Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God….
1 CORINTHIANS 3:18, 19
Men who are called to be servants of God in the ministry must constantly guard against thinking of themselves as belonging to a “privileged” class.
Our so-called Christian society tends to increase this danger by granting the clergy discounts and other courtesies, and the church itself helps a bad job along by bestowing upon men of God various sonorous honorifics which are either comical or awe-inspiring, depending upon how you look at it.
Seeing whose name he bears, the unconscious acceptance of belonging to a privileged class is particularly incongruous for the minister. Christ came to give, to serve, to sacrifice and to die, and said to His disciples, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” The preacher is a servant of the Lord and of the people. He is in great moral peril when he forgets this. Remember, the clergyman meets religious people almost exclusively. People are on their guard when they are with him. They tend to talk over their own heads and to be for the time the kind of persons they think he wants them to be rather than the kind of persons they are in fact!
This creates a world of unreality where no one is quite himself, but the preacher has lived in it so long that he accepts it as real—and never knows the difference!
The Proper View of Ourselves
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.” (3:18–20)
Much division in the church would be eliminated if individuals were not so impressed with their own wisdom. A person who thinks that he is wise in this age—that is, wise in contemporary human wisdom—does nothing but deceive himself. Anyone who is so self–deceived ought to become foolish (mōros), that is, identify with those who recognize that human wisdom, including our own, is mere foolishness (mōria) without God. Those two Greek terms are from the same root from which we get moron. Human wisdom is moronic in the Lord’s sight, before God. Unity in the church can never come without recognizing human wisdom to be what God declares it to be: foolish. And unity can never come without Christians becoming foolish in the world’s eyes by conforming to God’s wisdom.
The human wisdom that is foolish is in the area of spiritual truth. Paul is not talking about such things as business, mathematics, science, or mechanics. We can be quite knowledgeable about those things without any special enlightenment from God. Where human wisdom becomes foolish and useless is in matters concerning God, salvation, and spiritual truth. Human wisdom has no way of discovering and understanding divine things.
Even Christians, therefore, do not have a right to their own opinions about the things God has revealed. When Christians start expressing and following their own ideas about the gospel, the church, and Christian living, the saints cannot help becoming divided. Christians are no wiser in their flesh than are unbelievers. The first step in a Christian’s becoming truly wise is to recognize that his own human wisdom is foolishness, a reflection of the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness before God. It is the product of intellectual pride and is the enemy of God’s revelation.
The church must create an atmosphere in which the Word of God is honored and submitted to, in which human opinion is never used to judge or qualify revelation. As far as the things of God are concerned, Christians must be totally under the teaching of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Only then can we be open to God’s wisdom and truly become wise. Common commitment to the Word of God is the basic unifier.
Where the Word of God is not set up as the supreme authority, division is inevitable. Such happens even in evangelical churches, when pastors and other leaders begin substituting their own ideas for the truths of Scripture. The substitution is seldom intentional, but it will always happen when the Bible is neglected. A Bible that is not studied carefully cannot be followed carefully. And where it is not followed there will be division, because there will be no common ground for beliefs and practices. When the truth of Scripture is not the sole authority, men’s varied opinions become the authority.
Some people are not satisfied unless they can express their opinion on virtually everything. Some are not happy unless they take the opposite side from the majority. Intellectual pride cannot be content to listen and admire; it must always speak up and criticize. By its very nature, it must always try to win out in an issue. It cannot stand opposition or contradiction. It must justify itself at any cost and is exclusive. It looks down its nose at all who disagree.
Pride is always at the heart of human wisdom, the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness before God. It is difficult to teach a person who thinks he knows everything. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian said of some of his students, “They would doubtlessly have become excellent scholars if they had not been so fully persuaded of their own scholarship.” A well–known Arab proverb goes: “He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is simple. Teach him.”
If a congregation were to have ten men with doctorates who were only nominal in their commitment to the Lord and to His Word, and ten other men who had only finished high school but who were completely sold out to the Lord and steeped in His Word, it should not be hard to decide which ten were most qualified to lead the church. By God’s standards it would be no contest. Having members who are highly talented and trained can be of considerable help to a church, but only if those who possess such abilities are submitted to the truths and standards of Scripture. Christ will rule and unify His church if He is given pure channels committed to His Word through whom to mediate that rule.
When believers look to psychology alone, instead of to God’s Word, for answers to personal or marital or moral problems, spiritual disaster results. When Christian businessmen look to popular methods of expediency alone, rather than to the principles of Scripture, to determine business ethics, their spiritual life and testimony are undermined. In science and technology men have made great advances, for which we should be glad and from which we can profit. But in regard to the things of God and His plan and will for men, human ideas and understanding stand completely empty and helpless.
The liberal Bible scholars and theologians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were brilliant men, highly learned in many areas. They often disagreed with one another on doctrines and interpretations, but the one belief in which they were unanimous was that the Bible was essentially a human book. Because they considered it to be primarily human, though perhaps influenced by divine guidance of some sort, they felt perfectly free to reject or modify whatever part of Scripture did not fit their own understanding. Because they did not believe that writing had been developed by Moses’ time, they concluded that he could not have written the Pentateuch. Because they did not believe in supernatural predictions, they did not believe that the man Daniel could possibly have written the book of Daniel, which tells of events hundreds of years after he lived. When Scripture reported that God said or did something that was contrary to their self–invented view of God, they denied that He said or did it. In the name of intellectualism they decimated God’s Word, leaving only that which suited their personal biases. They also decimated a great part of His church, causing unimaginable confusion, doubt, unbelief, and spiritual division. The legacy of those men is still polluting seminaries, colleges, and churches throughout the world.
The person who elevates his own wisdom will always have a low view of Scripture. But the more important truth is that God knows the value of that person’s own wisdom. It is foolishness, stupid, totally unreliable and useless. Eventually God will trip up those who oppose His Word. He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness. Like Haman, they hang on their own gallows (Esther 7:7–10). Their cunning plans turn to condemn them as God catches them in their own trap. He knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.
Human philosophy is totally inadequate to bring men to God, to show them how to be saved or how to live. It will always become entrapped in its own schemes, and entrap those who trust in it. The one who trusts in human understanding does not have the right understanding of himself. He does not see that his spiritual opinions, ideas, and reasonings are useless (mataios), vain and empty.
The proper view of ourselves, the godly and true view, is that apart from divine truth we are fools with empty thoughts. Recognizing this truth opens the door to true wisdom and closes the door to division.
3:18 In Christian service, as in all of Christian life, there is always the danger of self-deception. Perhaps some of those who came to Corinth as teachers posed as men of extreme wisdom. Any who have an exalted view of their own worldly wisdom must learn that they must become fools in the eyes of the world in order to become wise in God’s estimation. Godet helpfully paraphrases at this point:
If any individual whatever, Corinthian or other, while preaching the gospel in your assemblies assumes the part of a wise man and reputation of a profound thinker, let him assure himself that he will not attain true wisdom until he has passed through a crisis in which that wisdom of his with which he is puffed up will perish and after which only he will receive the wisdom which is from above.
3:19 The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. Man by searching could never find out God, neither would human wisdom ever have devised a plan of salvation by which God would become Man in order to die for guilty, vile, rebel sinners. Job 5:13 is quoted in verse 19 to show that God triumphs over the supposed wisdom of men to work out His own purposes. Man with all his learning cannot thwart the plans of the Lord; instead, God often shows them that in spite of their worldly wisdom, they are utterly poor and powerless.
18 Paul begins this section by issuing a command: “Do not deceive yourselves” (lit., as in the NASB, “Let no man deceive himself”). By phrasing this verb in an imperative and by using the Greek word for “oneself” (heautou, GK 1571), the apostle places any blame for being swept along with the wisdom of the world not on abstract circumstances but on an individual’s choice. No one can stand before God and claim that he or she was inadvertently swept along in the fast-flowing current of false wisdom. Rather, one chooses to follow either “the wisdom of this world” (v. 19) or the wisdom of God. And each person must accept the consequences of the choice made.
Obviously, this section draws heavily on what Paul wrote in ch. 1 about “wisdom” (sophia, GK 5053) and “foolishness” (mōria, GK 3702; the only other four uses of this word in the NT are in 1:18, 21, 23; 2:14; see comments there). The apostle maintains that if anyone thinks he or she is “wise by the standards of this age [aiōn, GK 172],” that person “should become a ‘fool.’ ” To “become a ‘fool’ ” means to accept the foolishness of God, i.e., to believe with all one’s heart the message of the cross. Behind the use of “this age” lies the two-age analysis that was discussed in the context of 2:6–8 (see comments there). Believers belong to the new age of God, not to the present age of this world. Our goals and values should be shaped not by the worldly standards around us but by the coming age that has impinged on the present.
19a Note that when Paul says “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight,” he is reversing what he said in 1:25—“the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.” In other words, the apostle is setting up two sets of total opposites of wisdom and foolishness: Whatever the world considers wise, God calls foolish; and whatever God calls wise (especially his grand plan of salvation through Christ crucified and risen again), the world calls foolish. There is no middle ground; there is no third choice; there is no planting one foot firmly in the present age and one foot in the age to come. As Jesus himself pointed out, no one can serve two masters (Mt 6:24). When confronted with the gospel, all human beings face an either-or choice.
19b–20 Paul backs up what he has been saying by quoting two texts from the OT: Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11. Although the first text is a quotation from Eliphaz (and is the only direct quote from Job in the NT), the sentiment Paul expresses—namely, that God knows what is going on in the world and that no one (here labeled “the wise”) can hide from God the shenanigans he or she is doing—is part of the common framework for all the characters in Job; in fact, it is a common theme in many places of the OT (cf., e.g., Ps 139). The quotation from Psalm 94:11 says essentially the same thing, namely, that God knows the thoughts of every person (though Paul substitutes “the wise” for “man” in Ps 94) and that apart from him, human thoughts are futile.
 Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 87–90). Chicago: Moody Press.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1756). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 287–288). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.