The Spirit and the Word

What you think the Bible says…probably isn’t what it says.

In understanding what we believe and why we believe it, we have to take a hard look at how we interpret the Bible.  Most of us use the “What Strikes Me” (WSM)* model of Bible reading, understanding, interpreting, and application.  We read a passage, and whatever it makes us think, that’s what we believe it is supposed to mean.  We ignore the context of the passage – that it was written by a specific person, at a specific time, in a specific place, to a particular person or group of people, with deliberate purposes in mind.  We put ourselves in the passage, instead of understanding what it should mean, and then figuring out how that should work in our lives.  We then ascribe divine authority to our interpretation of the passage, because the Holy Spirit exists. 

Never mind the Holy Spirit exists in other believers who disagree with me.  Never mind even more that the Holy Spirit has indwelt his people for a few thousand years, and most of them disagree with you, too.  The Spirit exists, I read the Bible, and so what I think it means MUST be what it means.  We often get away with this because the meaning we apply to the verses is one that is already generally true (though not a true understanding of the passage in question), and thus most people wouldn’t give it a second though.

Speaking of that Spirit, a friend posted a passage from 1 Corinthians 2 recently that is an example of the type of verse we misinterpret.

“…For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 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. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

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 spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Co 2:10–16)

A common understanding of this passage is that Christians have the Holy Spirit, so they understand what others can’t.  Furthermore, “the spiritual person judges all things, but himself is judged by no one” implies the very idea I mention above – that I can judge the truth of a doctrine or interpretation, because I am a “spiritual” Christian.

But, what does this passage actually mean?  What was Paul’s point in writing it to the Corinthian believers in the first century?  Was he writing to tell them they don’t have to listen to anyone? If so, why does he spend time writing at least two letters to this congregation, telling them EXACTLY what to believe and how to act?  Do we honestly think that a letter meant to instruct new believers includes instructions not to accept instruction if they don’t agree with it…because the Holy Spirit?

A commenter on the post expressed this very idea. “The past few days I have been thinking about the importance of being filled with the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:4,8 Jesus commanded the disciples to be filled with the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 Jesus said, But the Comforter which is the Holy Ghost, the Father will send in my name, He shall TEACH you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you. Romans 8:14 Paul writes , there is therefore no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. 4. That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. So if we're not dependent on the Spirit to lead us in His Word we could be deceived. Ephesians 6:13-18 Tells us to put on the whole armour of God. v17b Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God; 18 Praying always with all.prayer and supplication in the Spirit.......Many other scriptures telling of the importance of being filled with the Spirit.”

This commenter, sweetly expressing her love for God and his activity in her life, quotes scripture and says true things.  But, almost none of it has anything to do with what those passages actually mean, and none of them relate to the passage quoted in the original post…except the mention of the Holy Spirit in those passages.

So, let’s look at the original quote from 1 Corinthians and understand its context.  The letter is written to address divisions within the church and immoral behavior. The first four chapters are the foundation for refuting wrong doctrines and wrong behavior in the remainder of the letter.  Paul both emphasizes his primacy in establishing the faith of the Corinthian church as an apostle, and contrasts, at length, the foolishness of the gospel message with the wisdom of the world.  In each of the “we” and “us” pronouns, Paul is not including his hearers, but his co-laborers Apollos and Cephas, bearers of the gospel message to the Corinthians.  When Paul says, “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. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual,” do we really think that in the midst of his proof of his authority, that he is suddenly telling the Corinthians that THEY impart and interpret to those who are spiritual?  Of course not.  But, because we know it is true that the Holy Spirit indwells believers, we make this jump all on our own, and we do not question our understanding. 

If we read the entire section (the beginning of the letter to the end of chapter 4) in the unity of its purpose, we can more easily avoid this misunderstanding.  We see Paul differentiating himself and his co-laborers from the Corinthians (“for WE are God’s fellow workers. YOU are God’s field, God’s building”).  We see Paul express how the Corinthians are NOT the “spiritual” that no one can judge, because they could not be addressed as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh.  We see Paul tell how the truth of our thinking and living will be revealed at the last day.  Such context SHOULD tell us that 1 Corinthians 2:10-16 has nothing to do with the Spirit indwelling a believer and giving him or her correct judgment in all things, but instead is about contrasting the truth of God’s word and the gospel with the fallen nature of the wisdom of the flesh. 

My friend’s commenter was 100% right – we need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God in understanding, believing, and living the Word of God, for the flesh will mislead us.  We just need to remember that…our flesh will mislead us – into thinking that my good idea is a God idea.


*WSM is taken from Jonathan Pennington's "Reading the Gospels Wisely"