Studies in I Corinthians
Lesson Four: The Danger of Wise Men
I Corinthians 1:17-31
Some of the saddest and at the same time most dangerous words ever spoken are contained in a famous poem by William E. Henley, which says:
“Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, and yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
But those words are absolutely typical of our world today – and even, in many cases of Christians! The dominant philosophy of our society today, (and it is at its peak in this generation) is the philosophy of humanism – the idea that man, given enough time and enough money can solve any problem that he might face. And when that kind of thinking invades the life of a Christian or the life of a church, it robs them of their vitality and usefulness to the Lord.
But as is so often the case, the word of God dealt with this very problem long before it became so prominent in our society and in our churches. The church in the first century city of Corinth had many advantages and many blessings. It would seem that it would have been a “powerhouse” for bringing people to Christ. It was a wealthy church in a large cosmopolitan city and among its members it had all of the spiritual gifts. But as we have been seeing in the first 17 verses it also had many problems which God knew would be typical of churches in the future (even down into our own day.) So He had Paul write two letters to the church over the course of 3 or 4 years.
One of their major problems was this one of exalting men, which we saw in the middle of the chapter. But the conclusion that Paul drew from that is in this last section of the chapter is that a natural outgrowth of exalting men is the exaltation of men in general. Interestingly enough, the men who were being exalted by the Corinthians were all fine teachers of the Word of God. In fact, if you look carefully you will see that the problem was not with the men, but with their followers!
But Paul winds up his argument by warning us that this preoccupation with the skills of the messenger can actually cause us to miss the message! Therefore, in verses 17 and 18 he points out the fallacies of human wisdom.
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
In our last study we saw that an emphasis on a man or a doctrine (he uses baptism as an example, but it could be any doctrine) can actually obscure the message of the gospel. But there is another fallacy of human wisdom brought out in this verse. Notice the phrase “wisdom of words.” Now before we looked at this verse in our last study you might have thought, “how in the world could the doctrine of baptism confuse people about the gospel? And maybe that same thought crosses your mind now – what could be wrong with wisdom?” So let’s ask ourselves the question, “what is wisdom anyway? What does Paul mean by this term? Well notice in the first place that it is not wisdom in general he is talking about, but words of wisdom And what he refers to by that is cleverly or elaborately worded statements all about and around the truth of the gospel. Since he chose the example of baptism, let’s use it: clever wording and reasoning about various scriptures can actually confuse the issue of salvation to the point that people can get the idea that they have to be baptized to be saved. But that is by no means the only example – all around us is false teaching that is based on clever twisting of scripture. All of the cults use the Bible as a part of their false teaching. And even though they don’t use the word as much, all of the liberals use “words of wisdom” from the Bible to establish their views. But the key to the whole thing is that they are putting the wrong emphasis on that scripture.
But there is another problem with this human wisdom, and that is that because of that wrong emphasis it has the wrong effect. Look at verse 18 again:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Here is an interesting phenomenon, and one that you may have experienced: two people, one a believer and another an unbeliever, can hear the same passage of scripture and one be blessed by it and the other confused by it. Or, perhaps more frequently, our unsaved friends just don’t understand what it is we are so excited about with spiritual things. But over in chapter 2 Paul is going to explain this phenomenon in verse 14:
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Now that brings us to what may seem like a digression, but it is a necessary and very important one.
The “natural” man referred to here is literally the “soulish” man – one who operates only on the level of the soul, not the spirit. But the believer has the Holy Spirit living in him and communicating with his human spirit, and therefore he can understand spiritual things. First Thessalonians 5:23 tells us that human beings are “tri-partite” beings. That verse says:
Now may the God of peace sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In John 14:6 Just before the Lord Jesus Christ returned to heaven he promised the disciples that He would send them “another comforter.” And a few verses later He identified that comforter as the Holy Spirit. And He said that the Holy Spirit would remind them of everything that Jesus had taught them, and bring those things to their memory when they had need of them. and true to His promise on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection, the Holy Spirit was given to those first believers. Ever since that time, God the Father has given the Holy Spirit to every person who accepts Christ as savior at the moment of salvation. Romans 8:16 gives us further information about this relationship that we have with the Holy Sprit. It says:
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.
So we might say that the “portal” through which the Holy Spirit communicates with us is our human spirit.
Now because of all that, the message of the gospel just seems too simple in terms of the way the world looks at things. In fact, the word “foolishness” here is a translation of the Greek word “moros,” from which we get our English word “moron.” The world’s wisdom says that you have to somehow earn your salvation, and that to say that you know that you are going to heaven is arrogant and conceited. And to preach the simple truth that “Jesus paid it all” is just “foolishness.”
In fact, listen to this assessment of the gospel by the founder of one of the cults:
“One sacrifice for sin, no matter how great, is not sufficient to pay the debt of sin. The atonement of sin requires humiliation on the sinner’s part. That God’s wrath should be vented on His beloved Son is divinely unnatural.” (Mary Baker, founder of Christian Science.)
Or listen to this piece of “wisdom:”
Dr. Bill McCrae of Believer’s Chapel quoted Shirley McClain as saying “We already know everything. The knowingness of our divinity is the highest intelligence. And to be what we already know is the enactment of the realization that you are God, a realization that you are divine.”
It is as though the gospel seems so simple they have to come up with something that sounds very wise. Certainly the attempt to find God by means of human wisdom has the wrong effect!
So those are “the fallacies of human wisdom. But in verses 19 through 22 Paul takes a little different approach. In these verses he is going to deal with the failures of human wisdom.
First, we have a quotation in verse 19.
For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
This quotation comes from Isaiah 29:14
The story behind this quote was that Senaccharib , king of Syria, Israel’s neighbor to the north, was about to attack Israel. The wise men of Israel said, “lets make an alliance with Egypt (to the south)” But God said (through Isaiah) “Don’t trust the wise men. Don’t make an alliance with Egypt. Trust in me. I will show you how foolish the reasoning of those men is.
So Paul, by inspiration, applies this to the Corinthians (and us) – man’s reasoning is not always God’s will just because it seems reasonable. Then in verse 20 there is another example of the failure of human wisdom:
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
How many scientists today would depend on a textbook written in the 1930’s as an authoritative statement of scientific principles?
The simple matter of the passing of time makes the wisdom of men look pretty foolish in many cases, doesn’t it? My mother went home to be with the Lord in 1972 after a long battle with colon cancer. We were given some hope because a new drug was being tested that seemed to be more effective than most other drugs on the market. My Dad even had to sign a waiver saying that if the drug was not successful he would not hold the drug maker liable.
In 2001 I myself was diagnosed with colon cancer. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the formerly “experimental” drug had become the accepted standard for the treatment of colon cancer and had been such for a number of years!
Think about this quotation from an editorial in the New York Times in 1910:
“the traffic problems in our city are increasingly becoming unbearable. To add to the crowded conditions of the streets, it has now come to light through the calculations of Mr. Arnold P. Williams, engineer that if the present rate of increase in the number of coaches allowed in the city continues, the manure will be hip deep in the streets by the end of the decade.”
And yet, how long has it been since you have heard of a New York City politician (or any other city) who made the manure problem a platform of his campaign?
You see, the failure of human wisdom is that it cannot know everything. It cannot take into account all of the factors that are in the mind of God. And when we look to the minds of men for advice and direction we invest in that failure prone system.
Over and over again in scripture God emphasizes the differences between the way He looks at things and the way man looks at them.
Isaiah 55:8 and 9 says My ways are not your ways, neither are my thoughts your thoughts, says the Lord. (and someone says “in what way are they different?” And God says “my ways are higher than your thoughts and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.)
I Samuel 16:7 – “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”
2 Corinthians 4:18 – “While we look, not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.
The purpose of these studies is to move you closer to Jesus Christ. If you do not know Him it is our prayer that the studies will help you to recognize that you, like all of us, have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and that Romans 6:23 says that the result of sin is
death, but the gift of God is eternal life. And Acts 16:32 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” If you are a believer in Christ we hope that the studies will help you to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”