1 Corinthians 2:1-16
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1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Biblical Commentary:
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.The first of those problems is divisions in the church, which he has dealt with in verses 10-17—and which he will deal with at more length in chapter 3.
In chapter 2, Paul continues to develop the contrast that he introduced in 1:18-31. On one side is human wisdom, which the Greeks prize (Corinth is a Greek city). On the other side is the cross of Christ, which “is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Paul said that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:25). He illustrated that principle by the Corinthian Christians, who were not wise or powerful or of noble birth (1:26)—”but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong” (1:27). Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that they have nothing about which to boast other than their relationship to the Lord. He said, “He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord” (1:31).
1 CORINTHIANS 2:1-5. NOT IN HUMAN WISDOM BUT IN THE SPIRIT AND POWER
1 When I came to you, brothers, I didn’t come with excellence of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4My speech (Greek: logos)and my preaching (kerygma) were not in persuasive words (logos) of human wisdom (sophia) but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5that your faith wouldn’t stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
“When I came to you, brothers, I didn’t come with excellence of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified“ (vv. 1-2). In 1:26-31, Paul spoke of the Corinthian Christians, who were not wise, powerful, or of noble birth—but God chose them—God is working out his purposes through them. That God chose them is no accident. God deliberately chooses “the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are” (1:28).
Now, having used the Corinthian Christians to illustrate his point about human versus Godly wisdom, Paul turns to his own preaching to further illustrate that contrast. Paul came to Corinth “proclaiming to you the testimony of God.” It would be difficult to imagine a loftier, grander task. Our best scientists labor to understand even the mysteries of the atom. They are constantly peeling back layers to reveal new intricacies of the things that God has created—but they don’t even try to peel back the layers to reveal God himself. They understand that task to be beyond the scope of their scientific tools. But Paul has come to the Corinthian Christians proclaiming the mystery of God.
Paul didn’t use the arts of rhetoric (the art of preparing persuasive arguments) or oratory (the art of public speaking) to delve into these deep mysteries. The Greeks prized rhetoric and oratory, and regarded great orators as celebrities. It would seem logical for God to give Paul great oratorical skills so that he might use those skills in God’s service. If Paul were a great orator, couldn’t he win more people to Christ?
But Paul, by virtue of his Godly wisdom, chose another way to build the kingdom—just as Christ Jesus had chosen another way. Christ chose the way of the cross to further God’s kingdom—something that from a human perspective seemed completely backwards. But Jesus had said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32), and that’s exactly what happened. People were, and still are, drawn to a savior who would give himself so completely in their service.
So also, Paul chose not to rely on oratorical fireworks to proclaim God’s mysteries. He didn’t try to argue the Corinthians into believing in Christ. He didn’t use tightly woven syllogisms to drag them into faith. He didn’t dazzle them with a basso profundo voice or finely tuned gestures. He didn’t avail himself of any of the human skills that the Greeks prized so highly. He simply told them about “Jesus Christ, and him crucified”—and that was sufficient.
For an example of one of Paul’s Christ-centered, cross-centered sermons, see Acts 13:16-41. In that sermon, Paul briefly recounted God’s work with Israel from Moses to David (vv. 17-22), and then made the connection between David and Jesus (13:23). He briefly recounted the ministry of John the Baptist (13:24-25), and then moved directly to the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion (13:26-29). He then told them of Christ’s resurrection and his post-resurrection appearances before witnesses (13:30-31). He concluded by recounting the blessings to be realized as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection (13:32-41). As you can see by this brief summary, Paul’s preaching was, indeed Christ-centered and cross-centered.
“I was with you in weakness“ (v. 3a). In verses 1-2, Paul said that his preaching was not characterized by “excellence of speech or of wisdom” (v. 1), but was focused solely on “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (v. 2). Now, in verse 3, Paul shifts the focus from the characteristics of his preaching to the characteristics of his person. Even though he was an apostle, called personally by Jesus Christ (Acts 9), Paul did not exhibit the overweening pride that he could have felt. He did not prance and shout. He did not seek celebrity status. He came to them, instead, “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling”.
With regard to Paul’s “weakness,” he acknowledged that people said of him, “His letters, are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is despised” (2 Corinthians 10:10). He talked about having “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively” (2 Corinthians 12:7). He appealed to the Lord for relief from this torment, but the Lord responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). Paul concluded, “Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Paul could be content in his weakness, knowing that “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25) and that “God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). Jesus manifested the power of weakness at the cross, and continued to manifest it through the person of the apostle Paul.
“in fear, and in much trembling“ (v. 3b). Paul had much reason to approach his ministry in fear and trembling. For one thing, he was assuming a significant role that would determine the spiritual destiny of many people. Every pastor feels the weight of that kind of responsibility.
Also, by the time Paul arrived in Corinth, he had already experienced much persecution. One of the first places he had visited was Antioch of Pisidia, where Jewish zealots “stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city, and stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and threw them out of their borders” (Acts 13:50). Then Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium, where their opponents tried to stone them (Acts 14:5). They went to Lystra and Derbe, where their opponents from Antioch and Iconium stoned Paul, believing that they had killed him (Acts 14:19). In Philippi, Paul and Silas were arrested and thrown into prison (Acts 16:16-40). They went to Thessalonica, where opponents “gathering a crowd, set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5). They went to Beroea, where they received a warm reception, but their opponents from Thessalonica followed them and incited the crowds there (Acts 17:13). Paul went to Athens, where he experienced a cool reception (Acts 17:16-34). Then he came to Corinth, where his opponents “opposed him and blasphemed” (Acts 18:6). Is it any wonder that Paul says that he came to Corinth in fear and trembling?
But the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision, saying, “Don’t be afraid, but speak and don’t be silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10).
“My speech (logos) and my preaching (kerygma) were not in persuasive words (logos) of human wisdom (sophia) but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith wouldn’t stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God“ (vv. 4-5).
Paul’s logos (word or speech) was not the logos of sophia (wisdom), but was instead the kerygma—a Greek word that meant proclamation, but came to be associated with the content of early apostolic preaching. In his book, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, C. H. Dodd summarized thekerygma as including: (1) The fulfillment of scripture (2) The inauguration of a new age (3) The lineage of Jesus, traceable to King David (4) Jesus’ death on a cross (5) Jesus’ burial (6) Jesus’ resurrection (7) Jesus’ exaltation and (8) The promise that Jesus will come again to judge and to save.
If Paul had used great oratory to win the Corinthians to Christ, many people would have been drawn to Paul rather than to Christ. Even though Paul didn’t use showy methods and elaborate wisdom, people nevertheless attached their allegiance to him rather than to Christ. Some people said, “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” and, “I follow Christ” (1:12)—causing divisions in the Corinthian church. That problem would have been much worse if Paul had used methods that would have drawn attention to his charisma rather than to Christ’s saving power. Paul tailored his methods and message to draw attention to God’s power rather than human wisdom.
And if Paul had used great oratory, he would have been tempted to spiritual pride, which would have undercut everything God had called him to do.
But if Paul didn’t use fireworks to enhance his preaching, God provided pyrotechnics in the form of “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4b). This resulted in many Corinthians coming to faith in Christ, not as a result of “wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (v. 5).
As we will see later, some of these Corinthian Christians experienced the Spirit’s pyrotechnics in the form of speaking in tongues. This was a valid gift, but caused a number of them to succumb to spiritual pride (chapters 12-13).
Those of us who are called to preach the Gospel need to listen carefully to what Paul is saying here. We tend to think that we cannot communicate the Gospel effectively unless we use the language and stories of the kosmos world—the world that is often opposed to God—Hollywood, television, and other secular media. Paul’s example of Christ-centered, cross-centered preaching would lead us in another direction. I don’t know that he would proscribe the use of such language and stories, but he would certainly make them secondary to the language and stories of the Bible.
1 CORINTHIANS 2:6-10. NOT A WISDOM OF THIS WORLD
6We speak wisdom, however, among those who are full grown (Greek: teleios); yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nothing. 7But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom that has been hidden (apokrypto sophia en mysterion), which God foreordained before the worlds for our glory, 8which none of the rulers of this world has known. For had they known it, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But as it is written,
“Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear,
which didn’t enter into the heart (kardia) of man,
these God has prepared for those who love him.”
10But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.
“We speak wisdom, however, among those who are full grown (teleios); yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nothing“ (v. 6). The word teleios connotes wholeness or completeness—”full grown” is a good translation. In the next chapter, Paul will distinguish between mature Christians, who are ready for solid spiritual food, and “babies in Christ” who must be fed with spiritual milk (3:1-2). Now, in this verse, Paul says that he must treat these groups differently—he must tailor his message to the ability of the individual person to understand and receive it. That does not mean that he preaches something other than Christ crucified to either group, but rather that he couches his message in simple language for the less mature group and in more complex language for the more mature group.
But in neither case does he wrap the gospel in the “wisdom of this world.” In the New Testament, “this world” is often contrasted with “that (age) which is to come” (Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; 20:34-35; Galatians 1:4). In that dichotomy, “this age” is evil, and “that (age) which is to come” is the time when God’s kingdom will be fully established and righteousness will reign.
“The rulers of this world“ could be men such as Herod and Pilate—men who hold great civil power. Such men live and rule, but then they die and are usually soon forgotten.
“The rulers of this world“ could also refer to spiritual powers such as “the god of this world” who blinds the minds of believers to the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Gods of that sort are also “doomed to perish,” because Christ will sweep away all such malignant powers when he comes again.
“But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom that has been hidden (apokrypto sophia en mysterion), which God foreordained before the worlds for our glory“ (v. 7). Even if Paul does not proclaim what the world would understand as wisdom, he does proclaim God’s wisdom. Earlier he spoke of “the wisdom of God” as “Christ crucified” (1:21-24). As noted earlier, that is what he proclaims—Christ crucified.”
God’s wisdom is apokrypto sophia en mysterion—hidden wisdom in a mystery. When Paul says that God’s wisdom is hidden wisdom in a mystery, he doesn’t mean that it is inaccessible to humans. It is instead a mystery—something kept secret for a time and then revealed to those who come to God in faith (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:9). The gospel is a mystery (Ephesians 6:19), as is Christ himself (Colossians 2:2).
“which none of the rulers of this world has known. For had they known it, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory“ (v. 8). As noted above, the “rulers of this world” could refer to men such as Herod and Pilate—or it could refer to spiritual powers such as “the god of this world” who blinds the minds of believers to the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). In this case, it is probably the former (Herod and Pilate), because they were responsible for crucifying “the Lord of glory”—and certainly would not have done that if they had understood the significance of what they were doing.
“But as it is written, ‘Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear, which didn’t enter into the heart (kardia) of man, these God has prepared for those who love him’“ (v. 9). We aren’t sure what Paul is quoting here. Isaiah 64:4 is the most likely candidate. It says, “For from of old men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither has the eye seen a God besides you, who works for him who waits for him.”
Our eyes and ears provide us with much of the information that we use to make judgments. Many people find it difficult to believe anything that they have not seen with their own eyes and examined with their senses.
While “heart” is a literal translation of kardia, the people of Biblical times, in both Old and New Testaments, thought of the heart as the center of the intellect and will rather than the center of the emotions. Therefore, when Paul talks about that which “the human heart conceived,” he is talking about what these people have imagined.
We are unable to grasp by our intellects that which “God has prepared for those who love him”—the grace and salvation which he offers freely to those who come to him in faith.
“But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit“ (v. 10a). While we cannot discern God’s mysteries by our senses or intellects, we can know them by revelation. God has shown us what we could not see on our own. He has done this through his Holy Spirit, who dwells in us.
“For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God“ (v. 10b). Humans don’t have the capacity to search the depths of God. For us to imagine that we can probe all the mysteries of the divine would be like a cat or dog imagining that it understands the depths of its human master. While pets can understand a great deal, they cannot understand the complexities of human thought or artistry. Their understanding is limited to very basic things. So also, we cannot probe the mysteries of God, because those are completely beyond our understanding. However, the Holy Spirit can understand God’s mysteries, and God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, in part, so that we might understand those mysteries too.
1 CORINTHIANS 2:11-13. ONLY GOD’S SPIRIT KNOWS THE THINGS OF GOD
11For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. 12But we received, not the spirit of the world (kosmos), but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things (charizomai) that were freely given to us by God. 13Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things (pneumatikos).
“For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit“ (v. 11). As children, when another child would call us a name, we would respond, “It takes one to know one.” That’s the idea that Paul puts forward here—”You have to be one to know one.” Being human, we know human spirit, but only the Spirit of God knows the depths of the divine mysteries.
“But we received, not the spirit of the world (kosmos), but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things (charizomai) that were freely given to us by God“ (v. 12). In the New Testament kosmos usually means the part of the world that is opposed to God. That’s the case in this verse. Paul contrasts the spirit of the kosmos with the Spirit from God. God gives his Spirit to those who come to him in faith, and that Spirit enables the person of faith to “understand the gifts (charizomai) bestowed on us by God.”
The word charizomai is related to the word charis, which is usually translated “grace.” In the New Testament, charis refers to the mercy of God—the undeserved favor of God. The “things (charizomai) that were freely given to us by God” are God’s freewill offering to us. We could not earn them, but God gives them to us anyway. These spiritual gifts make it possible to understand God in ways that those who have not received these gifts cannot. However, Christians have no room for boasting, because these gifts are not prizes that we have won or honors that we have deserved, but are instead gifts given to the undeserving.
“Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches“ (v. 13a). As we read this verse, we should keep in mind that Paul was an educated, sophisticated man. He was from Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city. He had studied Jewish law at the feet of Gamaliel, a prominent Pharisee, teacher of the law, and member of the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:3; 5:34). Gamaliel emphasized Greek language studies, so that is where Paul developed his facility with the language of the New Testament. Paul’s ability to use the Greek language so persuasively testifies to the quality of his intellect and his education.
Nevertheless, Paul did not rely on his intellect or sophistication—his human wisdom—to proclaim the gospel. Instead, he and his cohorts proclaimed the words that they had been given by the Holy Spirit. What he gave people was not his invention or the product of his experience, but was instead a gift from God—revelation.
“comparing spiritual things with spiritual things“ (pneumatikos) (v. 13b). Paul and his companions interpret “spiritual things with spiritual” (pneumatikos)—those whose focus is on the spiritual rather than physical world. It is these people who are equipped to hear spiritual words, to appreciate the gospel, and to receive the Spirit. They are not hard-packed soil or rocky soil or thorn-infested soil, but are instead fertile ground (see Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23).
1 CORINTHIANS 2:14-16. THE NATURAL PERSON VERSUS THE SPIRITUAL PERSON
14Now the natural man (psychikos) doesn’t receive (dechomai) the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15But he who is spiritual (pneumatikos) discerns (anakrino) all things, and he himself is judged by no one (oudeis).
16“For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him?” But we have Christ’s mind.
“Now the natural man (psychikos) doesn’t receive (dechomai) the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14).
The psychikos (unspiritual person) stands in contrast to the pneumatikos (spiritual person) in that the psychikos is focused on natural things (the kosmos) that are so often opposed to God, while the pneumatikos is focused on spiritual things. The psychikos (unspiritual people) cannot “receive the things of God’s spirit,” because they don’t want them, regarding spiritual things as foolishness. They can’t understand spiritual things, because their hearts are attuned to the kosmos rather than the things of God.
“But he who is spiritual (pneumatikos) discerns (anakrino) all things“ (v. 15a). In contrast to the psychikos (the unspiritual person), the pneumatikos (the spiritual person) is equipped to anakrino (discern, judge, evaluate) all things, both spiritual and unspiritual.
This word, anakrino (discern), is based on the word krino (judge), and has a wide range of meanings—scrutinize, investigate, examine, discern. The idea here is that the spiritual person is able to make good judgments regarding spiritual things, and is also equipped to judge worldly things—things indifferent to or even opposed to the Spirit of God. The spiritual person is well-equipped to see the hollow center of worldly activities that appear attractive from the outside. He/she is better equipped than most to avoid temptation personally, and is also equipped to advise others in matters both spiritual and worldly. You know people like this. You know them as wise and trustworthy. That doesn’t mean that they will never make a mistake, but it does mean that they will be more discerning that most—and more honest and trustworthy than most.
CEOs would do well to have a spiritual person as an adviser, because the spiritual person is better able than most to see moral (and perhaps even legal) pitfalls that might accompany a particular course of action. Jesus told his disciples to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We all need an adviser of that quality.
“and he himself is judged by no one“ (oudeis) (v. 15b). Keep in mind that Paul is continuing to talk about spiritual people here. This verse does not mean that spiritual people are not subject to God, but that they are not subject to oudeis—any man or woman. Nor does this verse exempt Christians from civil laws (see Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1). However, our first allegiance needs to be to God, who is the only one who has the ability to rightly judge the person who is indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit.
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him?“ (v. 16a). Paul quotes Isaiah 40:13, where the people of Israel were trying to make sense of their captivity in Babylonia. That captivity seemed all wrong to them. Weren’t they Yahweh’s people? Weren’t they in a covenant relationship with Yahweh? Shouldn’t Yahweh have protected them from the Babylonians? Shouldn’t Yahweh provide them with a mighty leader like Moses to lead them out of their captivity? But Isaiah points out that they cannot know the mind of Yahweh. They aren’t equipped to give Yahweh advice.
That is also true of us today. We struggle to understand even our natural world. When we probe its mysteries, we find ourselves enmeshed in new layers of mystery. The more we learn, the more we realize that we do not yet know. If that is true of our relationship to the natural world, it is also true of our relationship to Almighty God?
“But we have Christ’s mind“ (v. 16b). In Isaiah 40:13 (quoted in verse 16a), “the mind of the Lord” meant “the mind of Yahweh.” Now, in this verse, Paul segues naturally into speaking of “Christ’s mind.”
The spiritual person, having been reborn according by the grace of God, begins to see life from a new perspective—from Christ’s perspective. From Christ’s perspective, everything looks different.
In Philippians 2:5-8, Paul calls Christians to have the mind of Christ Jesus—and also reveals what that means. The mind of Christ Jesus was bent on service. He was in the form of God, but emptied himself—taking the form of a servant—taking the form of a human being, the son of a carpenter. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Few of us can claim to have reached that degree of selflessness. When Paul says that we have the mind of Christ, he is stating that both as a reality and as an ideal—something that is true now, but something into which we still need to grow. To the extent that we do have the mind of Christ, we see things from a perspective that make our old values seem irrelevant and the life of service and devotion the ideal toward which we strive.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Dodd, C.H., The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936)
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