The Wisdom of Men and the Power of God

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A sermon delivered to Manhattan Monthly Meeting on First Day, 5/16/2010

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.3 And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. 4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: 5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
– 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (AV)

Do these words of Paul’s describe merely his own decision about how to declare the testimony of God? Or do they stand as an advice for all of us? And – was it even his decision, or something forced on him by necessity?

When we read about Paul’s mission to Corinth in the Acts of the Apostles we see that it started out messy and chaotic: after meeting up with a couple of exiled Roman Jews who were to become his close friends, Paul went to the local synagogue, preaching to the Jews there that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah. He did convince the ruler of the synagogue, whom he later baptized, but the rest of the congregation seems to have thrown him out, and he shouted back at them, “your blood be on your own heads; from now on I will go to the gentiles!” (Acts 18:6) No doubt he then went to the gentiles of Corinth severely shaken, “in weakness, and fear, and in much trembling,” not at all sure that they could give his gospel a fair hearing.

For he had just been laughed out of the public forum in Athens for teaching that God had raised Jesus from the dead (17:32), after having been arrested and imprisoned in Philippi (16:19-24), mobbed in Thessalonica (17:5-9) and hunted down in Beroea (17:10-14). Was Paul’s declaring himself “determined not to know anything” among the Corinthians “except Jesus crucified” a way of saying that he was now going to play it safe and preach a “minimum gospel” that would spare him personal difficulties?

No, I think Paul’s decision not to rely on human wisdom was a divinely guided decision, and in no way a self-protective one. Moreover, it stands for all time as a model of how to preach the gospel: “not with wisdom of words,” as Paul writes (1 Cor. 1:17), “lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect,” or as the New Jerusalem Bible has it, “wise words which would make the cross of Christ pointless.”

Let me translate this: tell people that their eternal well-being depends on the work done by Jesus Christ on the cross plus their own human cleverness, and what will they depend on? Their own human cleverness. Because we’re programmed to rely on our own human cleverness. Besides, as Paul saw, the cross of Christ makes no sense to our everyday human cleverness. Take human wisdom as our guide, and soon we’ll forget about this… mysterious cross, and we’ll measure our own readiness for heaven by the number of charitable works we do, brave acts of “speaking truth to power” or yogic feats of devotional concentration. Jesus will no longer appear as our Savior, in whom and through whom we achieve reunion with God, but will merely be our Great Role Model, forever friendly but forever separate from us. We’ll forever be individuated atoms, struggling our way through ignorance and scarcity and evil and mortality, in time learning how to be kinder or humbler or more resourceful at avoiding pain, but never healed of our aloneness, our sorrow, our fear, and our need for human wisdom to protect us. Human wisdom will never give us eternal life, never bring us back into the bosom of a God who will “wipe away all tears from our eyes” (Revelation 7:17, 21:4). Because human wisdom can only think in terms of differences, and separation, and personal advantage, and success at adapting means to ends. But the Eternal Omniscience cannot be anything like that: “as the heavens are higher than the earth,” saith the Lord, “ so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

Human wisdom! If I had to depend solely on human wisdom in preparing this message I’m bringing you, I’d first want ten years’ intensive training in psychological warfare techniques, and even then that wouldn’t guarantee that I’d succeed in persuading anyone of anything of value. Ever try to persuade a hungry baby to stop crying? Ever try to persuade an alcoholic to stop drinking, or a clinically depressed person to cheer up? For the first twenty-two years of my life no one could persuade me that there was a God, so why should I think I can reach inside your soul and flip a switch that will turn on your faith in God and make you see reality as I do?

So what did Paul do? He did use words, he did use speech, but he relied not on human wisdom but on “demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” God’s power. He had reason to trust God’s power; he’d been knocked down and struck blind by it (Acts 9:3-9), then healed by it (9:10-18), repeatedly saved from death (9:25, 30; 14:4-6, 19-20), and miraculously released from prison (16:19-40). By words from Paul’s mouth a sorcerer was struck blind (13:6-11) and a cripple made to leap and walk (14:8-10). Paul had now been called over to the Greek mainland from Asia by a vision (Acts 16:9-10), then reassured by another vision to speak confidently in Corinth, for, as the Lord told him, “I have much people in this city.” (18:9-10) Trusting the Lord to give him “a mouth, and wisdom” (Luke 21:15) appropriate to each occasion, Paul would have spoken just those words that his hearers needed to hear from his lips.

This is what George Fox was to call “answering that of God in other people,” but it is not Paul’s ego that originates the words, nor the hearer’s ego that receives them, but spirit speaking to spirit, the Divine Witness in the hearer discerning that it is the Divine Witness in Paul that speaks the message. Barclay’s Apology speaks of Quakers at worship “suffering God by his Spirit both to prepare people’s hearts and also give the preacher to speak what may be fit and seasonable for them” (Prop. XI, §III). Paul knows that this is not human wisdom expressing itself, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God… But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:11-14).

We return to the cross of Christ, which Paul preached. My natural man cannot grasp it. My ordinary human wisdom cannot understand how sinless Jesus’ faithful, obedient endurance of the cross, and His resurrection from the dead, made the Holy Spirit available to great numbers of ordinary people like me, which guides us moment by moment in a right and harmless path, makes possible both repentance unto eternal life and the reconciliation of all things to God, gives us inward assurance that our sins are forgiven, and whispers that our awakening to God’s glorious presence is a mere moment away. Yet I trust that something in me knows all this, and something in you knows all this. This trust is our faith. If our faith must stand in the wisdom of man or not at all, then what fools we are to have it! But if our faith is a bud about to blossom into unspeakable knowledge of divine reality, standing in the power of God which cannot be shaken, how blessed are we! Let us give thanks to God Almighty, and to Jesus Christ who died and rose again for us, and let us say, as those apostles did (Luke 17:5), Lord, increase our faith.

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One Response to “The Wisdom of Men and the Power of God”

  1. Charles Martin Says:

    Dear Friend John:

    I found your sermon quite moving. It is so true that the Word was made flesh so that we can experience the living Spirit of Truth within. You are a blessing to us all. Thank you for your words.

    Thy Friend Charles

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