyalties lie with Christ himself above all things.