We Are Not Ignorant: Worldly Wisdom

Satan’s Tool of Attack on the Corinthians Assembly

The introduction by Paul in the first letter to Corinthians describes an assembly of believers in sublime terms. He describes the blessings God had bestowed upon them, while expressing what the mind of God is for every assembly. But, after the first nine verses there is a dramatic change in “tone,” and the subject matter right to the end of the letter becomes one of admonition and correction, as we learn of the multiple problems existing in that assembly.

Believers returning to Paul in Ephesus, from Corinth, related what they had seen in the assembly. There was an appalling state of spiritual decay, division, dreadful deportment, moral defilement, and doctrinal error. And, in addition to behavior, an attitude of arrogance, pride, and self-will prevailed. Even though the Lord had taken some of them away prematurely, they refused to recognize and repent of their sin.  Four times Paul describes them as being “puffed up.”

We cannot help wondering how an assembly that had been founded by an apostle, had benefited by his presence among them for 18 months, and had been taught the truth of God in the power of the Spirit, could backslide so severely in just three years. They had in the assembly a family whose members were devoted to serving them, had a generosity to send him material support, and yet, in spite of such admirable features, they were at a very low spiritual ebb. Was there some notable cause or many causes?

There are two main sections in the epistle: chapter 1:10 to 6:20 and chapter 7:1 to 16:9. The first section addresses those matters reported to Paul by the returning visitors, while the second section answers questions they had sent to him by a letter. It is notable that the questions sent made no reference to the matters prevailing in section one. Obviously, the seriousness was unrecognized.

We need to notice in this first section a word that occurs as a noun or adjective: “wisdom” (sophia, noun) and “wise” (sophism, adj). Together, these occur 27 times in the first six chapters, while only twice in the rest of the Corinthian letters. So this word must be significant as to the cause for the failure and sin invading the assembly. Paul separates the use of this word into 1) the wisdom of the world and 2) the wisdom of God. What is the difference? The first is the essence of humanism, while the second relates to what is divine. The wisdom of man is knowledge based on intuition, reasoning, and philosophy; it is usually expressed rhetorically, but significantly, excludes the standards and claims of God, and gives no place to the Holy Spirit. The wisdom of God is knowledge anchored in truth, is known by revelation from God, is perceived by the Holy Spirit, and is the basis of all His actions and purposes.

Another word used in this section, contrasting man’s estimation of spiritual truth with that of God’s, is “foolishness,” which he uses nine times. While incongruous in describing God’s activities, it is saying, in effect, that the simplest of God’s purposes is profoundly beyond the knowledge of the natural man.

Corinth was a morally degraded society where every form of debauchery and perversion was promoted, not just tolerated. It was also considered to be the temple or shrine of wisdom, and both these worldly ideals were bound together in their pagan religion. Neither Jewish Pharisaism nor Greek philosophy had the power to deliver from this environment. Only the gospel of Christ could. And while the Greeks were inordinately proud of that human wisdom which exalts man, it is the message of the cross that demonstrates the wisdom of God by which the flesh is humbled. It shows that spiritual blessing, acceptance with God, and genuine worth must come from God, must be received and not earned.

It seems that some of the Corinthians who were saved when Paul first came with the gospel had lapsed under the pressures of the society in which they were raised, and consequently were applying principles learned in philosophy’s idolatrous forums to guide them in their assembly life. By worldly wisdom and human reasoning, they had succumbed to one of Satan’s most effective means of ruining assembly testimony and contaminating spiritual environment. In Eden, one of the first chords he played to Eve was questioning what God had said, and that the fruit of the tree was desired “to make one wise” (Gen 3:6).

The intrusion of “the wisdom of the world,” “the wisdom of men,” “the wisdom of the wise,” and the “wisdom of words” produced self-conceit and arrogance, displacing faith and simple acceptance of what the Word of God teaches. It explained their infatuation with human leaders based on gift or personality, and it produced divisions (ch 1). It tolerated gross immorality with the boast of personal liberty (ch 5).  And it insisted on personal rights, leading to lawsuits against their Christian brothers (ch 6). They were prepared to violate the sanctity of a believer’s body by engaging with the temple prostitutes (ch 6). They precluded the privilege of spiritual growth by living like people of the world, in jealousy and strife (ch 3). Worldly wisdom can lead to acceptance of every form of evil and rejection of every spiritual demand.

We live in a world where academic standing is revered, and questioning accepted order is a symbol of intellectual progress. Higher education, necessary to find employment or positions that are appealing, can never produce godly living and spiritual growth. Human reasoning has discarded essential truths regarding gathering to the Lord’s name alone; it has divided NT teaching into the “essential” and “non-essential,” while only humble dependence upon God and growth in our knowledge of Him and His Word can bring about an environment in which God is glorified and His people blessed.  Such a world-view and a heavenly mindset are incompatible.

Human reasoning, when brought to bear upon divine purposes, demeans the gospel, dishonors God, and destroys assembly fellowship. Ten times in the letter Paul asks, “Know ye not?” showing that worldly wisdom left them wanting in understanding God’s ways. The message of the cross seems irrational; the Jew is stumbled by it while the Greek denigrates it, and apart from the sovereign electing grace of God, neither would accept it. But to those who are saved, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Today’s popular churches are built on human reasoning and organization; a local NT church stands through devoted and contrite hearts, faithfully fulfilling His Word. What we build into our assembly is going to be reviewed in a coming day. Let us build on the foundation He has provided, not on the wisdom of men. Let us with humility respond to His claims and give Him the supreme place of authority. “Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honor dwelleth” (Psa 26:8, KJV).