You have heard it said with a warm tone during a small group. You have seen it plastered on a coffee mug or a Bible cover at a Christian book store. You have even quoted it to yourself in hard times.
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9).
When we say it, read it, or hear it, what we often assume is that this is God’s “word to me” during life’s doldrums. Essentially, what we mean is, “God has awesome plans for your life. It will work out. Hang in there!” But is that what the Apostle Paul meant?
Let me tip my hand right away: this verse is not about God’s unimaginable plans for your life. Paul is saying that God has actually already revealed the depth and riches of his wisdom in the gospel. What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined actually has been seen, heard, and imagined by those who have the Spirit. Let’s allow the context to explain.
In the middle of chapter 2, Paul is finishing up a little section on the wisdom of God. He already made the point in chapter 1 that his job as an apostle is to preach the gospel, not with eloquent words of worldly wisdom, but with cross-exalting speech (1:17; cf. 2:4). Paul calls his message “the word of the cross,” which, for those who are being saved, is the power of God (1:18). This word, this power, this wisdom, is Christ himself (1:23; cf. 1:30). The world’s got wisdom backwards (1:20). Yet, it pleases God to save those who believe this “folly” of the cross. (1:21). This folly, this gospel, this Christ, is the incomprehensible redemption that God has accomplished through his Son: life through death; victory through defeat; exaltation through suffering. It is the exact opposite of the world’s so-called wisdom.
As chapter 2 begins, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he didn’t preach to them the wisdom of the world (2:1-5). He preached Christ (i.e. the word of the cross). Paul admits this word is not a wisdom of the world or of the rulers of this word (2:6). “The rulers of this age” did not understand God’s wisdom (2:8). If they had, Paul argues, they would not have crucified Jesus. But, as it is, they did not understand. Their eyes, ears, and hearts could not discern what God prepared for those who loved him. But those who love God can.
The gospel, then, is “what no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor heart of man imagined” (v. 9). Paul quotes Isaiah 64:4 here, which is talking about how God has done “awesome things that we did not look for” (64:3). Isaiah tells us that God acts, unlike the idols of the world, and works redemption in ways that the human mind could not conceive or invent. The gospel is foolishness to our natural thinking, and only a God who is not of this world could plan something so beautifully backwards. Christians would not have understood this if God had not revealed its wisdom through the Spirit. But, thankfully, contrary to the Christian t-shirts and handbags, we do know what God has prepared for those who love him! Paul writes, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit…[so] that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (vv. 10, 12).
If you have the Spirit, if you trust in Jesus as your wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, then you have seen, heard, and imagined what God has prepared for those who love him. It has not all been revealed now. But it has been revealed in part through the word of the cross. Folly to the world, but divine wisdom to us.