My Uncle Rich was one of the wisest people I’ve ever known. I don’t remember his IQ as being exceptionally high. Neither what Paul calls “this age” nor its rulers (6) would consider him to be particularly wise. He didn’t have a lot of formal education. So most people would claim that my Uncle Rich didn’t have much of what the apostle calls “superior wisdom” (1). Some of his politics were, candidly, what wise people might call “foolishness” (14).
But my dear Uncle Rich knew more about God’s ways in God’s world than many of his contemporaries. The life he lived close to the soil on his farm produced a wisdom in him. Uncle Rich was wiser than most people about times and seasons, seedtime and harvest, lean years and fat years, droughts and rainy weather patterns. He also knew enough to receive God’s grace with his faith in Jesus Christ.
Since Paul talks so much about “wisdom” (sophias) in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, its preachers might also choose to concentrate on it. The apostle uses some form of the word sophia six times in just 1 Corinthians 2’s sixteen verses. The NIV even translates verse 7’s mysterio as “wisdom.”
Yet though Paul uses the same Greek words that we translate as “wisdom” throughout 1 Corinthians 2, he’s talking about two radically different types of wisdom. He insists that not all wisdom is true wisdom. It’s a good lesson for Jesus’ followers to remember, particularly in a culture that exalts one form of wisdom over the one that Paul praises.
In several cases in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul adds an adjective to the noun that is “wisdom” that helps readers identify to which type of wisdom he’s referring. In verse 5, for example, he speaks of “men’s wisdom.” In verse 6 the apostle mentions “the wisdom of this age … [and] of the rulers of this age.” On top of that, in verse 13 he talks about “human wisdom.” In verses 1 he also implies the human nature of some wisdom.
Richard Hays (1 Corinthians, John Knox Press, 1997) says that in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson as well as Corinth’s context, wisdom “can refer to the possession of exalted knowledge and to the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful and rhetorically polished way.” It’s the wisdom one might gain from a careful study of chemistry and history, and learning from philosophers and astronomers.
Conventional 21st century wisdom is heavily materialist. Our culture assumes that the only things that are real are those that are quantifiable and provable. If you can’t smell, see, hear or feel something, or somehow otherwise prove it, it isn’t real. At least some of those whom our materialist culture considers wise believe that matter is the only thing that really matters.
Paul contrasts that understanding of wisdom with the wisdom which God reveals in Christ Jesus and him crucified (2). “In fact,” writes the biblical scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk “throughout 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 Paul places God’s wisdom and the world’s wisdom in sharpest antithesis.”
Kirk writes, “The special wisdom to which Paul claims access (a) is God’s wisdom, that (b) leads God’s people to glory, and (c) is knowable only by the Spirit. This stands in stark contrast (a) to the world’s and the world’s leaders’ wisdom, that (b) is the product of people doomed for destruction, and (c) lacks the sight to apprehend the saving wisdom of God.”
Some of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries would have once considered him wise in the conventional sense of the word. He, after all, knew more about the Jewish Scriptures and theology than most. Yet the apostle sounds almost myopic if not unwise when he tells the Corinthians in verse 2 that his converted self “resolved to know nothing while” he was with them “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
True wisdom, he suggests there, lies in knowing that God’s ways in the world are centered on God’s work to save that world through the cross of Jesus Christ. God’s ways, in other words, center on the apparent weakness of God’s Son’s willing submission to Roman humiliation and torture.
This apparent weakness, continues Paul, shapes the way he ministers. “I came to you,” he tells Corinth’s Christians in verse 3, “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” The apostle was determined, after all, not to display his oratorical, intellectual, theological or even physical power to the Christians in Corinth. He, instead, persistently displayed the power of the Holy Spirit.
While Paul emphasizes Christians’ display of the Spirit rather than human power, he perhaps especially speaks to those who proclaim the Scriptures. Most preachers, after all, want to be winsome in our proclamation of the good news that the world is dying to hear. We want to preach the gospel in ways that open avenues for the Spirit to work.
But as someone who has tried to preach that gospel for more than 35 years, I also know the constant temptation to display my own rhetorical or oratory power. I naturally act as though the gospel’s efficacy depends on the smoothness, creativity or attractiveness of its presentation.
1 Corinthians 2’s Paul doesn’t explicitly call gospel proclaimers to display human weakness in our preaching. But by grounding his own proclamation in the cross of Jesus Christ, he’s summoning those who proclaim the good news to also ground our preaching in that cross. Preachers don’t, in other words, necessarily imitate the apostle. But we do want to imitate the crucified but risen Christ.
Yet Jesus’ friends, including preachers, always want to remember that our proclamation seems foolish to many of our contemporaries. The gospel simply doesn’t make sense to “this age” or its “rulers” (6). No display of rhetorical power will make it any clearer, absent the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.
Most preachers I know, including myself, like to be admired if not liked. We naturally like people to tell us about the power of our preaching and teaching. By nature preachers want people to be drawn to Jesus – but preferably by our display of wisdom and power.
So it’s interesting to notice how closely Paul links wisdom and power in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. Our culture has a certain wisdom about how things work in our world. Those who have the most power dominate at least their corner of the world. Paul rejects such conventional wisdom throughout not just 1 Corinthians 2, but also throughout his epistles. He repeatedly insists that people who are wise to God’s ways in the world understand that God works through human weakness to carry out God’s plans and purposes.
The powerful work of the Spirit as the key to gaining such wisdom forms the crux of 1 Corinthians 2:10-16. No human wisdom, says Paul there, can grasp God’s ways in and plans for our world and God’s dearly beloved people. But God, says the apostle in verse 10, “has revealed it to us by his Holy Spirit.” In verse 13 Paul continues along a similar line: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.”
It is not, as Andre Reisner Jr. notes, easy to preach on a passage like this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson that’s largely about preaching. But all of God’s dearly beloved children – not just preachers — depend not on our own wisdom and power, but on the Spirit’s power to live the kind of cruciform life that Paul describes in it and to which God graciously summons us.
The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright (1 Corinthians for Everyone, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003) evokes what Paul may have felt like as he proclaimed the cross’s “foolishness” to the Corinthians.
“Imagine finding yourself,” says Wright, “standing up to make a speech in front of an audience of the great and the good, and having nothing to say except some stammering words about a strange thing that happened a few years ago which you know sounds crazy but which you just happen to think contains the secret to everything.
“You’d watch the faces, and see a lip curl here, an eyebrow lift there, people glancing at one another with knowing looks, shaking their heads not only at the stupidity of what’s being said but at the insult to the audience to offer them such rubbish.”
With a little imagination, preachers might put ourselves into Wright’s picture.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 5, 2023
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16) Commentary