v.6 Paul has already said that there is wisdom in the gospel; it just is not the kind of wisdom the world imagines nor the kind that has so impressed these Corinthian believers – philosophical teaching delivered with fine oratorical skill. True wisdom is found in Jesus Christ and the righteousness, holiness, and redemption that believers receive from him.
Now there is a longstanding debate as to whether “the mature” here refers to a class of Christians or to Christians in general. It is often thought that Paul will contrast the mature with the infants in 3:1. The wisdom he teaches can only be understood by those Christians who are spiritually mature, but too many of these Corinthian Christians are still babes, spiritually speaking. I think, however, it is clear that Paul is not making that distinction here; a distinction between Christians. The mature are the Christians in contrast to the people of the world. As the argument proceeds you will see that his entire distinction is between Christians and non-Christians. What is more, the last thing Paul wants to suggest is that there is some superior wisdom that only the enlightened among the Christians have and that they are superior to those Christians who have not been so enlightened. That is precisely what he is arguing against, that spirit of elitism, that pride. To take this text that way would be to find Paul supporting the very outlook he has been attacking so far in the letter. The “mature,” rather, are the “spiritual,” who are all true Christians. There may be, to be sure, some irony. They call themselves and think of themselves as “mature.” And that is in fact what they are in comparison to the world; but they have been acting like children.
By “rulers of this age” Paul is referring to the leaders of the culture, the opinion shapers, the great teachers and political officers, the very people these Corinthian Christians were so enamored of. These influential may think of themselves as wise, but, in actual fact, they don’t get it. They have embraced the lie not the truth. And, of course, the same is true today.
v.8 So completely did the rulers of this age fail to grasp the wisdom of God that when Christ came both teaching it and revealing it in his own life and work, they crucified him. Remember John Donne’s great observation: “Ignorance is not only the drousinesse, the sillinesse, but the wickedness of the soule.”
v.10 This citation, which is a free adaptation of Isa. 64:4 and 65:16, is often taken to express how great and wonderful eternal life will be. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard…what God has prepared for those who love him.” But, clearly, Paul is using it to make a different point. Mankind does not acquire this wisdom, this true knowledge and understanding of man, of God, of salvation by his reason or his observation. It must be revealed to him by the Spirit of God. Only by the Spirit does man come to have a true understanding of life and salvation. No man has ever figured out the way to God and heaven. Those who have found that way have had it shown to them by the Holy Spirit.
v.11 The analogy is a simple one. Just as no one knows your thoughts but you yourself, so no one knows God’s mind except God himself. The Spirit, who is God, can tell us what we otherwise could never know.
v.13 And that is what Paul brought them and preached to them, the truth as revealed by the Spirit of God. That leads us to recognize that, though Paul does not make that point explicitly here, we can safely assume it, as he makes it in many other places and later in this same letter: viz. the truth the Holy Spirit communicates to us is first in Holy Scripture and then brought to life in our hearts by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Paul is not talking about these people receiving revelations of God’s mind directly from the Holy Spirit, communications from heaven about this or that. He is not talking about voices heard in the soul. He is talking about the Spirit’s ministry of illumination, bringing us to understand and to believe and to embrace the truth that is revealed to us in the Word of God. That was what Paul brought and preached to them: the Word of God.
v.14 Paul makes the point both positively and negatively. Here is the negative. Just as we could not know the truth apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, so those without that ministry do not and cannot know the truth. The truth, true wisdom remains, as Paul has already said in 1:23, foolishness to them. It isn’t just that they can’t recognize it; when they see it and hear it they despise it, scorn it, shake their heads at it. They recognize it, at some visceral level, as a great threat to them. They didn’t simply ignore Jesus, they crucified him.
v.15 That is, the man without the Spirit cannot make true judgements about the man with the Spirit.
v.16 Once again, as so often in the Bible, what the Spirit brings to us and reveals to us is not himself but Jesus Christ. As the Lord Jesus himself said, when talking about the Spirit’s ministry, “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” [John 16:14]
There is a famous story from the days following the Great Awakening. It concerns two great men of that day, William Wilberforce, the member of Parliament who was so instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and his friend, William Pitt, the younger, who was once Prime Minister of Britain. Wilberforce, as you know had become a devout Christian. Pitt was not. He was a Christian only in the nominal, formal sense so common among the higher classes in Britain in those days. But, notwithstanding this difference in viewpoint, the two men remained close friends. But, as Christians will be, Wilberforce was concerned for his friend and wanted him to find Jesus Christ. After many attempts, Wilberforce finally prevailed upon his friend Pitt to accompany him to hear the great evangelical preacher, Richard Cecil. Cecil was a luminary in that second generation of Awakening men, a good friend of John Newton. So the two men went along to the service. According to Wilberforce, Cecil was at his very best that day and preached the gospel in a most powerful and elevating way. Wilberforce himself was carried away by the sermon and wondered the whole time what his friend Pitt was thinking as he heard this masterful presentation of salvation in Christ. Well, he didn’t have long to wait before finding out. As they were still making their way out of the building after the service, Pitt turned to his friend and said, “You know, Wilberforce, I haven’t the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.” [In Lloyd Jones, Romans: 8:5-17, 9-10] And, of course, he didn’t. He couldn’t grasp it. It made no sense to him. What was light and life and the plainest sense to Wilberforce was so much confusion and silliness to Pitt.
That is the fact of life that Paul is describing here. It is the fact that explains why, in the Bible, no one is ever surprised by unbelief. Jesus never was. Paul never was. Unbelief is man’s natural state and it will never be surmounted unless the Holy Spirit works.
And how does he work? Well, it is not an inward voice. The Bible never says that people will hear a voice in their head. Nor is it the creation in the soul of some unreasonable conviction, some sudden impulse to take, as it were, a “leap in the dark” for who knows what reason. Rather, the Spirit’s activity, sometimes, as here in v. 10, called “revelation,” sometimes, as here in v. 13, “teaching,” sometimes, as in 1 John 2:27, “anointing,” is rather “an activity of inward illumination, whereby a man’s natural spiritual blindness is removed, the veil is taken from the eyes of his heart, his pride and his prejudice are alike broken down, and he is given both an understanding and a ‘taste’…of spiritual realities.” [Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 92]
He does this, John Owen, the great Puritan, said by producing a three-fold effect. First he imparts to the Scripture in the mind of a person the quality of light. The Bible often speaks of God’s Word as light and of its power to illuminate our way. Suddenly the truth of God’s Word becomes light to that person. Light, in its very nature, is self-evident and self-authenticating. Suddenly the man or woman sees by this light; things that were dark before become clear. Second, the Spirit makes the Scriptures powerful to produce spiritual effects in a person’s life. Again, we often read in the Bible of the power of God’s Word. And suddenly that power begins to work in a person’s heart and he or she begins to change. They can hardly understand it but they think differently than they did before, they feel differently, they begin to live differently. Then, third, the Holy Spirit brings Scripture home to the individual conscience and one suddenly realizes that he or she is being addressed personally in the Word of God by God himself. Suddenly, in the truth of the Bible, the person finds himself or herself face to face with God. [Cf. Packer, 90-91]
That is what Paul is saying briefly in our text when he speaks of God revealing the gospel, revealing salvation, revealing Christ to us by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the author of Holy Scripture, we are taught that many places in the Bible, but he is also the one who makes that Scripture to live as the very word of God in an individual’s heart, mind, and conscience. How this happens in individual believers’ experience is one of the great stories of the world.
When Dr. J.I. Packer, one of the most celebrated Christian authors and theologians of our time, came to Oxford University as a young freshman in 1944, he was not a Christian. But he was invited to various Christian Union events and the second one of these meetings he attended, an evening service held in one of the city churches, was to change his life. The sermon that night was preached by an elderly Anglican minister. The first half of the sermon was quite ponderous, Dr. Packer recalls, and left him unmoved. But the second half was electrifying. In it the preacher told the story of his own coming to faith in Christ and as he talked, for the first time in his life, Jim Packer realized that he was not a Christian. This is interesting because Packer had gone to church as a child, had read some Christian literature, including C.S. Lewis in his high school years, and had even had a friend who became a Christian and in several letters had attempted to explain to Packer what had happened to him. But through all of that Packer was like William Pitt; he didn’t really understand what any of this meant.
But, now, as he listened to this preacher he realized that he was outside and that he needed to come in. And as the service ended he made his own personal commitment to Jesus Christ. He went back to his room and wrote his parents about what had happened to him. What had happened, of course, was that the Holy Spirit had opened his mind to receive the truth, the wisdom of Christ and Holy Scripture. And the Holy Spirit was not finished with the young man.
Still for a few weeks after his conversion Packer continued to think of the Bible with the generally skeptical outlook common to his time. Only the general outlines of biblical teaching were important or even possible to accept. He thought there was a great deal in the Bible that couldn’t be accepted as true. But then, six weeks after his conversion, he attended a Christian Union Bible study one Saturday night taught by a man Packer describes as “an eccentric old man from Cambridge.” He presented an exposition of one of the chapters of the book of Revelation. “At the beginning of the meeting, Packer was a gentle skeptic; at its end, he was convinced that the Bible was the Word of God. Something had happened to bring him to a conscious realisation that Scripture was not human instruction or wisdom about God, but was in fact God’s own instruction about himself.” He did not know it then, but he would later describe what happened to him in Calvin’s phrase as “the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.” [A. McGrath, J.I. Packer, 17-19]
This is, of course, a hugely important reality, this utter dependence of mankind upon the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. It explains the visceral hostility to Christianity you find in so many places and the utter indifference to it you find in many other places. It explains why it is so difficult, even impossible, to get unbelievers really to understand the Christian viewpoint and why they are so resistant to embracing it for themselves. Their hearts are dark and blind and they cannot see and they never will unless the Holy Spirit sheds his light within them. They may be, in fact, very clever – like the sophist teachers who so impressed the Corinthians – they may be scholars and may speak and write eloquently. But they do not understand and do not see the truth of things. That is Paul’s point. They don’t get it. They have their reason and they are confident in its powers, but, as Daniel Rowland, the great Welsh preacher, once put it, “Since the fall, reason is like Mephibosheth, lame in both feet.” This is Paul’s point here in the argument. He is telling these Corinthians not to be so enamored of the world’s wisdom. It is, in fact, nothing but really sophisticated and impressive falsehood.
John Newton wrote about one of the celebrated “liberals” of his time, a Dr. Taylor of Norwich.
“Dr. Taylor of Norwich told me, one day, that he had critically examined every original word in the Old Testament seventeen times; and yet he did not see those glorious things in the Scriptures which a plain enlightened Christian sees in them. The Doctor had not the plain man’s eyes. Criticism in words, or rather ability to make them, is not so valuable as some may imagine. A man may be able to call a broom by twenty names, in Latin, Spanish, Dutch, etc. but my maid, who knows the way to use it, but knows it by only one name, is not far behind him.” [Cited in Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 166]
How many Christians, both men and women, could I point you to, men of letters, powerful figures, opinion shapers, who would tell you now that before the Holy Spirit illuminated their hearts, they had no inkling of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of them were even professional theologians, but they had no sense whatsoever that they were handling the very Word of God. They had no sympathy for the Christian message about their own sinfulness and guilt and Christ’s sacrifice and the way of salvation through faith in him. They thought it pure silliness, some outmoded superstition that intelligent people are long since done with. And, then, suddenly, the light shone in their hearts and they saw what they had not seen before. Suddenly all became clear. And their lives took a sudden, dramatic, and irrevocable turn.
Are there some here today who are realizing for the first time or who perhaps have known for some time that they are not Christians. Perhaps you have thought you were or perhaps you never cared to be. But now it is clear to you that you are on the outside and need to get in; that you very much need the salvation that Christ alone can give you. Is it becoming obvious to you, in various ways, that the Bible has nailed the truth about you, about the world, about sin, about God, and about salvation? Is it becoming ever clearer to you that the opinions that dominate out in the world, that are represented so glibly, so confidently in the media, that the “wisdom” of this world is, in fact, not wisdom at all, but prejudice, unbelief, rebellion, and a refusal to face facts all wrapped up in impressive and glossy packaging
Well, turn to God and plead with him for the witness, the revelation, the teaching of the Holy Spirit. Say to him, in the words of Wesley’s hymn,
No man can truly say
That Jesus is the Lord,
Unless Thou take the veil away …
I tell you that you cannot find the truth, you cannot grasp true wisdom by yourself. Look for it all your life, you will never find it. It must be given to you. It must be revealed to you and taught to you by the Holy Spirit. I tell you this precisely so that you will wake up to your true situation. One old preacher put it like this. A group of men are playing cards in a house whose roof, unbeknownst to them, is on fire. The door to the room where they are playing is locked. When the alarm is raised, the men do not want to leave immediately because there is a large pot on the table to be won. After all, they have a key. They can leave at any time. But, then, someone realizes, “No, that key will not work.” It is when they hear that they run to the door to find out whether they can open it or not. Then they start pounding on the door and forget all about their game and the money that sits on the table. [Tyler and Bonar, The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton, 412-413] It is when you realize that finding the truth is not in your power and being set free by it is not something under your control that you start looking around you and begin to lift your eyes to God and plead for help. You are blind by nature and only God can grant you sight. Your heart is hard by nature and only God can make it soft. You are a rebel by nature and only God can bring your will to heel. Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near! And hold nothing back.
When Dante in his Inferno finds himself overlooking the obstinate and the embittered and the gloomy and the sullen in hell, he sees so clearly that whatever means God might use to gain a man’s attention and break his rebel will, however painful that means might be, it cannot be too painful if it prevents a man from coming to this place, if it keeps a woman from this punishment. That is how you must pray. Lord my heart is hard, break it by whatever means are required to break it. My soul is dark, open it to the light by whatever means are required to open it.
O Lord, if thus so obstinate I,
Choose Thou, before my spirit die,
A piercing pain, a killing sin,
And to my proud heart run them in.
The Holy Spirit will determine by what means he brings light and understanding and faith into a man or woman’s heart. He does not always make it painful. Cesar Malan, the great French evangelical of the 19th century, said of himself, “God awoke me as a mother wakens a child with a kiss.” His manner, his method is not the important thing. What is clear is that only he can do it. Pray that he shall, that he will open your heart and pour into it the light of Christ.
And for you who are already Christians, what can you possibly think and say as you read Paul here but Soli Deo Gloria; to God be glory that he sent the Spirit to illuminate your dark heart and to give you faith in Jesus Christ. Now I see so clearly what is true and right; I see with a crystal clarity the only way to God and heaven, but I know myself and my nature too well; and I know I never would have seen it, never would have cared to look for it even, had it not been for the grace of God that sent the Holy Spirit to me. Does that not send a shudder down your spine, that you might still think the way so many think in this world. That you might spout as they do all the nonsense that they so firmly and seriously and passionately believe. That you might be today so confidently leaning on the broken reed of this world’s wisdom and be utterly and invincibly ignorant of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.
Lord, I was blind: I could not see
In thy marred visage any grace;
But now the beauty of thy face
In radiant vision dawns on me.