Misunderstood Scripture — 1 Corinthians 2.9

“No one has ever seen,
   no one has ever heard,
no one has ever imagined
   what Yahweh has prepared for those who love God.”

I’m sure you’ve seen this verse quoted many times. It’s on bumper stickers. Posters. Daily Bread blessing cards. Memory verse flashcards. And, most recently, one will find it on memes in social media. The idea is that God still has something hidden out there for you. God’s got a plan for you—bigger than anything you could ever imagine—hidden away and past finding out.

But that’s wrong.

This is one of those verses that’s continually quoted out of context. Maybe purposefully or maybe it just shows our lack of biblical understanding. Either way, it drives me a little mad (like in “as a hatter”).

So, the purpose of this post is to do some good ol’ fashioned exegesis of the verse. We’ll seek the context of the verse, the passage, and the letter as a whole. But, we’ll do all of this in reverse order.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians2

Many of us come to the Bible thinking that it speaks to us about things we’re going through. That “God” wrote it to us about our current situations. That’s the furthest from the truth. The Bible is a library of many different types of literature—poems, epic adventures, wisdom, letters, myths (in the classic sense of the word), biographies, genealogies, and, yes, even some history. This library was written by ancient peoples thousands of years in the past about their lives. It’s about their encounters with the Creator God. About their struggles. About their accomplishments. It’s about their pain and their suffering. It’s about their victories and successes. It’s about shame. It’s about hope.

But, in all of this, it’s first and foremost a library containing stories about someone else’s life with God. Through it we can see the understanding of this God evolve until it reaches its climax in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And then, everything else that came before—every understanding, every observation, every law—had to be rethought and re-examined in light of Jesus. That’s what a lot of the New Testament is about.

We must keep this in mind when we read the Bible. I know it’s hard, but that’s the reality of the situation. Furthermore, each of us will never be separated from our own story. That is, when we come to the Bible, we have our own lenses through which we read and interpret it. In other words, we’re biased. All of us are. But that’s okay as long as we recognize that.

The overall context of 1 Corinthians

This first letter to the Corinthians was written in the spring of 55CE or there abouts. And while some scholars have questioned the authorship of some of the other letters attributed to Paul, this letter falls into the “undisputed” category. Paul is widely accepted to be its author, even though he used a secretary to do the actual writing (see 16.213). However, some question the authenticity of 14.34-354.

In this letter, Paul set out to address many of the contentions and concerns of the followers of The Way of Jesus at Corinth—from their petty differences (which apostle one was following; 1.10-13), to down-right shocking (someone sleeping with his stepmother; 5.1), to drunken parties at Eucharist (11.17ff), to denying the resurrection of Jesus (15.12ff). Needless to say, Paul had his hands full!

But notice one thing in that previous paragraph—this letter was addressed to the followers of The Way of Jesus in Corinth in 55CE (1.2). The point is, as noted above, this letter was written to other people; it’s not “God’s love letter to us.” Like Paul wrote in chapter 10, “These things happened to them as examples for us” (10.11, emphasis added; this is a key passage that we’ll address anon).

In fact, that’s a huge point. Paul was addressing things that those people were going through. He wasn’t addressing us, our time, nor our issues. These were real people with real issues and the letters have to address them and their situations. What I’m trying to say is this; before we can even think about looking for ways of applying passages of the Bible to our situations, the job of the Bible student is to determine what the passage meant to the original audience. Then, if there’s a parallel, we can look for application in our time.

The context of the passage

So, what’s Paul’s point in the passage before us? What was the issue and the context of his comments?

In the first half or so of the letter, Paul was addressing the various places where the people had gotten trapped in falseness. To put it bluntly—there were some people who were living in a constant state of “sin,” of missing the mark. Paul addresses this at the very beginning of the letter:

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus the Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? (1.10-13; adapted).

We see here that people were divided into cliques. And, as you can imagine, in those divisions people looked down on the others not in their group. And then there are those who place themselves above all of those petty differences and claim that they belong to Christ. Each group sees themselves as holding on to the purity of the gospel and they see the others as tainted or unclean. Each group sees themselves as better than the others; that they’re somehow more wise or more intelligent or, yes, even more holy than those people of the other groups. Those other people have let some heresy in.

But Paul counters that thinking in the following verses (18.ff). He claims that it’s not human intelligence but God’s wisdom that rescued humanity (verses 20-25). After giving this generalization about how God dealt with all people, Paul turns his attention to the Corinthians. He tells them that, according to human understanding, they’re foolish, weak, and low-class. But God chose them to shame the wise, the powerful, and the upper-class! It’s because of this that they shouldn’t look down on each other. They’ve been chosen for this specific purpose. Sure, they don’t have “worldly” credentials, but that’s the whole point. If they did, then, no big deal. It’s because of their limitations that makes the story so powerful. The Corinthians shouldn’t look down on each other, then, but, instead, see themselves as the beginning of something greater than even the brightest minds could ever dream of.

Paul then says, in rare form for him, that he was exactly the same when he came to them (2.1-5). Oh, he could have come with big words, deep theological insight, and the like, but, instead, he came only with “weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking” (verse 3). This was so that the Corinthians could see a pattern, not in the way of conventional wisdom, but in the power of God’s wisdom (verses 4-5). But what is that wisdom? And why hasn’t anyone ever noticed it before?

The context of the verse

Paul says, this wisdom had been “hidden as a secret” (verse 7). Paul says that,

“God determined this wisdom in advance, before time began, for our glory. It’s a wisdom that none of the present-day rulers have understood, because if they did understand it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory” (verses 7-8, emphasis added; adapted).

This is a key to the whole thing. I emphasised the parts that are crucial. Please notice that Paul stated that God hid this wisdom until Paul’s generation. It was for their glory. But not just anyone from that generation. The rulers of Paul’s day didn’t discover God’s wisdom because, if they would have, they wouldn’t have killed Jesus. In other words, all of history was mounting to that point in time. It was then “when the right time came” (Galatians 4.4, NLT5; cf., Mark 1.15; 1 Timothy 2.6), God chose to rescue creation through the death of Jesus. But that plan couldn’t be revealed. If it had been divulged beforehand, the rulers of Paul’s time wouldn’t have let it be carried out.

“But,” Paul says, “this is precisely what’s written” (verse 9) and then he quotes Isaiah 64.4:

“No one has ever seen,
   no one has ever heard,
no one has ever imagined
   what Yahweh has prepared for those who love God.”

“But wait!” Paul says. “There’s more.”

But God has shown us these things through the Spirit. The Spirit knows all things. The Spirit even knows the deep secrets of God” (verse 10, ERV; emphasis added).

In other words, the thing that God prepared, the thing that was hidden, the thing that “no one has ever seen or has ever heard or has ever even imagined” isn’t hidden any longer! It’s been revealed! That hidden thing, that mystery, was God planned to rescue creation through the death of Jesus!

Paul says that he knows this to be true because he’s been given God’s own Spirit. “It’s the Spirit,” Paul says, “that knows the deep secrets of God.” Just as a person’s spirit, the inner voice, knows her deep secrets, so God’s Spirit knows God’s secret. And that Spirit revealed God’s secret because that Spirit lives within Paul. That’s why Paul can’t use human logic or wisdom to explain God’s secret. “We use words taught to us by the Spirit,” he says (verse 13, ERV).

“We use the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. People who don’t have God’s Spirit don’t accept the things that come from the Spirit. They think these things are foolish. They cannot understand them, because they can only be understood with the Spirit’s help” (verses 13-14, ERV; adapted).

This is why the leaders of Paul’s day couldn’t understand what was going on—they didn’t have God’s Spirit within them.

But the followers of The Way of Jesus in Corinth have God’s Spirit. That’s why there shouldn’t be cliques. God’s secret has been revealed to them. Even though they’re not the brightest or the most powerful or even the wealthiest, God used them to show the world what true wisdom and power and wealth really looks like. It’s the multi-talented, multicultural, multi-humanness of people who follow The Way of Jesus that make up the manifestation of God’s Realm in creation. It’s through them that God’s Realm would continue to grow throughout all of creation.

So, the next time you see 1 Corinthians 2.9 quoted out of context, remember 1 Corinthians 10.11—“Those things happened to them as examples for us.” God isn’t hiding another secret. There was only one secret and God already revealed it two thousand years ago—

God planned to rescue all of creation —
yes even you,
our families,
our friends,
our enemies—
through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
And it has been accomplished!
We’re God’s co-workers in revealing this to the world.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1. Scripture quotations marked (ERV) are from the Easy to Read Version. Copyright © 2006 by World Bible Translation Center.
2. Or is this the second letter? See 1 Corinthians 5.9.
3. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from The Common English Bible. Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible.
4. And with good reason, in my opinion. That passage seems forced and makes no sense in the immediate context (14.26-33). It also seems to contradict what Paul stated previously (see 11.5).
5. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


Beth Krajewski said…
Always good to check a verse or two before and after one of these popular ones! Putting this together with what we know of the church at Corinth and the verse that comes after is certainly key to a good understanding. Thanks, Jack+

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