1 Corinthians 1:19-21
For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.…
I. IN THE MEETING OF ST. PAUL AND THE OLD HEATHENDOM AT CORINTH THERE WAS EVERYTHING TO STIR EACH TO THE VERY INMOST OF ITS DEPTHS.
1. Every element of society here burst, as the whirlwind breaks on the giant of the forest, upon his whole intellectual, moral, and spiritual nature. In no city of the ancient paganism was the spirit of the world stronger. The grand families of the Bacchiadae, and even the descendants of the later dynasties of Cypselus and Periander, with their humanising ancestral recollections, had all perished by the sword of Mummius. A century later the discerning eye of Julius Caesar fixed on Corinth as the site of a colony; and it grew up marked by the unelastic hardness of the old soldier, and the elated baseness of the children of slaves. But, planted where it was, it could not but grow rich and prosperous. New Corinth gathered to itself the traders of the world, who multiplied at once its wickedness and its wealth. Many causes combined to promote the demoralisation of such a society. The wholesome lessons of ordinary labour were untaught within it. The barren soil of the Isthmus discouraged agriculture. Manufacture it had none. Trade, stained deeply by all the pollutions of heathendom, was everything in Corinth. Men met there to grow rich by all means, or to spend their acquired wealth in the most unrestrained sensuality. Religion amongst other powers ministered to their exaltation and amusement. The disputers of this world would speculate on Egyptian mysteries, mock at Jewish superstitions, trifle with Greek mythology, and be learned in Roman auguries. Each man took to himself his share of this distinction, and so believing himself wise, he in very deed became a fool. Into such a society the apostle cast himself with the doctrine of the Cross of Christ.
2. If the meeting moved to its lowest deep his mighty spirit, not less disturbing was it to every existing element of Corinthian society: not greater — if the sinewy arm of their fancied progenitor had cast one of their own hills into the blue waves which slept around their isthmus — not greater would have been the tumult of those riven waves, than was the shock to the moral stagnation of their sensual life by the casting in amongst them of the. marvellous doctrine which the apostle preached. We may mark its effects in the brief record of the Acts, and yet more in the two Epistles. In them we may trace the intense sharpness of the gospel conflict with the schismatic habits bred of a fierce democracy, with the gross sensuality of heathen voluptuaries, with the speculating temper of a false and unreal philosophy, with the cold scorn of abundant wealth which shut the rich and noble out of the heavenly election.
II. BUT WE MAY DISCERN THROUGHOUT THE CONFLICT AS THE FOUNDATION AND PROTECTING BARRIER OF ALL, OTHER FORMS OF EVIL, A SELF-ELATING PRIDE.
1. With this the apostle not darkly connects an outbreak within the new community of more than Gentile licentiousness; whilst everywhere outside the Church he speaks of it as the most insurmountable hindrance to the reception of the truth. "Where?" — looking round upon the gathered company with the saddened gaze of that discerning eye — he asks, "is the wise?" &c. Not one, he intimates, has listened to the gospel call.
2. It is not difficult to see why he thus treated this spirit of pride as his master antagonist. It was not merely because he ever remembered the guilty consequences of his own Jewish haughtiness, or because every circumstance of his own conversion was ever before his eyes; but it was pre-eminently a thorough insight into man's nature, and of the relations to it of the gospel which he preached.
3. For that nature does, indeed, bear its witness to the absolute need of humility as a prerequisite to all true learning. He who would learn the common truths of a business or an art, must, if that learning is to be successful, submit to take this posture of humility. As the truths to be mastered become more difficult of discovery, the need of humility increases. Upon almost every matter, some bias, preconception, assumption, troubles the course of discovery; and it needs a great humility of spirit to lay these down, and follow patiently the unlooked-for course. Yet without doing so progress is almost impossible. The history of philosophical discovery strikingly illustrates all this. Of old, man had gazed into the mystery of nature round him, and sought to impose upon it as laws the guesses of his own, often impatient, intellect. He came to it an unhumbled reasoner, and he learned nothing from it. Science was not, until man consented humbly to abandon theories, to be content to accumulate facts, and to let those facts teach him by degrees their often darkly intimated lesson. One of the greatest advancers of physiological knowledge in this land has been known to make ten thousand dissections whilst, setting experiment after experiment aside without gaining the clue he wanted, he followed fact after fact with humble conscientiousness, until at last the revelation which he longed for gladdened his heart. The greatest English discoverer of mathematical science records that he differed from others only in the greater largeness of his patience. Beyond, moreover, the humility of the mere waiting there must be humility in seeing old prepossessions swept away. No physician over forty, when Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood, ever received the new-found truth. The sacrifice of old opinions was too severe a trial of the humility of the learner.
4. But if in these comparatively cold and colourless inquiries humility must prepare the learner's mind, how vastly greater must be the need of it to him who would receive in their simplicity the secrets of moral and spiritual truth; for against these are arrayed not merely foregone intellectual conclusions, and the impatience which the spirit feels at their removal, and its weary shrinking from the labour of a troublesome and passionless inquiry, but also the restless and impetuous forces of the appetites and particular affections which resent the imposition of a new law of restraint, which is absolutely inconsistent with their habitual or uncontradicted enjoyments. Then the gospel required of men, who proudly deemed themselves the traditional possessors of that wonderful mythology which genius, art, language, scenery, and climate had conspired to make so beautiful, to cast it all aside; to receive, from what they deemed dull Jewish hands, a teaching which trampled on all these wonderful creations of the natural imagination; which, moreover, was not only exclusive, but unspeakably real; which claimed the whole man, his body and mind, his soul and spirit; which was not to be speculated on or disputed about, but was to be lived; which revealed to him such depths of corruption, guilt, and helplessness within himself, that he was altogether hopeless of pardon, unless the Eternal Son had died for him; and powerless for any good, unless the Blessed Spirit breathed into him the breath of a new life. Surely, then, we may see why in rich, self-exalted, trading, sensual Corinth, the preaching of that blessed gospel, in which was all the power of God, must have been "to the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness."
III. THE APPLICATION OF ALL THIS TO OURSELVES IS A MOST DIRECT ONE. We, too, must be converted and become as little children, or we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven; and there is much within us and around us leading us to resist the call. The trial is indeed largely various to men of different tempers, but to every one it is real, urgent, inevitable. To one the humiliation lies in the receiving simply the dogmas of the faith as the truth of God, instead of treating them as intellectual playthings, and so dissolving their reality in the fleeting colours of passing speculations, or developing from some supposed internal consciousness their supplements, or corrections, or substitutes. To another the trial is the curbing the appetites of the body and the particular affections of the mind by the law of the new kingdom. To another it is the yielding up the life to the one will of God. To another the receiving in its simplicity the atonement wrought for us by our Master's death, and craving meekly for the inpouring of His Spirit. To another it is the being led along, as the apostle speaks, with such lowly things as outward rules and institutions, whether it be of the Church or the particular society into which God's providence has cast us. How real is this trial, how inevitable are its issues!Conclusion:
1. Seek from God a special gift of His regenerating Spirit, a special sign of predestination unto life.
2. Set ever before your eyes the pattern of our Lord's humility. If the pathway be hard, His steps have trodden it.
3. Keep watch over thine heart with diligence and wisdom. Beware of the many wiles of the proud deceiving spirit. Seek to be, not to seem humble, No pride is deadlier in its working than the pride of being humble.
(Bp. S. Wilberforce.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.