Q: #559. Does (1 Cor 2:14) mean that no one can understand the Bible unless they have the Holy Spirit?
A: This subject was brought up in a recent Bible study I teach. One member said, “The Bible is spiritually discerned. It cannot be understood without the Holy Spirit.” Another member disagreed, saying that (1 Cor 2:14) did not mean that. My immediate reaction was to agree with the first member. I have even said that several times. However, I decided to look into it more deeply. What I found has changed my thinking! Let me share!
First, I need to say this, I DO believe that we need the Holy Spirit to fully understand the Bible. One will never be able to totally grasp the deeper meanings of things in the Bible without the Spirit. As I prepare to write or teach studies, I continually pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to guide me, lead me, teach me, and give me supernatural wisdom. I believe He has done this for me.
However, is it “impossible” to understand “anything” in the Bible without the Holy Spirit? I don’t think so, and I do not believe that this is what (1 Cor 2:14) is saying.
Of course, as always, looking at a Bible verse in context is crucial to understanding many verses in the Bible, and this verse is no exception.
We need to begin with an overview. First Corinthians is a letter to the Corinthian church from Paul. The primary purpose of this letter was for Paul to address numerous problems in the church at Corinth that were brought to his attention (see: 1 Cor 1:11, 1 Cor 7:1). These problems were:
Divisions within the church: Ch. 1-4
Immorality: Ch. 5
Lawsuits amongst believers: Ch. 6:1-8
Marriage: Ch. 7:1-24
Virgins: Ch. 7:25-40
Food offered to idols: Ch. 8
The proper way to worship (head coverings): Ch. 11:1-16
Abuses of the Lord’s Supper: Ch. 11:23-33
Abuses of spiritual gifts: Ch. 12-14
False teachings concerning the resurrection: Ch. 15
Next, let’s look at several key verses in Chapter 1:
(1 Cor 1:18) “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”
(1 Cor 1:22-23) “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: (23) But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”
What is the “preaching of the cross,” and “Christ crucified” referring to? The Gospel, right? To the unsaved, the Gospel is “foolishness.” If you look at the other verses in (1 Cor 1:18-31), they elaborate on this.
So, now we come to Chapter 2. In verses 1-5, Paul talks about how when he “came to” the Corinthians, his primary focus was on the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
Moving to (1 Cor 2:7), I believe this is a key verse in understanding verse 14. It says, “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory.” What is this “wisdom of God” that is “a mystery…. which God ordained before the world?”
It is an interesting study to look at things in the New Testament that are called a “mystery.” The Greek word for “mystery” is “musterion,” and it is used 27 times in the New Testament. Some of the things called a “mystery” are: “the marriage union between Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32), “salvation for the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25), and “the Rapture” (1 Cor 15:51-52).
In addition, “Christ” is called a “mystery” in (Col 2:2)(1 Tim 3:16)(Eph 3:4)(Eph 1:7-9)(Col 1:26-27), and so is the “Gospel” (Eph 6:19). This is important, and I believe this is what is being referred to as the “mystery” here. Verse 8 (NASB) points pretty clearly to this, saying, “the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” In other words, if the “rulers of this age” (the Jewish leaders who were primarily responsible for Christ’s crucifixion) had “understood” (“known” – KJV) the “mystery,” (“Jesus” and “the Gospel”) they “would not have crucified Jesus.”
***Note: It is important to understand that when a “mystery” is spoken of in the New Testament, it almost always means “something that had previously been concealed or unknown, that was now revealed.” In relation to “Jesus” and “the Gospel,” they were a “mystery” because they were not “revealed” until the New Testament. There were numerous “types and shadows” which pointed to Jesus in the Old Testament (i.e. manna, the bronze serpent, the Passover lamb, blood sacrifices) (and even some pre-incarnate visits from Jesus), but the “full revelation” of Jesus and the Gospel was a “mystery” until Jesus actually appeared in the New Testament.
Both the appearance of Jesus, and His words (the Gospel) made the “mystery” no longer a “mystery.” He “revealed” the “mystery” to the Jews, and the Jewish leaders (the “rulers of this age”), but they (most) didn’t “understand” it. They didn’t believe it. They wouldn’t accept it. If they had, they “would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
So, why did they fail to “understand” and accept the “mystery” that was Jesus and the Gospel? I believe the next verse tells us. (1 Cor 2:10) “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” Jesus, and the Gospel are “revealed” to us by the “Spirit.”
Paul continues in Verses 11-13 to explain that people need the Spirit of God to “understand” the things of God.
Now, we get to the verse that is the focus of this study: (2 Cor 2:14) “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (NASB – “appraised”).”
***Note: “Discerned” = Gr. “anakrino” “Anakrino” is defined by Strong’s as: “to scrutinize i.e. (by impl.) investigate, interrogate, determine. As a verb, means “to judge.”” It is actually the same word translated as “judgeth / judged” in the next verse (1 Cor 2:15).
Again, the common interpretation of this verse is: “The Bible is “spiritually discerned,” and without the Holy Spirit, one cannot understand the Bible.” But, keeping in mind the context we have laid out, is that what this verse is saying? I don’t think so. Paul’s focus to this point has been on the “Gospel,” and “Jesus” (the “mystery”). I find nothing in the New Testament that calls “the Bible” a “mystery.”
So, here is what I think this verse means. I believe the New Testament clearly tells us that the Gospel can be understood by anyone. In fact, it is so simple that a child can understand it (Lk 18:16-17)(Mk 10:14-15)(2 Tim 3:15). I do not believe we need the Holy Spirit to “understand” the Gospel. However, here is the problem. When the “natural man” (an unsaved person) (verse 14) sees / hears and understands the message of the Gospel, it is “foolishness” to him (1:18 – “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness”). To the “natural man,” the Gospel message that he is a sinner, that he can do nothing to save himself, that only through Jesus can his sins be atoned for, and that he must humble himself (man is by nature “proud”) and accept Jesus’ payment for his sins is “foolishness.”
How does the “natural man” go from thinking that the Gospel is “foolishness” to understanding that it isn’t: The Holy Spirit! The “GOSPEL” is “spiritually discerned.” We are clearly told that no man can come to Jesus unless they are first “drawn by God the Father” (Jn 6:44). The Father uses the Holy Spirit, who is “truth” (Jn 15:26)(Jn 16:13), to “convict the world of sin” (Jn 16:8). In other words, in order for a person to move from thinking that the Gospel is “foolishness,” to thinking that it is not, that person must be “supernaturally” drawn by the Father, and “convicted” by the Holy Spirit. When this occurs, salvation “can” occur (“can” = this drawing and conviction can be resisted: Jn 5:40, Mt 23:37, Acts 7:51, Lk 7:29-30).
Does that make sense? Therefore, again, while I do believe that the Holy Spirit is VERY important in having a solid understanding of the Bible, in context, (1 Cor 2:14) is speaking about the role of the Holy Spirit in “discerning” the “Gospel,” and not the “Bible” as a whole. I believe the “natural man” can understand the simplicity of the Gospel, but it is “foolishness” to him until the Father and Holy Spirit move in that man to convince him that it is not.