The Beginning of Wisdom
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:23-24
What does it mean to be wise? The question is one that every philosophy and religion seeks to answer, whether they do so explicitly or not. For, being wise is about how we live in this world, it is about thinking and acting in a way that is right, in a way that corresponds to the reality of life, whatever a person perceives that to be. To be wise, then, is to know how to navigate life in a skillful way. Does the Bible speak often of wisdom? If wisdom is about living skillfully in the world, then it is no overstatement to say that every part of the Bible speaks of and imparts wisdom. Perhaps you have not thought about it in so many words before, but it is true. The Bible, at every turn, is seeking to shape the way you see the world and from this to call forth a response of faith and faithfulness from you.
Of course, there are biblical books devoted in a specific way to wisdom, such as Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. These books are special because they are the explicit reflections on life, written by people who have thought long and hard about the truth. Their helpfulness cannot be overstated, for they are in reality a Holy Spirit inspired reflection on the world, on God, and, of course, on wisdom. The most well known among them, Proverbs, opens with some helpful words on the nature of wisdom, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: But fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). The root and the fountain of all knowledge, or wisdom, is this: the fear of the Lord. To fear God is to live in humble submission to His will and His way in the world, acknowledging our status as creatures of the great creator.
This reality touches on an important point about biblical wisdom. As we see in Proverbs, biblical wisdom is tremendously practical. It deals with issues such as how one should act before royalty, how to use money wisely, and what kind of friends one should have. Yet, biblical wisdom is concerned first and foremost with living a life of submission to the Lord. All the practicalities of life must be dealt with after this foundation has been acknowledged. In other words, while the Bible is not an impractical book, it is not concerned first and foremost with practicality, but with doing God’s will, whatever that may be. This point is important to make because, in the New Testament, we meet a man who, in his speech and actions, seems to flip our own conceptions of reality and practicality on their head. This man is Jesus, and he is wisdom embodied.
In thinking of the relation of Jesus to wisdom, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:17-31 come to mind. In this remarkable passage, Paul contrasts the wisdom of this world with God’s wisdom. Here again we see the importance of the foundation of wisdom being the fear of the Lord, for in thinking themselves to be wise with the wisdom of the world, both Jews and Greeks have stumbled over the stumbling block, which is Christ crucified. Here we find ourselves on holy ground, at the heart of God’s wisdom. For when wisdom embodied came to this earth, he did not show off his miraculous powers or his great intellect. Rather, he chose to die. The Greeks sought after the wisdom of the world, the Jews wanted Jesus to prove himself through miracles, and aren’t these our natural inclinations as well? If we need a savior, we want someone who is powerful in mind and in deed, able to destroy our enemies with his little finger. But “where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” When God condescended to save His people, He chose to do it in a way that looks utterly foolish to the world. Jesus’ death, however, is not a defeat but a triumph. It is the reversal of the ages, for Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection shows that he has triumphed over all the powers of the universe, including death itself.
When considering the topic of biblical wisdom, we must look first and foremost to the cross of Christ. To many, the cross looked like a terrible defeat, but “unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” Those who have been saved by God’s grace see the cross, not as foolishness, but as true wisdom. Indeed, our Christian life itself is foolish in the world’s eyes, for our justification, sanctification, union with God in Christ, and every other blessing that we have received comes not through our own efforts and works but only through trusting in the grace that God has promised to all those who believe. Our culture particularly seems so intent on “salvation” (prestige, money, pleasure, ease, etc.) through their own efforts, but biblical wisdom paradoxically says, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom. 8:16).