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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 2

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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2. The gospel as a contradiction to human Wisdom 1:18-2:5

Paul set up a contrast between cleverness of speech (impressive oratory) and the Cross in 1 Corinthians 1:17. Next he developed this contrast with a series of arguments. Boasting in men impacts the nature of the gospel. He pointed out that the gospel is not a form of sophia (human wisdom). Its message of a crucified Messiah does not appeal to human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Second, its recipients are not especially wise in the eyes of humanity (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). Third, Paul’s preaching was not impressive in its human wisdom, but it bore powerful results (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

"There are . . . three particularly important expository passages in 1 Corinthians. They may be regarded as the letter’s principal theological discourses and as such deserve special attention.

"These three key discourses deal, respectively, with the wisdom of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:16), the nature of Christian community (1 Corinthians 12:4 to 1 Corinthians 13:13), and the resurrection of the dead (chap. 15). In each instance Paul’s reflections on the topic are deliberate and focused, and lead him to develop a more or less extended and coherent argument. Moreover, each of these passages occurs at an important point within the overall structure of the letter. The discourse on wisdom, situated prominently at the beginning of the letter, supports the apostle’s urgent appeals for unity (1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21). It can be argued that the discourse on Christian community undergirds, directly or indirectly, all of the counsels and instructions in chaps. 8 through 14. And the discourse on resurrection, a response to those who claim that ’there is no resurrection of the dead’ (1 Corinthians 15:12), is located prominently at the end of the letter." [Note: Victor Paul Furnish, "Theology in 1 Corinthians," in Pauline Theology. Vol. II: 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 63.]

"In this part of the [first] discourse [i.e., 1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:5] the argument proceeds in three steps: Paul makes his main point in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, confirms it in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 with an appeal to the Corinthians’ own situation, and then further confirms it in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 with reference to what and how he had preached in Corinth.

"The apostle’s thesis is registered first in 1 Corinthians 1:18 and then twice restated (in 1 Corinthians 1:21 and 1 Corinthians 1:23-24). [Note: Ibid., p. 65.]

Superficial displays of erudite oratory, which to the Corinthians appeared to be demonstrations of wisdom, impressed them too greatly. Paul pointed out that the wisdom of God, the gospel of Christ, had power that mere worldly wisdom lacked.

Verse 1

Some early texts have "mystery" (Gr. mysterion) instead of "testimony" (martyrion). The difference is not very significant. The gospel was both the message that God had previously not revealed, which the apostles made known, and the message to which they bore witness. The apostle’s preaching in Corinth was "not in excellence of rhetorical display or of philosophical subtlety." [Note: J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of St Paul, p. 170.]

"When a speaker would first come to a city (1 Corinthians 2:1), he would advertise a meeting where he would declaim (normally praising the city); if he proved successful and attracted enough students, he would stay on in the city. Paul points out that he did not come to them like such sophists, pandering to popularity (see further 2 Corinthians 2:17)." [Note: Keener, p. 34. ]

Verses 1-5

The folly of Paul’s preaching 2:1-5

Paul offered the example of his preaching among the Corinthians as a further illustration of what the wisdom of God can do in contrast to what the words that humans regard as wisdom can do.

"The matters of literary context and the continuity of the argument are all important in understanding 1 Corinthians 2. Otherwise, much of the chapter reads like pure gnosticism, and Paul is made the advocate of a private religion reserved for the spiritual elite (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)." [Note: Charles B. Cousar, "Expository Articles: 1 Corinthians 2:1-13," Interpretation 44:2 (April 1990):169.]

Verse 2

As far as his preaching went, Paul only spoke about Christ crucified. This was his regular practice (Galatians 3:1). He left all other knowledge aside.

"According to Acts xviii. 1 Paul moved on to Corinth from Athens, and it is often supposed that after an attempt to marry the Gospel to Greek philosophy in his Areopagus speech (Acts xvii. 22-31), which was attended with indifferent success (Acts xvii. 32 ff.), he determined to change his tactics and preach nothing but the cross. [Note: E.g., Barclay, p. 26.] For this imaginative picture there is no evidence whatever." [Note: Barrett, p. 63.]

". . . 1 Corinthians is more than a practical letter aimed at telling the readers what to do and what not to do. The letter in fact primarily seeks to influence the minds, dispositions, intuitions of the audience in line with the message Paul had initially preached in the community (1 Corinthians 2:2), to confront readers with the critical nature of God’s saving action in the crucified Christ in such a fashion that it becomes the glasses to refocus their vision of God, their own community, and the future. The advancing of such an epistemology gives the letter a theological purpose that unifies its otherwise unconnected structure." [Note: Charles B. Cousar, "The Theological Task of 1 Corinthians," in Pauline Theology. Vol. II: 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 102.]

Centering his preaching on Christ crucified was not a new tack Paul took in Corinth because of previous lack of response (cf. Acts 17:22-31).

"What Paul avoided was artificial communication that won plaudits for the speaker but distracted from the message. Lazy preachers have no right to appeal to 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 to justify indolence in the study and careless delivery in the pulpit. These verses do not prohibit diligent preparation, passion, clear articulation, and persuasive presentation. Rather, they warn against any method that leads people to say, ’What a marvelous preacher!’ rather than, ’What a marvelous Savior!’" [Note: Carson, p. 35.]

Verse 3

The reason Paul felt weak, fearful, and trembling was probably his sense of personal inadequacy in the face of the spiritual needs he faced when he entered Corinth (cf. Acts 18:9-10).

"If this was epilepsy, or malarial fever (Ramsay), it might well be the recurrent trouble which he calls a ’thorn for the flesh’ (2 Cor. xii. 7)." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 31.]

Verse 4

Paul did not design his content ("message," logos) and or his delivery ("preaching," kerygma) to impress his hearers with his eloquence or wisdom. Rather he emphasized the simple message he announced. His preaching was a demonstration, not a performance. Conviction came as a result of the Holy Spirit’s power, not the "wisdom" of the preacher. We should not interpret this verse as deprecating persuasion but as a warning that conviction does not come as a result of persuasive arguments. It comes as the Holy Spirit opens blind eyes when we herald the gospel. The warning is against self-reliance in the preacher.

"Those who minister the Word must prepare and use every gift God has given them-but they must not put their confidence in themselves." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 1:573.]

"Mere human sophia may dazzle and overwhelm and seem to be unanswerable, but . . . it does not penetrate to those depths of the soul which are the seat of the decisions of a lifetime." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 33.]

"It is possible for arguments to be logically irrefutable, yet totally unconvincing." [Note: Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, p. 52.]

Verse 5

Paul’s reason for this approach was so his converts would recognize that their faith rested on a supernatural rather than a natural foundation, namely, the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 16:15-17).

The apostle’s conviction concerning the importance of the superior power of the gospel message was clear in his own preaching.

Verse 6

Even though Paul’s preaching of the gospel was simple and clear, there was a depth to his message that he did not want the Corinthians to overlook. Immature Christians cannot understand the real depths of the gospel fully. Later Paul would say the Corinthians were not mature (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).

Paul could have been using the word "mature" as synonymous with "Christian." He may have selected the word "mature" because the Corinthians apparently loved to apply it to themselves.

"All Christians are ’mature’ in the sense that they have come to terms with the message of the cross, while all others, by definition, have not." [Note: Carson, p. 47.]

However, Paul later distinguished the natural person, the spiritual person, and the carnal person (1 Corinthians 2:14 to 1 Corinthians 3:4). Consequently by spiritual he probably meant one who has followed God’s Spirit for some time, not just one who has His Spirit (cf. Hebrews 6:1).

The deep things of God require a type of wisdom that is different from secular wisdom. Presently those who control the climate of public opinion dominate secular wisdom. These rulers are those individuals who set the standard of what people who disregard God’s revelation consider as true (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20; 1 Corinthians 1:26), particularly those who were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion (1 Corinthians 2:8). However these people are on the way out because the popular perception of what is true changes and because Christ will end their rule eventually (1 Corinthians 15:24-25; Colossians 2:15).

Verses 6-16

3. The Spirit’s ministry of revealing God’s Wisdom 2:6-16

Paul’s reference to the Holy Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4-5) led him to elaborate on the Spirit’s ministry in enlightening the minds of believers and unbelievers alike. The Corinthians needed to view ministry differently. The key to this change would be the Holy Spirit’s illumination of their thinking. People who are pursuing true wisdom (sophia) cannot perceive it except as the Holy Spirit enlightens them.

Paul constructed his argument in this section with three contrasts that overlap slightly. The first contrast is between those who receive God’s wisdom and those who do not (1 Corinthians 2:6-10 a), and the second one is the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world (1 Corinthians 2:10-13). The third contrast is the "natural" person and the "spiritual" person (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). [Note: Carson, pp. 46, 52, 56.]

"Paul is not here rebuilding what he has just torn down. He is retooling their understanding of the Spirit and spirituality, in order that they might perceive the truth of what he has been arguing to this point.

"While it is true that much of the language of this paragraph is not common to Paul, the explanation of this phenomenon is, as before, to be found in his using their language but filling it with his own content and thus refuting them. The theology, however, is his own, and it differs radically from theirs. . . . Paul’s concern throughout is to get the Corinthians to understand who they are-in terms of the cross-and to stop acting as non-Spirit people." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 100.]

Verse 7

The wisdom Paul proclaimed was wisdom that God had not revealed previously. It was not a revelation in addition to the gospel. The message about Christ crucified embodies the wisdom of God. This message was unknown before Christ came. The message of the Cross is a further unfolding of God’s plan and purpose beyond what He had revealed and what people had known previously.

Paul expounded on the fact that God had decreed this mystery from before creation in Ephesians 3:2-12. The Ephesian church was more mature and better able to understand this revelation than was the Corinthian congregation.

The end purpose of this new revelation was the saints’ ultimate glorification by conformity to the image of God’s Son.

Verse 8

The rulers of this age are probably the intellectual trend-setters Paul mentioned above (1 Corinthians 2:7). Those responsible for the death of Christ were members of this group (cf. Acts 3:17-18; Acts 4:25-28). If they had understood the central place that Jesus Christ occupied in God’s plan, they would not have crucified Him, thus assuring their own doom (cf. Luke 23:34).

"The key [to this section of Paul’s argument] is 1 Corinthians 2:8. The rulers of this age (whether understood as political and religious figures or as apocalyptic powers) demonstrated their ignorance of divine wisdom when they crucified the Lord of glory. The very mention of the crucifixion shows the argument very much in continuity with the preceding section and reminds us that the wisdom of God, which is incomprehensible to the world, is nothing other than the word of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)." [Note: Cousar, "Expository Articles . . ", p. 171.]

The phrase "Lord of glory" implies the divine fullness. It also ties in with the saints’ glory (1 Corinthians 2:7). It is through union with Him that we will experience glory.

Verse 9

The source of this quotation is evidently Isaiah 64:4; Isaiah 65:17. It summarizes Paul’s point well. There are many things we can know only by revelation. The more God reveals the more clearly we see that He has designed His plans for humanity for our blessing.

"Paul’s thought is that there is no method of apprehension open to man (eyes, ears, or understanding) which can give him any idea of the wonderful things that God has made ready for them that love him (cf. Rom. viii. 28)." [Note: Morris, p. 57.]

Verse 10

The wonderful mysteries God has prepared for those who love Him are not knowable only by a select group of Christians. Any and every believer can understand and appreciated them because the indwelling Holy Spirit can enlighten us. The mystery religions of Greece promised deeper insights and new knowledge to their devotees. However any Christian can apprehend the very best that God has revealed because we all possess the spiritual organ of perception, namely, the Holy Spirit. "Searches" (Gr. ereuna) means continually examines.

"Apparently they have thought of spirituality mostly in terms of ecstasy and experience, which has led some of them to deny the physical body, on the one hand, and to a sense of ’having arrived’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:8), on the other. . . .

"They considered Paul’s preaching to be ’milk’; on the contrary, he implies, redemption through the cross comes from the profound depths of God’s own wisdom, which his Spirit, given to those who love him, has searched out and revealed to us." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 110, 111.]

Verse 11

It is necessary for someone to be a human being to understand things having to do with human life. Animals cannot do it. Likewise it is necessary for someone to have the indwelling Spirit of God to understand the things of God. Unbelievers cannot do it.

Verse 12

"We" is emphatic in the Greek text. All believers have received the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 8:9). He helps us understand the mind of God and the things God has given us. This Spirit is vastly different from the spirit (viewpoint) of the world. Unbelievers cannot understand the things of God as believers can because they have no one who can help them perceive these supernatural things.

". . . as a man’s own spirit best understands his inner thoughts, so the Spirit of God alone can grasp divine truths (1 Corinthians 2:11), and alone can interpret to those within whom he dwells ’the things that are freely given to us by God’ (RV)." [Note: Bruce, p. 40.]

"The tragic failures of men to understand clearly God’s revealed will is but a commentary on the weakness and limitation of the human intellect even when enlightened by the Holy Spirit." [Note: Robertson, 4:87.]

Verse 13

Paul and the other apostles spoke the truths that the Holy Spirit had helped them understand (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-7). They did not choose their words because of what people generally regarded as the best ones to persuade. They did not rely on the rhetorical forms that the orators used either. The Holy Spirit guided them in their communication of divine truth as well as in their perception of it. Spiritual thoughts or truths are concepts the Holy Spirit enables us to understand. Spiritual words are those He guides us to use in expressing these thoughts. The Spirit enables us to speak in language appropriate to the message rather than with human wisdom. In short, the Holy Spirit plays an indispensable role both in understanding and in communicating God’s revelation.

Verse 14

The natural man is any person who does not possess the Holy Spirit, namely, unbelievers. [Note: See Barrett, p. 77.] Every human being is a natural man until he or she trusts Christ and receives the Spirit. Paul called this person a natural (Gr. psychikos) man because he or she is only natural. He has no supernatural Person indwelling him, and his viewpoints and ideas are only what are natural. He cannot accept all that God has revealed because he does not possess the indwelling Spirit of God.

The natural person can, of course, understand the gospel and experience salvation but only because the Holy Spirit illuminates his or her understanding. Paul did not mean that an unbeliever is incapable of understanding Scripture. However an unbeliever rejects and does not accept all that God wants him or her to have. One of these things is eternal life through faith in His Son. It is as though God is speaking in a language that the unbeliever does not understand; he or she fails to respond properly. He or she needs an interpreter. That is a ministry that only the Holy Spirit can perform. [Note: See Robert A. Pyne, "The Role of the Holy Spirit in Conversion," Bibliotheca Sacra 150:598 (April-June 1993):204-5.]

"It will help us to think clearly about this issue if we recognize that 1 Corinthians 2 is not concerned with the mechanics of how people understand their Bibles generally, or with the quality of a particular scholar’s exegesis of some specific Hebrew text. . . . His focus is the fundamental message of the crucified Messiah. And this, he insists, is fundamentally incomprehensible to the mind without the Spirit." [Note: Carson, p. 64.]

"Human ears cannot hear high-frequency radio waves; deaf men are unable to judge music contests; blind men cannot enjoy beautiful scenery, and the unsaved are incompetent to judge spiritual things, a most important practical truth." [Note: Johnson, p. 1233.]

Verse 15

In contrast to the natural man stands the spiritual (Gr. pneumatikos) man. He or she is a mature Christian (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1). One of the things the spiritual person is able to do is appraise or make judgments (Gr. anakrino) regarding all things. In other words, the spiritual person has discernment. This affects his values and decisions. For this very reason he is a puzzle to the natural man. The profane person cannot understand holiness, but the holy person can understand the depths of evil. Even carnal fellow believers cannot fully understand the spiritually mature person. That is all right, in one sense, because the spiritual person’s judge is ultimately God, not other people. [Note: See Charles C. Ryrie, "What Is Spirituality?" Bibliotheca Sacra 126:503 (July-September 1969):204-13, or idem, Balancing the Christian Life, pp. 12-23.]

This verse is not saying believers are responsible only to God but that the Christian is answerable to God alone ultimately (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:3-4). Paul recognized the value of church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:3-8), constructive criticism (1 Corinthians 11:17-18), and self-judgment (1 Corinthians 11:31) as having immediate value.

Verse 16

To summarize his thought, Paul again cited Isaiah (Isaiah 40:13; cf. Romans 11:34). That prophet marveled at the mind of God. Who can fully understand what God understands? Certainly no one can. On the other hand, mature believers can understand to a much greater degree than unbelievers because they have the Spirit of God in them and He controls them. Consequently the mature Christian has the mind of Christ. That is, he or she views life to some extent as Jesus did because that person understands things from God’s perspective, at least partially.

In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul urged his readers to adopt the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Even though we have the mind of Christ we need to adopt it, that is, to use it to view life as He did. One evidence of Christian maturity is the believer’s consistent employment of Christ’s attitude and viewpoint in all of life.

In this section (1 Corinthians 2:6-16) Paul elaborated on the subject of the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illuminating the believer about what God has revealed. He had previously reminded his readers that he had conducted himself in their midst with this supernatural viewpoint (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

The basic theological point of tension between Paul and the Corinthians in this epistle was over what it means to be pneumatikos, a Spirit person. Because of their experience of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) they considered themselves to be "as the angels" and in need only of shedding their bodies. The sources of this distorted view were popular philosophy tainted with Hellenistic dualism. Hellenistic dualism viewed anything material as evil and anything non-material or "spiritual" as good. The result was a "spirituality" and "higher wisdom" that had little connection with ethical behavior. [Note: Fee, "Toward a . . .," pp. 37-38.]

"The concern from here on will be to force them to acknowledge the folly of their ’wisdom,’ which is expressing itself in quarrels and thereby destroying the very church for which Christ died.

"Paul’s concern needs to be resurrected throughout the church. The gift of the Spirit does not lead to special status among believers; rather, it leads to special status vis-à-vis the world. But it should do so always in terms of the centrality of the message of our crucified/risen Savior. The Spirit should identify God’s people in such a way that their values and worldview are radically different from the wisdom of this age." [Note: Idem, The First . . ., p. 120.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-corinthians-2.html. 2012.
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