THE WISDOM OF THE SPIRIT
GOD’S POWERFUL MYSTERY
1 Corinthians 2:1–5
1 When I came to you, I didn’t come and proclaim God’s mystery to you by means of a superior style of speaking or wisdom. 2 No: I decided to know nothing in my dealings with you except Jesus the Messiah, especially his crucifixion. 3 I came to you in weakness, in great fear and trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in transparent proof brought home powerfully by the spirit, 5 so that your faith might not be in human wisdom but in God’s power.
Life is full of mystery. The deepest, richest and most complex theories that science can ever come up with only serve to highlight the fact that there is still a depth of mystery which goes way beyond it all. You can study biology and human genetics, and know everything there is to know about fertilization, reproduction, pregnancy, birth and childhood; but when you see your own new-born child, and two eyes meet yours with a look that seems to say, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So—it’s you!’ you glimpse a mystery which no physical explanation can ever begin to explore.
It’s the same with music. The physicist can in principle explain what happens when a particular instrument is played. But why Mozart makes us want to laugh and cry and dance, why some music is deeply consoling and some deeply disturbing, remains a mystery.
The deepest mysteries of human life—love, death, joy, beauty and the rest—have for millennia been believed to point to the deepest mystery of them all, the mystery of God. Sometimes in the ancient world people developed whole systems for trying to penetrate this mystery, often in relation to a particular divinity such as Isis or Mithras. People believed that by going through particular initiation rites and disciplines they would get to the heart of the mystery, and would discover things that would change their lives completely.
Most Jews believed that the one true God had already invited them to share his own life and purpose, so they didn’t go down this route. But they, too, knew a strong sense of mystery as they tried to understand the truth about how and why God had made the world, and in particular what his purpose was for them and for the future. Among the writings of ancient Israel, both in the Bible and in other books, there are many which try to penetrate to this truth, to discover what was going on in God’s world, and where different people might fit into his purposes.
This is where Paul comes in. He picked up this Jewish tradition and declared that God’s past, present and future had at last been unveiled in and through Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was the clue to all the secrets of God. Paul spells this out elsewhere, for instance in Colossians 1:26–2:3. And Paul wants the muddled Corinthian Christians to see that, though the message about the crucified Jesus is indeed a foolish, scandalous thing in the eyes of the rest of the world, at the heart of the Christian message there is the clue to the deepest mystery of life. In speaking like this, here in verse 7, and elsewhere, Paul may be teasing them a little about the way their culture and philosophy liked to probe into ‘mysteries’ of the pagan sort. He is pulling them over onto solidly Jewish ground.
One of the reasons, in fact, why the mystery of the gospel is a mystery is because nobody in Corinth or most other places would ever think of looking for the secret to life, the universe, God, beauty, love and death in a place of execution outside a rebellious city in the Middle East. Crucifixion was regarded in the ancient world as so horrible, so revolting, so degrading that you didn’t mention it in polite society. Imagine somebody at a fashionable dinner-party going on in a loud voice about how he’d seen rats eating the body of a dead dog in the street; that’s the kind of impression you’d make by standing up in public and talking about someone being crucified. No self-respecting sophist or rhetorician would dream of doing it. But Paul believed, and the new-found faith and life of the Corinthian Christians bore this out, that this was the clue to the mystery of life.
Tom Wright, New Testament Wisdom for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2013), 1–3.