What does it mean when Paul (quoting Isaiah) says “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived, the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)? Is this a parallel to, for example, 1 Cor 13:12, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then [at Christ’s coming] we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”? Is he speaking about the unimaginable glories of the life to come?
In fact, this is one of those passages that loses some of its mystery, once it is read in its context:
6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—
10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.
First, we begin with 2:6-8. One reading of “the rulers of this age” is that Paul is referring to the invisible demonic principalities and powers that ultimately sought to destroy Jesus, including the devil, who pushed Judas to betray him (John 3:2). Although that opinion is plausible, the other viewpoint fits better in this context: Paul is referring to the human rulers who arranged the crucifixion, that is, the Jewish priests, Herod Antipas, and Pilate. Paul’s other use of this word in the plural definitely refers to human rulers (Rom 13:3; also Acts 3:17, 13:27)…The tension here lies between the gospel and human wisdom, the sort that a Pilate or a Caiaphas might claim to have.
Second, the reference to “no eye, no ear no mind” in the Isaiah quotation in 2:9 fits better with a reference to human beings. Paul’s point then is that, Human power structures are passing away; so why look to them for insight into God’s truth? They would not have crucified Jesus had they known God’s plan, and thus they cannot provide wisdom to the Corinthian church.
Paul then quotes from Isa 64:4 and amplifies it with his own words – No eye has seen, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.
This citation backs up what Paul has said in 2:7, that God has planned to reveal his truth from ages past.
“Heaven” is not the point at all here. Paul is speaking about the truth that can be known in the here and now, since the crucifixion. No human being could ever guess or observe or reason out the blessings of the gospel of Christ, but we Christians already understand them – “these are the things God has revealed [past tense] to us by his Spirit (2:10).
In that case the lesson of 1 Corinthians 2 is – enough of fancy philosophy! Enough of dividing the church over human wisdom! Every Christian already has the fundamental revelation of God’s truth, and should seek truth, wisdom, and love in the basic gospel message.
This post is adapted from my Corinthians commentary; you can download it HERE or purchase it on sale from Logos.
“‘Eye has not seen’ – or has it? [1 Corinthians],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica