Paul is blunt: anyone outside the faith is as thick as a brick about God. Without faith no one will ever grasp God’s ways or wisdom. Even if they happen to be otherwise bright and able.
Yet once faith comes alive the promise of Isaiah 64:4 is available to all: “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
It’s a dramatic claim, but many Christians seem to ignore it.
Why? And what does the promise actually offer us?
First, let’s agree that a brief reflection like this won’t take us far. Paul’s themes are open-ended: including who God is in himself; how we know him; and what the future holds. So let’s just look at how Paul frames the point. How does Isaiah’s grand promise make a difference?
Let me start by suggesting Paul’s alignment with a gospel episode that features Jesus and Peter. In Mark 8:27-9:13 we find three events in their relationship. First Peter affirmed Jesus as the promised Christ; then he rebuked Jesus for teaching about his need to suffer and die on the cross—and Jesus rebuked him in return; and finally Peter, with James and John, saw Jesus in his transfigured glory for a brief time.
The connecting thread here is that Jesus would only reach his final glory as the Christ-Messiah by way of suffering and death. Jesus summarized the point twice. The first followed Peter’s proper confession, “You are the Christ.” Jesus agreed and then spoke of the painful pathway to the cross that was just ahead. Peter reacted to this with a rebuke. And Jesus then rebuked him for his rebuke! The second summary followed the transfiguration as Jesus pointed to Old Testament promises that the Christ must “suffer many things and be treated with contempt” before he reached his destined glory (9:12).
Now back to the Corinthians. Paul was aligned with Jesus on the importance of the cross as he wrote his letter. The church in Corinth was apparently split by a “followers” dispute—anticipating Facebook—with Apollos drawing many more “likes” than Paul. Apollos was bright and eloquent (Acts 18:24); and he didn’t always agree with Paul (1 Corinthians 16:12).
So the church was drifting into competing factions. What Paul sniffed out in the split was a drift into charismatic and intellectual elitism. Apollos was more impressive than Paul so he was winning the Facebook competition.
To be clear, Apollos probably wasn’t involved in the dispute. He wasn’t even in Corinth at the time. And in 1 Corinthians 3:6 Paul endorsed Apollos’ ministry as complementary to his own: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
What Paul apparently took from Peter’s experience is that Jesus treats any appetite for status in the present world as a Satanic deception. Listen to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting you mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33). Glory in a world that despises God, Jesus was warning him, is un-glory in God’s realm.
Where had Peter gone wrong? He apparently got turned upside-down when he wanted Jesus to achieve human glory as the Christ: perhaps to become the lead Rabbi in Jerusalem; to overthrow the Romans and Herod’s puppet government; and to set up an eternal run as the King of kings. And all this could be done without a degrading, shameful crucifixion!
So Jesus corrected Peter with a counter-rebuke. Satan’s most effective lure among the bright and able people of this world is human glory. Yet this glory exists in an “adulterous and sinful generation” (8:28). And God seems to prefer the company of plain people: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” 1 Cor. 1:27-29).
The lesson for Peter—which Paul also recognized—is that real followers of Christ begin to see this world as corrupt. All the “likes” ever offered in Facebook can never match a single “like” from God. After this gracious rebuke Jesus then invited Peter to see his coming glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. But his eternal glory would only be seen after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension: after the present upside-down world is overturned.
Now back to the 1 Corinthians 2 text. It makes sense, now, to read the Isaiah 64:4 promise in light of the transfigured realm that still lies ahead. Before we actually “see” that glory we, too, need to join Jesus in eternity. And, significantly, Paul goes on to emphasize the importance of the resurrection in chapter 15.
In the meantime the Spirit of God gives believers—most of whom lack the intellectual glory, rhetorical power, and attractive charisma that makes people important in this world—a greater gift. The folly of the cross offers us this: “But we have the mind of Christ” (2:18).
It promises us more than we can imagine!