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First Corinthians 2--The Role of Spirit and Soul

Mar 02, 2017

In 1 Corinthians 2:9, 10 Paul begins to set forth the source of divine revelation, saying,

9 but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” 10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.

Paul was quoting from Isaiah 64:4. If we look at the passage in Isaiah in its context, beginning in verse 1, we can see what the prophet was saying.

1 Oh, that Thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Thy presence—2 as fire kindles the brush-wood, as fire causes water to boil—to make Thy name known to Thine adversaries! 3 When Thou didst awesome things which we did not expect. Thou didst come down, the mountains quaked at Thy presence. 4 For from of old they have not heard nor perceived by ear, neither has the eye seen a God besides Thee, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.

Isaiah was looking back to Mount Horeb under Moses, when God rent the heavens and came down as fire and spoke the word to Israel. The mountain quaked at His presence, and He made His name (nature) known. The prophet says in verse 3 that God did the unexpected. God spoke audibly to them.

But as we know from Exodus 20:18-21, the people were too fearful to hear the voice of God through their physical ears. The divine fire burning before their eyes frightened them. So they refused to hear His voice and sent Moses up the mount to hear God on their behalf.

In this context, he writes verse 4, which Paul quotes. Isaiah says that there are two kinds of people in this scenario. First, there are those (the majority) who “have not heard nor perceived by ear, neither has the eye seen.” In other words, the revelation of truth could not be known through their physical ears and eyes. Secondly, there are the few who wait for Him—those who approach Him unafraid to hear His voice.

The difference between these two groups is explained by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:10,

10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.

Two Identities in Conflict

As Paul develops his teaching in the rest of the chapter, we see that the majority of the people do not hear or see, because these are faculties of the soul, rather than of the spirit. Verse 14 says,

14 But a natural man [the inner man called elsewhere the “old man”] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

The “natural” man is literally the “soulish man,” for the Greek word is psychikos, from psyche, “soul.” Today, psychology is the study of the human mind. Hence, the old man, which we received from Adam—who was made a living soul—is the soulish man within each of us. It is the identity into which we were all born, and it is equipped with a carnal mind.

Paul says that the human mind, by which the soul thinks and reasons, is incapable of receiving or understanding the revelation of God. The Greeks depended upon the soul to understand all of their philosophies. The Greek mind, then, considered divine wisdom and logic to be foolishness (moria), because they were thinking with the wrong mind.

Believers in Christ are those who have been begotten by their heavenly Father, and so they have an advantage. Believers have a “new man” within them (Ephesians 4:24 KJV), which the NASB calls “the new self.” The Greek word is anthropos, “man,” but it refers to one’s self, or identity. The soulish self-identity possesses the mind of the first Adam; the spiritual self-identity has an entirely different mind—the mind of the spirit, or the spiritual mind.

The only way to truly understand Paul’s thesis in this chapter is to understand the two “I’s” that believers have within themselves. Paul was not speaking of two different individuals. He was not trying to compare a carnal man with a religious man in the Corinthian assembly. He was speaking of the inner conflict between two self-identities within the same person. These two “I’s” are competitors in an inner “war” that is described fully in Romans 7:14-25. The old man (soul) commands us to serve the law of sin, thereby violating the divine law, while the new man (spirit) serves the law of God (Romans 7:22, 25).

The carnal mind presents itself as being spiritual, but it is actually carnal. The carnal mind causes us to sin, because it comes from Adam, the original sinner. The spiritual mind, however, is not carnal, for it is the mind of that which has been begotten of God. A literal rendering of 1 John 3:9 reads, “No one that is begotten of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God.”

John says further that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Hence, any time the word “sin” is used in Scripture, we should understand the word by its biblical definition. Those who claim that the law has been put away or abolished are hearing the carnal mind as it pretends to be spiritual. Those who believe the Apostle Paul will agree with him when he says in Romans 7:14, “we know that the law is spiritual.” Again, he says in Romans 3:31,

31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

He further honors the law in Romans 7:12, saying,

12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

The law is not evil, as some have taught. Neither was the law given by the devil, as some have tried to tell me in the past. The law is spiritual, not carnal. Though the law can certainly be understood carnally (through Old Covenant eyes), the law itself is the revelation of God, and it can be understood only through the spirit.

Man’s Spirit and God’s Spirit

Another source of misunderstanding, seen, for example, in the NASB translation, is the distinction between the Spirit of God and the spirit of man. The NASB’s misunderstanding is evident when it capitalizes the word “Spirit” in 1 Corinthians 2:10,

10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.

The NASB (and other translators) make Paul say that God reveals truth through the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit searches out the deep things of God. But the Holy Spirit already knows the deep things of God and does not need to search out such things. It is the human spirit, that has become the new “I” that is begotten of God, which “searches all things” in its quest to know the mind of God and His plan. The spirit of man inquires of the Spirit of God. So Paul distinguishes between the two spirits in the next verse. 1 Corinthians 2:11 says,

11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.

God reveals all things through the spirit of man, for it is the point of contact between heaven and earth. The spirit is the source of divine revelation and knowledge. It alone can receive such revelation without rejecting it as foolishness (moria). The soul, on the other hand, is a fool (moron), though it thinks of itself as both spiritual and intellectually enlightened.

This is Paul’s new School of Revelation, set up, as it were, to compete with the Philosophical schools in Athens and Corinth. Hence, in 1 Corinthians 2:10 pneuma should not be translated as “Spirit” but as “spirit.” The role of the Holy Spirit is to reveal truth to us through the human spirit. If we are led by the spirit, which in turn is in union with the Holy Spirit, then we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh, nor will we sin.

We will depart from Israel’s example at Mount Horeb, for we will be able to draw near to Him without fear. We will no longer insist that a preacher goes up the mount to hear God’s voice and to tell us what He said. We will have no desire to set up another denominational system in submission to men, as the Corinthians church was in danger of doing. If we all have the ability to receive revelation from God through the spirit, then the differences in the church can be resolved in love, ending all division.

This does not abolish the need for fellowship, of course, for no man is given the entire revelation of truth. We must all seek to know what God has revealed to others, and we are required to share our own revelation with others as well. In this way, all revelation can be tested and discerned. Our truth is thus refined in the fire and made more complete by the revelation from others.

Seeking Revelation from Another Spirit

1 Corinthians 2:12, 13 says,

12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, 13 which things we also speak not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

Here Paul contrasts the spirit of the world from the Spirit of God. He is no longer speaking of the inner spirit, for he is not contrasting it with the soul. The spirit of the world is a wrong spirit, which attempts to influence us by causing us to seek divine knowledge from a spirit other than the Holy Spirit. The human spirit that has been begotten by God knows the difference, but if a person—even a believer—seeks revelation from the spirit of the world, it is certainly the soul doing this.

It is self-evident that worldly education is necessary, for we must all train our souls to talk and to learn to read and write. The problem comes when we seek to know God by seeking the so-called “revelation” from the spirit of the world—that is, false spirits.

The last part of verse 13, I believe, is incorrectly understood by the NASB translators. The Emphatic Diaglott captures the meaning better, saying, “unfolding spiritual things to spiritual persons.” In other words, Paul was reminding the Corinthian believers that they had been taught by the Spirit of God, which was unfolding spiritual things to their human spirits.

Spiritual Appraisal

Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16,

14 But a natural [soulish] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised [anakrino]. 15 But he who is spiritual [the new man] appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.

The mind of the soul, that is, the carnal mind, is incapable of accepting divine revelation directly from the Spirit of God. Such revelation is mere “foolishness.” Genuine revelation must be “spiritually appraised.” The Greek word used is anakrino, “to examine, judge, investigate, interrogate, to sift through a series of things in order to distinguish.”

In other words, the spirit of man (not the soul) must examine the revelation from the Holy Spirit, for it is the only “man” capable of making sense of it. The soul would pronounce it as mere foolishness and mumbo-jumbo.

The spirit of man has the ability to understand all things, yet this same spirit cannot be appraised by any (soulish) man. The Greeks obviously did not understand the spirit, for they confused it with the soul.

Paul concludes with a reference to Isaiah 40:14, which says,

14 With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge, and informed Him of the way of understanding?

In other words, God needs no counselor to help Him understand truth or knowledge. But because we have the mind of Christ, we are in contact with the perfect Source of all revelatory truth. Such knowledge of spiritual truths must be obtained through one’s inner spiritual man, not the soulish man.

If we understand this foundational truth, then we will be in a better position to recognize and distinguish soul and spirit, how each mind functions, and the results of each way of thinking. The soul leads us to war against the law of God; the spirit leads us to concur with the law (Romans 7:22).


This is part 11 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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