?We like to receive good news. When the Christmas letter is delivered, we want to hear about our friend’s Alaskan vacation cruise or how the children joined the community theatre. When you open the picture attachment in Outlook Express, you like to see the dad, mom, kids, dog, together, smiling and looking the part of the ideal family. When the phone rings, the caller I.D. has the name of someone you’ve not spoken to in 10 years; the voice on the other end says, “I was thinking of you and just wanted to call.” Yes, we like to hear good news.
But not all news is good, and we don’t like to hear bad news. Our hearts break when the Christmas letter doesn’t contain vacation news but an undercurrent of disappointment from a year of unemployment and from another rejected résumé. The e-mail enters our inbox, and the excitement turns to emptiness when we open the attachment to find a family without their father who ran out on them. Or the phone rings, and the loved one on the other ends weeps as she tells you about her cancer returning-again. No, we don’t like bad news.
Paul had received news from/about the church in Corinth. Word had reached him while he was living in Ephesus through Chloe’s home. Without the advent of e-mail, or any real reliable carrier express, some who lived with Chloe traveled to Ephesus to bring their report to Paul. After enjoying their chance to “catch-up,” their happy reunion faded. The news wasn’t good. No, the news was bad and very disturbing.
The church in Corinth thought they had spiritually arrived, calling themselves “wise” and “mature.” It’s easy to understand their pride since their cups were overflowing with the spiritual gifts of tongues, healing and prophecy. Surely God gives such gifts only to the mature? Wouldn’t we think that with the spiritual gift of prophecy comes God’s endorsement of that person’s life? Sure. However, their actions betrayed their “wisdom” and “maturity”; they were filled with “foolishness” and “childishness.”
The news was disheartening as the church was fragmented and fractured. Members had turned on each other; they were arguing and quarreling because jealousy and envy partnered in driving distance between brothers and sisters. Harmony and peace were nowhere to be found. Loyalties to a particular preacher were more important than loyalty to each other. Paul could almost hear the echoes of their boasting as he wrote from Ephesus.
• One might have said, “I don’t like Paul’s preaching-he doesn’t hold a commanding presence-but I’d listen to Apollos anytime; his words are eloquent. Besides, you know, he baptized me!”
• Another responded, “Well, Apollos’ preaching is too sophisticated. He just needs to ‘preach the Word.’ Peter, on the other hand, knows how to ‘prick people to the heart.’ Did you know he stayed with me when he came through Corinth?”
• Still, another claims, “Paul has a passion for the lost, much more than Peter or Apollos. And unlike Peter, he’s always willing to go to the Gentiles. He asked me to house Timothy when he came to town.”
And as Paul hears about Corinth, he shakes his head in disbelief; they think they’re so wise. They think they’re so mature.
But we know better. We look at Corinth with a clearer vision, for hindsight is always 20/20; we wouldn’t make such obvious mistakes. I wonder, though, what if Paul was to hear about our church-would he be pleased? Surely he would because we’re wiser, right? We’re mature, right?
Where the Corinthians were part of a movement only a couple of decades old, we now stand in a movement pushing 2,000 years. Where the Corinthian church was filled with spiritual infants who had been baptized just four years earlier when their church began,1 our church has reached its 20-year marker; and we have many who’ve been Christians for 40 or 50 years. Where the Corinthians were enmeshed with the pagan culture of idolatry, our culture is far more Christianized; we don’t have to worry about idolatry. Where the Corinthians only had the Old Testament in front of them, we have the complete revelation in our Bibles. So, we can say that based on our experience, in comparison to the church in Corinth, we’re mature. In our wisdom, we’ve moved far beyond the pettiness and fighting that’s found in Corinth.
No, we’re nothing like Corinth. We wouldn’t rally behind a personality at the expense of fellowship. Our disagreements are never driven by jealousy or envy. We never sit in a group and feast on the information/misinformation of our brothers and sisters. We never celebrate each other’s fall. Our pride never interferes with our relationships. Of course not-we’re mature, we’re wiser and we know better.
In our text Paul speaks a word to the wise in order to confront their maturity and wisdom. Who is wise? Who is mature? Well the answer is certainly not defined by our culture. Paul says, “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. … None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (
How does culture view wisdom? We immediately think of our educational system that rewards people with letters after their name, such as “M.D.” or “Ph.D.” We think of someone with years of experience in his/her job field. Sometimes we think that wisdom is associated with a successful person, like a Donald Trump. Since we’re in church, maybe we’re thinking of someone who seems to hold a reservoir of biblical knowledge like a teacher-she even knows who the Jebusites are!
But Paul’s concern for the wisdom of the culture is not necessarily about status or what wisdom looks like as much as what it produces. Wisdom in our culture gravitates to power, arrogance and pride, selfishness leading to control, division, jealousy and quarreling. The wisdom of this age is only concerned with what it gets out of people, not what it gives. The result of this wisdom from the world is found in the likes of the CEO who betrays his employees by lying about the profit margins; or the dictator who ruthlessly eliminates any dissenting voice; or even the politician who promises to speak on behalf of the people, yet once elected begins speaking on behalf of his/her personal agenda. As Paul says, such “wisdom,” depicted in the likes of Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas the High Priest, is the kind of wisdom that crucified the Lord of glory.
Who is wise? According to Paul, the wise are those who embrace God’s secret wisdom, “We speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (1 Cor. 2:7).
God’s wisdom is a secret! Only a few know about it, not because it’s unavailable but because its wisdom is distributed through God’s Spirit; not everyone has His Spirit or taps into His power. In fact, most reject such wisdom because its source originates at the cross of Christ and is shaped by the cross. The world has rejected the very source for our own wisdom because such wisdom seems foolish to common sense.
Again, asking “Who is wise?” misleads the bigger issue: “What does this secret wisdom of God produce?”
• Where worldly “wisdom” is driven by arrogance and results in dissonance, spiritual wisdom, drawn from the cross,
is demonstrated by humility which produces harmony.
• Where worldly “wisdom” demands one’s rights even at the expense of others, spiritual wisdom, drawn from the cross, gives up one’s rights for the good of others.
• Where worldly “wisdom” is only concerned with self-preservation, spiritual wisdom, drawn from the cross, sacrifices the self for the interests for others.
• Where worldly “wisdom” fights back and defends itself against persecution, spiritual wisdom, drawn from the cross, finds forgiveness and prays for the attacker.
• Where worldly “wisdom” travels the easy road of division and dissention, spiritual wisdom, drawn from the cross, finds, maintains, and travels the road that brings unity and unison.
• Where worldly “wisdom” manipulates control over people and circumstances, spiritual wisdom, drawn from the cross, relinquishes control in order to be controlled.
Who is wise? In Corinth, not many. In their foolishness, their wisdom was dividing a church, unraveling the fabric of unity and was exploding with pride and arrogance.3 They were conceited, self-preserving and manipulating their fellow brothers and sisters. No wonder Paul saw that the news from Corinth was bad.
So who is wise? Who has demonstrated wisdom?
When I was a youth minister, the church I was serving was experiencing dissonance from policy set down a couple of years before I arrived. Rumblings forced a confrontation. So a meeting was set, and those involved met in one of the classrooms of the church. Several men
personally affected by the policy were asked to meet with the elders, ministers and deacons to find resolution to the conflict.
Such meetings tend to be filled with anxiety and driven by emotions. This meeting was no different. Heads butted, opinions were expressed, rights were demanded and tempers flared. Finally, one man directly affected by the policy stood and declared to the group, “Well, if that’s the way it’s gonna be, then I’m leaving!”
In his exacerbated anger, he made straightway to the classroom door. Hope for a peaceful resolution began vanishing. If he left the room now, so would the other men. All seemed lost.
Like the unexpected clap of thunder, Steve, one of the ministers, stood from the midst of the men and called out, “Gary, stop! Don’t leave this meeting.” All eyes fixed on Steve; we held our breadth as moments felt like hours; no one knew what was about to happen next. “If you leave now, we’ll never resolve the problem.” With the voice of authority mixed with the sounds of compassion, he continued, “Come back and sit down, and let’s settle this like Christian men.”
Who was wise? Who demonstrated wisdom? Steve did, for certainly most of the men would have followed Gary out the door; and the disagreement would have escalated into something worse, something far worse.
Who was wise? Who demonstrated wisdom? Gary did, when he allowed the Spirit of Christ to soften his heart, and he returned to his seat. We finished our meeting. We ended with prayer. The situation was not fully resolved that night, but the meeting ran its proper course.
So Paul receives a letter or a report from our church. What does it say? Does it express good news or bad news? Does the report reflect a group of people seeking godly wisdom, or a group of people foolishly planting seeds of discord? Does the report speak of us serving one another, or of us expecting to be served? Does the report highlight selflessness, generosity and humility, or selfishness, stinginess and pride?
The letter has yet to be written. The paper before us is a blank sheet, as each day begins with empty stationary. Therefore, by our actions we dictate the kind of letter we write. Which letter do you want to send, “good news” or “bad news”? Which one will you begin writing today?
Which “wisdom” will you act on? Will you ask, “Am I wise? Am I demonstrating wisdom?”-the kind of godly, mature wisdom Paul talks about? It’s your choice. May God give us the wisdom to make the right choice.
1. Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 71-73.
2. All references in this sermon are taken from the New International Version.
3. See Rick Oster, 1 Corinthians, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), 79-84; these verses introduce a new section that goes to 3:4. Sandwiched between chapter one and chapter three’s discussion on unity is this discussion of wisdom. Wisdom is then defined by the turmoil in Corinth; thus the Corinthians were not wise.