Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians 2. Chapter 2 of what we call Paul’s first letter to the church of God in Corinth. We’re continuing our slow march through this deep and practical book.
By way of reminder, Paul is in the middle of an extended argument against the divisions that had grown up in this church in the Roman city called Corinth. Corinth, if you will remember, is a very metropolitan city. It lies on the isthmus between two important seas. Sailors could sail into Corinth, and through a series of trollies and transport devices, have their ship carried over land and into the other sea on the other side of the city.
That meant great traffic, and great profit, flowed continually into the city. And with great wealth, comes great appeal, great influence, and great temptation for worldliness. Or to say it another way, with great sailing interest, came a great number of sailors, and all of the problems that can come with that.
You could imagine a sailor coming off his vessel, with pockets full of cash he just made selling his goods, and him looking at the sun setting over the skyline of Corinth. He’d see on the top of the hills the temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. And as the sun set the beautiful and sacred courtesans would come out of the temple in order to woo in the sailors, and any other men that were passing by. They were more than willing to help those sailors lighten their pocketbooks and indulge in some sensual recreation.
Indeed, as we have mentioned before, this behavior was so prevalent, that the city’s name became a byword for indulging in all manner of carnal and sensual behavior.
But it wasn’t just sexuality that was trendy. Corinth was the host of the Isthmian games, a great sporting event that was second only to the Olympics, which was held in neighboring Athens. These games attracted all of the best athletes, those men who, just like today, were celebrities because of the great natural talents that God had given them. To win the Isthmian games or win at the Olympics made a man nearly god-like in his reputation and status. It might be the equivalent to winning a Super bowl MVP, or a Heisman trophy today. Instant celebrity status and recognition. 1st century Corinth doesn’t sound so foreign after all.
This is the city into which Paul had planted this little church in Corinth. You can read about his ministry in Corinth in Acts 18; Paul spent over a year and a half laboring there. And now the church, as we have seen so far in this letter, has imbibed too much of the culture’s influence. The people of God in Corinth had begun to judge, begun to evaluate those in their midst according to the traits that the world values. They began to judge as the world does, according to worldly wisdom, or fleshly wisdom, rather than God’s wisdom.
And this had caused all manner of problems. Later Paul will address other issues, but in our passage, he is continuing to address the factions, or divisions that had arisen, specifically highlighting his own manner of ministry as an illustration of the larger principle from chapter 1: that God’s wisdom is not like man’s wisdom.
To illustrate that man’s fleshly wisdom is the opposite of God’s wisdom, Paul explains how he came to the Corinthians, and how he preached to them, and why he did it like he did. And in Paul’s defense of his own ministry, we will tonight be reminded of how WE must judge faithfulness in the church. We’ll be reminded of how we can be tempted to look for the wrong things, look for the wrong traits, look for the wrong fruit, rather than trusting in God’s simple wisdom of Christ crucified as the true test of faithfulness within a minister, within a church, and within each of our own lives.
So, let’s jump into our text by reading 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Let’s start by looking at verse 1 and see Paul’s plan for ministry. Paul’s Plan for ministry.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
Paul did NOT come with lofty speech and wisdom. You could imagine that in a very cosmopolitan city, with all of its rhetoric schools and intellectual capital, that Paul would certainly be tempted to appeal to such things.
“Paul, you know we’re the capital of the isthmian games. What if we started a soccer league? Or what if we got last year’s MVP to come in and give us a talk this week?”
Or perhaps, “Instead of preaching about this Jesus so much, what if we had one of the local orators come in and give us a talk about sound business economics, or conservative social values? We’ve studied the demographics, Paul, that’s what people are really interested in. Don’t you want to meet people where they are?”
You can hear these temptations, and see them all around us, even today. Simple, faithful preaching of the gospel is maligned as insufficient, as outdated, as boring, or as something that we just have to get through in order to get to the really important stuff like fellowship, or missions, or service projects or whatever.
But Paul wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t have it. That’s what he explains in verse 2 where we see our second point: Paul’s practice in ministry. Paul’s practice in ministry.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
I decided to know Nothing, except Jesus Christ crucified. And take note of the intentionality in Paul’s practice: I DECIDED, he said. This was on purpose. It didn’t just happen that way on its own. He made a point of it ahead of time. That’s significant. A minister and a church must decide early on how they will go about their work. You can’t wait for the temptations to arise or the pressure can build. You must have sound principles and a sure foundation before the temptations come, otherwise it is too late.
I’m afraid that many of our churches around here have already lost this battle. They didn’t decide. They didn’t choose ahead of time. They didn’t solidify their convictions at the start of their ministries that they would stand only upon the simple proclamation of the gospel. And so, they falter. They wander. They head in whatever direction seems prudent in the moment. Whatever gets a response. Whatever fills the pews and seems to work. Whatever fills the coffers.
That’s why we have the church growth movement and the mega church model. Pragmatism. If it brings people in, God must be blessing it, and so it must be OK. That’s the logic. But that’s not what Paul says here. He says that he decided early on that he’d no NOTHING but Christ crucified. Whether it brought in thousands or dozens, Paul was content with his message. He wouldn’t change is plan or adapt his ministry in order to appeal more to the fallen wisdom of men. He decided before he arrived to stand only on Christ, and we must be vigilant to do the same.
But he not only speaks of intentionality in his ministry, verse two makes clear that Paul decided to know nothing other than Jesus Christ and him crucified. Now, we know from Paul’s own behavior in the book of Acts and his exhortations in the Pastoral letters that he doesn’t mean here that we must preach the same message every week. To know nothing but Jesus Christ crucified doesn’t mean we preach the crucifixion narrative each week and nothing else.
Paul tells timothy to preach the entire counsel of God, and that’s what Paul and Peter and the rest of the apostles do in Acts. They preach all of God’s word, both the law and the gospel. But what is significant here is how they preach it.
To preach Christ and him crucified is to preach every text of scripture in an intentionally Christian way. To preach every text of the Old and New testament in a way that explicitly highlights its connection to the person and work of Jesus Christ. To do less than that, is to risk preaching a sub-Christian sermon, which is not hard to do; I’ve seen it done before, and you probably have too. It means to preach a text, and say true things, but to fail to connect it to Jesus Christ and his work. That’s wrong, and that’s what Paul is saying he decided NOT to do.
Let me give you an example of how one might preach true things, but do so without connecting it to the cross. I could, for example, preach the story of David and Goliath. I could preach that as the inspired word of God, which is true, and I could do it in a way that explains how such a text is authoritative for us today, which is also true. But I could preach the text divorced from its position in redemptive history, divorced from its context within the rest of the bible, and by doing so, distort the message, and leave Jesus entirely absent.
I could say, “David was so brave and trusted God so much that God blessed him and let him slay the giant. And God also wants you to trust in him and to slay the giants in your life, and so earn the blessings of the kingdom for yourself.” Did you catch that. Everything I said is in some sense true, but it is what I have left out in the story that is the significant part: I left out Christ. In fact, I preached the entire story in a way that would feel appropriate in a Jewish synagogue today. That’s a problem.
But, if I read the story of David and Goliath as part of the larger biblical narrative, then I will see that I am not actually most like David in the story. I’m actually more like the poor Israelites lined up behind David, shaking in my boots, and unable to overcome this immense villain and certain death that stands in front of me. And the character of David, that’s actually the Christ like figure, who stands up for a powerless people, singlehanded does what they could never do, defeats and beheads the enemy, and overcomes the villainous army of philistines.
To know nothing but Christ and him crucified, is to know that we can’t make complete sense of any part of the bible apart from its connection to Christ. We’ve been given the fullness of revelation in Christ and his work, and it is in light of those things that we must view the rest of scripture. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, we won’t get it right if we don’t explicitly connect it to Jesus, and specifically his work as the savior of sinners.
That’s the glorious simplicity of a faithful gospel minister, and indeed, every faithful believer: he decides to know nothing but Christ crucified. He’s not consumed with being up on every prevailing wind of doctrine and philosophy that the world has. He’s not always scavenging for the latest church growth trends, or the latest models and projections. He’s content with the same message and the same ministry that has birthed and blessed the church for thousands of years.
We as a church, and we as individuals, must decide how we will apply Paul’s words here. Will we be content with the message and the means of ministry that God has provided in his word? Will we be content with simple preaching of Christ crucified, with prayer, with fellowship, and with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper?
Or will we listen to the world, and go after all the latest and greatest. We’d be fools to think that these temptations won’t come to us. They come to every church. They don’t look the same at every church. Satan’s not that dumb. He knows how to tear apart every church. We may not be dividing over whether or not to start a Frisbee golf ministry, but we can certainly be tempted to divide over other matters.
Should we wear masks or not. Should we start small groups or not. Should we sing new songs or old hymns. Name your debate: any one of them can split a church, and we’re not immune. I’m not saying that we can’t have opinions on these issues, nor even that we can’t charitably debate them. But if we’re not content with following Paul’s simple practice of proclaiming Christ crucified, then we’re in trouble.
Let us ever be on guard against the temptations to divide or to adjust the message from what we have received, and from what has saved us: that Christ was crucified in the place of sinners.
Third, we’ve seen Paul’s plan for ministry and Paul’s practice in ministry, now let’s look at verse 3 and notice Paul’s presence in ministry. Paul’s presence in ministry.
3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.
Paul, apparently, did not get the memo about what kind of speaker the people really want. The people in Corinth, just like us today, were impressed with slick speakers, someone with rhetorical flair, somebody that is witty, and sharp, and clever, and funny.
Just look at the videos today of what gets all the views and shares and retweets. It’s when some news anchor “destroys” somebody on live TV, or when Ben Shapiro shuts down some liberal and makes them cry. It doesn’t matter what side of the isle you’re on; both sides like to see their team dominate and crush the opposition.
In that environment, Paul would have been crushed. He wouldn’t have stood a chance. Paul came in weakness and fear and trembling because, in the eyes of the influential Corinthians, Paul was a person without means, without strength, without influence, without status, and without privilege. He was a nobody. He was no better than a slave.
Not only that, other biblical texts give us clues that Paul was not an impressive person, either in appearance nor in manner. He was likely a short, run of the mill Jew with poor eyesight, and if you believe some of the extra-biblical sources, he was bald and ugly too. He was far from the chiseled depiction of Roman gods or influential statesmen; he was forgettable, unremarkable, nothing special.
That’s why He came in weakness, not bravado. Came in fear and trembling, not in dominating assurance. In fact, I’m not even sure Paul would have made it past the first round with any pastoral search committee today. If somebody submitted their resume to be preacher, and included audio of their sermons, and the audio starts off with someone having a quivering or stammering voice, I think most people would just shut it off.
“That’s not impressive. That’s not the kind of speaker that can command the room. That’s not the kind of guy that we want in our church, speaking to us day in and day out. We want a man that’s funny and clever, and easy to listen to, and relatable, and authentic, and good looking, and will draw a crowd.”
If many churches were honest, they want a Jonny Carson or a Jimmy Fallon, they don’t want an apostle Paul.
But the problem with such desires, with preferences for such qualities in a preacher, is that if someone isn’t content with Paul as their preacher, then they probably won’t be content with Jesus as their savior. If you struggle to listen to someone that isn’t beautiful and impressive, then you’ll never listen to an unimpressive savior.
Paul wasn’t much to look at, and so people ignored him. And Jesus was the same way. Isaiah 53 says that Jesus:
“had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. [and so] he was despised and rejected by men.”
If you’re always looking for the next beautiful and eloquent preacher, and you’re never content with the simple, unassuming preacher that God has given you, then you’ll not be content with a simple, unassuming Christ.
To be dissatisfied with humble preaching of the cross, is to be dissatisfied with the very wisdom and Power of God, which is one of Paul’s main points so far in this message. And to judge the value and quality of a preacher or a church based upon worldly definitions of success, is to place your hope in vain things that will quickly pass away.
Orators will come and go, comedian’s jokes will fade, and Pundits will pass. And If you’re hope is in any of these, then know that your hope will also fade.
But if your hope is in the message, in the simple message of Christ crucified, then your hope will never fade. That’s the great news of the gospel: Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the unchanging and never fading God, whose work is complete, never to be undone.
And his work is simply this: Jesus Christ, the son of God himself, was born of a woman. He came and lived the sinless life that his people could never live. And instead him being given life, he willingly accepted death in the place of his people. Wicked men put him to death, and he spent three days in the grave. But he didn’t stay there. God raised him on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he ascended into heaven, all so that we can know he lives, and that we can be assured that we will live forever with him. And all this can be ours by simple faith. All we must do is believe in him.
Have you believed in him? Do you, this very moment, put all your trust and faith in this Christ proclaimed in this simple message? If you do, then continue believing, and remind yourself and others often of this simple message.
If you do not believe, then I urge you on the basis of scripture to turn from your sins and believe in this Christ. He is the only way to salvation. He is the only one who can cleanse your conscience and give you rest. He is the only one who can save your soul from perishing in hell for all of eternity. All you must do is believe. Believe in this simple message proclaimed in fear and trembling to you from scripture. That was Paul’s presence in ministry, and that is the presence of every faithful and humble minister of God’s word.
Fourth, not only have we seen Paul’s plan, practice, and presence in ministry. Now let’s look at verse 4 and see Paul’s proclamation in the ministry. Paul’s proclamation in ministry. We’ve seen how he preached, not let’s look at verse 4 and see what he preached.
4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power
Paul wasn’t preaching a message with plausible words of wisdom. Just as he determined in verse 2, he was successful in carrying it out. His speech was not in lofty words of speech or human wisdom because divine wisdom needs no human adornment.
These kinds of lofty speech, of words of human wisdom, we have talked about before in chapter 1. These are the words that are philosophically enticing, words that are appealing and pleasing, words that can stir the affections and toy with your emotions. Words that are captivating and motivating.
These are the words used with great success by the false teachers of church history. Paul elsewhere speaks of the Judiazers in Galatians 2 or the false teachers that would capture weak women in 2 Timothy 3. These groups use their words for selfish and sordid gain. We could look at others in church history that would use their words in slippery ways in order to pass off their false teaching. Marcion, Arius, Pelagius, Socinius. Indeed, there are dozens on TV today that do the same.
But Paul wouldn’t do it. He determined to preach Christ and him crucified, and not in a manner that stole the glory from Christ and put it on himself. In a manner that instead kept the glory squarely on the savior and his work.
And what is the fruit of such a ministry? Paul says it was a demonstration of the Spirit and of Power. The word for demonstration is courtroom language. It means that nobody is able to refute the evidence that Paul is here highlighting. Nobody is able to refute the truth that Paul’s preaching came with Power and with the Spirit.
Paul’s simple preaching of the cross was a demonstration of the Spirit because it was accompanied with the work of the spirit, that is conversions. People were saved, people were born again by the power of the holy spirit, and that testifies to the validity of Paul’s message and the manner in which it was proclaimed.
But not only that, his preaching was a demonstration of power. This word is often associated with the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. For example, Jesus promised the disciples that they would receive Power when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them at Pentecost. And Paul’s ministry demonstrated this kind of Power.
Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”
Faithful proclamation of the gospel, under the blessing of the Holy Spirit, will demonstrate this kind of power. People will be saved. Sinners will be converted. Saints will be built up and spurred on in holiness. And Paul is here asking the Corinthians to see his ministry resume, how he came in fear and trembling, and yet his ministry was fruitful. He was a weak man, but his ministry demonstrated power. He was not wise or eloquent, and yet these Corinthian believers heard the message and believed. They themselves were the evidence of Paul’s faithfulness in simple, faithful preaching of Christ crucified.
Paul deliberately avoided using the very things with which the Corinthians were enthralled; and yet, God blessed it.
But why did Paul minister in this way? Let’s look at the 5th and final point, from verse 5: Paul’s purpose in his ministry. Paul’s purpose in his ministry:
And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
The orators and rhetoricians of Paul’s day had a kind of power. They had the ability to move an audience, to evoke a response, to tug at people’s emotions and to rally people to action. Humanly speaking, they could get the job done. Paul’s preaching, on the other hand, without any rhetorical flair, without any oratorical polish, without any stylistic embellishment, was the means that God had chosen to bring about the faith of the very Corinthian believers who were now smitten with these worldly bells and whistles.
And so Paul here is again illustrating the same principle from chapter 1, that the power of God is stronger than man’s power. Paul’s preaching, even though it exhibited the weakness of God, has demonstrated itself to actually be the power of God, which is evidenced by the Corinthians themselves. Paul is saying to the Corinthians, “you believe today because I preached a plain message about Christ and him crucified.”
And he did that on purpose. He states in verse 5 that his intention in preaching a plain and simple message was so that the faith of the Corinthian believers would rest in the power of God alone, and not in man’s wisdom.
It’s easy to see, when you look at church history or at churches across this land, to see how many people can be drawn to personalities. How many people come to church to hear from their favorite speaker, to hear the message and the stories and the inspirational anecdotes. That happened in Corinth, and it’s certainly alive today.
People can be so smitten with certain ministry leaders that they place their very affections, their very confidence on a man or woman, and not on God himself. They can come to treat that speaker as the highest authority, as if their word is infallible. They’re never wrong. Whatever they say must be the right thing. In fact, I don’t actually need to read my bible, I can just listen to this guy or that lady. “They get so much more out of the text than I ever could, so I’m just going to let them feed me in my quiet time.”
And over time, your faith can slowly slip from God and his word, onto a man or woman, onto an eloquent speaker. They become like an idol to you. You listen to them more than God. You care more about what they think of you, than what the true God thinks of you. You hold their opinion higher than God’s opinion. You seek their presence more than you seek God’s presence, and you’ll seek their approval and affirmation more than God’s. What you’ve done is you’ve built your foundation upon a man and his wisdom, rather than God and his wisdom.
This can happen to any of us. We can slowly begin to slip away from the simple message of Christ and him crucified, and begin to build the foundation of our faith upon someone else. We’ll cover this more when we get to chapter 3, but each of us is building upon something. Each of us are pouring our lives out for something. Are we sure that we’re building upon the sure foundation of Christ crucified?
Or are you building your life on something else? Maybe you’ve unwittingly begun to build your life upon some unsure foundation?
- Maybe it’s putting your hope in what people think about you?
- Maybe you’re building your life upon the love of money and stuff?
- Maybe you’re building your life upon pleasure and sensuality?
- Or maybe it’s simply that you’ve built your life upon someone other than Jesus as your foundation?
Whatever it is, tonight you have a chance to hear again the message of Christ crucified in the place of sinners. Christ came and died in the place of people who built their lives on the wrong foundation. If you’re addicted to the praise of men, Christ can free you of that. If you’re driven by greed and materialism, Christ can liberate you from that. If you’ve indulged in sinful pleasure and sensuality, Christ can wash you of that. If you’ve built your life upon someone or something other than Jesus, he can forgive you of that.
That’s the good news of the gospel. His power over sin and death means that he also has power to free you from the sin that entraps you. Come to him and believe, and be washed of the sin that grabs at your soul. Come and be forgiven by our loving savior. He’s ready and willing to receive any that would come, and scripture says that he will not cast out any that come to him.
Come and be forgiven. Come and be restored. Come and be washed. And having been cleansed, let us all be on guard against the temptation to build our lives upon anything or anyone other than him.