The Great Divide
I Corinthians 2:14-16
November 23, 2003
This is the final sermon in the series from I Corinthians 1-2 called, “The Cross, the Church and the World.” We can summarize the main things we have learned in five key statements:
1) The people of the world will always regard the message of the cross as foolishness. Nothing about it will make sense to them even though the message of the cross is true wisdom from God.
2) God destroys human pride by choosing weak and overlooked people for his family. He does this so that no one can boast in his presence.
3) We must preach Christ and him crucified. We must be people of one message and we must preach it continually because it is the world’s only hope.
4) We should not be surprised that the world does not understand us because it does not understand our message. The world has no clue about us because the world completely misses the message of the cross.
5) We know the truth only because the Holy Spirit revealed it to us. If the Spirit had not revealed the truth to us, we never would have discovered it on our own.
That leads to one final question: If our message is true wisdom from God, why doesn’t everyone recognize it and believe it? Or said another way, if the gospel is true, why aren’t all the churches filled to overflowing every time the doors are open? That’s the $64,000 question. The final section of Chapter 2 gives us the answer. Paul explains that there is a great divide in the human race. The fundamental division of the human race is not based on race, gender, age, physical appearance, skin color or ethnic background. The things that so greatly divide us don’t seem to matter to God. Everyone in the world is in one of two groups. Paul calls one group “the natural man,” the other group he calls “the spiritual man.” Everyone reading these words is either “natural” or “spiritual.” There is no third category.
I. The Natural Man v. 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” (I Corinthians 2:14). Literally, the first phrase of verse 14 reads “the natural man.” The phrase describes a person who lives on the natural plane of life and judges everything according to his senses—what he sees, hears, tastes, touches and smells. He recognizes no reality beyond his senses and lives as if this world is the only world there is. That’s why he rejects the gospel as foolishness. The Greek word for “foolishness” means that which is dull, boring, insipid, useless, ridiculous, and even “stupid,” which is more or less a catchphrase of the younger generation. This explains why you can bring a lost person to a church service and even though you find it deeply moving, he is bored to tears. Nothing makes sense, nothing penetrates his heart, and the whole thing is a waste of time to him. And that’s why you can give him a Christian book and he’ll find it boring. You can witness to him and use all the stories and verses you know and he just ignores everything. As a “natural” man, he “naturally” rejects the gospel because the gospel is supernatural. It comes from “another place.” Since he doesn’t believe that there is “another place,” he rejects anything purporting to come from a place he doesn’t believe exists. But this is his only option because he lacks the spiritual perception necessary to understand the gospel.
There are four key words in verse 14—and the last one is the most important: accept … foolishness … understand … discern. The word “discern” is a legal term from the first-century that refers to the ability of a wise and experienced judge to sift through mountains of testimony to reach the proper verdict. There is legal discernment (in the courtroom) and there is spiritual discernment (in life itself). This sort of discernment is the ability to properly “translate” the message of the gospel so you can understand it and believe it. Because the “natural man” (a term that really means “the unsaved”) lacks that inner “translator,” he never comes to the right conclusion about the gospel. It remains foolishness in his eyes.
The Chinese Bible Church
Let me illustrate. About a month ago I spoke twice at the Chinese Bible Church of Oak Park. The pastor, Timothy Fung, is a good friend of mine. He is also the dean of all Oak Park pastors, having served his church for over 30 years. We met soon after I came to Oak Park in 1989 and have been friends ever since. I knew that I would be speaking through a translator because I don’t know Chinese. What I didn’t know was that the Chinese Bible Church of Oak Park was founded 95 years ago as a Cantonese-speaking church. These days they do most of their ministry in Mandarin because so many students have come to the U.S. from Mainland China. I found it fascinating to sit in the services and listen to various speakers address us in Chinese. At one point Pastor Fung made an announcement in Cantonese that was immediately translated into Mandarin. I only know that because they told me. I have no idea what he was announcing because it was not translated into English. To me, Chinese is both mysterious and beautiful. Several times I found myself leaning forward, trying to understand, as if by leaning forward and concentrating, I could somehow figure out what they were saying. But it didn’t matter. No matter how hard I tried, I could not translate the words by myself.
On Saturday night, a woman from the church translated my message. It seemed to me that she spoke with clarity and passion. Now if you ask me how well she did in translating my words, I would say, “It sounded good to me.” But that’s a meaningless statement because I have no idea what she actually said. That is, I judge from the response of the congregation that she did a wonderful job―as I am sure she did. But I personally am in no position to judge that myself. On Sunday morning a man served as my translator. As I preached, he replicated my gestures. If I made a fist and thrust it into the air to make a point, he would say something in Chinese, make a fist and thrust his arm into the air. Whatever I did, he did the same thing―all the while translating my words. That impressed me because it’s not easy to do that―especially when you haven’t worked with someone before.
That weekend was not the first time I’ve preached through a translator. Last May during our trip to Haiti, Caleb Lucien translated my sermons into Creole. When I was in Nigeria, someone translated my sermons into Hausa. When I was in India, they translated my messages into Hindi. Years ago when I visited Paraguay, Bob Trout translated my messages into Spanish. Thirteen years ago I visited Russia with John and Helen Sergey. We traveled from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to Moscow to the Volga River, preaching everywhere we went. I enjoyed listening to people speak in Russian―there is a sort of deep-throated musicality to the language that appeals to me. But here’s something you might not know if you never do any traveling overseas: It is exhausting to spend time in a country where everyone speaks a language you don’t know. It’s mentally exhausting because you struggle to figure out how to communicate, and it wears you out emotionally and physically because of all the cultural differences you constantly face.
“The Horse Ate the Groceries”
The mind craves order, and in a strange environment, the mind goes to great lengths to bring order out of chaos. Toward the end of our trip to Russia, I found myself on a bus with a number of very talkative Russian Christians. John and Helen Sergey weren’t on the bus yet, so I sat there listening to Russian words flying around―none of which I understood. At one point, a man boarded the bus and made some sort of announcement to the group. Because we were near the end of the trip, I was exhausted, and because I was exhausted, my mind was wandering a bit. I was only halfway listening to his words (which I could not understand anyway). My head was down and I was waiting for John and Helen to board the bus. So the man was speaking Russian and the people on the bus were listening, and I was halfway drifting off, when I suddenly heard him say in perfect English, “The horse ate the groceries.” My head jerked up with a start, and I looked around to see if anyone else had heard what I heard. It was as if I had gotten the gift of interpretation and could suddenly understand Russian. No one else seemed to have noticed anything. And I didn’t see a horse and I didn’t see any groceries. What had happened was this: Because the mind craves order, my tired brain had listened to a stream of Russian words and had tried to make sense out of them. So my brain had taken little bits of Russian words and had “translated” them into English that came out as, “The horse ate the groceries.”
Now don’t miss the point. The Russian speaker had not said anything in English. And he hadn’t said anything about horses or groceries. But because the mind craves order, my brain had created its own order out of chaos—even though what was created had nothing to do with what was said. That’s what happens when we don’t have someone to translate for us. Remember this phrase: The mind craves order. That’s absolutely true in the spiritual realm. Even though the natural man does not understand the things of God, he still leans forward and strains to understand. But because he lacks the “translator” of the Holy Spirit, he creates order out of chaos. That’s why you can talk to an unsaved person for hours and they may not understand what you are saying. They just don’t get it. Or you tell them, “Jesus loves you. He died to save you,” and what they hear is, “The horse ate the groceries.” You said one thing, it made no sense, and because the mind craves order, they “heard” something entirely different.
Here’s another way to say it: When lost people come to church, it’s like being a person who speaks only Portuguese and going to a church where the sermon is in Cantonese. The message just doesn’t get through. Without the “translator” of the Spirit, the lost person will never understand the gospel. With this background, we can now understand those four key words of verse 14.
The natural man cannot discern the truth of the gospel. Therefore, he does not understand the message and regards it as foolishness. And that’s why he does not accept it. It all goes back to his inability to discern the truth. The gospel will always be a mystery to the lost, and Christians will be a riddle to them. Things totally clear to us are not clear at all to unbelievers. Their “inward state” must be changed by the Holy Spirit or they will never understand the message we preach.
II. The Spiritual Man v. 15-16
“The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:15-16). The term “spiritual man” does not refer to a special class of Christians. Sometimes we hear certain believers called “spiritual” as if they were “super-Christians.” That’s definitely not what Paul means here. To be “spiritual” means to have the Holy Spirit in your life. If you are a Christian at all, the Holy Spirit indwells your body. So the “spiritual man” equals “the saved” or “the believer” or “the born again.” Paul basically makes two points about those who know the Holy Spirit.
First, those who are spiritual understand God’s truth because the Spirit lives in them. That’s the implication of the phrase—”the spiritual man makes judgments about all things.” The verb “makes judgments” translates a word that means to appraise something. In the art world, there are certain people who are fulltime art appraisers. They can look at a painting and say, “That’s a forgery. It’s worthless.” Or “That’s worth $5,000 at auction.” Or “That’s a Rembrandt. It will fetch at least $7 million.” These appraisers are well paid because they have the ability to spot the real value of a painting. I don’t have that ability. I can look at a painting for hours and never know that it is a forgery. It’s exciting when you learn the true value of something you own. That’s why the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow” has become so popular. Every episode features someone who bought a lamp or an old trunk at a flea market for $40 only to discover that it’s really worth $7,000. We watch the show and then we go rummage through our garage, hoping to find that valuable piece of junk we almost threw away last week. We watch because we want to know the true value of what we own.
Paul says that because we have the Holy Spirit, we can properly appraise the real value of things. Years ago, when Greg and Carolyn Kirschner decided to leave their thriving medical practices (both Greg and Carolyn are medical doctors) to go to Nigeria and work in a missionary hospital, friends and family members strongly objected. How could they “throw away” their promising stateside careers in favor of working for almost no money, in an understaffed and under-equipped hospital in a dangerous, unstable place like Nigeria? Some of their Christian friends wondered about that as well. Why give up a comfortable life here for life on the mission field. In the end, the answer was simple and clear. Greg and Carolyn appraised the work of God’s Kingdom in Nigeria as being of greater value than making a boatload of money in the U.S. They didn’t despise the money they might have made; they simply understood that God was calling and they had to go. Obeying God was of more value (and ultimately more satisfying) than staying in the States. Those who are spiritual know the true value of things—and make their decisions accordingly.
Second, unbelievers are in no position to judge believers because they do not know what we know. That’s the second phrase of verse 15—”He himself is not subject to any man’s judgment.” When the mighty philosophers of Athens called Paul a “seedpicker” (Acts 17:18 uses the word “babbler”), meaning something like “country bumpkin,” he ignored them and preached the gospel on Mars Hill anyway. In his mind, he said, “You aren’t qualified to pass judgment on me so I won’t pay any attention to what you say.” Later when Felix heard Paul preach about the resurrection of Christ, he said, “Paul, your great learning has driven you insane.” To which Paul replied, “I am not insane. What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:24-25). He went ahead and pressed the truth home to King Agrippa. He would not let an unbeliever who doesn’t understand stop him from preaching the gospel.
Think of it this way. We can understand unbelievers; they can’t understand us. We understand them because we were once just like them. They can’t understand us because they have never seen the light. A man who was blind and now sees can truly say, “I know what it’s like to be blind,” but the man who has always been blind can never say, “I know what it’s like to see.” That is why we must treat unbelievers with kindness, patience, with a winsome spirit and a gracious heart while we wait for God to open their eyes.
The saved know why the lost do what they do.
The lost have no clue about why the saved do what they do.
Verse 16 explains that we understand the things of God because we have been given the mind of Christ. That’s why even in the worst moments, believers can make sense of the puzzle of life. It’s not that we have all the answers or that tragedy never befalls us or that we have an easy road. But because we know the Lord, we understand the “big picture” of life, and even when the pieces don’t fit, we know there is a pattern to things that otherwise would make no sense. This gives us hope in the darkest moments and gives us faith to believe when we would otherwise give up.
This explains the fundamental difference between believers and unbelievers. Spiritual vision is always greater than intellectual brilliance.
Why don’t unbelievers understand? They can’t. They don’t have the Spirit. They need the “translator” of the Holy Spirit. Without that divine “translator” the gospel is just foolishness to them. That’s why they roll their eyes when you talk about Jesus. You might as well be talking Navajo to them. That’s why they laugh and make fun. That explains why you feel left out when they get together. You’ve got something they don’t have. You’ve got the Holy Spirit. They don’t. That makes all the difference in the world.
The Pig with the Pink Ribbon
What conclusions should we draw from all this?
First, this teaches the absolute necessity for regeneration by the Spirit of God. “You must be born again.” Education is good but it has its limits. You can’t educate a fish into an ostrich. You can educate a pig but you can’t educate him into a horse. You can improve yourself in many ways—and make your life better in the process—but that’s like cleaning a pig. Take a pig from the slop, clean him up, put a pink ribbon around his neck and let him go. He’ll run right back to the slop. Why? He’s still a pig! Don’t insult him for going back to the slop. What else would you expect a pig to do? The same is true in the spiritual realm. Only a radical transformation of the heart by the Holy Spirit can change a man from the inside out.
Second, wisdom and eloquence by themselves will never lead anyone to Jesus Christ. This does not argue against study and preparation, but it does mean that we will never argue anyone into the kingdom of God.
Third, unbelievers don’t see because they can’t see. Therefore, we should not get angry when unbelievers act like unbelievers. How else are they supposed to act? The deaf cannot hear, the blind cannot see, the lame cannot walk, the dead cannot move, and the natural man cannot understand the things of God.
Fourth, Christian preaching must always center on the Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is the heart and soul of our faith. The more we talk about Jesus, the better off we will be. The further we drift from him, the less help we can give to the world.
Fifth, the Christian faith is supernatural from first until last. It is not “natural” in any sense. Those operating on a purely human plane will not see it. They will attempt to explain it away or to laugh it off or to find some other explanation for it.
Sixth, all this ought to make us profoundly grateful for our own salvation. Once we were like the people of the world. We would still be that way if God had not touched our eyes and made them see, opened our ears and made them hear, touched our lips and bid them speak. He sent his Spirit and gave us life. No one was ever made worse by believing in Jesus. I never heard anyone say on his deathbed, “I wish I was lost again.” Thanksgiving is coming up in just a few days. If we are not profoundly grateful to God this year, shame on us. If our circumstances cause us to complain against the Lord, then we have forgotten how many wonderful things we have already received from his hand.
Seventh, we can be bold knowing that the people of the world are unqualified to stand in judgment over us. Let us speak the true gospel of Christ without fear of what others may say. If people don’t understand, it’s because they can’t understand. If they oppose the gospel, it’s because their eyes are blind to the truth. Let us be bold and humble at the same time. Later this week, many of us will gather around the table with family members and friends who do not know the Lord. And some of them will make rude comments about our faith. At this point the words of this passage become relevant. It’s easy to let people “get to us” with their unkind words. Paul would say, “Don’t worry about it. Uncle Joe is not qualified to judge your faith. Aunt Sally doesn’t understand and that’s why she says what she says.”
We should pray for God to open the eyes of those around us so that they might see what we have seen. Think of the work of evangelism as having two parts: We have the message and the Holy Spirit has the “translator.” Your words won’t work without a “translator” and the “translator” doesn’t do any good unless there are words that need translation. As you share Christ, pray for God to give your friends “the translator” that will help them understand what you are saying.
I close with a simple prayer for effective evangelism. It balances our part, God’s part, and the greatest need of those who don’t know Jesus: “Lord, give me the right words to say to those who don’t know you. And give them ears to hear the words you give me. Amen.”