Formations 01.19.2020: The Wisdom of God

Odilon Redon, The Crucifixion, 1904.

1 Corinthians 2:1-13

Have you noticed that the message of the cross doesn’t make a lot of sense? At least, it doesn’t easily line up with things that we have heard all our lives.

“Look out for Number One.” But Jesus let himself be arrested, mocked, and killed so that you and I could have life. In his moment of greatness, looking out for himself was apparently the last thing on his mind.

“The end justifies the means.” Jesus could have easily avoided the cross. He could have inherited all the kingdoms of the world if he had simply bowed down to the devil. But what does it profit someone to gain the whole world at the price of their soul?

“Fight back.” Think of all the blows that Jesus suffered on his way to the cross. What does it mean that he didn’t “stand up for himself,” as we might say? When people say they can’t respect someone who doesn’t fight back, do they realize they’re talking about Jesus?

If we committed ourselves to following the example of Jesus, people would say that we don’t make a lot of sense, either. To be honest, they’d probably say we were naïve. Weak. Foolish.

That’s exactly Paul’s point in this week’s text. He places the crucifixion at the center of his message to the world, even though it’s bound to be a real head-scratcher for most of his audience.

But the Apostle doesn’t compromise. He’s not interested in wowing a crowd with rhetorical high notes. He wants to confront them with the truth of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (v. 2). This, he says, is the pinnacle of divine wisdom—though it defies human understanding.

Even so, those who are in tune with the Spirit will grasp this wisdom, to their eternal benefit.

Discussion

• Why is the world so clueless about what God was doing through Christ and his cross?
• Why do so many Christians fail to understand the message of the cross?
• What would it look like if the wisdom of Christ crucified shaped our understanding of Christian behavior? Of service and evangelism?

Reference Shelf

Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Wisdom in the NT is seen primarily in relation to Jesus who embodies wisdom in his person and teaching. The prologue of John sets forth the Word/Wisdom is a way similar to Prov 8 and passages in the Apocrypha (Sir 24; Bar 3–4; Wis 7–9). The Word is eternal wisdom personified in Jesus (John 1:1-18).

Paul exalts Jesus as eternal wisdom personified in 1 Cor 1:24 as “the wisdom of God.” In Colossians Christ unites in himself the fullness of God in bodily form (Col 1:19). In Col 1:15-20 (cf. Eph 3:8-10), Christ is the creative wisdom of God: “for in him all things were created” and “in him all things hold together” (cf. John 1:3). He is the one “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is Torah personified and equated with divine wisdom, and in Luke 11:49 he is simply the “wisdom of God.”

Norm Yance, “Wisdom in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 960.

Communicating the Wisdom of God

The next section poses something of an enigma. Paul has been arguing that the word of the cross eclipses human wisdom. In fact, the word of the cross is the only true wisdom. But now Paul seems to acknowledge that there is another wisdom that may be imparted to the mature. Since Paul does not directly relate this wisdom to the word of the cross, one might understand him to be saying that there is a body of teaching beyond the basic message of the cross that is reserved for those who are capable of receiving it. For this reason, some commentators have viewed Paul as rather Gnostic here since he holds in reserve for the mature a “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (2:7). Others have concluded that 2:2-16 must be an interpolation since Paul would not have written something that undercuts his previous argument.

Richard Hays has argued against viewing the passage as an interpolation or as a sign of Paul’s incipient Gnosticism. He contends that Paul is being ironic here. He offers no new, secret wisdom but rather cleverly subverts his readers’ understanding of what constitutes wisdom and who possesses it. In response to criticism by the Corinthians that Paul has not taught them those higher teachings that other teachers have stepped up to provide, Paul asserts that he does, in fact, give such instruction—but only to the mature! In 3:1, he delivers the blow: they are not among the mature.

Paul may have employed irony here, but something else may also be at work. Paul confronts the difficulty of communicating God’s wisdom. The truth of the word of the cross is not self-evident; in fact, on the surface it appears to be foolishness. Its truth, and the consequences of that truth for human behavior, becomes evident only through the working of God’s Spirit. The Spirit’s work in teaching “the things given by God to us” (2:12) occurs only among the “persons of the Spirit” (pneumatikoi). Paul labels the unspiritual as “merely human” (psychikos anthropos, 2:14), “humanly” (sarkinos; 3:1), “only human” (sarkikos; 3;3), and people who “live only in a human way” (kata anthropon peripateite; 3:3). The Corinthians, who should be included among the pneumatikoi, have shown by their behavior that they are living as unspiritual humans. Thus, the full consequences of God’s wisdom revealed in the cross remain incomprehensible to them.

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 94–95.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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