Four key words sum up the problems Paul addressed in the church at Corinth:
Divisions. There were divisions in the church at Corinth. Paul contended that there must be unity, for it was Christ alone Who has saved us. Chrisitans are all one body. Paul reminded his readers (then and now) that while leaders in the church may have different tasks to perform, all are engaged in the same cause.
Leaders. The existing divisions had been made on the basis of personalities. The Corinthians had chosen who to follow as their leader. Paul meant 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 Christ belong to them, and not the reverse.
Pride. The Corinthians boasted in their leaders, taking great pride in them. The Corinthians did not take pride in what they themselves were, or in what they were doing, but in the status and success of their leader. 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 indulging the flesh, but 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.
Wisdom. Status in Corinth seems to be determined more on one’s intellectual standing than on one’s wealth. Those whose teaching was highly regarded by the secular community as being “wise” were most highly esteemed. The one who was highly skilled in speaking and persuasion was even more highly esteemed. Paul reminds his readers (past and present) 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 was not Paul’s fault, but the problem of the Corinthian saints. Paul was unable to speak God’s wisdom to the Corinthians because they were too immature, too unspiritual (“carnal”) to handle it. The Corinthians’ carnality was evident in their inability to handle teaching and doctrine which had not been predigested by someone for them (“milk”). Indeed, even the “milky” truths were looked upon with scorn, because they seemed so elementary and simplistic. Not only was the carnality of the Corinthians evident in their spiritual appetite (and digestion), it was evident in the factions which existed in the church, factions centered upon certain leaders.
Up to 1 Corinthians 3:18, Paul “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.
Guard against self-deception, each of you. If someone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become foolish so that he can become wise. For the wisdom of this age is foolishness with God. As it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” And again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 1 Corinthians 3:18-20
The Corinthians were an arrogant and conceited bunch, who took great pride in their wisdom, which becomes increasingly clear as this letter continues. Paul’s first words in verse 18 must have stung, for he addressed the Corinthians as self-deceived. To keep on as they were thinking and behaving, the Corinthians proved themselves to be unwise—indeed to be downright foolish—at least in the sight of God.
Paul calls upon Christians of all time 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”, which will make us wise. Jesus employed a similar kind of argument in the Gospels (see Matthew 16:24-26)
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 had begun to look down upon Paul, his message, and his methods. They were being tempted to follow others whose message had a worldly appeal, messengers whose style was eloquent and impressive.
We tend to forget that Paul was a highly trained Jewish rabbi before his conversion to Christianity. He reminds both the Corinthians and us of this fact by employing 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. “For it is written, ‘He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness’” (verse 19b; see Job 5:3). These are the words of Eliphaz, one of Job’s “friends.” Paul quoted 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 (see 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 those leaders if they did not repent and acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah.
The second quote Paul employed 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 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). 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.
So then, no more boasting about mere mortals! For everything belongs to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:18-23
Paul instructed us to forsake boasting in men. There is no question but that the Corinthians boasted in their leaders, in the men to whom they belong (see 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:4; 1 Corinthians 4:6).
The situation in Corinth was 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 street gangs, the mob, the military and cults. Certain charismatic 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 necessarily, 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 as their leader.
Let’s take the Biblical Way-Back Machine to identify some crucial differences between true wisdom, God’s wisdom, and false “wisdom”.
When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, the “wisdom of God” was simple.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. Really, since that time, true wisdom is that which God has revealed in His Word and false wisdom is that which He has concealed (see Deuteronomy 29:29; Proverbs 7:1-15; 8:1-11).
When Jesus presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah, 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 Paul 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 (See Acts 17:16-21; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 1 Timothy 4:7; 1 Timothy 6:3-6; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 2 Peter 3:16)
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. Whatever novel truth a given teacher emphasized, he alone would be the source of that truth. No wonder the Corinthians took pride in men. Their spiritual “gurus” were finding all kinds of “truth” which others did not or couldn’t 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 indicated in verses 18-20, 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. And, yeah, I may be speaking to some churches that exist today.
According to Paul, 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. Teachers of God’s truth 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 were all apostolic leaders. You can’t really say they are false teachers. But in verse 6 of chapter 4, Paul indicated 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 letters continues, it becomes increasingly clear that a number of these cultic leaders were false apostles, false teachers, who were 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.
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.
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.
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 doesn’t say that Christians should not be deeply engaged in the search for knowledge and truth. It says 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.
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, was 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 what 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. Thus we have a whole congregation of people who feed on 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.” This is wrong. A Biblical leader is a man or woman who, in obedience to God’s direction and calling, leads. He may or may not have a lot of 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.” If that is pointing Christians to God’s truths, great, but we must not to train people to become followers of other people. We are to teach and encourage men and women to be followers of Christ. “Accountability” is another popular concept, which can easily be distorted into an undue attachment and devotion to a mere man. This is how our friend who inspired this series sought to lead other men astray – through “accountability”.
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 God. Although I do not speak in tongues, I think Baptists 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 Calvinists as well as the other way around. 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.