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“The Medium is the Message”

1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Bob DeGray
February 19, 2006

Key Sentence

Spiritual truth is communicated by the Spirit, not human wisdom.


I. The simple message (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
II. The hidden mystery (1 Cor. 2:6-10)
III. The Spiritual medium (1 Cor. 2:10-16)


        Marshall McLuhan was professor of literature at the University of Toronto from the 1940's to the 1970's. He published a number of influential books focusing on the nature of pop culture. He was among the first to use the word ‘media’, and also coined the phrase ‘global village’.But he’s perhaps most famous for a phrase used in a book called Understanding Media. He said ‘the medium is the message’. What he seems to have meant by this was that when you see a change in a culture or even in an individual, you should suspect that some new medium, some new channel of communication is at work. He later wrote a book called The Medium is the Massage which he subtitled ‘an inventory of effects’. Again, the medium of communication produces certain effects; when you see a new effect you suspect a new medium.

        McLuhan’s concept can easily be extended to spiritual things. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul contrasts human wisdom and eloquence with the spiritual power, insight and truth which comes through the Spirit of God. He seems to be saying that the medium is the message. When the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives he produces changes, ways of thinking and acting that oppose the established wisdom of men. McLuhan would say that these kinds of changes indicate that a new channel of communication is present in people’s lives. Paul would agree and say the channel is the Holy Spirit. He would add that the wisdom of men can’t take hold of that spiritual wisdom. So explaining the Holy Spirit’s work is a little like trying to explain sight to a person born blind. No matter how hard you try to explain the colors of a sunset, you just can’t communicate it adequately. Even if you resort to mathematical analysis of the color and light, you won’t communicate the reality of seeing. Another illustration of this would be radio waves. All around us at this moment there are thousands on thousands of electromagnetic waves unsensed by us, like those coming from this transmitter. But if you have the right receiver you can capture those transmissions and transform them into communication. In the same way, if you have the right receiver, the spiritual discernment, you can begin to receive communication from the Holy Spirit on a channel those without that receiver can never sense.

I. The simple message (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
        So Paul insists in 1 Corinthians 2 that spiritual truth is communicated by the Spirit, not by human wisdom, and we need to be convinced of that truth. Paul explains that the Gospel is really a very simple message that depends on the Spirit for it’s power. 1 Cor. 2:1-5 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

        At the end of chapter 1 Paul affirmed that ‘God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.’ Now he personalizes that truth and reminds the Corinthians that in his own preaching he didn’t emphasize superior wisdom or superior eloquence, but the plain confrontive truth of the Gospel. He adds that he set foot in Corinth with weakness, fear and much trembling, and his message didn’t focus on wise persuasive words. We know from Acts that Paul went to Corinth directly from Athens, where he had addressed the extreme philosophical bent of the people in his preaching, with mixed success. If you read his Acts 17 message there is eloquence and wisdom in it. And some Athenians did want to hear. But as I mentioned, there weren’t a lot of converts. One gets the sense Paul was a bit disenchanted with the approach of addressing philosophy.

        Another factor had to be the size and reputation of Corinth. We’ve already noted that this city was the largest and most diverse Paul had yet visited. Athens had philosophers, but it was almost a college town. Corinth had philosophers and everything else; it was the Los Angeles or Singapore of it’s day. So Paul determined to stick to basics - to simply and plainly preach Christ and him crucified. Men might want a Christ of peace and love, or a Christ of social action, or a Christ of revolution. People are always searching for the kind of Christ they want - but Paul knows Christ cannot be known apart from his crucifixion, his sacrifice. This simple message defies the wisdom of the world and leads to salvation for those whose hearts are pierced.

        It’s simple enough for a child: all people have sinned, disobeyed God and rebelled against him. The penalty for sin is death - God’s wrath is expressed against the sinner by sentencing him to eternal separation. The price for sin is blood - someone has got to die to pay. The substitute for sin is Jesus - in his cruel death on the cross he died to pay the price of our sins. And the response God wants from us when we see that these things are true is not good works and being good people - that’s impossible. It is simple trust - turning to the one we have so offended and who has loved us so much and accepting the good he has done. This is simple - yet men in their wisdom have argued and debated about every one of the truths I’ve mentioned. And most adults who have eventually come to faith have tried, first, to dismiss these truths. It’s a simple message, but by no means an easy message for people to accept.

        And Paul is convinced that this hard acceptance can only be accomplished when the Spirit is powerfully at work. Verse 4: My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.” Paul’s message was so plain that when it did have an impact the Spirit must be at work. Paul isn’t claiming that the message was accompanied by flashy miracles. The powerful miracle was that it persuaded people. Every time someone hears this gospel and turns in faith to Christ, it is a miracle, God’s power at work. If people’s faith tries to rest on the wisdom of a human scheme is of absolutely no value.

II. The hidden mystery (1 Cor. 2:6-10)
        So it’s a simple message, but a message that neither springs from nor appeals to human wisdom. In fact, Paul tells us in verses 6 to 10 that it is a revealed mystery. 6We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"– 10but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.

        Up to this point Paul has insisted that the gospel owes nothing to human wisdom. Both the message and the messengers were despised by the wise and powerful of this world. But here he emphasizes the truth that the Gospel embodies true wisdom, the wisdom of God. Paul rejects men’s wisdom, but not all wisdom. He and his counterparts - note the ‘we’ - speak true wisdom to those who are mature or complete in Christ. In this context he doesn’t mean perfectly mature Christians, but Christians who have spiritual insight because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. These are contrasted to the ‘rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.’ It seems clear that these ‘wise’ rulers are human rulers operating out of human wisdom, as Caiaphas or Pilate did. These human rulers are doomed to pass away.

        In verse 7 Paul introduces a new wrinkle, and then clarifies it. ‘No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.’ What is God’s ‘secret wisdom’? Secret translates ‘mysteriw’, mystery. This does not mean a puzzle we find difficult to solve; it means a secret we are wholly unable to penetrate, but which God has revealed. It is something man in his own wisdom would never figure out, but which God in his sovereignty made known, something he has planned from eternity past for our glory. That’s a remarkable phrase - we’re used to thinking of God working for his own glory - which he does, and rightly so. But here, and in a few other places, we see that he has also done all this that we might be glorified - it’s a reflected glory, but one which is nonetheless called our own.

        But what is this hidden message, this secret wisdom? F. F. Bruce points out that ‘the mystery of which Paul speaks here is not something additional to the saving message of Christ crucified; it is in Christ crucified that the wisdom of God is embodied’. This secret and hidden wisdom of God is nothing more or less than ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. Prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, he has now been revealed as the Son of God and as the Savior of the world. Toward the end of his ministry Paul will begin a battle against ‘hidden knowledge’, against mystery cults which said they possessed and passed on the deeper things of God.

        But that’s not the kind of mystery Paul is talking about here. Paul doesn’t have a simple gospel of the cross for babes in Christ and a mysterious wisdom-gospel for the mature. No, the gospel is the cross - it’s a gospel new believers can easily take hold of but awesome enough to satisfy the hearts and minds of even the most mature.

        Paul draws the contrast again in verse 8: “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” If these rulers, the people who crucified the Lord, had really understood who Jesus was and the enormity of rejecting him, they would not have done what they did. Jesus himself said of them ‘they do not know what they are doing’. Some or all of them knew it was wrong, that he was innocent man, but none knew that by doing this wrong they were crucifying ‘the Lord of Glory’. Note that title - this is the only place in the Scripture that Christ is described in those words, though the phrase ‘of glory’ is often applied to the Father. It means ‘the Lord whose essential attribute is glory’, and is a clear attribution of divinity to Christ. More than one scholar has thought this the loftiest title Paul ever used: Jesus you are the Lord of glory.

        Paul goes on in verses 9 and 10 to quote Scripture magnifying the hidden wisdom revealed in Christ. “However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"– 10but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” It is difficult to know the source of this quotation, or how much of what Paul says is intended to be the quote. There is no one passage in the Old Testament that runs exactly like this; the closest is Isaiah 64:4 “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” That’s fairly close, but Paul apparently quotes just a fragment of it, and then adds the part about ‘what God has prepared for those who love him’, which has no direct Old Testament parallel. It’s a good thought though; the senses - ears hearing, eyes seeing - could not perceive what God was preparing in Christ, nor could the human heart understand this sacrifice of God’s love - but, Paul says, God has revealed it by his Spirit.

        So we have a simple message of Jesus crucified for our sins, but this simple message is itself a mystery. It’s been the plan of God since eternity past, but is not the plan men would have guessed. There is something unfathomable about a sovereign God freely offering his son as a sacrifice. There is something unexpected about grace. In almost all the world’s religions man has to work, to do works to gain favor with God. If his works somehow outweigh his sins on God’s balances he obtains some reward. If not, he’s punished. And even if God is supposed to be loving or at least tolerant in these systems, he is never seen as sacrificing himself for the sake of those he created. This is not something man’s mind foresaw, and it is not something the natural mind can take hold of by wisdom or logic or imagination. It is the good news that comes as news to every natural person and is only accepted by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. And our minds need to be alive to this truth.

III. The Spiritual medium (1 Cor. 2:10-16)
        Verses 10 to 16: The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. 14The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: 16"For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.

The medium is the message. When someone understands and believes the gospel of Christ crucified, it is not due to human wisdom, but due to the Spirit at work in that person’s life. The five senses and the human mind provide no channels for this sort of communication. The Holy Spirit becomes both the transmitter and the receiver of the Good New for a particular individual, and thus the preacher of salvation must depend on the Spirit’s power not human wisdom. On the one side the Spirit is fully in tune with the heart of God. Paul says that the Spirit searches all things. The love of God has prepared this wonderful gospel for men, but it is the Spirit of God, who searches the depths of God’s heart, to reveal it. Jesus himself promised that “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” The Spirit reveals the truths of the Father’s heart by revealing Jesus to the human heart.

        Paul makes an analogy in verse 11 to help us understand the Spirit’s insight. No one else can know your thoughts, but your own spirit knows your them. In the same way the Spirit of God knows the thoughts of God and reveals them to men. This is true in the realm of heart understanding of the Gospel, but it is also true of the revelation of God’s thoughts through God’s word. In Scripture the Spirit has been at work to record for men the very thoughts, ideas, values and promises of God the Father. 2 Peter 1:21 “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” So the Holy Spirit has in concrete, meaningful and truthful ways revealed the deep thoughts of God to us in Scripture. He is also the one who applies Scripture to our lives. Paul teaches us that the Spirit’s sword is the Word of God. He uses it to penetrate the thoughts and intentions of the heart, to teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness. The Spirit has plainly given us God’s word and works in us to understand and apply it.

        And there’s a world of difference between the Spirit’s teaching and men’s. This is what Paul has been saying all along “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.”

        The spirit of the world tries to operate by human wisdom, which has no place for grace. The Spirit of God teaches us the Good News of Christ crucified, the gift freely given, the unfathomable act of love which we only take hold of if the Holy Spirit breaks down the barriers of human wisdom in our hearts. “I don’t deserve God’s love.” You don’t, you’re right. “I can never be good enough.” You can’t, you’re right. “I’ve got to do some kind of works or I’ll lose this’ No. Christ crucified is the gift freely given. The Holy Spirit cries ‘grace, grace’. The Holy Spirit says ‘believe, believe’ and the human heart keeps looking for a contract and an agreement and a payback. Ladies and gentlemen, salvation is the gift freely given, but I can’t convince you of that. Will you not let the Spirit of God convince you?

        Paul knew this was necessary. Verse 13 “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” Once again he rejects the use of human wisdom to bring home spiritual truths. He relies on the Spirit to provide the very words that he uses, whether in sharing the Gospel or building up the saints. And though Paul may have been an apostle, it is no stretch to say that this should be the goal of every preacher and every believer - to speak in words taught by the Spirit, to share spiritual truths with spiritual words. This must be our goal because only the Spirit can work in the heart of our listeners. So every week as I begin to study I pray, ‘Lord, what do you want me to say? What do you want to say to your people? How do you want to say it?’ And all of us, even apart from formal teaching opportunities, still need to ask the Holy Spirit for his help to express spiritual truth through us. This is true when we are sharing the Good News with a friend or coworker, it’s true when we are asked to counsel or advice, it’s true when we correct or encourage our children, and it is true when we simply converse with fellow Christians. We should always give the world’s wisdom second place, and strive to express the truths of Scripture in words the Spirit gives.

        If the Spirit is not at work our words are hopeless. Verse 14 “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” We have to pray that our hearers will be touched by the Spirit of God so they can accept spiritual truth. We’ve already seen that the message of the cross is foolishness to the natural man. Only the Holy Spirit who can give the spiritual discernment needed for that man to take hold of the truth of Christ crucified. Unless the Spirit moves in the heart of the unbeliever, we can talk ‘til we’re blue in the face and they will not understand. As one commentator says, ‘they are deaf men judging music’.

        In fact the implication of the verse is that they will label us the fools, for holding to such an unbelievable set of beliefs. They will judge us for our conviction and teaching. But Paul is quick to point out that ‘The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment:’

        As the Spirit’s speakers, we are expected to discern the error in worldly ideas, and to dismiss any attempt human wisdom makes to silence the voice of truth. This is perfectly illustrated in Acts when Peter and John were told by the Sanhedrin ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’ and they replied ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.’ Even today people try to silence believers, as we saw in the case of Pastor Eke Green of Sweden, who was convicted of hate speech for preaching Biblical truth about homosexual sin. Paul quotes Isaiah 40:13 to show that unbelievers who make those judgments cannot know the mind of the Lord. His implication is that no one can know God’s mind, so human wisdom will always be in error. In contrast, Paul says, those who do have the Spirit have ‘the mind of Christ’. Spiritual wisdom taught in the Spirit’s words expresses the very thoughts of Jesus to others. Human wisdom cannot.

        So what have we said? That spiritual truth is communicated by the Spirit, not human wisdom. Paul has made this contrast over and over. The message the Spirit wants to communicate is simple: the Gospel message of Christ crucified and salvation freely given. But human wisdom cannot grasp it: it either dismisses the severity of sin, or denigrates the sacrifice of Christ or elevates the place of good works, so that salvation is no longer the result of God’s grace expressed in the shed blood of Jesus and given to those who put their trust in him. This simple message, this Gospel message of Christ crucified is a mystery - men could not figure it out in advance: God had to reveal it. And even now it is a message that is only taken hold of when the Holy Spirit is at work. It is the Holy Spirit who gives the messenger spiritual truths in spiritual words, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives the listener spiritual discernment to understand and believe. The words we share are God’s own foolishness, and the fruit of our words is due entirely to the Holy Spirit’s work.

        Let me close by illustrating this from the lives of three of the best known conversions of all time. The words ‘Holy Spirit’ do not appear in these accounts, but listen to him wor. First, consider Augustine. His life as a young man was characterized by search for philosophical answers to life's basic questions. He would follow various teachers, but they were unable to give satisfactory answers to his probing questions. At this time, Augustine was teaching rhetoric in Milan. He went to hear the preaching of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, at first only to hear Ambrose's eloquent style of speaking. But the Bishop's preaching led Augustine to a new understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith. Some time in the year 386, Augustine and his mother Monica, were spending time in Cassiciacum, a village near Milan. While outdoors, Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, the words of which were, "Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it." He thought at first that the song was related to some kind of children's game. Then, realizing the song might be a command from God to open and read the Scriptures, he located a Bible, picked it up, and read the first passage he saw. It was from the Paul’s letter to the Romans, and it flooded Augustine’s heart with light, and brought him to faith in Jesus Christ.

        Consider Martin Luther. This troubled monk was offended by the Catholic church’s crude theology of works salvation, but knew of no alternative - until he studied Scripture, Romans. He later said “I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, 'the righteousness of God', because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous .. Night and day I pondered until ... I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before 'the righteousness of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressible sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven."

        Last, consider John Wesley. This Mennonite preacher was full of good works but devoid of salvation. But he was searching, and as he says “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” All who have had their hearts strangely warmed know that spiritual truth is communicated by the Spirit, not human wisdom.