In the middle of chapter 2 Paul abruptly veered into one of the most profound statements on preaching contained in Scripture, and it is hither I have been hastening, for this is the point I really want to get at.
After asserting that he determined to know nothing “save Christ and Him crucified” (2:2), Paul refuted the idea that his simple preaching lacked wisdom. Paul insisted that his preaching imparted wisdom, but only the mature understood it (v. 6). This wisdom is neither the wisdom of the world nor of the rulers of this world, but rather, this wisdom is a secret wisdom that is hidden in the counsels of God, a wisdom that God sovereignly decreed before the creation of the world, the wisdom that is the Logos, the everlasting Word of God.
The wisdom of the Greeks was the transient wisdom of a dying age. But the wisdom of the cross is the eternal wisdom that predates the world. Indeed, this wisdom not only predates the world, this is the wisdom that called the world into being. The world flowed out of this wisdom. One could say that this wisdom is not in the world, but the world is in this wisdom, for all things are held together by the eternal purpose and plan of God (v.7).
This mysterious and hidden wisdom could not be understood by the rulers of this age, for if they could have seen the purpose of God, they would not have fulfilled it (v.8). The wise of the world have not seen it with their eye, heard it with their ear, nor even imagined it in their heart. However—and this is where the drums should roll and the trumpets blare—God has revealed His secret wisdom to us!
Furthermore, God has revealed it to us by His Spirit, thus the wisdom of God cannot be known by the mind of man. To try and present God’s wisdom with human wisdom is futile. This is why Greek rhetoric could not do the job in the first century, and this is why weak, cross-less preaching will not get the job done today. You may grow a crowd, but you cannot build a church apart from the enlightenment of the Spirit.
True converts come into the church through the wisdom of the cross, and the wisdom of the cross can only be seen by the revelation of the Spirit. When we have succeeded in making the gospel acceptable to the unregenerate man, we have just succeeded in damning him to hell. That sort of sophistical preaching only inoculates unbelievers against the truth. The Spirit must reveal the wisdom of God or it will remain forever folly to those who are perishing (1:18).
Now, back to my text.
God has revealed His secret wisdom to us by His Spirit. But notice what Paul said next. This is something I have often overlooked: “For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (v.10). Or as the ESV renders it: “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” He then says, “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” (v.11). Or, again, the ESV: “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Quite literally Paul was saying that the Spirit of God within us searches out the secret counsels of God and reveals them to us.
Not only is this a powerful statement about the oneness of God, for the communion of the Holy Spirit with God is explained as how a man might commune with His own spirit (and yet he is still just one man), this is also an amazing statement about the intercession of the Spirit of Christ for us and how God has placed His Spirit within us to interpret the mind and will of God to us.
The Spirit of God within us “translates” God’s Word in a way we can understand. This is called revelation. The Spirit of God does not alter the content of God’s Word, but the Spirit within us—which is the Spirit of the Mediator, the man, Christ Jesus—opens our understanding so we may grasp by degrees the secret wisdom of God.
This is why human wisdom cannot explain God to skeptics: God must “explain” Himself! If we do not have the Spirit within us interpreting the voice of God to us, we cannot understand the Word. This is why it is so foolish to think that we can convert unbelievers to faith by the force of our “relevant” preaching. If God does not open their heart by the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, our feeble words are in vain.
Of course, I do not mean to say that God imparts revelation in a subjective and personal way apart from preaching. Not at all. Preaching is the vehicle of God’s revelation. For Paul went on the say, “Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” (v.13). And again, ESV: “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”In other words, Paul said that he learned the truth of God’s wisdom as the Spirit of God revealed it to him, and then he declared that truth in words that were taught to him by the Spirit of Christ. Then he concluded that this wisdom can only be conveyed to those who are themselves “spiritual.”
In this one verse Paul showed a three-fold process of prophetic impartation—or to put it plainly, how preaching must work on three levels if it is to work at all.
First of all, the Spirit must reveal the wisdom of God to the man of God, the preacher. These are the “which things also we speak.” Then, the Spirit must give the preacher words “which the Holy Ghost teacheth” so that the man of God may say it right. He cannot speak with words taught to him by human wisdom. He must speak as the Spirit leads him to speak.
This is what we call “the anointing.” The anointing first rests upon the man of God in his study during the preparation of the Word and then in the pulpit during the presentation of the Word. The preacher is anointed by the Spirit “to find out acceptable words” (Ecclesiastes 12:10) and to present them in a spiritually persuasive manner. And this manner will not be in conformance to the self-conscious, insecure methods of the worldly-wise.
But there is one final level to effective preaching, and this level must not be overlooked: we compare “spiritual things with spiritual.” Or, we interpret spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
And right here is where most pastors could just sit right down and cry. Every pastor has faced the frustration of trying to communicate spiritual wisdom to carnal people. It simply cannot be done. They will just sit and stare blankly, as my dad might say, like a mule looking at a new gate. It is not necessarily that they do not want to hear the Word, but they cannot hear the Word unless the Spirit within them interprets it for them.
This is why the congregation needs preparation for the hearing of the Word just as the preacher needs preparation for the preaching of the Word. And it is our job as preachers to promote this sort of preparation.
How do we do this? We do so first of all by explaining to the church their desperate need to be filled with the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ within them interprets to them what God is saying through the preaching. If we do not teach them this, our people will fall into the Corinthian trap of thinking that the natural man is able to grasp the spiritual things of God, and they will come to church as carnal as ducks. I am just as smart as the next man, they will say, and miss the point altogether that the smartest man in the room cannot understand the hidden wisdom of God if God does not reveal it to him. Preaching is pointless unless God makes the point.
Second, we prepare people to hear the Word by promoting prayer before service. When the people are taught to seek the Lord that He might reveal His Word to them, an amazing thing happens: God answers prayer! He gives bread to the hungry. If we shall ask, we shall receive. We cannot overemphasize the importance of preparation for preaching in prayer.
Third, if we are one of those rare preachers that actually preaches from the Bible, we should push our people very firmly to read the Bible! The vocabulary of the Spirit is Scripture, which is why so many people rarely hear God speak. If we would encourage Bible reading, especially public reading of Scripture—and I mean lengthy selections that actually get people familiar with their Bible—then we would encounter more than blank, eyes-glazed-over-are-you-done-yet? sort of response to preaching.
The bottom line is this: preaching cannot be effective unless it is Spirit empowered from the moment the Holy Ghost gives a word to the preacher, to the moment he steps to the pulpit to deliver that word, until the moment the congregation sitting in the pews feels the gentle urging of the Spirit to “consider what [he says] and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (II Timothy 2:7). It is all of the Spirit.
If our preaching is dull, we do not need to look to the world around us to see how to liven it up with better, more relevant methods. If we desire to build a ministry that lasts, a church that endures the storm, then we must call on God to “[send] forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6)!
Preachers today are facing a crisis of confidence, the ultimate test of our faith. Do we believe the gospel works? Do we trust in the Spirit of God to open the hearts of those whom He has called and chosen? Must we turn to the methods of the world in order to have effective preaching? Must we outsource the building of the church to the experts of the world? I think not. Jesus is still the only builder of the church, and we must be his wise master builders. But that leads us into chapter 3.