Paul relentlessly insisted in 1 Corinthians 1 on the simple proclamation of the gospel of Christ in Christian ministry. And, as we discussed last week, as if that repeated barrage was not enough, Paul shows that this was his own approach to Christian ministry in the opening 5 verses of chapter 2.
In 1 Corinthians 2:6-12, Paul explains the nature of his message. Understanding the kind of message Paul was delivering helps us understand why he ministered in the way he did. He writes in verse 6,
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (ESV)
Here Paul is careful to qualify all that he has already said. Reading chapter 1, we might be tempted to think that wisdom is a bad thing. This is not the case. God is not in favor of foolishness. God is not asking us to empty our minds, or let that instrument lie dormant and unused. The revealed gospel of Christ may be foolishness to the world, but this does not make Christians fools. The divine wisdom fills our mind with the glory of God and Christ and of our Redeemer’s sacrificial death.
Indeed, the gospel is wisdom, but it is a certain kind of wisdom. It is not a wisdom of “this age” or a wisdom “of the rulers of this age.” That would be a worthless wisdom, for this world and its rulers are “doomed to pass away.” Earthly wisdom is dying. There is nothing there for the believer. For those who put value in the temporary ethos and in the world of things that will someday being destroyed, they are hopelessly foolish. The gospel teaches of invisible realities that are the true wisdom of God.
So if this is a wisdom that it is rejected by the men of this age and the rulers of this age, who accepts it? Paul says he gives the wisdom to “the mature.” The word Paul uses is τελείοις, here in the sense of being whole or complete. Here were people able to accept Paul’s message, and this reception was a mark of spiritual maturity. Calvin is probably right when he sees here a side-swipe against Paul’s detractors, yet the main point is that what God has revealed is received by those who are spiritual or mature. Those who are of “this age,” will most certainly reject it apart from a gracious work of the Spirit.
Paul elaborates further in verse 7 on the nature of this wisdom of which he speaks:
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (ESV)
We see the connection between verses 6 and 7 with “the ages” toward the end of the verse. Those of “this age” in verse 6 reject the wisdom of God. Again, the kind that reject God’s wisdom are infatuated with the temporal and visible pseudo-reality of the here and now. On the other hand, the wisdom that God gives was “decreed before the ages.” God’s revealed wisdom is eternal and unchanging. It comes not from vain human speculation and imagination, but from the all-wise mind of God. He decreed what true wisdom is. We, as his lowly creatures, ought simply to accept this revelation. But human sophists and philosophers, trying to figure out the cosmos for themselves (and being hopeless tied to the present epoch), reject what God tells us is true.
Yes, the revelation of God is “secret and hidden.” It must come to us apart from natural means. It must be revealed. We cannot find it ourselves. God must declare to us the true eternal wisdom that he has decreed in eternity past. This wisdom comes only from God’s appointed inspired messengers, and Paul, as an apostle of Christ, was one of those very messengers. To be sure, God gives sufficient light in nature to render all men “without excuse,” but this does not mean that through nature we can deduce the gospel, for that is revealed. Even if we had been among those gathered around the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, we would still need to hear the revealed message of Christ and his apostles of what that cross meant, and believe the report of these apostles that they had witnessed this Jesus risen from the dead.
But more importantly for this verse is the fact that there is a system of thought opposed to the secret and hidden wisdom of God, and it is found in the God-denying systems of our age. The world is no friend to grace. They are opposed to this revealed message. The wise and powerful of this age reject the revealed wisdom of God, as they continue to spin apart from divine revelation their own systems of understanding the universe.
This leads directly into verse 8. Here is the ultimate proof that human beings without God reject the message of God:
None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (ESV)
The opposition against God’s revelation is seen most clearly in the fact that when Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God incarnate, walked among us, we crucified him. We rejected his message. We killed the Lord of glory. The people of this age want nothing to do with the glory of God. They crucify the glory of God. They kill it. They want to destroy God’s glory. This, again, is proof that this revealed message is opposed to the system the worldly wise man. As Calvin explains,
The wisdom of God was shining forth clearly in Christ, but the rulers did not perceive it there. . . . .This is a clear example of the extreme blindness of all those who are wise only according to human standards.1
If this is what carnal men do to the Lord of glory, do we really think that, by embracing the glory-despising wisdom of this age, we can actually make the eternally decreed gospel relevant to those who despise God? Are we so foolish to think that by borrowing from the anti-wisdom of this world we can make acceptable the wisdom of God to those who hate it? I actually heard a pastor once say that he was willing to do anything (except change his doctrine) to try to win a person to Christ. But is there any marketing trick we can employ to make Christ more palatable to the children of those who crucified him? When we embrace the tactics of the worldly wise man to win people to Christ, is this not on some level a betrayal of theological points concerning the foolishness of this age? No, we should simply do what Paul himself did. We should impart that divinely revealed wisdom to the mature and see those who are among the τελείος embrace it by submitting to the divinely revealed message. We cannot make the wise of this age see the glory of Christ. The proof is that those who saw and heard him first hand rejected him most strenuously. Should we not expect those who follow them in relying on human wisdom reject Christ sight unseen?
The foolishness of the men of this age was profoundly demonstrated when they took the Lord of glory and nailed him to the cross. Those who believe that we can market the gospel or the church or Christianity to such are only showing their own naivete. More than that, they are showing that they themselves do not understand either the profundity of depravity and blindness in the human heart or the surpassing power of the Spirit of God. The wisdom of this age is doomed to pass away, and we dare not try to make Christ appealing to it. The shocking crucifixion of Jesus starkly shows the ardent opposition of human wisdom against God. No marketing tricks are able truly to overcome this. No, the only thing we have is to proclaim the gospel of the Lord of glory, and with ardent prayer to wait for the gracious work of the Spirit of God to illumine the hearts of sinful men to embrace the divinely revealed message.
- John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1960), 54. [↩]