“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . .The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritual discerned.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Now we’re getting into some tough stuff here (and we’re only into the second of 16 chapters!). Let’s start with what Paul seems to be saying and then we’ll deal with whether or not it’s true and what it means.
First, it seems like Paul is saying that a person who is not a follower of Jesus is not going to be able to understand either the Christian faith or the Scriptures properly. How utterly offensive! Is he saying they aren’t smart enough to understand it? Or, is it some kind of secret knowledge that’s only passed along to those who have been properly initiated? Better yet, maybe there’s a code to it that the dedicated can crack, but not anyone else? Is any of that what he’s saying?
I don’t think so. Rather, Paul is arguing that the Christian faith and the Scriptures themselves are an inherently spiritual thing. Because of that, if we come to them naturally, that is, on our own, there’s a certain level at which folks aren’t going to understand them. As an imperfect illustration, think of it like something that is an acquired taste. Let’s go with classical music. Classical music is an acquired taste. For those folks who haven’t learned to understand and enjoy it, the thought of being made to listen to a whole symphony can seem about as enjoyable as having your fingernails plucked out slowly by pliers.
But, once you have learned a little more about how the music works and the musical genius of some of its greatest composers you suddenly find pleasure in what you didn’t understand before, much less like. You begin to listen to great pieces of music and can hear the story behind them. You begin to recognize composers by their style. You hear movements and themes in ways you never did before. A whole world has opened up to you that wasn’t accessible before because you weren’t seeing it through the right lens.
The same is true, or so Paul argues, with the Christian faith. Until you see it through the proper set of lenses (i.e. the Holy Spirit), there are parts of it that are not going to make any sense. There are parts of the Scriptures that will seem utterly ridiculous. Going one step further, Paul even seems to be arguing that absent the guiding help of the Holy Spirit, no one will become a follower of Jesus.
This brings us to part two: Is this true? Well, in a word, yes. At a certain level, the life of Jesus and the Scriptures themselves will not make sense to someone without the help of the Holy Spirit.
Paul is right that they are spiritual things. Unless a person approaches them from that position, there are parts that will remain elusive. You can, for instance, do your research and write up a clear, concise summary of the major truth claims of the Christian faith. But, without the Spirit’s help you will neither accept them nor see their surpassing wisdom. You can do an academic study of the Scriptures as a work of ancient literature. Many people do. There are whole doctoral dissertations focused on the Bible written by people who do not believe a word that it says. And indeed, without the help of the Spirit, they will not. There is understanding and insight about the Scriptures available to Jesus followers that folks who have not so given themselves will never have until they do.
Now to part three: What does this mean? It seems to mean that Christianity is a pretty exclusive club. We’re making promises of great rewards, but only for those who are willing to jump off a cliff in faith and accept our nonsense until they have been properly brainwashed and can blindly accept it themselves. Is this the case?
Well, there is at least a grain of truth to this. The Christian faith is a bit of an exclusive club that will always and only best be understood by those who are on the inside. Here, though, we need to draw a line. The Christian faith is an exclusive club with great perks made available only to its members, but membership is open to anyone who is interested in having it regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done. The exclusivity is found in the number who actually join, not in the number who are invited to do so.
For those who are even passingly interested, the Holy Spirit rushes in ready to give them an understanding boost the moment they say they’re ready for it. But, He never forces Himself on anyone. When a person gets to the point of saying, “Yeah, there may be a grain of truth to all that,” the Spirit is standing by to affirm them and invite them personally to explore that thought more and more until they can see the whole thing.
When it comes to the Scriptures themselves, they are the primary medium, after Christ, by which God has chosen to reveal Himself to the world. They are His words (recorded by individual authors who were inspired and led by His Spirit in their writing) and He still uses them today to draw us into a fuller, more life-transforming relationship with Him rooted in an ever-deepening understanding of who He is. If a person does not accept any of that and believes the whole thing is so much nonsense, how well do you suppose he’ll be listening? God may be speaking, but he’s not hearing.
Again: God never forces Himself. Until a person is ready to say, “Yes, this could be true. Would you help me, Lord, understand it better,” (a prayer, by the way, that He is always ready to answer–although since He doesn’t often open our heads and plunk in knowledge cold, His answer may very well be an increase in our desire to study it more and to put others in our path who can help us understand it more as He did with Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch), she will neither hear nor accept His voice. When she is, though, God is ready to send all the help she will need via the Holy Spirit.
Here’s the more important truth in all of this: God wants to be found by us. He wants to be understood by us. He wants to be in a relationship with us. If we are interested at all, He is there, ready to help us along the way. But until we are, He won’t force on us understanding we do not yet desire. That would not be loving or respecting of the freedom He made us to enjoy.
Let me end with the moral of the story: While it is true that the faith and the Scriptures that proclaim it are ultimately inaccessible to outsiders, for anyone who is even fleetingly interested in knowing more, there is help aplenty to make sure they can. This teaching from Paul may sound hard, but it is really just a description of reality paired with an invitation to live in it. If you want to know God more, ask Him. He’ll answer. It may not be in the way you expect, but it will be in the way you need.