According to 1 Corinthians 1, Christian ministry centers on the declaration of the gospel of Christ. This is how Paul himself ministered, we learn from 1 Corinthians 2. This message is the wisdom of God, that which God has revealed through his messengers. Humankind does not accept this message, for it is foolishness to them. They are natural, without the influence of the Spirit, so they have no interest in the supernaturally revealed message of the cross. On the contrary, human beings try to figure out the world by themselves, with their own wisdom, and without the revelation that comes from God, and so when they hear the divinely-given message about a Messiah dying on a cross to save sinners, they reject it. If we had any doubt about this, all we have to do is look at exhibit A: “they . . . crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8b).
In 1 Corinthians 2:6-12 Paul stresses that the supernatural origin of the message. The nature of the message of the cross is that it is a Spirit-given message. This is what the Old Testament itself says about the gospel: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). The gospel comes in with a message that is beyond what any human being could have dreamt up by himself.
If the message is what no person could ever dream up by himself, how can we be so sure that it is true? This Paul addresses in 1 Cor 2:10, where he points out that the message comes from the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit of God himself, who searches out everything, even the deep things of God. If the Holy Spirit has access to such great swaths of divine knowledge, then we can know that the message he has revealed to us is true.
This what Paul means then in 1 Cor 2:11:
For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (ESV)
Paul compares the knowledge that the Holy Spirit of God has of God’s wisdom and thoughts to a man’s own wisdom. None of us really knows what others of us are thinking at a given moment. No, only the spirit of the person actually thinking those thoughts knows those thoughts. I might guess what someone is thinking, but it’d be just that. But that person’s spirit does not need to guess; the spirit of a man knows his own thoughts. The spirit of the man has access to that knowledge because of his privileged position as spirit within him.
Paul’s greater point with this little anthropology lesson is to make an analogy from man to the Triune God. No human being knows God’s thoughts. We have no access to God’s thoughts without disclosure. The Spirit of God, however, not only knows, but “comprehends” the thoughts of God. (By the way, this passage shows us the deity of the third person of the Trinity. The Spirit is, as it were, “inside” God, and has full access to the knowledge of God and the deep things of God as a divine person of the Godhead.) And if the Spirit has such privileged and comprehensive knowledge of the mind of God, then what the Spirit reveals is true. He knows and searches out the deep things of God. We can have confidence in the Spirit-inspired scriptures, knowing that, as Spirit-produced, they truly and really reveal God’s own mind. This is, of course, not to say that the Scriptures reveal all that God knows, but that what the Scriptures do reveal are truly the knowledge and wisdom of God.
We have this Spirit, Paul tells us in verse 12, which takes the Spirit-given revelation and makes it something that we can “understand”:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (ESV)
So the Spirit illumines to us what the Spirit reveals. Many people hear and understand the message of the cross, but not everyone “gets” it. Because we have the Spirit of God, we know and understand what the Spirit has revealed. This “understanding” is not a knowledge of bare facts, or a mere mental comprehension of the claims of Christ and the gospel. It goes much further than this. This “understanding” is spiritual understanding, or an understanding given by the Spirit. It is a saving understanding, such that we not only understand what God has done through Christ in the gospel, but that we believe and receive and trust and love this message. This, by the way, is what Christians mean by illumination. Many unbelievers perfectly “understand” the content of the gospel, but this that they “understand” (in a natural way) has not been savingly illumined to them by the Spirit. Illumination is not an understanding of the bare content of the Bible, but being able, by the Spirit of God, to spiritually and savingly understand and receive that which the Spirit has revealed.1
The Jews and the Greeks (see 1 Cor 1:22-24) understood the gospel, but they did not understand it in a 1 Cor 2:12 sense. They understand that Jesus died for sins, but because it did not reflect the priorities and values of their worldly power and wisdom, they considered it foolish. But the Spirit of God works in saints such that they not only understand the facts of the gospel, but they receive those facts. Because we have received the Spirit of God, we understand spiritually the things the Spirit has revealed.
Note that the Spirit reveals the things of God “freely.” This is true, is it not? God has shown us so much of himself in the Scriptures. He has pulled back the curtain and given us a view of his glorious nature and of his rich mercy. He has given us deep and wonderful things that we could spend our entire lives dwelling upon and still never plummet the depths of who he is and all that he has done for us in Christ. Freely he has shown us himself. Freely he has showered us with his word. Freely he has declared his wondrous works. Oh, that we would understand this sterling revelation more completely!
Positively, then, we understand that which the Spirit has revealed because the Spirit of God dwells within us. Negatively, we understand divine revelation because we do not have the “spirit of the world.” We reject the spirit of the world. The spirit of the world is not dwelling within us, so we are not blinded from beholding the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ revealed by the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 4:4). The spirit of the world actually works against men, preventing them from seeing the truth of who Jesus is. Unsaved men and women do not receive Christ because they have received the spirit of the world.
And it is here that again we helpfully see why “relevance is irrelevant.” When, in an effort to make the gospel more “relevant,” we appeal with the spirit of the world, using the cultural artifacts that otherwise communicate the value system of the “spirit of the world,” we are only making our work harder. We are enlisting enemy soldiers, assuming they will suddenly fight for the Lord. We are dipping the medicine in poison before giving it to the sick. We are using the system that actually opposes the gospel with the hope that it will actually make the gospel more easily accepted! The spirit of the world, could not, will not, and does not make Jesus prettier. It opposes Jesus. The message in no way becomes relevant because we presented a Jesus framed by the spirit of the world. The spirit of the world is our enemy, not our friend.
The answer is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit of God. And how, then, can we levy the power of the Spirit of God for our benefit? We must preach the message of the cross. It is that message, simply preached, that is “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). But, our opponents ask, how would that ever work? Unsaved people aren’t interested in preaching! “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25). But, they continue, no unsaved young person wants to hear a sermon! Here again, Paul replies: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:28) But, how are going to get a crowd with Jesus only? What harm is there if more people are saved through these devices? “My speech and my message,” Paul replies, “were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:4-5).
You see, the problem with the contemporary church is that we have drunk the koolaid. We are allured by the “spirit of the world” more than we should be. The real scandal in all this is that we actually think the spirit of the world is neutral, or, even worse, good. If this was not the case, no living Christian would ever make the case that using the cultural expressions and value system of the spirit of the world was actually a good and useful tool to supplement the ministry of the Spirit of God. The truth is that we have too long been in love with the enemy, and now that enemy is exploiting that love so that we actually undergo Christian ministry with the very things that oppose the work of the Spirit of God.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 1-3, on the other hand, has been plainly telling us that God wants to use the preached cross of Christ to save sinners. As men and women believe the gospel from that message God proves himself to be a powerful and wise God who is wiser and stronger than men. Sinners reject that supernaturally revealed message because they’re too caught up with the spirit of the world, transfixed with worldly power and worldly wisdom. But when the message of the cross is proclaimed and sinners believe in Jesus for the eternal salvation, God shows that he is still all-powerful and all-wise.
- See, for example, Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:67-68; or Jonathan Edwards’s definition of illumination in Religious Affections. [↩]