Where Is the Wise?

by Spiros Zodhiates

 (Editor's note: Dr. Zodhiates continues his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:19-21).

"Where is the wise?" the Apostle Paul asked the people of Corinth more than 1900 years ago. Here, the Greek word for "wise" is sophs. People of the Ancient World called wise Greeks sophists. Today the term "sophist" is no compliment, since it means one who extends a false line of argument, sometimes with the purpose of deceitfully reaching his goal. The sophists of old soon became known as philosophers, a word we still use, meaning to be a "friend (phloi) of wisdom (sophas)." Of course, Paul here challenges the person who thinks himself wise while rejecting God's plan for man, in particular God's plan of salvation through the cross of Christ. No one is at all wise who refuses to let an almighty God save him in the way that He has deemed necessary.

The Folly of the Wise

Adolf Hitler said, "Nothing will prevent me from tearing up Christianity, root and branch. We are not out against 101 different kinds of Christianity, but against Christianity itself. All people who profess creedsare traitors to the people. Even those Christians who really want to serve the peoplewe have to suppress. I myself am a heathen to the core!"

The rate of Hitler's success in making good his boast is obvious from reading the words of a German prisoner camp chaplain. He wrote, "I wish you could have been present to see with what avidity the Bibles were received by the German prisoners of war. I am here to tell you that Hitler has not succeeded in eradicating the hope of the Christian faith from the hearts of his people." "Where is the wise?" Where is Hitler now?

It is said that the famous atheist Tom Paine, who wrote The Age of Reason, once asked Benjamin Franklin what he thought of the Bible. The only reply from Franklin was, "Tom, he who spits against the wind spits in his own face!"

In verse 20 Paul still has in mind the quotation from Isaiah he mentioned in verse 19. What resulted when the men of Judah forsook Jehovah's counsel and decided to place their trust in human wisdom? Who liberated them? Not the Egyptians or their own efforts, but God Himself.

Where are the wise leaders who thought safety and salvation from the Assyrians lay in an alliance with Egypt? Events proved otherwise. The Assyrian conqueror with his staff of clerks, accountants, and takers of inventory, who registered the details of the spoil of a captured city, disappeared (see Isa. 33:18).

As the International Critical Commentary says:

"On the tablet of Shalmaneser in the Assyrian Gallery of the British Museum there is a surprisingly exact picture of the scene described by Isaiah. The marvelous disappearance of the invading host was to Isaiah a signal vindication of Jehovah's power and care, and also a refutation, not so much of the conqueror's "scribes" as of the worldly counselors at Jerusalem, who had first thought to meet the invader by an alliance with Egypt, or other methods of statecraft, and had then relapsed into demoralized despair. St. Paul's use of the passage, therefore, although very free, is not alien to its historical setting."

Look at history, Paul seems to say, and you will not find the one who thought himself so wise proven to be right. In the case of Judah, it was not Egypt that saved her but the Lord. Where, therefore, is the wise who insisted that trusting the Egyptians is better than trusting God? "Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay [rely] on horses, and trust in chariots because they are many; and in horsemen because they are very strong, but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the Lord! Now the Egyptians are men, and not God" (Isa. 31:1, 3).

Sophs in verse 20 is not preceded by the definite article. This is true also of the other two adjectival nouns, "scribe" and "disputer." This indicates that Paul is not ridiculing the really wise, the true men of letters and the true arguer on behalf of God. These three constitute a class of their own. (See A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, pp. 757,764.) Paul challenges only those fools who think themselves wise—and our generation is full of them, as was Paul's.

Then Paul directs his challenge to another person he calls grammates, "scribe." Isaiah 33:18 asks the same question, "Where is the scribe?" He was a man of letters, of education. Acts 19:35 is the only instance in the New Testament which uses this word as the title of an Ephesian official in the ordinary Greek sense of "clerk" or "secretary." In fact, this is the modern Greek word for "secretary" today.

In the Hebrew sense, however, scribes were the theologians of the time of the Lord Jesus and of Paul. Paul himself seems to have been an ordained scribe, since he had a vote and a part in capital prosecutions (Acts 26:10). Thus we see that before his salvation, Paul was wise in his own eyes. He derived his condemnation of these attitudes against the cross of Christ's saving power from his personal experience.

Steeped in his traditional theological training, he fancied himself too smart for the cross of Christ. The Lord Jesus charged these scribes with lacking humility (Matt. 23:5), being selfish (Mark 12:40), and being insincere (Mark 12:40). They did not practice what they demanded in their teaching and preaching (Luke 11:46).

Thus Paul challenges the philosopher and the theologian by saying, "Where [the] wise? where [the] scribe or theologian?" They considered the central theme of Christianity—the cross of Christ—foolishness. So Paul says you can be a philosopher or a theologian and an utter fool as far as God is concerned. The Apostle was one himself before his salvation.

The poet Cowper was right when he said:

"Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much;              

Wisdom is humble that he knows no more."

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