Greek wisdom vs. God’s wisdom
The ancient Greeks are still renowned today for their philosophers. Names such as Plato and
Aristotle are familiar to many people, and their works continue to be read and studied. Their thought
had great influence on the development of western civilisation. The word 'philosophy' means the
love of wisdom, 'sophia' being the Greek word for wisdom. The Greeks gave great respect and
honour to wisdom and learning. Athens was the centre of education and learning, but they were also
important in Corinth. Luke's comment about the philosophers in Athens is quite revealing: "Now all
the Athenians and the foreigners there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something
new" (Acts 17:21). Many in the church in Corinth also had a love of wisdom and words, but later in
the book it comes apparent that they were not always so concerned about the importance of a godly
In the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul shows the great contrast between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom. The more intellectual people in the church in Corinth claimed to be wise and boasted of their wisdom and knowledge, but Paul shows that the wisdom of the world does not lead to knowledge of God. It is impossible to come to know God through human wisdom, as human wisdom has no power to save anyone. “In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe” (1:21). Paul makes a strong contrast between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the cross. The Corinthians were impressed with words of wisdom and new ways of thinking, but Paul was impressed only with the cross. To the lost, the message of the cross is foolishness (1:18), but it is the only thing that can save us, it is the power of God (1:19).
In this first section of the book, Paul redefines what true wisdom is. Wisdom is not the Greek
idea of lofty words or clever thoughts, but God’s wisdom is the Gospel, Christ crucified, the power of
God for salvation (Rom 1:16). The Gospel is the only message in the world that can change people
from the inside. However, to unbelievers, particularly Gentiles, those who are perishing, the message
of the cross is foolishness (1:18, 23). On many occasions during his ministry, Paul’s message of the
cross was met with scoffing or ridicule (Acts 17:32), and this still regularly happens today.
God’s wisdom has been supremely shown through the cross. God chose to use what was foolish in the eyes of the world to shame the wise (1:27), because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (1:25). Also, he chose what was weak in the eyes of the world to shame the strong, because God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. The reason for God to do things this way is that no one can boast before him (1:29). If God could be found through human wisdom and knowledge, then those who found him that way would be perfectly right to boast about their achievement. Instead the Gospel is the great leveller. Before God, all of humanity is in the same state, being condemned as sinners. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Mankind can only be saved through the grace of God, no amount of knowledge or wisdom can be of any help.
According to Paul in the book of Romans, to reject God’s general revelation through creation
is folly (Rom 1:18-23). Although people claim to be wise, they actually become futile in their
thinking and are described as fools, because the consequence of rejecting God is to turn to the
worship of idols, worshipping the creation, rather than the Creator.
Paul describes God’s wisdom as a secret or mystery (2:7), revealed through his Spirit (2:10). True wisdom cannot be found by people looking for it in their own strength or study. True wisdom ultimately only comes through revelation from God. In Paul’s writing, especially in Ephesians and Colossians, a mystery is not something weird or strange, or some truth only given to a select few, but is a truth that was previously hidden, that has now been revealed by God. In the times of the OT, the message of the Gospel, of Jesus himself and his death and resurrection, and the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God was hidden, or veiled, but it was made clear through Christ (Eph 3:3-6, Col 1:26-27, 2:2). Although there were many predictions of it through the prophets, these truths were hidden from human understanding until revealed by God. Through Jesus, and in the NT, the truth of the Gospel is now made clear, available to all. Paul later spoke about the mind of the Jews being hardened, and the veil over their minds that prevents them from seeing the glory of Christ is only removed through the power of the Spirit when they turn to the Lord (2 Cor 3:12-18).
The Gospel is not merely another form of human wisdom. It is not just a belief system, or teaching that people need to understand. Ultimately the Gospel needs to be supernaturally revealed to people. The job of the church is to preach the Gospel, and the job of each believer is to be a witness to tell others about the salvation available through Jesus. But we need to trust that the Holy Spirit will be working in the lives and minds of people listening, to open their eyes to see the truth. For today, it is all to easy for the church to be impressed or threatened by the latest theories of human wisdom or scientific theory. We need to be more impressed with the power of the Gospel, as Paul himself was, saying, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” (Rom 1:16). We need to have confidence that the revelation of God we have in his Word, the Bible, is the ultimate truth.
Greek teachers of wisdom
In first century Greece there were many teachers and philosophers called 'sophists', from the Greek word 'sophia', meaning wisdom. These sophists would be based in different centres of education. Others would travel to different cities. They would have letters of introduction from cities they previously visited, which they displayed when they arrived in a new city. After a public speech and demonstration of their skills of rhetoric, a good teacher would be recognised by the city and invited to debate in the public assembly, or 'ekklesia'. (This is the same Greek word that is used for 'church'). They would be given honours, which may be a public inscription and a gold crown, or even have a statue erected in their honour. Paul refers to the sophists when he asked where is the debater of this age (1:20). These sophists were the social elite of Greece, and controlled university level education, training the next generation of intellectual leaders and those destined for high public positions. There was great competition among parents to find the best sophist to train their sons.
Each teacher would have a group of pupils who were called 'disciples'. Many years before Christ they used the same word that was used for disciples of Jesus in the NT. Otherwise their pupils were called 'zealots', showing their exclusive loyalty to their teacher. They would name themselves after their teachers or their school of teaching. They would imitate their teaching style, including their speech, the way they dressed and even the way they walked, making themselves as much like their teacher as possible. They would boast about the merits of their teacher, and criticise the failings of other teachers, creating a very competitive and quarrelsome spirit between teachers. Sometimes the sophists would shout and abuse one another, while their disciples were fighting against the rival group of disciples.
A very high value was placed on how the teacher spoke. They had to be eloquent, using long words and fluent speech, and be skilful in their use of Greek argument, called rhetoric. Listeners often placed greater emphasis on how they spoke than on what they said. A good teacher also had to have the right bodily presence, looking like a Greek god. His body had to be perfect, without blemish. They would earn money from their teaching. Potential disciples would pay large fees to learn from a teacher, and better teachers would earn more money! Only a very inferior teacher would have to work with their hands to earn money, as manual labour was considered most degrading.
Consequences in church
Some of the Corinthian believers had serious questions about Paul, and some were beginning to challenge his authority as an apostle. This problem became worse by the time 2 Corinthians was written, when many had become hostile to Paul’s authority. When compared with a Greek teacher or sophist, Paul did not really match up very well. Many in the church did not consider Paul was truly 'spiritual'. He was not a good speaker, and did not use Greek rhetoric. Paul himself said that his speech and proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom (2:4). He was criticised by some who said that his bodily presence was weak and his speech contemptible (2 Cor 10:10). The fact that he refused to accept money from them (ch 9), would suggest to a Greek that he was not a very good teacher. Also no teacher of any quality would degrade himself by working with his hands as Paul did (Acts 18:3). Paul did not have the perfect god-like bodily presence of a Greek teacher. By this time in his ministry he had been beaten up several times, and would have carried the scars and marks of his suffering on his body. At the end of Galatians he says, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Gal 6:17), probably a reference to his scars from his persecutions. A non-canonical document called the Acts of Paul gives this description of him: “And he saw Paul coming, a man little of stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace: for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel”. (Acts of Paul 2:3). This is very different from a description of a god-like Greek teacher, but captures something special about the apostle Paul, which must be the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life, something which is not at all dependent on physical appearance.
Many in the church in Corinth were assessing and comparing Christian ministers and apostles in the same way as they were used to thinking about and assessing secular teachers (sophists). The Corinthians were comparing Paul with Apollos, who they considered to be more 'spiritual'. He was a better speaker and more skilled in Greek rhetoric. Paul had heard reports from Chloe’s people that different groups in the church were claiming allegiance to their favourite apostle: to Paul, or to Apollos, or to Peter, or even to Christ (1:11-12). In response, Paul said they were behaving according to the flesh (3:3), or being merely human (3:4), following human or secular ways, operating in the same way as the rest of Corinthian society. He also dismissed their behaviour as childish, when they claimed to be spiritual (3:1). By this he was referring to the jealousy and quarrelling going on in the church (3:3) and the divisions between the followers of different Christian leaders (1:12, 3:4). He warned them not to be puffed up in favour of one against another (4:6), probably referring to them favouring Apollos over himself. Paul said they were not ready for solid food, but still needed the milk (3:2). Perhaps some Corinthians thought that Apollos brought solid food, compared with the milk of Paul’s Gospel. It appears that some had requested that Apollos pay a return visit to Corinth (16:12). At the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians, Apollos had not been willing to return, perhaps because of the divisions in the church over him.
Some in the Corinthian church had been behaving in the same way as the disciples of secular sophists. They were making the same statements of loyalty (1:12), boasting about the merits of their apostle, and criticising the others. Paul specifically addresses their relationship with himself and Apollos, correcting their misunderstandings about Christian leaders. He makes several points which we should note, which provide valuable lessons for Christian leadership today, and our attitudes towards Christian leaders.
He changes the emphasis from status to function. Instead of looking at their status, skills, and
bodily presence as the Corinthians would do, he states that both Apollos and Paul are servants working together (3:5-9). Instead of saying “Who is Apollos?, Who is Paul?”, he asks “What is Apollos?, What is Paul?” Using an analogy from agriculture, Paul said that he planted the Gospel in Corinth, and Apollos watered it, but their roles were unimportant compared with God who actually gave the growth (3:7). Paul and Apollos had different functions, but both were equally important. They were working together in a team, rather than being opposed or in competition with each other (3:9). They are servants of God, who God sovereignly chose to use. He used a second analogy of a building, in which Paul laid the foundation and others (probably referring to Apollos) are building on it (3:10). He warns that the day of judgement will expose the quality of what was built on the foundation, when it is judged with fire (3:12-15). We should notice that the two analogies Paul uses here both involve physical work, agriculture and building, trades that would be despised by educated Greeks.
He also changes the order of ownership (3:21-22). The Corinthians were claiming to belong to their particular favourite apostle (1:12). Instead Paul teaches that the apostles, including Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, belong to the church, and the church belongs to Christ. Therefore they are not to boast about human leaders. Christ is the lord of the church, and all people, including leaders are to submit to his authority. He tells the Corinthians to think of Christian leaders in this way: “as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (4:1). Ultimately Christian leaders are servants of Christ, there to serve him and not to build their own empire or prestige. Being stewards, they are accountable to God (4:2), bringing the revelation of God to meet the spiritual needs of the people.
Paul also reminds them that when he first came to Corinth, he deliberately did not arrive as a
great sophist (2:1-5). He did not come with lofty words of wisdom, but preached Christ crucified. He
did not come to impress them with his words, but came in weakness and trembling. He did not want them to look to himself as the source of power or wisdom, but demonstrated the power of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God. This would inspire the Corinthian church to look to Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than to any human leader (2:5).
In his letter Paul never called the Corinthians his disciples. He declined to use the language associated with a Greek sophist. He normally addressed them using the family description of brothers
(eg. 2:1), showing their equality before Christ, or referred to himself as a father of his beloved
children in the church in Corinth (4:14-15). He also expressed that he was glad that he had not
baptised more than a few people, probably his first converts in Corinth (1:14-16). The Corinthian
believers probably boasted about who they had been baptised by, perhaps because it would be
considered somehow more spiritual to have been baptised by one of the apostles. He also refers to his
rejection, persecutions, and physical suffering. In contrast to the perfect body of the Greek sophist, he
is poorly clothed, beaten and homeless, and is weary with the work of his hands (4:11-12). Instead of
being highly respected, he refers to himself as the rubbish of the world (4:13). He develops this theme
of boasting in weaknesses and being a fool for Christ in his later letter (2 Cor 11). The main point he
is making is that the Gospel message is more important than the messenger that brings it. The treasure
of the Gospel is in clay jars (2 Cor 4:7), and God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9).
Boasting and arrogance was a major problem in the Corinthian church, as Paul refers to is on a
number of occasions in the letter. Evidently, some were boasting in the wisdom and spirituality, and
in Paul’s absence were promoting themselves into positions of authority in the church (4:18-19).