Paul has been accused of “walking according to the flesh” (v. 2). These enemies are saying that he wielding his authority as an Apostle in a way that is heavy handed and authoritarian. The claim is that Paul is behaving in the same way that a non-Christian might behave if he had the same power. But while Paul does live in the flesh, that is, he has a body made out of the same material that their bodies are made of, he does not wage war in the same way that they wage war. All the “natural” man can see is flesh. He cannot see that the universe does not operate according to the “laws” of the flesh, but according to the hand and delight of the sovereign God. And so when Paul’s enemies see powerful results coming from the ministry of Paul, they assume that he is working his “magic” in the same way they would be if they were to produce those same results.
But Paul is not waging war according to the flesh. His weapons have nothing to do with the power of man, they have everything to do with the power of eternal God. Guns and bombs cannot destroy arguments or lofty opinions. Only the Grace of God by the power of the Gospel through the preaching of the word can destroy the things that have aligned themselves against the kingdom of God. This happens as each person has their thoughts and ideas released from the power of the flesh and brought into conformity with the mind of God—when every thought is made captive to Christ.
Paul is not only explaining how the Kingdom of God goes forth, but he is also teaching that because the Corinthians are citizens of God’s kingdom they need to submit their thoughts and consequently their behaviors to the authority of God. They need to make their thoughts captive to Christ so that they will act toward one another in a way that brings glory to God. And we are like them.
Do you have thoughts that seem to run off in sinful directions? Do you after every woman prancing down the street of across your TV screen? Are you drawn to men who make you laugh, or who lavish praise on you, or who naturally make you feel more secure than your husband does? Do you have trouble concentrating on the things of God when temptations abound? Do you worry about tomorrow? Do you stress over the simple things of life? Do perverse thoughts pop into your mind when you least expect them?
If this describes you, your thoughts are not “all held captive to obey Christ.” But what is to be done? Paul tells the Corinthians that thoughts become captive when the weapons of God are brought to bear against the fleshly weapons of the world. God’s weapons are the Gospel and faith. The Gospel is the news that God has overcome the world in Christ. The knowledge of the Gospel tells us of the wonderful acts of God on our behalf in history. But the news is not just information, as we believe the Gospel, God works in our hearts to transform us and make us more and more like Jesus—and we all know that Jesus had every thought captive to serve the Father.
The problem for most of us is that we don’t understand what ‘faith’ and ‘believe’ mean. They both translate the same Greek word--pistos. We can throw the word ‘trust’ in there as well. What we are saying when we say, “believe the Gospel” is “trust in the Gospel” or “put your faith in the Gospel.” They use the same Greek word and we simply translate it ‘faith,’ ‘trust,’ or ‘believe’ depending on the context.
So the way it works is this: you hear the Good News about Christ and what he’s done for you in history; you learn about the love God has lavished on you, you begin to understand the depth of your depravity and the glory of God’s forgiveness poured out on your behalf; and as God works the truth of all of this on your heart and mind, you put your trust in him, you believe on him, you put your faith in him. All of these words imply that you don’t simply acknowledge that God’s acts in history are true. By the nature of what the Gospel announces, not doing something or becoming something is not really an option. God requires certain behaviors of those who belong to him and faith produces those behaviors. Sitting in a chair requires faith. If you say I really need to sit down and I trust that that chair over there will hold me, but you continue to stand, you show that you really don’t believe that that chair will hold you up. There are certain kinds of situations where believing a thing requires action in accord with that stated faith. Just so, if you trust in God, you will do what he says. This is how obedience works with faith (cf. Jas. 2:14-26).
People often think that God is concerned with what you do as opposed to what we think. But as you come to know God more and more you begin to realize that he is in charge of your thought life as well as your life in the world. Everyone knows that you don’t get to flirt with guys who smile at you, but you also don’t get to flirt with them in your mind either. You don’t get to steal your neighbor’s car and you don’t get to envy them or covet their car in your mind either. What goes on in your mind is just as important to God as what you do with your body. You are not God in your mind any more than you are God in the world.
Taking thoughts captive is the Apostle’s goal. He accomplishes his goal by preaching the Gospel in all its Biblical glory. Your response to that Good News is to believe it and lay your thought life at the feet of God. This is done by faith. You are trusting that God knows what he is doing when he commands you to stop thinking the way you have been thinking for the past 20 years and start thinking in new ways. This has nothing to do with emptying your mind (if that were really possible). It has everything to do with making God’s thoughts your thoughts (Psa. 139:17). You study the Bible to find out what God things about everything in his creation and then you imitate him and think the same way about those same things. In the same way you make your body a captive of Christ, so too make your every thought captive of Christ for the glory of God the Father.