What Hinders Our Understanding God’s Truth?

Earlier in chapter one Paul mentions that the church had been having issues that caused divisions. Some were claiming to be of Paul, some followed Apollos, and still other Cephas or Christ. Having dealt with it briefly in the first chapter, Paul returns to it now in chapter three of 1 Corinthians.

With two homilies on the wisdom of God (in the cross and through the Spirit) firmly in place as a foundation, Paul is ready to take a second look at how his readers should see Paul, Apollos and Cephas.[1]

Ken Bailey summarizes what we’ve been through so concisely. Paul sees their issue and it isn’t just division. These divisions reveal a spiritual immaturity. Paul has to lay a groundwork for them to understand the wisdom of God and their actions impede such understanding. Paul says that he cannot address them as spiritual people, rather they are infants needing milk. Again Bailey is insightful here. It isn’t because the Corinthians are not smart enough that they can’t understand, it is because of their petty infightings and jealousies. Bailey writes that we tend to think that all it takes to acquire truth is “a good mind and a willingness to work hard… Paul disagrees.”[2]

When there is strife the people are acting merely human. Paul wants something more. He doesn’t want more praise or more followers for himself. He wants them to see Paul, Apollos, and Cephas for what they truly are. Once again from Bailey:

The Corinthians thought that when they declared themselves to be “of Apollos” or “of Paul” that they were making complimentary statements about their champions. No, replies Paul, be creating these divisions you are saying nothing about us–you are talking about yourselves, and what you are is not flattering! Do not imagine that we are pleased![3]

Beginning in verse five he begins to try to set them straight with two short parables.


  1. Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 120. ↩
  2. Bailey, 122. ↩
  3. Bailey, 123. ↩

We Only Teach What the Spirit Has Taught

Our reading this week had a great reminder for us all, and for me in particular given what I’ve busied myself with this last several days.

And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
1 Cor 2:13

The whole chapter emphasizes what we receive by the Spirit. What we know is not something we can boast in, nor is what we teach and pass on something that is of ourselves. It all is of the Spirit. I mentioned it is a nice reminder for me since I’m currently preparing both a sermon for tomorrow morning and a talk on prayer for tomorrow night.

It is easy to try rely on yourself and to worry if what we have to say is enough. We focus on our education, our smarts, our delivery, etc. But that is missing the point. I can rely on the Spirit, and I ought to make sure what I speak is of God. It’d be foolish to try to do what God calls us to in our own strength. All I have the privilege of doing is to take what the Spirit has shown us and pass it on. From start to finish, we are a work of God. Which is why it’s not about us and why we should say, soli deo gloria–glory to God alone.

Relying Upon the Spirit and Not on Our Apologetics

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:3-5

There are some great books that defend the Christian faith that I’ve personally enjoyed in the past. They could be grouped broadly into the category of “apologetics.” This name isn’t based on our saying “sorry” for our faith, but the word relates to giving a defense. While I certainly believe that there are reasons to believe in Jesus Christ and that our Bible is a trustworthy book, it is important to remember that we cannot argue someone into faith. We shouldn’t present some sort of bullet point list to someone, then demand that she believe.

While Paul does use argumentation and is thoughtful with his words and his audience, he is primarily a witness pointing to Jesus. Paul can’t make someone believe. In fact, he doesn’t want to. His desire is that a person’s faith “might not rest in the wisdom of men.”

Dove

This chapter goes on about how what we now know–the wisdom of God that we see in the cross of Jesus Christ–is not based in our own intellectual achievements. It is not because I’m smart enough that I’m a Christian. Likewise it is not because someone is dumb that they may not believe. The eternal purposes of God are known to us because they have been revealed to us by the Spirit of God.

But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
1 Corinthians 2:9–10

We can’t even boast in our knowing because it is a gift of God’s grace. Our coming to believe and understand is a work of God’s through and through.

We ought to love God with our minds, seek to know him better, to discern the mind of Christ, and speak ably about Jesus to those around us, always giving a reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). But we do not do this as though everything hinges on my skillful argumentation. Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith, but it is not a faith dependent on advanced understanding and academic achievement. Our faith is dependent on the working of the power of God.

Exploring the Possibilities

Image of Folio 27v, with the four evangelist symbols from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old book.

I was in a group tonight that was reading the beginning of Mark. Probably for all of us there it was re-reading this gospel. But even though it is familiar to us, God always can speak. His word is fresh and needs to be approached with the expectation he’ll still meet us there. We’ll never quite have all the answers, rather we are constantly in a place of need. We should be humble and open to the leading of the Spirit.

If that is what God can do in a familiar passage, what do you think can happen with books of the Bible we know very little about? If there can be newness to familiar passages, what is there to learn from the more unfamiliar passages?

We can easily pick up Jeremiah and think, “I don’t know anything about this!” This can lead to our being discouraged. But how much better to respond with an attitude of excitement. If we don’t know much, how much is there to explore? What will God speak to us? How can it be stale if we’ve never passed through these texts before?

We may like familiar. We like what is known. Many really like routine and habit. But we need to have that adventurous spirit that gets excited when we encounter the unknown. Sure, we may feel out of our element with some of these books of the Bible, but that’s how we learn. Look at your Bible’s study notes (if you have them), search the internet for answers, call a friend and discuss, and even–if you’re desperate and grasping for straws–email me.

When you get into these books, like Jeremiah, be excited for a new word from God, be expectant that he will speak, and embrace the perspective of “what can I learn?”.

The Story So Far, Week 10 – Balaam and the Spirit

Rembrandt, Balaam and His Ass, 1626

First off, we’ve now completed double-digit weeks of Year in the Bible! Congratulations.

Back in the Old Testament, Numbers slows its pace down to tell the reader about the diviner, Balaam. He’s known for his abilities to discern spirits, speak oracles, and generally relate to the spiritual world. King Balak wants to use Balaam’s abilities to bring down curses upon the peoples of Israel. They are great in number and are looming at Balak’s doorstep. But God will not allow his people, whom he has blessed, to be cursed by Balaam.

Because of God’s will, Balaam says he will not go, but Balak pushes him again and again. Balaam eventually goes, but only once God allows him, and even then, he has a stern message for the diviner on the road.

Balaam is riding his old donkey, with which he seems to have shared many rides. But on this ride the donkey refuses to continue. An angel of God stands in their way. The donkey won’t succumb to Balaam who tries to drive him on becase the donkey knows better. Balaam gets angry until God opens the donkeys mouth to speak to him and then opens his eyes to see the angel. The great irony of this story is that the person who is known in the land as being able to see spiritual things is here blind, while a mere donkey can see what is right before them. How humbling for the diviner, and how revealing to us how spiritual understanding is given. God has to give it to us.

And that is what we see given to the whole church in Acts. God gives his own Spirit to the people and they are given speech, like the donkey, and they are shown all spiritual truth. God’s Spirit lives in believers now and that has changed everything.

Just think of the implications. Take a moment.

To look at one example, think about the selection of the disciple who replaces Judas. The disciples cast lots. After Pentecost, when the Spirit comes upon the church, do you see lots cast again?

It is amazing to live in a time in which we all have greater access than so-called diviners like Balaam, for God has made his dwelling place among us and in us by his Spirit.

Week 10 – Numbers and Acts

Balaam, the Angel and the Ass; Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (from Wikipedia)

Welcome to Week 10.

We’re back to just reading two books this week as the Psalms are taking a week off. But in its place we have another hearty week of Numbers and seven chapters of Acts.

In Numbers we have some well known stories like when Moses brought forth water from a rock, a bronze snake that heals the Israelite people, and a donkey that talks. We finish this week as the Israelites come to the end of their wandering and are readying themselves to enter the promised land (again).

Acts is a continuation of Luke, written by the same author, continuing the story of what happens once Jesus is raised. It is often described as Acts of the Holy Spirit, and that is what it is. You’ll see the way that God’s Spirit empowers the early church and the disciples to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll read about Pentecost, healings, opposition from the Jewish establishment, and Stephen’s wonderful testimony before the Sanhedrin and subsequent stoning. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr.

Hope you enjoy this week. If you have questions or comments, send them this way and I’ll do my best to respond and share with everyone else. I’d love to have you join me this summer at either reading groups, which you can find more information about at the above link. Some things take breaks as school is out in the summer, but you can always find yourself welcome at a reading group.

Sent by Jesus

Our focus passage this week asks the question, “What does it mean to be sent by Jesus?” and “In what way had the Father sent him?” These questions refer to John 20:21, in which Jesus says:

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.

We could spend a great deal of time pondering that one verse. In John, Jesus is constantly drawing attention to the fact that he is sent from God. He says that the Father has sent him, the Father has given him words to say, and he is doing his Father’s work. His being sent is a crucial element to his being here among us. And now we’ve been sent “as the Father has sent [Jesus].”

So as you finish John, and then as we’ll next read through Luke, look for what characterizes the way in which Jesus is sent. See how Jesus puts the Father’s will first and the way his goal is to speak what the Father has spoken to him. Look elsewhere in the New Testament like Philippians 2 and see that in being sent, Jesus humbled himself–even to the point of the cross. Jesus took on flesh, faced temptation, was mocked, was hungry, and of course, in his being sent, he was to go to the cross. His sending was for a mission of love in which he put the needs of others and the will of the Father first. Jesus died on this mission, and after he was raised, knowing full well all that being sent entails, speaks a word of peace to the disciples, and charges them to go into the world. If we head his words, how much do we need his peace to face the fears we will encounter, and how thankful are we that he has breathed upon us his Holy Spirit to strengthen us and comfort us along the way?