The Danger of Wise Men
Tim Temple


Open your Bibles, please, to I Corinthians, chapter 1, and read with me beginning with verse 17:

I Corinthians 1

17For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
18For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
19For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
20Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
21For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
22For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
23But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

We will stop our reading with verse 23. We want to begin to look at these verses today.

Some of the most dangerous words that have ever been spoken are in a poem that has become famous. It was written by William E. Henley. The last phrase of the last stanza of that poem is: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” That poem is often quoted in challenging us to be all that we can be and to take the upper road and to be living up to our potential. Those words, I think, are absolutely typical of our world today even, in many cases, in the lives of Christians. The dominant philosophy of our society, which I believe is at its peak in our generation, is the philosophy of humanism, the idea that man, given enough time and enough money, out of his own innate resources, can solve any problem that comes along. If there are problems that we haven't solved, it is because we haven't thrown enough money at it or we haven't taken enough time with it. “I am the master of my fate;” the humanist says, “I am the captain of my soul. I can do whatever it takes.”

When that kind of evil, false thinking invades the life of a Christian or the life of a church, it robs them of their vitality and their usefulness to the Lord. It makes them useless to the Lord. But, as is so often the case, God knew there would be these kinds of problems, and the Word of God dealt with this problem long before it became such a pre-eminent thing in the society of the world in our generation and in our churches.

The church at Corinth was the focal point of a number of problems back there in the first century after Christ. God knew those problems would be typical of churches down through the years, and so He had the Apostle Paul write letters to the Corinthians dealing with the various kinds of problems that they had and that God knew would be typical of churches, so these letters are very important for us to study as we think about individually and as a church bringing glory to Jesus Christ.

The Problem of Exalting Men

One of the major problems that existed there at Corinth, a problem that has existed in the Body of Christ down through the years, was that problem of exalting men and of gathering around men and the philosophies of men and saying, “This teacher is better than that teacher,” and “this church is better than that church,” and “this ministry is more important than that ministry.” So the very first thing that Paul deals with in his letter to the Corinthians as he talks about the lordship of Christ in the church is this matter of exalting men and dividing our loyalties among men. It is interesting to notice, as we looked at those men whose names are given in the verses just before this one, that the men who were being exalted were all fine teachers of the Word of God. They were great and godly men. In fact, if you look carefully, you will see that the problem at Corinth was not with those men, but with their followers. It was not that those men were exalting themselves and gathering a following around them; it was that the Christians were exalting those men and gathering around them. We talked about those concepts in our last lesson. Paul winds up his argument by warning us that this preoccupation with the skills of the messenger can actually cause us to miss the message.

Confusing Doctrine By Clever Wording

In verses 17 and 18, therefore, he points out the fallacies of human wisdom. Notice those verses again:

I Corinthians 1

17For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
18For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

In our study last week, we saw that an emphasis on any man, on any doctrine, can obscure the message of the Gospel. We talked about verse 17 last week, but I want us to look at it again from a little different standpoint. There is another fallacy of human wisdom brought out in this verse. Notice in verse 17 he says, “…not with wisdom of words”. The phrase, “wisdom of words”, is a reference to the intricate ways of speaking about various doctrines. When we looked at this verse last week, you may have thought, “How in the world can the doctrine of baptism confuse people about the Gospel?” Maybe the same thought crosses your mind now: What could be wrong with wisdom? What could be so dangerous about wisdom?

Let's ask ourselves the question today: What is Paul talking about anyway? What is wisdom? What does he mean by this? Notice that it is not wisdom in general. God gives wisdom to people; God gives His wisdom to various individuals. Paul is not saying that there is anything wrong with being smart or that there is anything wrong with being educated or anything wrong with being wise; but he is talking about words of wisdom. What he refers to by that is the elaborately worded statement all about and around the truth of the Gospel, taking the simple truth of the Gospel and making it into some kind of philosophical argument or philosophical dialogue. Since he chose the example of baptism, let's use that example again.

The clever wording and reasoning about various Scriptures can actually confuse the issue of salvation to the point that people think, for example, that they cannot be saved unless they are baptized. That is all because of the way we take the doctrine of baptism and word it cleverly and talk about it from various kinds of standpoints. Actually the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of salvation through simple faith in Jesus Christ, can be confused by taking that doctrine or any other doctrine and talking about it in a very wordy and clever way.

False Teachers and Twisted Scripture

That is not the only example, by any means. All around us are false teachers and false teaching that is based on clever twisting of the Scriptures. Let me tell you something: Every one of the cults have Scripture included in their reasoning. If you have had any exposure to any of the cults, you know that they all can quote their chapters and verses. They can all say, “Thus saith the Lord.” Here and there along with the information that they present, among the things that they say, are chapter and verse of things quoted from the Bible. All of the liberals, people who deny the virgin birth of Christ or even the sacrifice of Christ, use words of wisdom from the Scripture. They take the Scripture and they quote from it as a philosophical concept. They establish their views, and they can even try to show you by the Scripture why they don't believe in the virgin birth of Christ.

They key to the whole thing is that they are putting the wrong emphasis on the Scripture. They are taking things out of context. You know, you can make the Scriptures say anything you want to. You can establish anything from the Scripture if you want to take verses out of their context and use them for your own purposes. The Scripture says Judas went out and hanged himself, and it says to go now and do likewise. That is from the Bible! It also says that what thou doest, do quickly. All of that is from the Scripture. But does the Scripture say that all of us ought to go out and commit suicide as quickly as possible? Of course not! You see, that is not really a very clever use of words, but that is the words of wisdom–taking little bits and pieces of the Scripture and making them fit our philosophy or making them fit whatever we might want to convey from the Word of God.

Response of the Natural Man

There is another problem with this human wisdom and that is that because of its wrong emphasis, it has the wrong effect. Look at verse 18:

I Corinthians 1

18For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

The message of the Cross, Paul says, is foolishness to a certain group of people. Did God intend the message of the Cross of Jesus Christ to be a foolish kind of message? Did God intend that message to be something at which people would scoff and reject as beneath their dignity? Of course not! Why does that happen? It is because of words of wisdom; it is because of trying to look at spiritual truth through human intellect without the light of the mind of God shed upon it. Here is an interesting phenomenon and one that maybe you have experienced yourself. Two people can hear a passage of Scripture–one person a believer and one an unbeliever–and one of them be blessed by it, and the other one will be confused by it. Perhaps more frequently, our unsaved friends just can't understand why we get so excited about spiritual things and why it means so much to us to go to church and why it means so much to us to study the Bible, why we actually, in some cases, get up early in the morning and go down to a men's prayer breakfast. Those things happen several times every week to those of you who are involved in those kinds of things, and your unsaved friends can't even imagine that.

What is the difference? Well, look at chapter 2 of I Corinthians. In chapter 2, verse 14, Paul explains this:

I Corinthians 2

14But 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.

Notice the phrase, “the natural man”. The word “natural” there is a translation of the Greek word psuchikos , which means “the soulish man”. The Greek word psuche is where we get our English word “soul”. It also is the root word for “psychology”. That may help you understand what the soul is all about. The soul is that part of man that enables us to understand extra-material things. The soul is that part of man which really distinguishes us from our pets. Your dog can understand that at a certain time each day, you are going to feed him. He probably demands that you feed him more than that or earlier than that, but he knows that sooner or later, you are going to come out and feed him. He may know that you have tried out various kinds of dog food, that you have bought the very best kind of dog food that you can find. Your dog understands all of that by instinct and by training, but he cannot (even though you may think he can), by his very makeup, really appreciate the difference between Kal-Kan and some other kind of dog food. You see, animals can't understand those extra-material things except by training and instinct; but human beings appreciate the difference even between different cuts of meat. You can order various cuts of steak. Some prefer this cut, and some prefer that cut. Why is that? Because we have that asthetic ability because of the soul.

Spiritual Discernment

There is something else about the human being, and that is the spirit. Man is a tripartite being. Romans, chapter 8, tells us that when the Spirit of God communicates with us when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, as the Holy Spirit indwells us, it is the spirit of man that God communicates with. The Spirit of God bears witness with our human spirit that we are the sons of God.

Now, every human being has a soul, and every human being has a spirit, but only those who have the Holy Spirit indwelling and working through their human spirit can understand the things of God; so Paul talks about these unsaved people with whom the Holy Spirit is not communicating–they are just “soulish” people. They only operate on the level of the soul of the body; they don't have that spiritual input through the spirit. The spirit in an unsaved person is just dormant. They can understand more than the animals can, but they can't really understand the things of God because those things are spiritually discerned. That is why the preaching of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. Until they accept Jesus Christ as Savior, spiritual things such as the preaching of the Cross or anything else related to spiritual things is just foolishness.

The word “foolish” here in verse 14 is the translation of the Greek word moros , from which we get our English word “moron”. So the unsaved person thinks that the idea of being saved through faith in Jesus Christ is a moronic idea; it is a foolish idea. The world's wisdom says that you have to somehow earn your salvation, that you have to be good enough to please God; and to say that God is willing to forgive our sins just because Jesus Christ died on the Cross 2000 years ago is just intellectually foolish. It is a moronic idea to the unsaved. To say that you know you are saved and to say that you know you are going to go to Heaven, why that is arrogant and conceited. To proclaim the simple truth that Jesus paid it all is just foolishness.

In fact, listen to this assessment of the Gospel by the founder of one of the cults, Mary Baker Patterson Glover Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement: “One sacrifice for sin, no matter how great, is not sufficient to pay the debt of sin. The atonement for sin requires humiliation on the sinner's part. That God's wrath should be vented on His beloved Son is divinely unnatural.” Do you see what the founder of the Christian Science movement is saying? She is saying exactly what Paul said would be said–the preaching of the Cross is foolishness. She says, “It is divinely unnatural.”

Simplicity of the Gospel

The Gospel is very simple. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. You and I and everyone else have committed sin and we do not measure up to the standard of God's righteousness. We cannot have fellowship with God and cannot expect to go to Heaven. God is of purer eyes than to behold sin, and the book of Habakkuk says that He cannot look upon iniquity. But God, in His love and in His mercy, provided that Jesus Christ would come to the earth and take upon Himself, as He hung on the Cross, the sins that you and I would someday commit, the sins of all mankind. Because He was a human being, He could pay that human penalty that sin demanded; because he was God, He could pay that penalty for every man, and He was the God-man. He paid the debt for your sins. All you need to do today to have peace with God, to have that wall of partition between man and God broken down, is to accept that fact that Jesus Christ paid for your sins and that God is satisfied for that payment. The Scripture says that He is the propitiation for our sins. The word “propitiation” basically means “satisfaction”. God was satisfied with that payment; that is the simple Gospel. Most of you here today have accepted that truth. I hope all of you have, but some of you I don't know, and I have no way of knowing whether you have accepted that truth. But from many of you I have heard that testimony from your own lips that you have accepted, but how simple that message is. That is the simple message of the Gospel.

Let me say that if you have never accepted that truth, I pray that this will be the day that you do it. You can do that right now where you sit. You don't have to wait until the end of the service and walk down the aisle and take the preacher's hand. There is nothing wrong with that practice, but sometimes even that can be used to cloud the issue of the Gospel. The issue of the Gospel is not that you come down to the front of the church; the issue of the Gospel is that you, in your own heart, accept the fact that Jesus Christ died in your place, and you can do that right now where you sit. Say, “Yes, God, I realize that Jesus Christ paid for my sins and that you are satisfied with that payment. I accept that wonderful gift of salvation that you are giving me. I accept it as mine.” Let Jesus Christ come into your life and be the payment for your sins. Accept Him as your Savior; that is the message of the Gospel.

That just seems too simple, doesn't it? Since it seems so simple, they have to come up with something that sounds very wise, something that is very weighty, something that would touch God with the magnificence of it. Listen to this piece of wisdom, for example, by the eminent theologian Shirley McLaine, practitioner of the New Age Movement. She says, “We already know everything.” That is interesting, isn't it? “The knowingness of our divinity is the highest intelligence, and to be what we already know is the enactment of the realization that you are God, a realization that you are divine.” How wise! How wonderful! Very elaborate–not simple, but how impressive! You see, what God said 2000 years ago was, “Those who don't believe, those who think the Gospel is too simple will use clever wording to get around it and to try to come up with something better.” Certainly the attempt to find God by means of human wisdom has had the wrong effect.

The Failure of Human Wisdom

Those are the fallacies of human wisdom in verses 17 and 18. Moving along in the text, in verses 19-22, Paul takes a little different approach. In these verses, he is going to deal with the failures of human wisdom. First, in verse 19, we have a quotation from the Old Testament. Some of the translations of the Bible may set those words apart in some way, but some versions of the Bible don't do that, so you may not realize that verse 19 is a quotation of Isaiah, chapter 29, verse 14:

I Corinthians 1

19For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.

Now we are not going to take the time to go back to Isaiah, chapter 29, verse 14, because it is almost an exact quotation, but let me remind you of what was going on in Isaiah, chapter 29. Israel was caught between Egypt on the south and Assyria on the north. Assyria was threatening to take over Israel. In fact, there was a lot of back and forth in the Old Testament between Assyria and Egypt running back and forth across Israel, and at various times one nation or the other would try to make Israel their own vassal so that they could have an edge against the enemy, so Israel was in a bad spot between those two bigger, more powerful nations. So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, was threatening to overtake Israel and the wise men of Israel kept saying repeatedly to the king, “We need to make an alliance with Egypt. It is our only hope against Assyria.” That made good sense, didn't it? That would seem to be the logical thing to do, but God said, through His prophet, Isaiah, “Don't make that alliance. I want to use this as an example to you and to everyone else of what I can do for a nation that will put their trust completely in me. Do not make that alliance with Egypt.”

Here is a perfect example of the difference, the dichotomy, between God's wisdom and man's wisdom. Man's wisdom very often sounds right. It would just be a logical thing to make an alliance with Egypt to protect ourselves from our neighbors on the north, make an alliance with the powerful nation from the south to protect ourselves from the powerful nation who is threatening us on the north. There are times when God allows us to make use of conventional human wisdom; there are times when God approves of that. But listen: Isaiah, chapter 29, indicates to us that there are times when God's wisdom says the very opposite of human wisdom. Sometimes he tells us why, and sometimes he doesn't. But in that particular case, God said, “I do not want you to make an alliance with Egypt. Those wise men who are telling you that–I will bring to nothing the wisdom of the wise.”

It is a little beyond the scope of our lesson today, but unfortunately but not surprisingly, Israel did not accept God's advice, and they made that alliance with Egypt; and in chapter 30 of Isaiah, God says a very beautiful thing: “Therefore will the Lord wait that He may be gracious unto you.” That is a beautiful truth, too. It is something that we don't really have time to elaborate on today, but it fits in with the grace of God. God just waited until Israel said that He was right in the first place, and then He was there to pick up the pieces. But, as the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthians and to us, God reminded him of that situation those thousands of years before that first century; and Paul said, “God sometimes brings to nothing the wisdom of the wise.” Just because a man has some credentials, just because what he says sounds good, does not necessarily mean that it is God's will. There are those times when God said, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Those times come in our lives, too.

There are those times when conventional human wisdom turns out to be exactly what God would have us do. The doctor's advice may be, as we pray about it, confirmed in our hearts and minds as God's direction in our lives. But there are those times when the doctor or the lawyer or the business adviser, or more frequently the general thinking of the day, is not what God wants us to do. Here is the thing that we need to keep in mind always. It is so easy for us to accept the wisdom of man without checking what the wisdom of God would have to say. I think that would be the major thrust of this passage for us today. Most of us are in the habit of studying the Word of God, and we have begun to pick up on the concept that God has some direction for us in His Word, but I think the problem that our group of believers face as a church is the tendency to go with man's wisdom without bothering to think through what God's wisdom might have to say.

The Limitations of Man's Wisdom

In verse 20, there is another example of the failure of human wisdom.

I Corinthians 1

20Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

Let me ask you something: How many scientists do you think would depend today on a textbook written in the 1930s as an authoritative statement of scientific principle? Certainly I recognize that there are some theories and some discoveries that were made in the 1930s that are very valid today, but on the other hand there are many, many, many things that were the prevailing philosophies in the 1930s that have been proven to be inaccurate. You see, if we are going to insist on exalting the wise men, God says, “Wait a minute; look back at history.”

Have you ever noticed that the encyclopedia salesman always tries to include in the contract a deal to buy the yearly update that will come out? Every set of encyclopedias I have ever seen has that kind of provision, and it is good that they do, because if the set of encyclopedias that you bought in 1957 is all that you have, there is a great deal of the world's wisdom that you are missing out on. So when the encyclopedia salesperson comes to call on you, go ahead and buy the yearly update, because you are going to need it. Things change; the wisdom of the world gets outdated. That is what God says. The wisdom of man keeps becoming outdated. The passage of times makes man feel pretty foolish in some cases, doesn't it?

Some of you who are in the Air Force who are interested in aviation will probably remember that the stated conviction of scientists used to be that we would never know whether it would be possible to break the sound barrier in an airplane because a pilot who was flying faster than the speed of sound would not be able to live. That was the scientific conjecture of about thirty years ago. They thought you couldn't get enough oxygen to breathe if you flew faster than the speed of sound. Today we have passenger airliners that fly faster than the speed of sound. That wisdom of man has just been proven to be completely inaccurate.

Listen to this quotation from an editorial in the New York Times in 1910: “The traffic problems in our city are increasingly becoming unbearable. To add to the crowded condition of the streets, it has now come to light in the calculations of Mr. Arnold P. Williams, engineer, that if the present increase in the number of coaches allowed in the city continues, the manure will be hip deep in the streets by the end of the decade.” That is the wisdom of man, you see. Mr. Williams, the engineer, was basing his forecast on all of the wisdom that he had available, and he was accurate. They probably would have been hip-deep in the streets. But what happened? The automobile came along, and the manure problem was solved. The smog problem was started, but the manure problem was solved. That is the wisdom of man; that is the problem with the wisdom of man. How long has it been since you have heard a New York politician who made the manure problem a platform in his campaign? It is just not a problem any more because the wisdom of man is limited. It cannot know everything; it cannot take into account all the factors that are in the mind of God. Your adviser cannot know everything that God knows. There are those times, I say again, when God uses human wisdom and when God would have us take advantage of the suggestions of our human advisers, but don't depend upon the wisdom of men. Don't make that your standard because those things are limited at best, and when we look to the minds of man for advice and direction only, we invest in that failure-prone system.

Divine Wisdom, a Different Perspective

Over and over again the Scripture emphasizes in various places the difference between the way God looks at things and the way that man looks at things. Let me just mention to you a few verses. In Isaiah, chapter 55, verses 8 and 9:

Isaiah 55

8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

There is obviously a difference between God's wisdom and human wisdom, but when that difference appears, we need to also remember that God's difference is higher, that when there is a difference between the way our human advisers point us and the way God points us, God says His ways are higher than our ways.

I Samuel, chapter 16, verse 7, says:

I Samuel 16

7But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.

There is no way a human adviser can take into account the condition of your heart, can take into account the motives of man.

II Corinthians, chapter 4, verse 18 says:

II Corinthians 4

18While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

You see, that is the problem with human wisdom–it can only look at the things that are seen. The things that are really important in the overall scheme of things, the things that are eternal, are the things that are not seen, and human wisdom cannot deal with those things. Only the wisdom of God can reach those things.

In the affairs of life it is so easy to just look at things purely from a human standpoint. We have to look, we only can look, at the outward things. But do you remember the Israelites, facing the threat from the Assyrians, which we talked about in Isaiah, chapter 29? Figuratively speaking, many times the Assyrians are sitting at the borders of our lives, waiting to see where we are going to turn for help. The threat may not be a physical invasion of an army, but maybe a rocky marriage or a depleted bank account or health problems or an immoral relationship, but all kinds of threats come against our lives, and human reasoning would say, “Well, here is the way to solve that; here is the way to prevent that; here is the way to get around that.” It is so easy to do just what seems right, to do what is easiest or most convenient or what feels good; but God says, “You come to Me for your wisdom.” Search the Scriptures, for therein is the truth of God. Don't look at things purely from a human standpoint; look at things from the standpoint of the Word of God. There are things that have become the standard for the world that God says exactly the opposite about. The world says, for example, that women have been put down. They need to assert their authority. Don't let your husbands tell you what to do. God says, “Wives, submit to your husbands.”

I am convinced that the reason the world talks that way about women is that for generations men have said, “I have a pretty good thing here. This woman will wash my clothes and wash my dishes, and the preacher will tell her she has to. It doesn't matter how I treat her.” That is the wisdom of at least the male chauvinist, and there are a lot of us around. That is the world's wisdom. God says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church.” Do you see the difference? Man says, “I am going to keep these kids in line; they are going to know who is boss; they are going to do what I say; as long as they live in my house, they are going to do it my way.” God says, “Fathers, bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Do not provoke your children to wrath.” Do you see what I am talking about? The wisdom of the world in so many cases is so different from the wisdom of God. It is so easy for us to just buy into that worldly system, that wisdom of the world which has tremendous fallacies as we have seen today. It really is a failure-prone system, as we have also seen in this passage.


I hope you will learn from the Israelites not to trust in human advice, but to take God's wisdom which is so readily available in His Word.

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