A Call to Repentance (1 Cor. 3:18-23)
Four key words sum up the problems Paul addresses in the church at Corinth:
(1) Divisions. There are divisions in the church at Corinth. Paul contends that there must be unity, for it is Christ alone who has saved us, and we who trust in Him are all one body. Paul reminds his readers that while leaders in the church may have different tasks to perform, all are engaged in the same cause.
(2) Leaders. The existing divisions had been made on the basis of personalities, those whom the Corinthians chose to follow as their leader, those to whom their followers belong. Paul is about to show that leaders are merely servants; those who think of themselves as “belonging” to a certain group need to be reminded that all the leaders in the church of our Lord belong to them, and not the reverse.
(3) Pride. The Corinthians boast in their leaders, in whom they take great pride. The Corinthians do not take pride in what they themselves are, or in what they are doing, but in the status and success of their leader. They are proud vicariously. Paul undermines and attacks human pride by pointing to the kind of people God generally excludes (the cultural elite), and those whom He includes (the weak, the foolish, the nobodies). The things of God are foolish to the world, and the things of the world are foolish to God. The gospel is not about the indulging of the flesh, but about the mortification of the flesh. The gospel spells death to human pride, for all that is worthy of praise is the work of God and not of men.
(4) Wisdom. Status in Corinth seems to be determined more on one’s intellectual standing than on one’s wealth. Those whose teaching is regarded highly by the secular community as being “wise” are most highly esteemed. The one who is highly skilled in speaking and persuasion is even more highly esteemed. Paul reminds his readers that divine wisdom is incomprehensible to the natural (lost, unsaved) man. Divine wisdom does not come from the great thinkers of this age. God reveals His wisdom through His Word and through His Spirit.
In chapter 3, Paul comes right to the heart of the matter. The problem in Corinth is not Paul’s problem, but the problem of the Corinthian saints. Paul is unable to speak God’s wisdom to the Corinthians because they are too immature, too unspiritual (“carnal”) to handle it. The Corinthians’ carnality is evident in their inability to handle teaching and doctrine which has not been predigested by someone for them (“milk”). Indeed, even the “milky” truths are looked upon with scorn, because they seem so elementary and simplistic. Not only is the carnality of the Corinthians evident in their spiritual appetite (and digestion), it is evident in the factions which exist in the church, factions centered upon certain leaders.
Up to verse 18 of the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has “laid a foundation” for his bottom line, which begins at verse 18. For the first time, Paul calls upon his readers to do something, to change something. The key word is the word “let” (3:18, 21; 4:1). His readers are challenged to stop deceiving themselves and to become fools (3:18). They are to cease boasting in men. They are to look upon Paul and his fellow-apostles in a new way (4:1f.). Our focus in this lesson is the final verses (18-23) of chapter 3.
Verses 18-23 are a call to repentance. Although the word “repent” is not found in these verses, the concept of repentance is very clear. To repent is to turn around or to change one’s mind. Paul calls for the Corinthians to change their thinking and their actions regarding wisdom and regarding their leaders. The errors so prevalent in the Corinthian church are just as evident in the church in our day as they were to Paul so long ago. Let us listen to Paul to see how we must repent if we are to be truly spiritual.
18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.”
The Corinthians are an arrogant and conceited bunch, who take great pride in their wisdom, a fact which becomes increasingly clear in this epistle (see 4:6-10). Paul’s first words in verse 18 must sting, for he addresses the Corinthians as self-deceived. To keep on as they are thinking and behaving, the Corinthians prove themselves to be unwise—indeed to be downright foolish—at least in the sight of God.
Paul calls upon us to “fess up” to our error, to acknowledge that by thinking ourselves to be wise, we are foolish and self-deceived. He instructs us to forsake “wisdom” and to embrace “folly”; in so doing we will be wise. We find our Lord employing a similar kind of argument in the Gospels.
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. 26 “For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Paul is not telling us that every foolish person is really wise. Neither is he calling upon us to forsake every kind of wisdom but a certain kind of wisdom. He is not requiring us to become foolish in every sense of the term, but to become foolish in a particular sense. We can only understand what Paul means here in context. The one who “thinks himself wise in this age” is proud and takes pride in the wisdom of this age, rather than in the wisdom of God. To become truly wise—wise as God views wisdom, wise in those divine and eternal matters which God reveals through His Word and His Spirit—we must forsake worldly wisdom and embrace what the world regards as folly. In simple terms, we must become foolish by embracing the simplistic and “foolish” truths of the gospel, of apostolic doctrine, of Christ crucified. We must embrace that which the world has rejected as foolish.
The Corinthians had been saved by believing the “foolish” message proclaimed by Paul, the message that Jesus Christ died on the cross of Calvary for our sins, and was buried and then raised from the dead, ascending into heaven and being seated at the right hand of God. They had been saved by the preaching of Christ crucified when Paul came in weakness, fear, and much trembling, proclaiming the simple truths of the gospel in a straightforward fashion. Since Paul’s departure, some saints have begun to look down upon Paul, his message, and his methods. They are being tempted to follow others whose message has a worldly appeal, messengers whose style is eloquent and impressive.
Paul now calls upon the Corinthians to repent, to change their minds, and to turn around. Once again, as after their salvation, they are to regard the world’s wisdom as folly, and God’s folly (the gospel, the preaching of Christ crucified) as true wisdom. They must admit their folly and turn back to the gospel as first proclaimed by Paul, and later confirmed and corroborated by Apollos and others.
Paul now cites two Old Testament passages as proof texts to show that worldly wisdom is folly and that God’s “folly” (in the eyes of the world) is true wisdom. The first quotation is from the Book of Job: “For it is written, ‘He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness’” (verse 19b; see Job 5:3). This quotation is most interesting. These are the words of Eliphaz, one of Job’s “friends.” Paul quotes a man who is later rebuked by God for being wrong: “And it came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has’” (Job 42:7).
How can Paul cite these words as a proof text? Eliphaz, like his friends, was not wrong in what he said about God; he was wrong in how he applied this truth to Job. Eliphaz was accusing Job of being “crafty,” and thus explained Job’s sufferings as divine judgment for sin. This was not the case (see Job 1:1, 8). God does trip up the wicked by employing their own cunning (wisdom) to be the means of their downfall:
16 For their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed blood. 17 Indeed, it is useless to spread the net In the eyes of any bird; 18 But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. 19 So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors… 29 Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the Lord. 30 “They would not accept my counsel, They spurned all my reproof. 31 “So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way, And be satiated with their own devices. 32 “For the waywardness of the naive shall kill them, And the complacency of fools shall destroy them (Proverbs 1:16-19, 29-32).
The “wise” of this age are not so smart after all. God allows the wise to carry out their schemes, but He employs their cunning schemes (their wisdom) to bring about their own downfall. The gallows which proud Haman built, on which he planned to hang Mordecai, became the very instrument by which the king ended Haman’s life. In the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees deemed themselves to be “wise” in the interpretation of the Old Testament. In their “wisdom,” the scribes and Pharisees orchestrated the crucifixion of our Lord. This cunning, which resulted in the crucifixion of Christ, also resulted in the guilt and condemnation of these leaders, unless of course they repented and acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah.
Do you see why Paul can use this verse to undergird his point that the world’s wisdom is really folly? Eliphaz thought himself wise. He, in his “wisdom,” appointed himself as Job’s counselor. Eliphaz was dealing with Job as though he (Job) were foolish and needed to wise up. The truth was that Eliphaz became the illustration of the very truth he misapplied toward Job. Eliphaz was tripped up by his own wisdom.
The second quote Paul employs comes from the Psalms: “And again, ‘The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless’” (verse 20; see Psalm 94:11). It is interesting that the Psalm actually reads: “The Lord knows the thoughts of man, That they are a mere breath.” Paul’s citation is significant in that it varies slightly at two points. First, Paul exchanges the word “wise” for the word “man.” In the context of the Psalm, it becomes clear that the unbelieving man thinks himself wise, when he is really foolish (see verses 2, 4, 8). And so the reasonings or thoughts of unsaved man are the reasonings of one who thinks himself wise. Second, Paul uses the rendering “useless,” while the translators of the Psalm use the expression “mere breath.” The thoughts of arrogant (wise) men are futile, or useless, because they are temporal rather than eternal. Man’s thoughts are restricted to “this age” and God’s thoughts are eternal. Man’s thoughts, even if true in this age, are not true in the next. They pass away. Merely temporal truths are thus “useless” truths, so far as eternity is concerned.
Paul has shown us why the pursuit of worldly wisdom is foolish. Worldly wisdom is merely temporal; it will not last. Man’s reasonings are useless so far as eternity is concerned. But man’s reasonings are not just useless; they are destructive. They not only lead us astray, but actually become the means of tripping us up, of causing us to stumble. Man’s wisdom is destructive. It is no wonder that we should forsake worldly wisdom, and pursue the wisdom of God which comes through the Word and the Spirit.
21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.
Paul now calls for a second act of repentance, closely linked with the forsaking of worldly wisdom. We are instructed to forsake boasting in men. There is no question but that the Corinthians boast in their leaders, in the men to whom they belong:
Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12).
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:4).
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6).
The situation in Corinth is neither new or novel. Throughout history, men have found their “identity” or “significance” in groups. They take pride in belonging to a certain group, a certain leader. We see this in the gangs which roam the streets, and in the young people who kill innocent, unknown victims just to be accepted by the gang. Cults are another example of the same problem. Certain charismatic (in personality, not necessarily in theology) leaders attract a following of people who need a sense of identity, of belonging. Some of these followers will believe anything they are taught and do anything they are told by their leader. Their pride is not in themselves, per se, but in the one leader they have chosen to follow above all others. These people become proud and arrogant, and they boast in a mere man—their leader.
Paul pulls the rug out from under this practice in verses 18-20 by proving the “wisdom of men” to be folly. If we turn away from the wisdom of men and embrace the foolishness of Christ crucified, we will surely cease to boast in these “wise” men. These men in whom the Corinthians boast are revered for the worldly wisdom they teach. Now, if their teaching is shown not only to be worthless, but destructive, these men lose their attraction.
But this is the reason Paul has already supplied. When he calls upon his readers to cease boasting in men in verse 21, he gives yet another reason for doing so: “For all things belong to you…” What does Paul mean when he tells us that all things are ours—and how does this undermine boasting in men? Let us seek to understand what Paul is telling us, for it is a significant part of his “bottom line” in these verses.
Let’s go back—way back—in the Bible to identify some crucial differences between true wisdom, God’s wisdom, and that which is false. True wisdom, as Paul indicates in 2:10-16, is that which God has revealed in the Scriptures, and continues to illuminate through His Spirit. God’s wisdom is that which He has revealed. That which He has not revealed is outside the bounds of our “need to know,” and thus purposefully concealed from us.
When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, the “wisdom of God” was simple: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “hidden wisdom,” that which God indicated men were not to know. Satan virtually called God’s wisdom a lie, succeeding in getting Eve to seek that knowledge which was forbidden.
From the fall onward, true wisdom and false wisdom have been carefully distinguished. True wisdom is that which God has revealed in His Word; false wisdom is that which He has concealed: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
In the Book of Proverbs, both true and false wisdom are symbolized by a woman. False wisdom is portrayed by the imagery of a prostitute, the “strange woman.” True wisdom is personified by a noble woman, sometimes referred to as “dame wisdom.” Notice the contrast in Proverbs between these two women and the wisdom they offer to men. Madam Folly offers the naive young man a secret encounter:
1 My son, keep my words, And treasure my commandments within you.2 Keep my commandments and live, And my teaching as the apple of your eye. 3 Bind them on your fingers; Write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” And call understanding your intimate friend; 5 That they may keep you from an adulteress, From the foreigner who flatters with her words. 6 For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice, 7 And I saw among the naive, I discerned among the youths, A young man lacking sense, 8 Passing through the street near her corner; And he takes the way to her house, 9 In the twilight, in the evening, In the middle of the night and in the darkness. 10 And behold, a woman comes to meet him, Dressed as a harlot and cunning of heart. 11 She is boisterous and rebellious; Her feet do not remain at home; 12 She is now in the streets, now in the squares, And lurks by every corner. 13 So she seizes him and kisses him, And with a brazen face she says to him: 14 “I was due to offer peace offerings; Today I have paid my vows. 15 “Therefore I have come out to meet you, To seek your presence earnestly, and I have found you” (Proverbs 7:1-15).
Madam Folly preys upon the naive. She “lurks,” for her work is not done in public. She seeks out the vulnerable and offers him an experience with the unknown. She appeals to his ego, flattering him until he surrenders, to his own destruction. This is not so with Dame Wisdom. She does her work in public. She publicly offers her wisdom to any who will receive it. She does not flatter; instead, she speaks to those who need her as “fools” and those who are “naive.” She offers truth, and a truth which leads to fullness of life:
1 Does not wisdom call, And understanding lift up her voice? 2 On top of the heights beside the way, Where the paths meet, she takes her stand; 3 Beside the gates, at the opening to the city, At the entrance of the doors, she cries out: 4 “To you, O men, I call, And my voice is to the sons of men. 5 “O naive ones, discern prudence; And, O fools, discern wisdom. 6 “Listen, for I shall speak noble things; And the opening of my lips will produce right things. 7 “For my mouth will utter truth; And wickedness is an abomination to my lips. 8 “All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; There is nothing crooked or perverted in them. 9 “They are all straightforward to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge. 10 “Take my instruction, and not silver, And knowledge rather than choicest gold. 11 “For wisdom is better than jewels; And all desirable things can not compare with her” (Proverbs 8:1-11).
When our Lord presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah, we should not be surprised that He did so by publicly teaching (as in the Sermon on the Mount). He did not seek to gain followers on the fringes of Judaism, but He went to Jerusalem and taught in the temple. He engaged the teachers and leaders of the nation, and showed their teaching to be in error.
Paul and the apostles taught publicly on the teaching of divine wisdom. As he traveled from city to city, the first place he went was the synagogue, where he began to proclaim Christ crucified. It is true that unbelievers did not grasp or accept his message, but this was because they were blind, not because Paul was being secretive or vague. While Paul and the other apostles proclaimed the Word of God openly, the false teachers specialized in the unknown or in the obscure. They gained their reputation and following by teaching what was new and novel, and the reason was that it was not true, and it was not wise. But it did appeal to many of the unsaved.
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”— because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) (Acts 17:16-21).
As we read the epistles of Paul and Peter, we find that the church was constantly plagued by false teaching, and this teaching concentrated on the vague and the unknown. It focused on what God has not spoken, rather than on what He has revealed:
3 As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, 4 nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. 5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7 wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-7).
7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).
3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. 6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment (1 Timothy 6:3-6).
3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
16 As also in all his [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).
Now, in the light of what we know about false teaching and false teachers, let us seek to grasp what Paul is saying to us in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23. False teachers, in order to draw a personal following, must teach “truth” unique to them, which is not being taught by others. They must have a distinctive message. This message cannot be the gospel, or the apostles’ doctrine, because every Christian teacher would teach these truths. They must teach a “higher” truth, a truth which results from speculative teaching on obscure issues. These matters appeal to the curiosity of some. In gaining this “inside information,” the followers of such a leader consider their understanding of truth above that of the rest. It allowed men to become proud and to look down on others, like Paul. Whatever novel truth a given teacher emphasized, he alone would be the source of that truth. No wonder the Corinthians take pride in men. Their spiritual “gurus” are finding all kinds of “truth” which others do not, and (due to their ignorance and inferior teaching) cannot see. The only way to be in this inner circle of “truth,” this gnostic (from the word “to know”) cult, is to “belong” to the group, especially to its leader.
But suppose there is no such thing as the “truth” these false teachers peddle so persuasively? Suppose, as Paul has just indicated in verses 18-20, that this “worldly wisdom” of the false teachers is really worthless and destructive? What appeal do these leaders have now? None! The church does not have an exclusive “inner circle” of the informed and an “outer circle” of the ignorant. The truth of God (like wisdom in Proverbs) is proclaimed to all, and all are urged to embrace that truth. The truth belongs to every believer. Indeed, the teachers (if they are teachers of divine wisdom) belong to the whole body. Teachers do not own their followers; the saints own their teachers, each and every one of them!
A word of explanation may be helpful at this point. In the text, the different teachers to whom Paul refers in verse 22 are all apostolic leaders. These are not false teachers at all. That is correct. But in verse 6 of chapter 4, Paul indicates that these well known and highly regarded leaders are being used symbolically to refer to other unnamed leaders. As Paul’s teaching in his Corinthian Epistles continues, it becomes increasingly clear that a number of these cultic leaders are false apostles, false teachers, who are seeking to lead men astray from the truth (see Acts 20:28-32; 1 Corinthians 14:37; 15:31-38; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2; 11:12-15). I have gone beyond Paul’s immediate meaning, because it is all too clear where he is going. In these early chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul already sees the divisions in the church as the seed bed of heresy, and so it will be.
It is not just the teachers who belong to the Corinthians. In verse 22, Paul moves on from “Paul,” “Apollos,” and “Cephas” to a larger category, that of “all things” (verse 21): “For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” In what sense do “the world,” “life or death,” “things present or things to come” belong to us? What does Paul mean by these words?
D. A. Carson, an excellent scholar, poses this explanation:
The five things that follow “Paul or Apollos or Cephas” represent the fundamental tyrannies of human life, the things that enslave us, the things that hold us in bondage … The world squeezes us into its mold (compare Rom. 12:1-2). It demands so much of our attention and allegiance that we seldom devote thought and passion to the world to come … Similarly, this present life clamors to be treated as if it were worthy of ultimate respect … And at the end of this life there is only … death, which hovers over us, the ultimate specter … Thus the constant urgency of the present and … the vague promises and threats of the future combine to divert our attention away from the God who holds both the present and the future in his hands.46
Carson’s interpretation has much to commend it. I would take a slightly different slant, but one that does not really contradict his explanation. Paul’s words here are not unique to the New Testament, for he has used several of them elsewhere:
37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39).
In Romans 8, Paul is trying to be all-inclusive. He is seeking to convince us that there is absolutely nothing which can separate us from the love of God. “Death and life” and “things present and things to come” are opposites, encompassing everything in between. I think Paul has the same general intent in 1 Corinthians 3. The “things” he lists are, no doubt, the things which seem to own us, or which would try to do so. They are also the things to which we can voluntarily belong by making them our master.
I see a link between the people and the things Paul lists together, which is the key to understanding his meaning. The Corinthians think their leaders are the one and only avenue through which “wisdom” and the “things” (the content of their teaching or wisdom) they want can be obtained. False teachers appeal to the flesh by offering people what they want (see 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 2 Peter 2 and 3). These vulnerable saints think the only way they can get what they want is through their leaders, so they gladly belong to them. Paul is saying that all true teachers belong to the saints already. All of God’s revealed truth, His revealed wisdom, belongs to the whole church, not some elite group of knowers (gnostics). Besides this, all things belong to the saints. No one has a “corner on the market” of what God has for His own. They are owned by all of His children, and accessible to all as well. The wisdom teachers of this age have nothing to offer the saint, nothing with which to tempt him. Forsaking true wisdom to pursue false wisdom is like forsaking your place as a son of the world’s richest man to live with a homeless beggar, who says he knows the key to obtaining wealth. Does this sounds a little like the prodigal son?
How are all these “things” ours? Why do we possess “all” things? It is not due to our wisdom, to our social standing, to our status. It is the result of belonging to Christ. We belong to Christ, Paul reminds us, and Christ belongs to God (verse 23). Since all things belong to God, we possess them in Christ. How foolish the thinking of the Corinthians is! They are looking upon the simple teaching of Christ crucified as shallow and elementary. They are beginning to seek “wisdom” and “standing” in mere men, and in the wisdom of this world. That wisdom is worthless and destructive. God’s wisdom and wealth has been provided for us in Christ. To forsake Christ is to become poor and foolish, even though we consider ourselves rich and wise (see Revelation 3:14-22). Being rooted and grounded and growing in Christ is being truly wise and truly rich:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).
1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf, and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:1-3).
As I conclude my messages, I usually focus on application. I will do so in this message as well. But let us not lose sight of the fact that this text is Paul’s application. These verses are Paul’s bottom line, his way of indicating what we should do with what he has taught us. What then has Paul instructed us to do? Basically, he has called on us to repent, to change our minds regarding wisdom and men. We are to cease taking pride in the wisdom of men, in the wisdom of this age. We are to regard the wisdom of this age as folly. We are to embrace God’s wisdom which the world regards as folly. We are to return to the simple message of the gospel—the message of Christ crucified—as the wisdom of God and the foundation for our ministry.
I fear that we do not distinguish sharply enough between the two “wisdoms” before us that call upon us to believe and to act according to their doctrine. The Book of Proverbs makes it clear that such a distinction is not only valid, it is imperative. The Book of James makes the same strong distinction:
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:14-18).
In his excellent book, entitled, God in the Wasteland, David F. Wells makes a strong distinction between these two wisdoms. He sums up this distinction in this paragraph:
There are, then, two opposing ways of thinking about the world that can be found in the West today. The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding of the natural is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the senses can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent. The one indiscriminately celebrates diversity; the other seeks to understand life’s diversity in the light of its unity. The one can go no further than intuition; the other pierces through to truth. The one presumes that everything changes and that change is the only constant; the other measures the things that change by the standard of things that are changeless. The one looks only to the shifting contents of human consciousness, which differ from one individual to the next; the other holds the individual consciousness up for comparison to the larger realms of meaning in which are rooted those things that are common to all human nature. The one acknowledges no ultimate certainties; the other places the highest value on ultimate certainties. All of these differences arise from the simple fact that the one perspective receives its meaning from God and the other does not.47
First Paul calls on us to renounce the secular wisdom of this age and to view life through the divine wisdom which God provides through His Word and His Spirit. This does not say that Christians should not be deeply engaged in the search for knowledge and truth. It does say that for the Christian, wisdom begins with God and ends with Him. As the writer of the proverb says, “There is no wisdom and no understanding And no counsel against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30). When we study nuclear physics, astronomy, or computer science, we begin with the foundation which God has laid. We test all claims to truth by the standard of God’s truth, the Word of God. When divine wisdom contradicts human knowledge, we know which to question and which to trust.
Too many Christians are seeking truth in the opposite direction. They begin with human understanding and reasoning, and then look to the Bible for an illustration or a proof text. The wisdom of God is the foundation on which all of our building should take place, and the standard for all that we think and do. Let us carefully consider the vast differences between divine wisdom and the wisdom of this age. Let us beware of placing our trust or our pride in the wisdom of men; let us embrace the wisdom of God, knowing that it alone is true wisdom.
The second area of repentance which Paul calls for is the change of mind and action which characterizes us in terms of our boasting in men. The wisdom of men is foolish and destructive. The wisdom of God belongs to all the saints, and it is not mediated to us by any one man who is the key to certain knowledge unknown and unknowable to others. All truth belongs to us, and all those who teach the truth of God belong to us, the saints. We do not belong to our teachers; they belong to us. We do ourselves a great disservice by devoting ourselves to only one human leader.
Jesus made it clear that men are not to usurp the position and the prerogatives which are His alone (Matthew 23:1-12). Jesus did not choose one apostle, but twelve. He did not instruct the church to have only one leader, but a plurality of leaders known as elders. The position of “pastor,” as it is practiced today, is unknown to the New Testament writers. We find churches today structured in a way that directly contradicts the teaching of Paul—churches established on the basis of allegiance to one man.
Men are exalted in other ways above and beyond that which they should be. Those of us who teach the Scriptures often use Greek, Hebrew, and theological terms in a way which sends an entirely wrong message: that no one can study or teach the Scriptures who has not learned Hebrew, Greek, and theology. So we have a whole congregation of people who feed on “milk,” the truth processed and delivered by the preacher, but who cannot chew on any meat of the Word themselves. We often seek to develop leadership in the same ways the world does, and we honor those who gather a personal following. We sanctify this by saying, “A leader is one who has followers.” A biblical leader is a man who, in obedience to God’s direction and calling, leads. He may or may not have many followers. Jesus did not have many followers in the end, and neither did Paul. We must not judge “leaders” by how many people follow them.
Certain practices and teachings in the church of our time should be carefully thought through in the light of Paul’s teaching in our text. One of the current buzz words in leadership circles is “mentoring.” We should be very careful that mentoring does not degenerate into “mentoring” We are not to train men to become followers of men. We are to teach and encourage men and women to be followers of Christ. How easy it is in the name of mentoring to violate Paul’s instructions to us from our text. “Accountability” is another popular concept, which can easily be distorted into an undue attachment and devotion to a mere man.
Finally, Paul’s words should cause us to see the folly of following one man to the neglect (and even rejection) of others. How easy it is to find our identity and our status linked with one person. When we do this, divisions arise within the church of our Lord. I am not a charismatic Christian, but I do think we might learn some things from good, solid charismatic teaching and practice. Likewise, charismatics could gain by learning from us. Pre-tribulational thinkers could learn some things from the “post-tribbers,” and vice-versa. Arminians could learn much from those of us who are Calvinists, and we may learn some things from them. Isolating ourselves to the point where our identity is summed up by one person, or one perspective, deprives us of the wealth God has for each of us. “All” things are ours. Let us learn from many of those gifted to teach, and not just one or a few. We can learn through radio, tapes, and reading, as well as by a broader contact with believers. Let us make use of the vast wealth God has given to us in Christ.
The teaching of our text poses two extremes of which we should repent. The first extreme is that of going too far afield, seeking truth from human wisdom, when we should search for it in the Word of God. The second extreme is in being too narrow, in limiting ourselves to but one leader, one perspective, one source of wisdom. May God keep us from these extremes, and enable us to seek true wisdom as taught in the Scriptures and expounded by a large number of those whom God has gifted to teach and to lead us.
“There is an exquisite compass of vision here that is tragically lost when all of our Christianity means nothing more than ‘finding fulfillment’ or seeking personal peace or—worse yet—identifying with the ‘right’ party or Christian guru. We are God’s, and that transforms everything. If we truly understand this, there are no tyrannies left. We will want all that God has for us, both in this life and in the life to come. And that means we will never reduce the God-sized dimensions of biblical Christianity to all that can be embraced by just one Christian teacher or worker, no matter how able or wise. Factionalism is utter folly. Not only does it hurt the church, it impoverishes all those who embrace it, for it cuts them off from the wealth of the heritage that rightly belongs to all the children of God.”48
“If leaders are too greatly elevated in the popular mind, they can do almost anything, and large numbers of their followers will trail along unquestioningly. We marvel how many educated Germans followed Adolf Hitler without protest; we marvel how many religious people followed Jim Jones to their death. But examples that are not so extreme may be more difficult to detect. It is possible so to lionize some Christian leader that we start making excuses for his or her serious, perhaps even catastrophic, faults. What we must remember is that the leaders are no more than servants. Meanwhile, God loves his church, and he holds accountable those who seek to build the church.”49
“What might this mean for us today, in practical terms? … But it does mean that if you are, say, a Lutheran, you must not cut yourself off from what is right and good in the Wesleyan, Reformed, charismatic, Anabaptist, and other lines. (And of course, I could have rephrased that sentence in any combination.) At the local church level, it will not do to lionize one particular leader (preferably recently retired or deceased!) at the expense of all the others. Ultimately, to do so is to assign him or her almost tyrannical powers. Not only does it breed factionalism, it ignores the vast heritage and wealth that are ours simply because we are Christians and we belong to God. And, in the sense already expressed, what belongs to God belongs to us. Must we have fights over church music? We should have the best, the most God-centered, the most truthful, the most edifying. But must it all be in one style? Is there nothing to be gained from wide exposure to the company of saints in many parts of the world who have expressed their adoration of the Savior with richness of hymnody we can never exhaust, but which we ignore to our detriment?”50
46 D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker Books [Inter-Varsity Press], 1993), pp. 86-87.
47 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), p. 45.
48 Carson, p. 88.
49 Carson, p. 82.
50 Carson, p. 89.