The Scriptures only know two types of people—those who are natural and those who are spiritual. And Paul, in this letter, is writing to those who know Christ and are therefore rightly called spiritual. He also calls them “the mature”. Those who are spiritual, those who know Christ, are mature. Who is the spiritual and mature person? It is the person who knows God. This is the search the whole world is on. How do we know God? How do we get to him? What is the right way?
Maybe a better way of framing the same problem would be, Why are some churches empty but religious bookshelves crowded? Why is TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter full of pastors and gurus who have thousands of followers? Because everyone is searching for something, and it’s usually called personal fulfillment. Sometimes it’s presented as a search for God. But are people looking for the true God to bow down and worship or the best god to give them all they want? The church obviously wants people to know the one, true God. But our primary task as God’s people is to worship and adore the Son. From that paramount task flows a desire to see the lost be saved, as we once were, to worship and adore Jesus Christ just for who he is. So how does that happen? How do people come to know God? There’s a lot of noise and nonsense and pandering when it comes to this question. And Scripture presents an entirely different answer than the world. Scripture teaches:
Knowing God begins with God knowing you.
Clarity on what the gospel is means cutting through all the noise and confusion about how God is to be known. The gospel is not that you can be a better person. The gospel is not five secrets to a great vacation. Unless both people are red-hot on-fire for the Lord, the gospel may or may not fix your relationship with your kids or your spouse or your parents. In fact, Jesus says that people will be divided over him. So we can’t believe a more palatable adaptation of the gospel that gives good advice but doesn’t raise dead men to life.
Paul, here in 1 Corinthians, emphasizes that we don’t seek God on our own. Sure, we want what God can give us, but that is not the same thing as seeking God himself. We want what God can give us, and what we want is what we want, not what he says is good. One does not necessarily lead to the other. We’re spiritually dead. That’s why the Bible turns seeking God totally on its head. Knowing God begins with God knowing you. Because this is such a remarkable shift from the normal way of seeking after God, Paul starts by saying:
vv.1-5. The gospel needs clarity, not color.
The Corinthians had a strong start as a church. Many people were converted in the early days, and the church grew. Acts 18 tells us the story of Paul and his crew planting a church there. There was a sizable synagogue of Jews in Corinth, so the church started as mostly Jews. But Corinth was full of people like military veterans and freed slaves. There were some wealthy people, but it’s primarily what we might think of as working-class. What really made Corinth stand out is that it was just under 100 years old. It was destroyed and then rebuilt under the Romans. So it was a relatively up-to-date kind of city. Like shiny new things often do, it drew a lot of people from all walks of life very quickly.
Here’s a quick overview of both 1 an 2 Corinthians: church politics, sexual immorality, believers suing each other, divorce and remarriage, watering down the gospel, worship wars, denying the resurrection, gender roles, and celebrity pastors. Essentially, it’s a church full of non-stop brushfires here and there, some bigger than others. The unifying factor between these problems is a lack of gospel clarity, which Paul focuses on in the beginning to set the tone for the rest of the first letter. Gospel clarity will maybe not entirely preserve us from falling into the same traps as the Corinthians, but it will help us see that we live between two worlds and two ages—the flesh and the spirit, this age and the next. Christians are constantly negotiating between these two ends. The flesh and the spirit are at war. This age and the next have overlapped. That is our challenge. These letters could quite literally be written to any church in the 21st century. And they should be received as such.
Corinth’s problem is that because of a lack of gospel clarity, division has formed among the believers. The letter starts out by Paul saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1:10). That’s the bottom line. And what are they dividing over? Who the most eloquent preacher was. Now, are some preachers more eloquent than others? Sure. It’s not bad to want to be persuasive and articulate. In fact, Paul will later tell them where to focus their persuasive abilities. But dividing over things like that is symptomatic of something darker: living like the present age from which you’ve been saved.
The Corinthians had been applying the wrong metric to ministerial success. They had been using a bad definition of the church’s ministry. This is touchy, because it’s not uncommon to see this today, as well. There is nothing wrong with theatrical lights, trendy clothes, and millions of dollars poured into production. But is it possible churches can do all that, not to communicate the gospel with greater clarity, but to resemble entertainment culture?
Here’s the point—this is what Corinth had done. Instead of venerating actors and actresses, the Roman Empire’s version of a Hollywood celebrity was the expert speaker who could razzle-dazzle with words. That was entertainment. Mel Brooks was not far off with the stand-up philosopher. Like people gathering for movies or plays today, people gathered to be entertained by the way someone was able to string words together and be interesting on a certain topic. Think Shakespearean Ted-Talks.
Paul warns the Corinthians that defining ministry by popular standards is not only wrong but unsustainable. And nobody is immune from this temptation. He says in 1:22, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom”. Everybody wants more. We think the power of persuasion is in the flash, the sound, the circus. Maybe we know we shouldn’t say it, but sometimes we think we need to dress the gospel up a bit before people will listen. Will anybody believe a message that sounds impossible if we don’t set it to music? If we don’t have flashing lights? If we don’t have a spit and polished social media presence?
But Paul says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1-2). This is a simple, straightforward approach to gospel ministry that Paul extends to us. The Corinthians had lost the fire in their belly for the pure gospel, so they thought worldly approaches would get that excitement back. Paul, on the other hand, describes his time in Corinth with the words “weakness,” “fear,” and “trembling.” Paul didn’t break out the big guns when he preached. He didn’t try to entertain the Corinthians with popular tactics. He was certainly eloquent and persuasive. But he didn’t use the phony maneuvers of his age. He didn’t use worldly wisdom to communicate God’s truth. Why? “So that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5). Paul didn’t dress up the gospel because it stands on its own. That’s the wisdom of God, and:
vv.6-9. Godly wisdom always leads to Christ.
There is a kind of self-congratulatory pride that goes along with doing things in a way that looks impressive but has no substance. You might get the impression that Paul cares little for intelligence and wisdom. “Don’t worry about the deep things of God; in fact, those things don’t matter much at all. They just cause problems.” But on the other side of things, there is also a kind of self-congratulatory pride in ignorance. Some say they like to keep it simple as a way of masking theological laziness. Remember that in Hebrews 6, the author commends the believers to expand upon elementary doctrine and move on to maturity. This refusal to grow as a believer in our knowledge of God leads to disobedience and pride.
So Paul is not saying that wisdom and knowledge is useless. He is saying, however, that the source of wisdom is what makes the difference. “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” (2:6). Earthly wisdom will pass away, so what is it? How do we avoid it? Earthly wisdom is any so-called knowledge, philosophy, or movement that puts man at the center of it. In today’s context, it’s any worldview or theology that wants to keep faith and practice in a little bubble away from the public. The wisdom of this age believes God, if he exists, to be nothing but a distant mind who cares little for this world. But it can also be any worldview that views Christ as anything less than the incarnate God. Paul even says that the rulers of this age crucified Christ because they did not have this wisdom. This pretty well lumps together both the Romans such as Pilate and Herod as well as the Jewish leaders such as the priests and scribes. The line connecting them all is that they refused to see the Lord as the Son of God who came to offer himself on their behalf. If they had known the Scriptures and the power of God, they would have seen Jesus for who he truly was.
The wisdom of God, the wisdom that Paul is preaching, is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:7). Literally, a secret is a “mystery” and hidden wisdom. We think of mystery as Sherlock Holmes solving a riddle with clues. But biblically, a mystery is truth that is something God determined in eternity past that is revealed perhaps in fits and starts but then only finally and fully in Christ. It is the mystery that through Christ, Jew and Gentile are reconciled. The reconciliation of two peoples is the evidence of God’s work of redemption in the world. But it is a mystery which needs to be revealed. Even after his resurrection, in Acts 1, the disciples ask Jesus when he will restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus essentially responds with, “Wrong question.” Even Peter, his lead disciple, will later need a radical vision from heaven of clean and unclean animals being eaten together for it to finally click that Jews and Gentiles are no longer separated. In fact, if you read it as a whole, huge swaths of Paul’s letters deal with the misunderstandings of how Jews and Gentiles now relate to each other under the same Lord Jesus Christ.
This mystery is not something we can find out on our own. Men and women with darkened hearts do not seek Godly wisdom. So:
vv.10-13. Godly wisdom is not discovered but revealed.
If this is a mystery, if it is secret and hidden, how do we know it? You can’t imagine the good that God has done for you in Christ, and it’s that which “God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (2:10). We know this mystery because God has revealed it to us. It was revealed first to prophets of Israel. Peter tells us, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12).
It was then revealed to the apostles. Jesus tells them in John 14:26, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Then from the apostles, this mystery was passed on to us in all of Scripture. Peter again tells us, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16-21).
God has revealed himself and his mystery, which is Christ crucified. To the world, it is still a mystery, but not to the church. Paul makes the comparison of a person and his inner thoughts. The only person who really knows what I’m thinking is me. The only person who really knows what you’re thinking is you. The only person who really knows what God is thinking is God. It’s such an obvious statement, but Paul’s point is that for us to know God’s thoughts and think God’s thoughts after him, he must reveal his thoughts to us. And he has done so by his Holy Spirit, “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (2:12).
What the prophets and apostles knew were taught by the Spirit. This mystery of Christ, that he unites all men into one new covenant people, has now been revealed. But only the spiritual understand it. Now Paul is not making a distinction between believers, as if there are ordinary Christians and then super-duper “spiritual” Christians. “Those who are spiritual” refers to those indwelled by the Spirit, who can now understand spiritual truths.
During WWII, the Axis Powers encoded their messages to each other. The codes changed all the time, and they got more and more complex as the war went on. But the American military employed about 10,000 women who worked as codebreakers. These women intercepted Axis messages and did the impossible task of interpreting the ever-changing encrypted missives of evil. Because the women were able to crack the codes, generals were able to keep troops out of harm’s way and keep the Allied Forces one step ahead. Without these codebreakers to interpret what the enemy was saying, the Axis messages remained impossible to understand.
The Spirit of God is the person who interprets the word of God and makes darkened minds understand the deep things of God. The Spirit is who made Paul’s preaching so powerful. The Spirit is who brought salvation to Corinth. The Spirit is who opens blind eyes and softens hard hearts. The gospel is a mystery; it is a message the world cannot understand but must be revealed. You have come to understand and believe the gospel for no other reason than the Spirit of God resides in you. No one can boast about the salvation the Father decreed, the Son achieved, and the Spirit applied. Salvation is entirely a work of God, from start to finish, and:
vv.14-16. The spiritual person has been brought from death to life.
Now we really get to the crux of how we know God. “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” (2:14). There is a darkness to the unbeliever’s mind that the unbeliever cannot naturally overcome. No one who the Scriptures call a Christian made themselves a Christian. That is a work of the Spirit. Knowing God begins with God knowing us. It is the Spirit of God who transforms the one who is dead in their sins to the one who is alive in the Spirit.
There is immeasurable grace and mercy from God to sinners. Speaking of such great love, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-10, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The grace of God is spiritually discerned. As he calls all believers “spiritual” who are born of God, so also spiritual discernment is entirely from God. The spiritual person is one who possesses the Holy Spirit, and spiritual discernment is knowledge of God that comes from the Spirit. That is only known by those who are first known by God. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The natural person does not slowly become spiritual. We are dead in our trespasses and sins; there is no spiritual life in us. Dead men don’t raise themselves. People who are alive can be persuaded. People who are dead need resurrected. Sometimes it’s thought of as a little morbid, but I wish more churches had their own cemeteries. They’re not only a good reminder of where you’re headed, but they’re a good reminder of where you were. The gospel goes into the graveyards, calling dead men to wake up, to have faith in the risen Lord, and come to him in repentance.
Does that glorious truth brings you joy and comfort? Then you are a spiritual person, a born-again believer, a Christian. Does the gospel seem silly and worthy of ridicule and mockery? Then you are still in your natural state and not a spiritual person. How often do we hear the cliche, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? Most people wouldn’t identify themselves like that, but it is no less true of many. The apostle Paul would tell you, “You are actually quite religious. You have your own rites and rituals. Even if you wouldn’t call it this, you’re quite superstitious. But spiritual you are not.”
Knowing God begins with God knowing you. Being a spiritual person is the most reasonable kind of person you could be. Being known by God is the only way to know him. That is why the gospel needs clarity, not color. Paul’s straightforward approach to the gospel meant he didn’t try to be the most impressive preacher by worldly standards. He dared not distract from the gospel with a show. He could have left a mark in Corinth in a lot of ways, but Paul stayed focused on Godly wisdom, which stays focused on Christ and him crucified. We must never deviate from the central message of Scripture. We must behave and speak in such a way that people leave our presence not being impressed with us but captivated with the God who saves. There is only one way to know God. It begins with him knowing us. And as he calls us to know him, we see his glory, his mercy, his justice, and his love in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God has revealed himself to us through the Son, in order to bring us from death to life.
This world deeply wants to be spiritual, but aside from being known by God, they best they’re going to get is religious. Scripture totally flips spirituality and knowing God on its head. It’s not some vague notion about hope or faith. Biblical spirituality is being red-hot for the glory of God. It is never deviating one bit from Christ and him crucified. Godly wisdom always directs you to Christ. And what love must this be, if even while we were sinners, if even while we didn’t care to know him, he loved us. Knowing God begins with him knowing you.