We come again this evening to another passage where Paul is writing about preachers and preaching. And you’ll perhaps recall that the reason he’s writing to the church in Corinth about preachers and preaching is because he was addressing one of many problems which existed in that congregation. You see, Paul was concerned about them because he’d heard reports that there were divisions among them; and they were quarrelling with one another. The church of Jesus Christ in Corinth had divided itself into different groups or parties with some of them saying ‘I follow Paul’ and others saying ‘I follow Apollos’ and others saying ‘I follow Cephas [Peter]’ and still others saying ‘I follow Christ’. They all had their favourite preachers or leaders and the church had become divided and had split apart into these different factions so that they were quarrelling with one another. And not only were they quarrelling with one another, but they were boasting about themselves; so that those in one group were exalting themselves over the members of another group. Instead of loving and serving one another, and treating one another with humility, they were boasting that my group is better than your group. And Paul heard these reports about this congregation and he wrote to the Christians in Corinth to appeal to them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that all of them agree with one another so that there would be no divisions among them.
And I’ve explained before that what Paul is doing in these verses is to show his readers that there’s no reason for them to boast about themselves or about Paul or Apollos or Cephas or about any other preacher. There’s no reason to boast in them, because whatever success these preachers might have in their ministry is due, not to their own ability, but to the power of God. Preachers are like labourers in the field, doing whatever their Master commands; and if they see fruit for their labours, it’s only because God has caused the seed of his word to grow; and it’s got nothing to do with the skill or the ability of the preacher. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the message he’s been given by God to proclaim; no more and no less than that; and whatever success they have in their ministry is because of the Lord. Therefore, as Paul says in chapter 3 and verse 21:
So then, no more boasting about men!
Last week we spent our time on verses 18 to 31 of chapter 1 where Paul explained that the world through its wisdom did not come to know God or his salvation. When people rely on what seems true to them, what seems reasonable to them, what makes sense to them, when they stand over the Bible and judge it, they will never come to know God or his salvation. And Paul mentioned the Jews who demanded miraculous signs. That’s what made sense to them:
Give me a sign; and then I’ll believe.
And he mentioned the Greeks who demanded wisdom. That’s what made sense to them:
Give me a wise and convincing argument; and then I’ll believe.
But that way does not lead to the knowledge of God or his salvation, because the way God makes himself and his salvation known to the world is through the preaching of the gospel of a crucified Christ, a message which is a stumbling block for Jews who want powerful signs; and a message which seems like nonsense to the Greeks who only want wise-sounding arguments. The world through it’s wisdom did not know God or his salvation. But God has made himself and his salvation known to the world through the preaching of the cross of Christ. And this is the power of God and the wisdom of God, because whenever the gospel is proclaimed, the power of the cross to save is unleashed in the world. And through the preaching of the gospel of a crucified Christ, God calls those he has chosen and enables them to put their faith in Christ the Saviour. And whoever puts their faith in him, discovers that in him we find the righteousness we need and the holiness we need and the redemption we need for eternal life in the presence of the Lord. So no more boasting about men and about the wisdom of the world, but boast in the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour.
In chapter 2, Paul continues to write about preachers and preaching. And in today’s passage — verses 1 to 5 of chapter 2 — he helps us to see what a true preacher is and does. So, let’s turn to these verses now.
Verses 1 and 2
And from verses 1 and 2 we learn that true preachers preach Christ crucified without relying on eloquence or the wisdom of the world. So Paul tells us that when he went to Corinth — and remember that we can read about his time in Corinth in Acts 18 — he did not come to them with eloquence or superior wisdom. A more literal translation is that he did not come ‘with excellence of speech or wisdom’. When he says ‘speech’ he’s referring to the way he preached, or to his manner and style of preaching. And when he says ‘wisdom’ he’s referring to what he preached and to the content of his message. So, he’s referring to both style and substance: to how he preached and to what he preached.
Let’s take the second of these first, because we’ve thought about this already when we were studying verse 17 of chapter 1 where Paul said to his readers that God did not call him to baptise, but to preach the gospel, not with words of human wisdom. At that time I explained that Paul was referring to the content of his sermons. So, when he came to Corinth to preach, he didn’t preach words of wisdom. He didn’t come to them with human ideas. He didn’t come to tell them what the philosophers of the age had to say. He didn’t come to teach them the latest ideas. No, he came to them, not as a philosopher, but as a preacher. Instead of coming to them as a great thinker, with new and original ideas to teach, he came to them as a herald whose job is to announce the message his Master has given him to announce, which in this case is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul meant back in verse 17 of chapter 1; and he means the same thing here in verse 1 of chapter 2 when he tells us that he did not come to them with excellence of wisdom. He didn’t come to them as a philosopher to tell them the latest ideas; he came to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But he not only refers to what he preached, but to the way he preached. And so, he tells us that he did not come to them with excellence of speech or ‘with eloquence’ as the NIV puts it. I mentioned the sophists before, who were professional speech-makers who went around the ancient world and who were very popular in Corinth. You might have employed a sophist to act as your representative in court. So, they acted like a lawyer and spoke in your defence. But they also gave speeches as a form of entertainment. And when they did, they would impress the audience with their eloquence and the beauty of their language and by their ability to come up with convincing arguments in a debate. What they were speaking about didn’t really matter; the main thing was the way they said it. It was mostly style over substance. But people in the ancient world loved it and they were impressed by it and if you hoped to be a teacher, you had to do what the sophists did.
But Paul did not rely on that kind of thing when he came to Corinth. He didn’t rely on that kind of eloquence, or that kind of lofty speech, as another translation puts it. He didn’t rely on clever techniques when he came to them.
And so, according to Paul in verse 1, when he came to Corinth, he did not rely on either eloquence or wisdom. So didn’t rely on excellence of speech; he didn’t rely on excellence of wisdom. He didn’t rely on any such things.
So what did he do when he came to them? Well, he tells us in verse 2 and it’s very simple and straightforward, isn’t it? He resolved to know and to teach nothing while he was with them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. In other words, when he went to Corinth he was determined to know and to teach this message and this message alone. The Corinthians may have liked to hear the latest ideas; and they may have liked to listen to the sophists; but Paul turned his back on that kind of thing and he made sure that he preached the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Well, by putting it that way — ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ — he’s referring to two things. He’s referring to the person of Jesus Christ: who he is. And he’s referring to the work of Jesus Christ: what he did for us. And so, when Paul went to Corinth, he proclaimed to them the person of Jesus Christ and how he’s both God and man in one person: he’s the Eternal Son of God, equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit in glory and honour and power; but he also took to himself a human nature so that he’s both true God and true man in one person. He both God and man and the only Mediator between God and sinners. That’s who he is; and Paul proclaimed to them the person of Jesus Christ.
But he also proclaimed to them the work of Jesus Christ and how he became subject to God’s law and obeyed it fully for us and for our salvation; how he suffered in body and soul and died on the cross for us and for our salvation; how he was was buried in the tomb and remained under the power of death for a time for us and for our salvation; how he was raised from the dead on the third day for us and for our salvation; and how he ascended into heaven for us and for our salvation; and how he will one day come again from heaven for us and for our salvation. This is the work of Christ for us and for our salvation; and it’s this gospel message which Paul preached in Corinth whenever he went there.
And every true preacher — whom the Lord raises up and sends out into the world — will follow Paul’s example, so that they will not rely on excellence of speech or on excellence of wisdom, but instead they will preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, because he alone is the only Saviour of the world.
I have a friend who is several years older than me, but I’ve known him since I was about eleven years old. And he’s now a minister. And he’s got this wonderful, caustic humour which is really very funny. And whenever he was training for the ministry, I always looked forward to hearing him preach, because he would sprinkle his sermons with these funny remarks. Well, for a number of years I had no opportunity to hear him preach because of where he was living. But when I next heard him, there were no jokes and no funny lines. ‘What happened?’ I asked him. And he told me that he realised that his humour was distracting the people from the cross of Christ; he discovered that, because of his humour, the people went away, talking about his jokes and not about the Saviour.
Well, when I was an assistant minister, I used to sprinkle my sermons with stories about Yvonne and about our dog at that time in order to illustrate what I was trying to say. And then I too realised that those stories — designed to illustrate what the Bible says — were only distracting the people; and after the sermon, everyone was talking about the stories and not about the Saviour.
When Jamie Oliver first appeared on TV, he was presented as ‘The Naked Chef’. Do you remember? He was called ‘The Naked Chef’ because he wanted to strip away his food to the bare essentials. Get rid of everything that was unnecessary and which took away from the natural taste of his ingredients. And that’s what the true preacher will do as well: strip away everything that is unnecessary and which distracts the people from hearing the good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified. So, preachers today need to be careful about how we preach.
But preachers today also need to be careful about what we preach. They’re to be careful to preach Christ crucified and not the latest ideas. Yvonne and I lived in Edinburgh for a time and there was a church there with a display board outside. And every week they posted a notice about what the next sermon would be about. And often it was about something in the news. So, the minister of that church would preach on whatever the newspapers thought was important and whatever the BBC thought was important. Whatever was in the news, that’s what he often preached on. But the true preacher knows that his calling is not to preach the latest news, or the latest ideas; his calling is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified. The latest news today will be old news tomorrow; and the latest news will be forgotten in a few weeks and something new will replace it in the public’s attention; but the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified is a message which every generation needs to hear; and it’s a message which will captivate and enthral the hearts and minds of God’s people in every generation.
Well, if that’s what a true preacher will do, then the people of God should pray to the Lord to raise up and send out that kind of preacher into the world. We don’t want preachers who rely on excellence of speech and clever techniques which only distract. We don’t want preachers who rely on excellence of wisdom and the latest ideas which cannot save. We want preachers who will resolve to know and to preach nothing except the person and work of Christ.
Verses 3 and 4
And we should want preachers who rely, not on their own power and ability, but on the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the second point this evening: true preachers rely, not on their own power and ability, but on the power of the Holy Spirit.
And so, Paul tells us in verse 3 that when he went to Corinth, he came to them in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. What caused his weakness and fear and trembling? Well, it’s not certain. When we read in Acts 18 the account of his time in Corinth, we notice that for the first part of his time there, he was on his own. Silas and Timothy, his travelling companions, were not with him at first. And so, perhaps being on his own made him nervous. And, if you read Acts 18, you’ll see how the Jews opposed him and became abusive. In fact, the opposition he experienced was such that the Lord had to appear to him one night in a vision to re-assure him and to encourage him to persevere with his work in Corinth. So perhaps all the opposition he faced made him tremble. Or perhaps he was unwell when he was with them. In 2 Corinthians he writes about the thorn in his flesh which was some physical ailment which bothered him. He also mentions being ill in his letter to the Galatians. So, perhaps illness made him weak when he was in Corinth. Or some commentators suggest that the phrase ‘fear and trembling’ describes his humble response to the majesty of God. Whatever the exact explanation for Paul’s weakness and fear and trembling, the important point for us to notice is that he didn’t come with a swagger. He wasn’t filled with self-confidence. He wasn’t proud or filled with a sense of his own importance; and he didn’t come, boasting about himself and his power and ability.
And when he came to them, he didn’t come with ‘wise and persuasive words’. Do you see that in verse 4? Another translation says that he didn’t come with enticing words. There are some people who are very persuasive. Perhaps they’ve been born with this ability, or they’ve developed it over time, but they’re able to convince you of anything, by their own charisma and by the way they’re able to use enticing and persuasive words.
Well, says Paul, I didn’t come to you like that. I didn’t some with a swagger or with pride, but in weakness and in fear and trembling. And I didn’t come with enticing words to win you over. I didn’t come like that and I didn’t rely on any of those natural abilities which some people have. No, when I came to you, I was relying on something entirely supernatural. I was relying on the Holy Spirit. Whenever I came to proclaim the testimony about God and to preach the good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified, I was relying on the Holy Spirit to work powerfully among you. Since this is a message which is a stumbling block to Jews and which seems like foolishness to Greeks, Paul was relying on the Holy Spirit of God to open the heart of the people to pay attention to his message and to believe in the Saviour. He was counting on the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of the people so that they would listen to the message of Christ and believe in him.
And that takes the power of God, doesn’t it? By nature, men and women are dead in their trespasses and sins. They’re spiritually dead, unable to understand and to believe and to turn to God in repentance or to turn to Christ in faith. Whenever they hear the gospel, it seems like foolishness to them. Relying on the wisdom of the world, relying on what makes sense to them, they regard God’s word and the message of the cross as nonsense.
So, how will they ever believe? Well, the apostle Paul cannot raise sinners from spiritual death. The apostle Paul cannot enable them to believe. No preacher can enable a sinner to repent and believe. But the Holy Spirit is able to do it; and he’s the one who works through the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified to raise sinners up from spiritual death and to make them alive with Christ for ever. He’s the one who enables sinners to repent so that they’re able to turn from their sin; and he’s the one who enables sinners to believe so that they’re able to turn to Christ and to cling to him for salvation. The apostle Paul did not take pride in himself and he did not boast in his own powers. No, he was well aware of his weakness and his fear and his trembling when he preached. But he was also well aware of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit who is able to work though the preaching of the gospel to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ. Paul was aware of these things and every true preacher is aware of these things and how we must rely on the Holy Spirit, because only the Holy Spirit has the power to persuade sinners of the truth of the gospel and to enable them to repent and believe.
That’s why it’s so important for us to pray for the preaching of God’s word on Sundays. That’s why we have the Midweek and that’s why we also have the prayer meeting on Sunday evenings. We know that whoever the preacher is, he isn’t able on his own to persuade anyone of the truth of the gospel; and on his own, he cannot cause anyone to repent and believe. He’s not able to do it. And so, since we’re aware of the preacher’s weakness, we need to pray to God, asking him to send his Spirit to work powerfully through the preaching of his word to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ and to build up believers in faith and love.
Let me move on to the final point this evening. And we need to go back to verses 3 and 4 and add verse 5 to them. Paul wrote:
I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive or enticing words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
The words ‘so that’ are worth noting, because Paul is making clear that the way he preached in Corinth was a deliberate choice on his part. He deliberately chose not to use wise and enticing words for a very specific and clear reason. And the very specific and clear reason is signposted by the words ‘so that’. He preached like this so that their faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on God’s power. And that’s my final point this evening: true preachers will preach like this — without relying on eloquent words or excellence of speech or wise and enticing words — so that the faith of the people will rest, not on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
What do we rely on in order to draw men and women and boys and girls into the Christian faith? You see, that’s the question Paul is addressing now. Imagine if Paul had gone to Corinth, and if he’d used all the clever techniques of those sophists: their eloquence, their excellence of speech, their wise and enticing words. No doubt he would have impressed the people and he could have drawn a crowd into the church. But in that case, the reason they were in church was not because of the gospel, but it was because Paul had impressed them with his wise and clever words. They had come, not to hear the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, but to hear Paul’s winning words. And that’s no way to build a church, because a church which is built that way is built on the wisdom of men; and the wisdom of men cannot save anyone.
And so, Paul was careful to ‘set forth the truth plainly’. That’s how he puts it in 2 Corinthians 4. He used a plain style, without relying on eloquent words or wise and enticing words. He used a plain style to set forth the good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified. And as he preached, he was relying on, and resting on, God’s power to convince and convert the people. And in that case, if any were converted and added to the church, the reason they were there was not because of Paul’s clever techniques, but it was because of God who had converted them.
And this is a lesson the church needs to remember in every generation, because the temptation every generation faces is to doubt the power of God to convert sinners and to rely on ourselves and our own clever techniques to draw people to Christ. Perhaps we manage to draw a crowd. However, that’s no way to build a church, because a church which is built that way is built on human wisdom; and human wisdom cannot save anyone. And so, we’re to preach the good news of Christ crucified, without relying on human wisdom; and instead we rely on the power of God, because God alone is the one who is able to produce faith in dead hearts and to raise sinners to new life in Christ. And when we rely on God like that, then there’s no room for boasting about men and about which preacher has the best technique or style. Instead of boasting in men, we’ll boast only in the Lord and in the might of his power.