“Now the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned” – (1 Corinthians 2:14).
How many times have we had this passage quoted to us? Why, only those who are “spiritually minded” can hope to understand the things of God! Your spirit must be in synch with His Spirit to perceive what He is doing! Or words to that effect. But is that what Paul is saying in this passage?
Overused and abused, both within and without the church, the English term ‘spiritual’ has become virtually meaningless. To some, it is synonymous with religion – To be religious is to be spiritual. To others, especially Christians, “spiritual” refers to things that are not of this earth – Immaterial, invisible, timeless.
To be “spiritual” is to understand the “spirit realm” – Where physicality, visibility, and time apparently do not exist. It is not just an alternate reality, but a higher realm of which our physical existence is a pale imitation and poor substitute. To be “spiritual” is to experience the unseen realm – to peer into the “spirit world,” and thus, to perceive the true realities behind the things that we see with our woefully inadequate eyes and hear with our dull ears.
Certainly, this otherworldly sense conforms to the tenets of ancient Gnosticism, and to many of the philosophical ideas of Neoplatonism. But is it biblical? Is spirituality linked to one’s ability to peer into the “spirit realm?”
Contrary to our practice, the Greek term for “spiritual” is used sparingly in the New Testament – (pneumatikos). It occurs only 26 times, and in only one instance outside of the letters of Paul. Of the remaining 25 occurrences, 16 or over half are found in 1 Corinthians. This is not coincidental. One group at Corinth pointed to their exercise of the gift of tongues as evidence of their superior “spirituality.” Paul responded by presenting what true spirituality is – Christ crucified – (1 Peter 2:5).
The Greek term pneumatikos is an adjective that signifies that which pertains to or belongs to the spirit. Whether by “spirit” is meant the Spirit of God or something else must be determined from context. In the case of this passage,clearly, Paul was referring to the Spirit of God, not to our human “spirits” or “spiritual nature”:
(1 Corinthians 2:10-14) – “But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, the things of God none knows, save the Spirit of God. But we received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God, which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now, the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged…But he that is spiritual judges all things, and he himself is judged of no man.”
In short, the man or woman who is “spiritual” has “received the Spirit of God.” A problem with understanding the term “spiritual” is how we use it. If we could remove all mystical aspects from its usage, we would come to a clearer understanding of Paul’s point.
For example, when Paul complained to the Corinthians – “I could not speak to you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal” – the adjective is in the plural number and masculine gender. That is, “spiritual men.” If we rendered it “Spirit people,” we would approach the intended sense. Believers are identified by their possession of the Spirit of God, which is why Paul was so surprised the Corinthians were behaving as though they had not received it. To be a “natural man” is to be without the Spirit of God. A man or woman who has received the Spirit is, by definition, a man or woman of the Spirit and ought to act accordingly.
So, what does the Spirit of God teach His people, those who have received His Spirit?:
“Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified – To Jews, scandal; To Gentiles, folly – But to them who are called – both Jews and Greeks – Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” – (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
To a devout and patriotic first-century Jew, a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms; truly, an oxymoron. The very idea that Yahweh would allow His anointed king, the “son of David” to be crucified by Israel’s greatest enemy, Rome, was scandalous. By definition, a man who was left “hanging on a tree” was cursed by God – (Deuteronomy 27:26, Galatians 3:10).
To the Gentile, the very suggestion that the answer to humanity’s plight was the shameful execution of a powerless man for sedition against the world’s mightiest empire was sheer nonsense. Yet, it was by this very horrific event, the public crucifixion of His Messiah, that God achieved victory over sin, death, and Satan. Therefore, the proclamation of “a crucified Messiah” was the “wisdom and power of God” – An event that was physical, occurred on the earth and within history and time, and was all too visible.
Thus, when Paul first arrived in Corinth, he did not use eloquent speech or the philosophical wisdom of this age. Instead, not despite but in his human weaknesses, he proclaimed Christ crucified – (“For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”). His message was not “in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not stand in human wisdom, but in the power of God.”
Paul had just defined the “wisdom and power of God” – Christ crucified. Thus, by the “power of God” he did not mean great miraculous displays of “signs and wonders.” He came to the Corinthians “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” yet, his very scandalous and foolish proclamation of “Christ crucified” became the power of God that brought salvation to the church at Corinth.
In contrast, the “rulers of this age” did not understand genuine wisdom. If they had, they would not have “crucified the Lord of glory,” and thus sealed their own doom. By the “rulers of this age,” Paul meant the nonhuman entities he elsewhere described as the “principalities, the powers, the world-rulers of this darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies.” Presumably, at least according to popular interpretations, otherworldly creatures not subject to the restraints of time, visibility, or physicality. Yet, they were incapable of comprehending what God was about to do through the execution of His Son.
In this epistle, Paul dealt with another erroneous conclusion by the same group that boasted of their spirituality and “wisdom” – The denial of the future bodily resurrection. The very first thing Paul preached to the Corinthians was that “Christ died for our sins, was buried, and raised from the dead on the third day.” His death was only the first part of the story – God raised him bodily from among the dead, the very basis of the Christian hope of resurrection life.
The resurrection of the righteous dead is foundational to the biblical faith, yet today, it is largely a forgotten hope in too many churches, and virtually a nonexistent one in the Charismatic Movement. Popular preaching has replaced redemption with escape and abandonment. Salvation is achieved by sloughing off the old body with its weaknesses and escaping the restrictions of the God’s good creation. “Real” spirituality in found in the “spirit realm,” whatever that is. Regardless, Paul warned the super-spiritual “wise” men in Corinth that:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith also is vain…And if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins. Then they also that are fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable. But now has Christ been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them who sleep” – (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).
When Jesus returns at the end of the age, the righteous dead will be raised and the “last enemy, death” will cease. Yes, the resurrection body will be a body of a different sort – a “spiritual body” – Nevertheless, a body it will be. Though characterized and dominated by the Spirit, it will be an embodied existence.
At the end of his dialogue, Paul broke into praise, not because the saints will escape from time, the visible creation, physicality, or our bodies, but because:
“The dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For, this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But, when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”
The problem is NOT life under the (supposed) restraints of time, physicality, or visibility, but instead, sin – The disobedience to God that resulted in humanity and the creation itself being subjected to disease, decay, and death. The biblical answer is NOT escape and abandonment, but redemption – The bodily resurrection. As Paul wrote to the churches at Rome:
“For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation is groaning and travailing in pain together until now. And, not only so, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” – (Romans 8:20-23).
Power, spirituality, wisdom – All are found in “Christ crucified.” Demons know “God is one and tremble.” Nowhere does the Bible teach that the Spirit of God is incompatible with HIS creation – It is sin that separates men from His presence.
A faith that denies or denigrates the good creation of God, including its aspects of time, physicality, and visibility, is NOT biblical, NOT Christian, and certainly is NOT “spiritual.”
God created the entire universe, including the realm of time and the human body, and He called ALL OF IT “good!” Adam’s problem was not his embodied nature, but his disobedience to God. Death and bondage entered the Cosmos because of sin!
Christians who strive to peer into the “spirit realm” to gain insight into the nature of God or understanding what He is doing, are looking in all the wrong places. Look to Jesus, the Savior who died a genuine human death on a Roman cross, was buried, and raised on the third day.