There are some people who spend their entire lives searching for that one elusive dream. For example, the great explorer Ponce de Leon went to Florida searching for the Fountain of Youth. The Spaniards went to Mexico searching for the Seven Cities of Gold. Many have searched in Tibet for Shangri-La, a place of eternal happiness isolated from the world.
And many Christians are searching for and believe they will one day find the perfect church, a church that has no problems. But as I’m sure you’ve all heard it said, “If you ever find the perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll spoil it!”
As we all know, there are no perfect churches because the church is made up of people and there are no perfect people. And so, every church has its problems, although some certainly have more than their fair share.
Sometimes I hear preachers say we need to restore the church and follow the example of the New Testament church, to which I want to say, “Which one do we want to be like? Do we want to be like the one where there was racial conflict, or the one that was filled with sexual immorality or the one that was lukewarm, on the verge of having Jesus spit them out?”
Throughout the centuries, all churches, even those in the first century, have had their problems. And so, we’re not surprised when we read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that there were problems in this church. What we are surprised at is the number of different problems. I Corinthians deals with not one, not two, but many different problems, one after the other.
As we have already seen, one of the biggest problems in this church was that it was divided. Some were saying, “I follow Paul.” Others, “I follow Apollos.” Others, “I follow Peter.” And still others, “I follow Christ.” But all of them thought they were better than all the other groups.
And so, Paul had to remind them of what ought to be at the center of our lives as Christians – and that is the cross of Jesus Christ. And the cross doesn’t leave any room for boasting. Being followers of the cross doesn’t allow for arrogance and pride. In fact, in the eyes of the world, it makes us all foolish, because “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction!” (I Corinthians 1:18, NLT)
The Jews were looking for something that made them strong and the Greeks were looking for something that made them wise, and the message of a crucified Jesus seemed to be both weak and foolish. At the close of our text last week, Paul even said about himself, “When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom…” (I Corinthians 2:1)
One of the most common objections to the gospel in our culture today is that people are offended by this idea that there’s only one way to God, this idea that it’s only through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ that anyone can ever get to God. And so, people complain that our message is narrow-minded and exclusive.
And what they say is true. Those of us who are Christians do believe there’s only one way to God — through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in our text this morning, we’re going to see that there are some people who seem to get it, and there are others who don’t.
Last week, we read that the message of the gospel, the message of the cross, is foolishness to those who are perishing. It’s silly, it seems ridiculous. But to those of us who believe, it is the power of God unto salvation.
One of the reasons that this world finds the message of the cross so foolish is because it seems contrary to everything we’ve ever known or experienced. God’s message of grace is difficult for us to accept. We’re trained to believe that you just simply don’t get something for nothing!
What does make sense to people is “religion”. And that’s why religion is so popular. Religion is driven by the idea that somehow, if we do more good things than we do bad things, if we follow these religious rules and requirements, somehow the very best performers get into heaven, and everybody else doesn’t. Religion makes sense; it seems reasonable. That’s the way everything else in the world works.
Keep in mind that the conflict in the first century was not between Jesus and the Roman government. It was between Jesus and the religious establishment, because the message of Jesus — this scandalous message of grace — was so contrary to everything that religion is all about, that the Jewish leaders simply couldn’t tolerate it; and the only way they could see to stop it was to have Jesus executed.
If you have ever doubted that there’s a conflict between religion and God’s message of grace, you need only to look to the cross. Because the cross is the greatest example of the tension between religion and the gospel of grace.
You see, God in his infinite wisdom, understood that one of the greatest temptations we face as people who are made in the image of God, is the temptation to believe that we can be our own gods, and that we can define our own way to God based on our performance or accomplishments. And so, God has given us a way of salvation that does not even have the slightest potential to tempt us to believe that somehow we’ve deserved or earned or merited our way to God.
The message of the cross forces us to come to God in brokenness and humility and to say, “I can’t do it on my own. I’m totally at the mercy of my need for a Savior.”
In our lesson last week, Paul talked a lot about the wisdom of man and how the message of the cross is foolish. And based on what he said, it’s possible that the Corinthians might have thought, “Well, maybe Paul’s opposed to the whole idea of wisdom. Maybe Paul doesn’t really believe we should ‘think’, or that there should be ‘knowledge’, or that we should use our reasoning ability. Maybe he’s opposed to all that.”
So, to keep the Corinthians from getting the wrong idea that the message of the cross is absolute foolishness, Paul starts talking about the great wisdom of God. But, the thing is, God’s wisdom can only be appreciated by certain people.
Let’s read the entire passage, and then we’ll go back and take a look at it piece by piece. Beginning in chapter 2, verse 6, Paul says:
“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. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
“these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 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.
“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. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:6-16)
Paul says, “The gospel message, the message of the cross truly is a message of wisdom, but not to the people of this world.” And he uses two terms to describe the difference between Christians and non-Christians. Paul says that there are some people who are natural and there are some people who are spiritual.
Now, if you’ll bear with me for a just few moments, I want to share with you a couple of Greek words that Paul uses here. He says that some people are “spiritual”. The Greek word he uses is pneumatikos. It comes from the Greek word for spirit, pneuma. Pneuma means spirit, breath, or air. If it helps you to remember this word, think of pneumonia, which is an inflammation of the air sacs in our lungs. Pneumonia affects your breath.
Pneuma is also the word for the breath of God, the Spirit of God, and the person who is pneumatikos is the person who is sensitive and obedient to the Spirit of God; the person whose life is guided and directed by the Spirit. The person who makes decisions under the influence of the Spirit. The person who lives constantly aware that there are things beyond the things of this world, and there are values beyond the values of this world, and there is a life beyond the life of this world. Pneumatikos.
And Paul says that there are other people who are “natural”. The Greek word he uses here is psuchikos, which is the word from which we get our English word, “psyche”. Psychology literally means, “the study of the psyche, the study of the soul”
The word psuche in Greek is often translated as “soul”, but to use that word doesn’t really give us its full meaning. Psuche is the principle of physical life. Everything that is alive has psuche – a dog has it, a cat has it, every animal on the face of this earth has psuche (life), but none of those animals have pneuma (spirit). Psuche is that physical life that a human being shares with every other living thing, but pneuma – spirit — is what makes us different from the rest of creation, it’s what makes us in the image of God.
So, Paul talks about someone who is psuchikos, natural. A person who lives as if there is nothing beyond this physical life, as if there were no other needs other than physical and material needs, whose values are all material and physical values, who judges everything from physical and material standards. Paul says a person like that cannot understand spiritual things.
A person who thinks that nothing is more important than the sex urge cannot appreciate the value of purity. A person who considers the accumulation of material things to be the supreme purpose of life cannot appreciate the value of generosity. A person who never has a thought beyond this world cannot understand the things of God. To him, they appear to be mere foolishness.
I am continually amazed at Christians who get all bothered and upset when people in the world do things that are sinful and immoral. Don’t be surprised when people who are not Christians don’t act like Christians. They are natural people who cannot understand or appreciate spiritual values.
Verse 14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Or, as the New Living Translation translates it, “People who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it.”
Sometimes I get frustrated when I talk with people who aren’t Christians. And I make my argument so logically, my presentation is so airtight, both logically and theologically, and yet I have people look at me with a confused look on their face. And I think to myself, “Can’t you see it? Don’t you understand this? Don’t you get it?” And the answer is, “No, they can’t.”
But how can you expect somebody who can’t see or understand spiritually to grasp a spiritual truth you’re trying to convey? It makes about as much sense as telling a blind person, look at that beautiful sunset. Look at those colors; it’s gorgeous. You can explain it all you want, but they still can’t see it.
Or maybe there’s somebody who’s tone deaf. You play a bit of music that’s your favorite music. You say, listen to those violins, or that cello, or listen to those harmonies. But, because they are tone deaf, they can’t appreciate it. It’s not that they don’t want to, they lack the ability.
Paul says, when it comes to spiritual matters, that’s the way it is with a natural person. They lack the ability to grasp spiritual truths because they minds are so focused on things that are natural, things that are of this world.
Now, in the process of describing the wisdom of the gospel message, Paul uses an interesting word. He says in verse 7, “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”
There are a number of different translations that translate this word as “mystery”. For example, the New Living Translation says, “the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God.” But I think the word “mystery” gives the wrong impression. When we hear the word “mystery”, we think of Sherlock Holmes or an Agatha Christie book. The word “mystery” means something that is incomprehensible, something that’s impossible for us to know. As in, most men consider women to be a “mystery.”
But I think the English Standard Version does a better job when it describes the gospel as “a secret and hidden wisdom of God.” Something that is a secret is different than something that is a mystery. If something is a mystery, then nobody understands it, but if something is a secret, then it’s something that is known by some but not by others. For example, a surprise birthday party is a “secret” to the person whose birthday it is, but it is known by all of the friends who plan to attend.
God’s plan of salvation is not so much a mystery as it was a secret. God knew all along exactly what his plan was. His plan was put into place as soon as Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, and that plan was carried out all through the Old Testament until Jesus came to this earth.
God’s plan involved Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it involved Moses, it involved King David, but none of those people understood exactly what God was doing. God told Abraham that one of his descendants would bless the entire world, but Abraham had no idea how God was going to do that.
Peter tells us in I Peter chapter 1 that not even the Old Testament prophets who prophesied about Jesus understood what was going on. In fact, he says not even the angels understood. It was a secret that God kept hidden for centuries, and the only way that we could possibly know what his plan was was if he told us.
And so, when Jesus came to this earth, it was time for God to share his secret with everyone. Jesus said to his apostles, “it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 13:11). In the book of Colossians, Paul describes the gospel as “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints.” (Colossians 1:26)
God’s secret is out, because he told us what his secret was. And now that we are able to see the fulfillment of God’s plan through the cross, and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus, we can look back over the Old Testament and say, “Now, I can see how God’s plan was unfolding. I can see where he was hinting at what was going to happen. I can see how these things that God told the Jews to do were a picture of what God would eventually would do with Jesus. It’s obvious that God’s plan has been in place for thousands and thousands of years.”
Every world religion has a starting point, and every starting point is with a human being—a man or a woman who started that movement. The only exception to that is the message of the gospel that started in the Garden of Eden, at the very beginning of time. Paul says that God decreed [this plan] before the ages for our glory.”
But not everybody understands the significance of what God has done through Jesus Christ. Paul says, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The religious leaders, the government leaders, the people with all the power. Paul says they didn’t understand what God was doing. If they had understood, they wouldn’t have killed Jesus.
But the reason they didn’t understand is because they had a natural mind, a mind that was so focused on the things and the values and the power of this world that they were unable to see the obvious spiritual truths right in front of their eyes.
In verse 9, Paul quotes Isaiah, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” I’ve often heard Christians quote this verse and say it refers to heaven. God has prepared a place for us and we can’t even begin to imagine what it’s going to be like.
And while that’s certainly true, that’s not what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about God’s plan of salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. There is absolutely no way that anyone could have imagined that that was what God had in mind. And the only way that we can know about those truths today is because, as Paul says in verse 10, “God has revealed them to us through His Spirit.” (I Corinthians 2:10, NKJV)
Paul raises the question, “who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?” Who could possibly know what is in the mind of God except the very Spirit of God Himself?” Religion comes from the minds of men and women. It’s based on what we have experienced in this world; and because it’s based on logic and reason, then people follow a religion and say, “That makes sense.” But God has established a way of salvation that is so out of sync with everything that we understand, who could possibly understand God’s plan other than the Spirit of God?
Paul uses a human illustration. If you’re thinking about something this morning, we could all speculate on what that might be. We might guess, “I think you’re thinking about how important the cross is to you” or maybe, “I think you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch after you leave here this morning”, or maybe, “I think you’re thinking about what the weather’s going to be like this week.” And it’s possible that someone here might be able to guess what you’re thinking, but there’s only one person who knows exactly what you’re thinking, and that’s you.
Paul says, “The same thing is true with God. We could all guess what God wants us to do to be saved, but there’s only one person who knows, and that’s God himself. And the only way that we can know is if God chooses to tell us what he is thinking.” Fortunately, that’s exactly what he has done.
Paul says, “When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths.” (I Corinthians 2:13, NLT)
And if we have our minds focused on the things of the Spirit rather than the things of this world, we will listen to what God has to say, and we will understand. “But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means.” (I Corinthians 2:14, NLT)
So, what is the application of all this for us? I think it’s important for us to recognize the difference between the way we see things and the way the world sees things. Having a spiritual outlook is so radical that it’s difficult for us to maintain on a daily basis. We live in a world where the truth of Christian faith is questioned and mocked every day. Television, books, the Internet, ordinary conversations, Facebook, you name it – there are people we listen to every day who scoff at the claims of Christ. And, if we’re not careful, we can listen to this world so much that we begin to question our faith in Jesus Christ.
And even if we don’t reject the message of the cross, it’s easy for us to begin thinking like a natural person. Remember I said that a natural person is someone who lives as if there is nothing beyond this physical life, as if there were no other needs other than physical and material needs, whose values are all material and physical values, who judges everything from physical and material standards.
And, if I’m being honest with myself, I recognize that there are some areas in my life where I act like a natural person and not a spiritual person. In every decision of your life, it comes down to one of two things – either the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God, to live naturally or to live spiritually. Paul says that those of us who are Christians, we have God’s Spirit in us. So we all need to live like we do.
As we close, I’d like for us all to take a personal inventory. Are there some areas in your life where you’re thinking and acting like a natural person? Maybe it’s how you deal with money, maybe it’s how you spend your time, maybe it’s a relationship you’re in, maybe it’s at work, maybe it’s a sexual sin.
This is a good time to remind us all that, as Paul said in verse 16, “we have the mind of Christ.” And today is the day for us to start living that out.