RPM, Volume 12, Number 22 May 30 to June 5 2010

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing in our study of the letter known as 1st Corinthians, picking up where we left off at chapter 2, and focusing this morning on the first 5 verses of that chapter. In looking at this passage we'll divide our study into three parts, looking firstly at 1) how Paul came to the Corinthians, and then at 2) what Paul said and how Paul said it, and then finally we'll look at 3) the reasons why Paul did what he did. Before we do that, however, we should pray.

(read passage)

The first thing I want you to notice this morning is how Paul came to the Corinthians - that is, what he was like, what his attitude and state of mind were like when he first arrived among them, and as he ministered among them, several years before. Looking at verse 3, we see that Paul says he was among them in weakness and fear and in much trembling.

Now you might be tempted to only take these words as a passing remark, as being descriptive of a momentary affliction or failure of nerve on Paul's part. However when you see the way that he expands on these ideas in chapter 4 of this letter, and when you understand that in 2nd Corinthians he will devote perhaps the greatest portion of that letter to the truth that God's strength is the clearest and is best demonstrated through human weakness - when you see all of those things you realize that Paul is not just making a passing comment.

On the contrary, when Paul says he came to them in weakness and fear and in much trembling, he is not just describing his own personal emotions - as real as they are - rather he is making a point, he is demonstrating a particular stance and perspective and even conclusion he has reached with regard to the ministry that God has given Him. In other words, Paul's weakness and fear and trembling should not be viewed as some sort of character flaw but rather as an illustration of Paul's realistic understanding of the very difficult nature of the ministry to which he had been called, as well as a perspective on the nature of Christian ministry itself.

Indeed, before he ever arrived at Corinth, he had already had his share of hair-raising experiences: driven out of town by an angry mob in Antioch (Acts 13:50), an attempted stoning at Iconium (14:5ff), an actual stoning in Lystra, where he was left for dead until God revived him (14:19-20), beaten with rods and imprisoned in Philippi (16:16-24), and mocked and ridiculed in Athens (17:22-34).

So, Paul is not just being paranoid here. He realizes only too well what he is up against. It was this same realization that prompted Paul later on to strongly urge Timothy to hold fast to the faith, to not give in to fear, and to finish the course set before him. Paul knew exactly what Timothy was up against as he pastored the Ephesian church. He knew all about ministering with fear and trembling.

So again, this is not a character flaw, this is not a sign that Paul was some sort of weakling, afraid of his own shadow. This was Paul with his eyes wide open as he ministers for the Lord. This is Paul showing that he understands the way that God works in this world.

The story is told of a young pastor who had been recently called to a large, established church, and on the occasion of his first sermon there, at the appropriate time he came bursting out of his study, briskly entered the sanctuary and bounded up the 6 or 7 steps up to the pulpit, taking them two at a time. About 30 minutes later, after delivering a miserable sermon to the congregation, he came slinking out of the pulpit, shoulders drooped, a symbol of defeat. After the service was over, one of his elders pulled him aside and said, "You know, if you had gone up into the pulpit the way that you came down, you might have come down the way you went up."

What was he saying? He was urging the young pastor to think again about the task which he had been given; to consider again the nature of the ministry to which he had been called and to approach these things with a proper humility and a realistic understanding of what he faced. In effect, he was urging him to become like Paul, to approach his tasks as Paul had approached the Corinthian people, many, many years before.

Does that mean that as Christians minister to others we are to walk around with a frown on our faces - of course not! Does it mean we are never enthusiastic? No! We have a great deal to be encouraged and enthusiastic about. However, it is always a measured enthusiasm. The encouragement that we feel and display is real, but it is also balanced by a remembrance of what we are up against and by a recognition of the ways of God's working in the world.

This is the other aspect of being "with them in weakness and fear" that needs to be highlighted - that fact that we minister from this posture that continually points beyond ourselves - precisely because we ARE weak - to the one who actually IS strong - the Lord Jesus Christ. It is his strength that ought to primarily be on display in our various ministries - not our own.

I don't know about you, but I always cringe a little bit when I see these, I think they are called "Power Teams" that go around the country, ripping phone books in half for Jesus, and bending iron rods and smashing their foreheads through stacks of ice blocks. It's all very entertaining of course, and no doubt these people are very sincere in what they are doing. But you have to wonder, what is the image that is being presented here? I mean, here you have these bulked up, macho guys, men with no discernible neck - the very image of strength and power and they're loud and boisterous and it seems to me that all of this cannot help but nurture a sort of all conquering, rampaging, arrogant, kick-butt-take-names sort of Christianity that draws people's attention away from God's power through human weakness and instead promotes images of human power and strength. In that sort of context, with human strength being the primary thing on display, the power of God just fades into the background.

It's almost the exact opposite of the sort of thing that Paul talks about in 2nd Corinthians and which he demonstrates here in 1st Corinthians. How was Paul when he was amongst them? He was with them in weakness and fear and in much trembling, that is, with his eyes wide open as to what he was up against, and how God works in the midst of that.

The SECOND thing I want you to notice this morning is not only how Paul came to them but what Paul said to them - what was the central thrust of his teaching ministry amongst them. And it was, as Paul succinctly puts it, "Christ and him crucified", that is, the message of the cross, the meaning and significance of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.

Now, when Paul says that he decided to know nothing among them but Christ and him crucified, he does not mean that he only spoke about the cross. Those were not the only words which came out of his mouth. He's not saying that he preached the same sermon every week. You have to remember that these words of Paul's were spoken against the backdrop of a Greek culture that was very much enamored with speech as entertainment. These words are spoken in contrast to the various traveling philosophers and orators who might wax eloquent on hundreds of different subjects - with imagined expertise in every field.

Over against that sort of background stands the preaching and teaching of the Apostle Paul, who was by comparison much more single-minded. For Paul all roads began at the Cross and, ultimately, found their way back TO the Cross. He might deal with other matters along the way, but it was always within the orbit of the Gospel. An examination of Paul's letters to the Ephesians and the Philippians and the Colossians illustrates well this sort of pattern - a strong theology of the Cross which allows him to address a number of different issues, but which ultimately leads him back to the Cross as his central concern, over and over again.

As you think about this, please do not miss the fact that having this focus was something which Paul DECIDED to do. He says, "I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified." In other words, Paul didn't have this focus because he was some sort of simpleton and couldn't manage anything else. He might have talked to them about all kinds of things, he might have had a very different focus altogether. But, for the sake of God's Kingdom, Paul decided that less was more and kept his focus on the Gospel because he understood that it was the thing they most needed - before, during and after their conversion.

What a great model this is for us in our own lives and our own ministries today! What an encouragement to know that, if we have the Gospel, if we understand the Gospel, then we are well equipped for a lifetime of ministry and personal growth in Christ, as we move further and further into the Gospel. Think about it: if that sort of single-minded, focus was sufficient for the Apostle Paul in his ministry to the Corinthians, then surely it is sufficient for you and me.

Those of you who have been with us since the very beginning may remember that when we were working through the Galatians series, at one point, I asked the question, taking the lead of others, "What is it that people most need before they are saved?" And the answer was "the Gospel". And then I asked the question, "What is it that people most need after they are saved?_"And, typically, the answer given to that question is "discipleship", or "training", or something similar.

But really, the thing that people most need both before they become Christians and after they become Christians is the same - the Gospel. It is through embracing the Gospel that we are saved and it is through continuing to believe and appropriate the truth of the Gospel that we grow and mature as believers. Why is that the case?

Because behind all the things with which we struggle, behind all the areas of difficulty in our lives, lying there, often not very far beneath the surface, is typically a fundamental failure to believe the Gospel in some way.

For example, why do we usually struggle with pride? Because we do not believe the Gospel. "How so?_"you say. Well, one of the truths that the Gospel drives home to us is that we are far more wicked and despicable than even our worst enemies believe about us. The Gospel teaches us that Jesus death was necessary for our salvation because we were helpless, because there was nothing inherently worthy within us that merited being saved, and that we were completely incapable of saving ourselves.

So, when we struggle with pride, it is because we do not believe the truth about ourselves that the Gospel so relentlessly teaches us. And so, as we better understand and embrace that truth, the less we will struggle with pride. In a similar fashion, one could think of many other challenges we face as believers - struggles with honesty, struggles with greed, struggles with lust, struggles with selfishness - all of these things can be traced, at their root, to a failure to believe and embrace the implications of the Gospel in some way.

So, I hope you can see that the decision to keep the Gospel center stage, "to know Christ and him crucified" in Paul's day and in our own - the decision to do that is not a decision to simply stay in "basic training" for the rest of your life. It is not a decision to just sort of camp out at "Christianity 101" and never really move on, it is not a decision to just sort of hold the line at a kind of shallow, introductory level of Christianity - it is nothing of the sort. The decision to "know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified" is a decision to stay with the one reality, indeed the only reality, through which maturity and depth and Christ-likeness will ever be possible in your life.

The third thing I want you to notice is not only how Paul came to them and what he said but also how Paul said these things to them - i.e., what was the manner of his speech amongst them. In verse 1, Paul says he did not come with "lofty speech or wisdom" and in verse 4 he says, "...my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom."

If you have the NIV, then your translation will talk about "eloquence" and "superior wisdom" and "wise and persuasive words". Now what do all these words mean? What is Paul talking about here? For a bit of help in answering that, let's listen to what one of the commentators, C.K Barrett, has to say - and I am paraphrasing a bit here....

the [words that Paul uses here] are close together in meaning for they mean things like "rational talk "and "wordy cleverness." They represent the outward and inward means by which men may commend a case. They are all about the effective use of language, and having skill in the art of argumentation and debate. [Having said that, however, we need to note that ] Paul's words do not mean that he employed NO kind of speech or wisdom; this would be absurd. His words simply mean that these things were not pre-eminent in his evangelism; rather were they kept in the background...
Once again, you have to remember the backdrop against which Paul is writing: a culture that was very taken by clever speech and flowery language. So you see, in that kind of environment, in comparison to that, Paul's plainly spoken Gospel must have been considered a great disappointment, or even dull and ordinary.

Again, the point is not so much that Paul was crude or unpolished or simplistic in his preaching. He is not saying that. Further, he is not saying that his preaching was not ever persuasive or passionate. He is simply saying that in comparison to what usually passed as worthy oration in his day - in comparison to that, his speech didn't measure up. He is saying that his speech was not deliberately manipulative; it was not drawing attention to itself or being used as a means to advertise the skill and finesse of the preacher. He's saying that every time he thought about something he was going to teach, if an idea came to mind that he felt was clever and even possibly too clever, or if the effect of the idea would draw attention away from the Gospel, he would choose to leave it out, regardless of how clever or memorable it might have been. He is saying that he was deliberately un- spectacular. He was solid, but not stunning. Clear, but not clever. Persuasive, even winsome, but not entertaining. Powerful, but not theatrical. Get the picture?

But notice an interesting thing that Paul does here. Paul says, my speech was not in plausible words of wisdom and then - when you think he will go on to say what it WAS, that is, the kind of words he DID use - he doesn't say that, instead he says it was "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power". Do you see what I'm saying? Paul doesn't say here: "I didn't use this kind of approach but rather THIS kind of approach" - No, what he says is: "I didn't use this kind of approach... instead ... I had these kinds of results."

Now some people want to say that Paul IS talking about two different kinds of approaches here and that Paul is saying that he didn't use superior wisdom amongst them but that he spoke in a way which demonstrated the Spirit's power - that is, he spoke in tongues.

Of course the problem with that view is that it would contradict his teaching later on in the letter and, at any rate, would do the very thing that he says he is trying to avoid in the very next verse - it would encourage people to place their faith in men, rather than in God.

In other words, the phrase "demonstration of the Spirit and of power" must refer to something else and not just some power spectacle. And the reason we know this is because that has been his running point ever since verse 17 of chapter one - that God chose what seemed foolish - not what seemed amazing and mystifying. God chose what seemed weak and foolish to shame the "wise and powerful" of the world. And this would include Paul's preaching which would have been quite ordinary, in the scheme of things and yet was "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power".

So, if these words are not referring to a way of speaking, they must be referring to something else - the results of his preaching, i.e., the Spirit's work in the hearts of the Corinthians as they turned from idolatry to serve the living God. Now you may ask, "Why does Paul set up the contrast in this way?" In other words, instead of comparing one manner of speaking with another he compares one manner of speaking with the results of a different manner of speaking? Why does Paul do this?

The reason he does this is because the nature of the sort of flowery, showpiece oratory that the people of Corinth were used to was such that all the power of the speech resided in the moment of speaking. Its power was in its presentation. In other words, it was entertaining and as a result, its effects and influence were immediate. By contrast, the power of Paul's preaching was not immediately evident in the manner of its presentation - people did not "ooh" and "aah" or burst into applause as he spoke. Rather, the power of Paul's preaching was seen later on, in the lives of men and women who were powerfully converted and permanently changed - for the good - through the foolishness of the preached Gospel.

I remember I had an interesting experience many years ago at a concert which featured a certain musician who was a Christian. What was interesting was the contrast between the musician who was the MAIN EVENT and the musician who was just there to "warm up" the audience with a few songs before the "really important" person came out. When the "warm up" singer came out, he walked up to the microphone and said, very plainly, "These songs are for the glory of God" - and then walked over to a piano and began to play and sing some of the most moving, thoughtful music I have ever heard.

Anyway, after this guy had very humbly played his 3 or 4 songs, he left the stage, and the lights in the auditorium went down very low, and then we started hearing what sounded like thunder, and then there were flashes of make-believe lightning and all this mist and smoke began rising from the stage. And then the "star performer" suddenly appeared, dressed in this ridiculous looking "superman" sort of outfit as he pranced around the stage and sang his music.

And the contrast between the two singers and the effects of their singing was like night and day. The first singer's performance was not all that flashy or brilliant, but the power and majesty of the music and its message had a profound and lasting effect upon me. The second singer's performance was amazingly flashy and brilliant and - for the 2 hours of so that it went on - was entertaining. But when I left the building that night, his music didn't follow me home. Any "power" or "influence" that it had was pretty much confined to the performance itself, and that was where it stopped.

In a vaguely similar sort of way, that is the kind of contrast that Paul is talking about in this passage - the contrast between a way of speaking whose power was pretty much limited to the moment of its delivery AND a way of speaking that did not draw attention to itself, but which nevertheless became the vehicle for the powerful and permanent working of God's Spirit in the hearts of many, many people in Corinth.

Now, in thinking about the implications of all this for God's people in our own day, there a couple of extremes we need to be careful to avoid. The FIRST EXTREME is to take these words to mean that Christians shouldn't think ABOUT or prepare FOR what we will or might to say to people about Jesus. And that sort of conclusion is easily put to rest by simply looking at the kinds of instructions Paul gave to Timothy about being a good workman who handles accurately the word of truth. When you read those kinds of things in the Pastoral Epistles then you see that Paul is very much in favor of thinking and studying and preparing for what we do in conveying the Gospel to others. In short, these verses can't be taken as a license for mediocrity.

The other extreme happens when we forget that the power in our witnessing and ministry is of God and not of ourselves. You can't do anything. I can't do anything. And when we forget that this is a God thing, then we approach our ministry to others in such a way that unwittingly communicates the message that things are happening because we are so clever or gifted or something stupid like that. We can carry out our own ministries in ways which cause people to fix their gaze upon us and not upon the God who is working through us.

The truth, friends is somewhere between those two extremes. We prepare and work hard because God works through and beyond our preparations to achieve his purposes. But it is always God who is doing the work and taking the few loaves and fishes that we have to offer and turning them into a satisfying banquet of ministry and blessing for his people.

Finally, and very briefly, I want you to notice this morning not only how Paul came to them, and what Paul said to them, and how Paul said it to them but also why he did all these things, in the first place. Paul says, "...my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, THAT your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God..."

Because Paul understood the absolute sovereignty of God in his creation, and because Paul understood the sinfulness and weakness of men and women, including himself, he was determined to fulfill his duties and to carry out his ministry in a way which did not encourage or cause people to place their faith and confidence in him.

We talked about it a few weeks ago - but it's that same idea of not drinking the water - not allowing people to place confidence in him that should only be placed in God, not allowing people to give credit to him for things which God had done, not doing things, and not doing them in a way which pointed back to himself and said, "Wow, what an amazing, talented, gifted, wonderful guy this Paul really is!"

If that was Paul's attitude and approach, then it ought to be our own as well. These words say loudly and clearly to us - do not rest your faith in mere human beings. Respect them, yes, love them, yes, but do not attach yourselves to them in a way such that, when their feet of clay begin to show - your own faith is shipwrecked as well.

Friends, behind every pastor that has fallen or failed in some way - behind every guilty pastor is a guilty congregation. I'm not saying that the pastor's failure is their fault. But I am saying that they have contributed to his downfall in certain subtle ways - most particularly by the things they shouldn't have said to him - and did - and by the things they should have been saying to him - and didn't. And in those situations, the pastor always gets disciplined, but the congregation never does.

Friends, if you love your pastors and the Christian leaders that God has placed in your life do not put them in places they do not belong, in your heart and in your life. Don't do it with Keith don't do it with me, don't do it with anyone. Because I can absolutely guarantee it - WE WILL FAIL YOU.

But God never will.

So, if I had to summarize this passage, I would say this: Paul's method of preaching was deliberately un-spectacular in order that people might not wrongfully conclude that the power of God was a function of human skill and, as a result, place their faith in the wisdom and abilities of mere men, rather than in God, and specifically in the Spirit of God who was the real power behind Paul's preaching and IS the real power behind every effective work of the Gospel today.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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