The opening chapters of 1 Corinthians have a lot to say about wisdom. According to the Apostle Paul, there are two different kinds of wisdom:

  1. the wisdom of the world (a.k.a. the wisdom of this age, wisdom according to the flesh, the wisdom of men, human wisdom) and
  2. the wisdom of God.

The wisdom of the world is naturally enticing to us, because it sounds great. It is characterized by “superiority of speech” (1 Cor. 2:1) and “persuasive words of wisdom” (2:4). Yet we are warned that this worldly wisdom will be destroyed (1:19), and that the worldly wise will be put to shame (1:27).

So how are we supposed to distinguish between these two wisdoms, especially when the world’s wisdom is so attractive? It’s really quite simple: the wisdom of God finds its ultimate expression in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Any so-called wisdom that does not result in the lifting up of Jesus Christ as the greatest good is a wisdom that is, at best, passing away.

Christ Himself is the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24, 30), which is why the Apostle Paul determined to know nothing among the Corinthians (a very sophisticated people) “except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2). The Holy Spirit particularly highlights the cross of Christ as displaying God’s wisdom, telling us that God deliberately chose something the world would scoff at—the shame and weakness of Christ’s crucifixion—to distinguish His own wisdom from that of the world. In fact, God has so distinguished His wisdom in this way (by displaying His power in worldly weakness), that we cannot expect to have the approval of the world if we are pursuing God’s wisdom in Christ.

Because of this, we must always be on our guard against the temptation to appear wise in the eyes of the world. 1 Corinthians 3:18 says, “If any man among you thinks he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise.” The foolishness the Apostle Paul speaks of here is foolishness in the eyes of the world. He’s saying we must not be afraid to appear foolish in our pursuit of the wisdom of God. If we are, it will keep us from knowing Christ.

The Apostle Paul was not afraid to look like a fool. He had the learning and the pedigree to speak with great eloquence, but he intentionally chose to set aside “cleverness of speech” (1 Cor. 1:17) so that his listeners would be impressed by Christ, and not by Paul. Sadly, there are preachers who make a name for themselves by preaching so as to impress their hearers with their cleverness of speech. This sometimes passes under the name of “contextualization.” Tim Keller was a master of this. His admirers have often boasted in the following qualities of his preaching:

Tim’s preaching style was cerebral, culturally sophisticated, conversational, and nonabrasive. There was a “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord” spirit to his ministry. Above all he had a passion for biblical text and was able to impart that passion to his audience.1

The most commendable part of that description is the last sentence. And yet, the Apostle Paul still never said the goal of his preaching was to impart his “passion for biblical text” to his “audience.” As we were reminded in a recent sermon, Paul said the goal of his instruction was “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Of course, it’s possible for hearers to get the wrong idea and focus on the wrong things, even in faithful preaching. Whether or not projecting sophistication was Tim Keller’s goal, we should realize it should not be the goal of any preacher of God’s Word to impress his audience with his superior rhetoric. And the fact that what was most noteworthy to many about Keller’s preaching was that it was “cerebral, culturally sophisticated, conversational, and nonabrasive” should cause great concern.

This online review from an unbeliever who adored Keller’s preaching is telling:

So get this: when I return home to beloved Gotham [New York City], the only two things I make sure to do are 1) take dance class at Alvin Ailey and 2) go to Redeemer.2

And I’m not even a Christian.

That’s right. I’m one of those pluralist Christian-y-Buddhist-y-New-Age-y fusions who has a hard time finding a Christian church that accepts all of me (I know, Unitarian Universal much?) or a pastor that is smart, logical, and sounds like an Ivy League professor.

Tim Keller is that. (not the accepts all part, but the pastor part)

Tim Keller MAKES Redeemer. (Sorry, other pastors, he does.) My Jesus-loving ex and I accidentally went to one of the other pastors’ sermons and I nearly fell asleep. I will chase Tim Keller all over Manhattan to make his sermon, Upper East (Hunter College), Upper West (81st St. church), I don’t care. Even when I disagree with him, I don’t care. I just love so much how he delivers, how he formulates his arguments, how compelling they are. Even if you’re not Christian, go to hear a great orator hearken back to the Roman Forum.3

Understand, there is nothing wrong with formulating compelling arguments. There were certainly preachers in the Bible who did so. Take Stephen, for instance. In Acts 6, we are told that some men “rose up and argued” with him, but that they were “unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:9–10). But let us pay attention to the results of Stephen’s superior wisdom. When Stephen preached to these men, he did not walk away from his sermon with the praises of his audience ringing in his ears. In fact, he didn’t walk away at all; they stoned him. The outcome of his wise words was a deep conviction of sin that led to violent aggression from those who were opposed to the Lord Jesus Christ and His servants.

Thankfully, this is not always the response to faithful preaching in a worldly place. When the Apostle Paul preached in Athens, “some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ … But some men joined him and believed” (Acts 17:33–34). Let us praise God that some believe when they hear the “foolish” message about Jesus Christ dying for sinners. Let us praise Him that, by His grace, “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12).

But let us also seek to grow continually in wisdom, so that we might turn away from preaching that satisfies our “itching ears”4 by flattering us and making us think we are wise in this age. Good preaching—the preaching of Stephen and Paul—convicts us of our sins and calls us to repent of those sins. That is the only thing that will drive us to place our hope in the cross of Christ.


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References
1Peter Wehner, “My Friend, Tim Keller,” The Atlantic, May 21, 2023, accessed February 12, 2024, here.
2I.e., Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where Tim Keller was pastor at the time.
3Sophia C., review of Redeemer East Side on Yelp, October 22, 2008, accessed February 12, 2024, here.
42 Tim. 4:3 (ESV, NKJV).