Why are we talking about preaching with power? Because of what Christianity is. Christianity is “a divine and supernatural light immediately imparted to the soul by the Spirit of God.”2 It is the living God coming down through the gospel of Jesus Christ to change us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Real Christianity is pervasively miraculous. The Bible says,
Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, . . . doing wonders? (Exod 15:11)3
Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children (Ps 90:16).
No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness (Isa 64:4–5a).
And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28).
Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. . . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2, 4).
The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16).
The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power (1 Cor 4:20).
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might (Col 1:11).
Remove wonder-working power from Christianity, and what do you have left? Religious franchises managing community service programs. But is that what we read about in the book of Acts? Biblical Christianity in the world today is an ongoing miracle of God’s gracious power. And if that is so, and it is, then Christian preaching can and must be in divine power.
When Francis Schaeffer was struggling with disillusionment as a Christian, he asked his wife one day,
“Edith, I wonder what would happen to most churches and Christian work if we awakened tomorrow, and everything concerning the reality and work of the Holy Spirit, and everything concerning prayer, were removed from the Bible. I don’t mean just ignored, but actually cut out—disappeared. I wonder how much difference it would make?” We concluded it would not make much difference in many board meetings, committee meetings, decisions and activities.4
And in many sermons.
Isn’t it time to confess our need of divine power in our preaching? As long as the book of Acts stands written, with the entire New Testament, which we confess to be authoritative over us, can we be happy to fall short of God’s Word and way? Let’s thank the Lord for all the blessing he is giving. We would be wrong not to thank him, but we long for revival. We long to be filled with the Spirit, led by the Spirit, helped by the Spirit, sanctified by the Spirit, taught by the Spirit. We long to walk by the Spirit, bear fruit by the Spirit, pray in the Spirit, and preach in the power of the Holy Spirit. We bow low before God, asking for his supernatural visitation upon us at every level, including our preaching, for his glory in our generation.5
We have good and sufficient reasons, therefore, to devote these studies to what God himself says about preaching the gospel with a power from beyond ourselves. What if we spent our lives preaching in the power of the flesh because we had never seriously considered the alternative? Now is our time to consider and pray that our preaching would be living proof that God is with his people in this generation, for his glory.
First Corinthians 2:1–5 shows us God’s power in the very act of preaching. Here is the case I am making: A crucified Savior can be preached in divine power only by crucified preachers. This passage is not primarily about the content of the gospel; it is primarily about the communication of the gospel. Embedded in Paul’s thinking here is the assumption that gospel-content and gospel-communication are inseparable. And Paul made a decision about his communication. He refused to preach a crucified Savior through his own cool persona. He could have done so. He was an amazing personality. But uncrucified preachers succeed by human power. They build churches grounded in the weakness of human power and the folly of human genius—sandy foundations for the future. But strong churches, rock-solid churches that can stand up to anything, are a miracle of the Holy Spirit, who empowers crucified preachers only. Have you decided yet to be uncool?
2. An Overview of This Three-Part Series
The key word in part 1 is “decide.” You see it in 1 Cor 2:2: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
The key word in part 2 is “desire.” First Thessalonians 1–2 shows us God’s power in the preacher’s relationships. The Holy Spirit uses a man with converting power when the people see in that man not demands from them but desires for them.
The key word in part 3 is “delight.” Second Corinthians 12:1–10 shows us God’s power in the preacher’s personal life. The Holy Spirit strengthens a preacher who delights in his weaknesses for the sake of Christ.
My appeal throughout is what I heard from J. I. Packer when I was a seminary student thirty-five years ago: “Do not neglect the revival dimension in your ministry.”
3. 1 Corinthians 1:17–31
1 Corinthians 1:17
We come now to 1 Cor 2:1–5 and the decision every preacher must make. Paul starts moving us toward clarity when he says in 1:17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” That is a strong statement. Not even the sacraments are central. Christ has sent us to preach. But how should we preach? How should we communicate the gospel? It is possible to preach the gospel in ways that empty out the power: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” If we preach the gospel with eloquent wisdom, or more literally “the wisdom of speech,” it is worse than a lost opportunity. Something goes wrong. The cross of Christ is emptied of its power.
We are capable of emptying the cross even as we preach the cross. It is possible to use biblical words like “atonement” and “sacrifice,” but they have been emptied out. The result is hollowed-out churches. To accomplish that result, we do not have to forsake the message. All we have to do is preach the biblical message with what Paul calls “wisdom of speech.” Either the cross will discipline our communication, or our communication will empty out the power of the cross. So if Christ has sent us to preach, and if his power works in only a particular way, what is that way? Paul explains in 1 Cor 2:1–5.
You know the context. The Corinthian church was ripping itself apart with popularity contests for their favorite preachers—Paul, Apollos, Cephas. Some claimed Christ alone, but not because they were so spiritual. The implication was, “I follow Christ, and you don’t.” The root of it all was pride. The Corinthians were sermon connoisseurs, critiquing their preachers as entertainers rather than critiquing themselves as Christians.
1 Corinthians 1:18–25
Now if Paul had moved directly from 1:17 to 2:1, I would not have noticed that anything was missing. But he takes another step first in 1:18–31. Paul’s vision rises from the problem immediately before him to God’s whole strategy for human history. He puts Corinthian pride up against a larger backdrop. According to 1:18–25, God’s strategy is to destroy the wisdom of the wise (1:19), make foolish the world’s brainiest ideas (1:20), defy human demands and elude human inquiry (1:21–23) and make the biggest breakthrough with an approach we would scorn (1:24–25). God is lifting over this world of self-assurance a cross. God deliberately stoops to weakness and folly. He makes his salvation look unpromising when judged from the lofty gaze of human pride. God intends to embarrass human genius, exalt divine folly, and bless everyone who is foolish enough to esteem a crucified Savior.
1 Corinthians 1:26–31
In 1:26–2:5, Paul shows the Corinthians how they themselves have seen God working his grand strategy within their own experience. They have seen God’s surprising methods in two ways. First, in 1:26–31, Paul reminds them that not many of them are big-shots in the world. But God chose the foolish, God chose the weak, God chose the low and despised in the world. Three times in 1:27–28 Paul reminds them it was God’s own choice. He was not stuck with the leftovers. He got first dibs, and he chose the nobodies. Why? Look at the purpose clauses in 1:27–29: “to shame the wise, . . . to shame the strong, . . . to bring to nothing things that are, [and here is God’s final aim] so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” As C. S. Lewis taught us, human pride is “the complete anti-God state of mind,”6 and he will never make peace with it. But according to 1:30, God loves to give simple people his wisdom and discredited people his righteousness and sinful people his sanctification and enslaved people his redemption in gracious union with Christ. It is all of God. Therefore, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1:31).
4. 1 Corinthians 2:1–5
Now in our passage, 2:1–5, Paul reminds the Corinthians of a second way they have seen God using unimpressive people for his own glory. They have witnessed the divine strategy in Paul as well. It’s why he starts 2:1 with “And I, when I came to you . . . .” He is saying, “Do you want another picture of God’s power making something of human ordinariness? Look at me.”
1 Corinthians 2:1
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom (1 Cor 2:1).
How can the testimony of God be served by the cleverness of man? Even if the doctrine preached is true, a presentation that showcases the presenter, to make him sparkle, empties out the true power. In a way, that’s an odd thing for Paul to say. This brilliant man was incapable of being dull. This passage itself is an eloquent deconstruction of human eloquence. What was it then that Paul did avoid in his preaching? What was the “lofty speech or wisdom” he considered unfit, along with the “words of eloquent wisdom” back in 1:17, that disempowers the gospel? Where did he draw the line, and where do we?
Duane Litfin’s excellent book, St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation, helps us here.7 Litfin connects Paul’s argument with the culture of rhetoric in the ancient world. When Paul refers to “words of eloquent wisdom” (1:17), “lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1), and “plausible words of wisdom” (2:4), he has in mind the arts of classical rhetoric. Rhetoric was the basis of education and credibility in Paul’s world. It was the social dividing line between the leisured upper class of smart, cool people and the working lower class of simple, ordinary people. Not all rhetoric was sophistry, but audiences did applaud the clever use of argumentation so that a weak position could win out over a stronger one. They respected the display of intellectual sophistication and wit. It was how the gears of persuasion were lubricated. Rhetorical polish got a man’s name in lights. And the Corinthian church had no problem with it (2 Cor 11:18–21).
We see it today in advertising, in political spin, in manipulative legal argumentation, in TV talk shows when nothing newsworthy has happened but they still fill up an hour with words, in the brilliant monologues of late night comedians, in pop music groups with closely choreographed steps and absolutely nothing to say but saying it in a way that keeps us watching. Rhetoric is the professionalization of communication, and it works. But there is a problem: it’s all about self-display for self-glorification, and that’s where Paul draws the line. He was a gifted, articulate, careful, passionate, learned, fascinating man, but he knew the difference between preaching Christ and showing off. He knew the difference between winning disciples to Christ and attracting a following to himself. He knew the difference between getting the gospel out and branding his own recognizable way of saying it. He knew the difference between the Spirit and the flesh.
It’s the difference between a ????? and a ?????. A ?????, a rhetorician, aimed at shaping opinion and producing belief. He wanted to take people somewhere. So he analyzed his audience, figured out what it was going to take to move them from Point A to Point B, and by the sheer force of his persona and skills led them to the desired conclusion. Teachers of rhetoric set up schools in Paul’s world to show people how. You see ads for it today in airline magazines. For $250 you can buy a set of CDs to teach you how to sway an audience and get a standing ovation. But truth is not the passion of the rhetorician; he is targeting opinion.
By contrast, a ?????, a herald, was controlled by his message. He was responsible to the one who had sent him. A herald didn’t disregard his audience. We know from 1 Cor 9 that Paul adapted humbly and widely to the various human profiles in his mission field. He saw himself as a debtor to the wise and to the foolish (Rom 1:14), but he could never adjust his message for anyone. That message was the cross, and the humiliation and powerlessness and egolessness of the cross disciplined Paul’s communication. If it’s true that when an amateur is invited to speak in public the first question he asks is “What should I talk about?” but when a pro is invited to speak in public the first question he asks is “Who is my audience?”, then Paul is saying here, “I chose to be an amateur.”
So for the rhetorician, the fixed point was the audience, and the variable to be adjusted was the message. Paul reversed that. He was sensitive to his hearers. He longed to reach their hearts. He answered their questions. But he did not use the tricks of the trade to produce a result. Paul had become captivated by a foolishness and a weakness that his audience didn’t understand or even respect. He knew it was the wisdom and power of God. The gospel points to a bloodied mass of crucified flesh hardly recognizable as human and says to us all, “There is the healing of all your wounds. There is the satisfaction of all your desires. There is the wisdom for every question you ask. There is the victory that will open up a new future for the whole universe.” The best kept secret in the world today is that life comes out of death, joy out of sorrow, power out of surrender, greatness out of ordinariness, opportunity out of setbacks. Jesus is the paradox. Hanging from his cross and rising from his grave, Jesus proved the wisdom of God’s folly and the power of God’s weakness. Paul understood that. He revered it. He didn’t want salvation any other way. The cross set Paul free not to be a glittering personality in his preaching but to be as weak as Christ himself.
1 Corinthians 2:2
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).
Whatever other preachers may or may not do, Paul had thought it through for himself and he made up his mind. I love that. This man thinks. He thinks for himself. He is not retailing someone else’s ministry. He is not molded by the expectations of the audience. He is gripped by the testimony of God. So he made a decision—and not between a watered-down message of the cross versus a fully biblical message of the cross. The decision he made was between a fully biblical message of the cross communicated by an uncrucified preacher versus a fully biblical message of the cross communicated by a crucified preacher. When he came to Corinth, he was ready to be used by the Spirit of God.
When I look at 2:2 and ask myself what one English word objectifies the tone of this verse, the word “reverence” is the only word that fits. Paul revered Christ. He did not use the gospel of Christ for another end. He revered Christ. A nineteenth-century poet put these imaginative but appropriate words into the mouth of the apostle:
Christ! I am Christ’s! And let the name suffice you;
Aye, for me too He greatly hath sufficed.
Lo, with no winning words I would entice you;
Paul has no honor and no friend but Christ.8
Paul knew and felt that the preaching of Christ crucified was sacred, untouchable, and sufficient in itself. It is the testimony of God, who said to his people through Isaiah,
When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts? (Isa 1:12)
The courts of the temple belonged to him, not to them, and the preaching of the gospel belongs to him, not to us. He sets the tone. He defines the ground rules. If we vulgarize the sacred precincts of gospel ministry by intruding our egos into our preaching, he is offended. You have some courageous decisions to make about your preaching style. If you don’t, the pressure of the audience will overwhelm you, and those pressures are not conducive to the reverence of 1 Cor 2:2.
I hope I might have the privilege of attending your church someday. But if at the end of the service my dominant impression is how cool the lighting was and how hip the band was and how darling you were, I will walk up to you afterwards and ask you,
Who was all this about—you or Christ? Your people are desperate sinners, and some of them know it. They walked in here this morning almost begging you to show them a Savior, and that Savior is not you. They need Christ. But they can’t hear, really hear, his gospel without divine power in it. Are you reaching by faith for the power of God, or are you settling for the power of you? Who is all this about? Who is it for? Have you decided?
1 Corinthians 2:3–4
And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor 2:3–4).
Paul didn’t mind coming across as modest, unimpressive, even weak. How could he mind, if his message was a crucified man? Paul’s presence did not counteract his message, though the self-admiring Corinthians would have preferred someone more formidable. Imagine two members of that church running into each other in the marketplace during the week:
“Hey, who’s preaching at church this Sunday?”
“Oh no! I’ve invited my neighbor. I thought Dr. Smartypants was preaching this week. Paul means well, but he’ll never make it in the big leagues.”
Paul knew he wasn’t what they wanted, but that was okay with him. His reverence for Christ crucified wouldn’t let him stride onto the platform of public discourse in Corinth with the cocky self-assurance of a first-rate rhetorician. As a minister of Christ, he wouldn’t stoop to it. Philostratus commented that Scopelian the popular speaker appeared before his audiences not “with the bearing of a timid speaker but as befitted one who was entering the lists to win glory for himself and was confident that he could not fail.”9 But the apostle Paul came “in weakness and in fear and much trembling.”
I don’t think Paul is idealizing an “aw-shucks” presentation, which is only another form of self-display. He isn’t proposing that we secretly commend ourselves by demeaning ourselves, which is only another form of manipulative self-focus. Today, rather than be embarrassed by our weaknesses, we might hold them out for all to see and call it “honesty.” But Paul is not saying that he showed off diffidence rather than confidence. He didn’t show off at all. William Willimon reminds us, “Authenticity is more than a matter of being who I am; it is a matter of being who God calls me to be. For preachers, authenticity means being true, not just to our feelings, but true to our vocation, true to God’s call.”10
Paul felt inadequate. And why not? It is God’s strategy for human history to expose that inadequacy and then replace it with Jesus. So Paul did not falsify himself or compensate in any self-exalting way. He decided that when he stood before people, it was only about Christ, and the power of God entered in.
Obviously, the contrast in 2:4 is between “plausible words of wisdom” and the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” The plausible words of wisdom are the impressive forms of presentation that influence feeling and opinion. But no human powers, however brilliant, can create the certainty, the heartfelt, Christ-focused certainty that inspires heroic resistance to this present evil age. Those human powers are a part of this present evil age. Even if they do change someone, it is only rearranging the furniture in their worldly minds.
Persuasion is valid, even obvious. Paul himself says, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor 5:11). We should aim to satisfy the mind, win the heart, and move people to action (Acts 17:2–4; 18:4). Lazy, unimaginative, unsurprising tedium in the name of faithfulness will not do! But for our preaching to come across as the testimony of God, the Holy Spirit must prove it. Paul not only depended on the Spirit’s power; his preaching demonstrated the Spirit’s power. The word “demonstration” here means proof. It takes a person’s thinking beyond plausibility into certainty, where the decisions of a lifetime are forged. That is what the Holy Spirit does, and only the Spirit can do that. Paul is frankly admitting here that he wasn’t even effective at the level of plausibility. But God came down. The Spirit flew in under the radar of people’s prejudices, entered their minds and hearts, and demonstrated—he proved as only God can—that Christ crucified is the wisdom and power of God brilliantly disguised as folly and weakness and that the worldly beliefs the hearers had always clung to were folly and weakness brilliantly disguised as wisdom and power. That change of heart is a miracle. It is the gift of “all the riches of full assurance of understanding” (Col 2:2). No rhetorician, not even an apostle, can get people there, but God can, and he does, through weak preachers. Here is the net result:
1 Corinthians 2:5
that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:5).
The advantage of spiritual preaching—not just expository preaching but spiritual preaching—is significant. Paul could have achieved results with “the wisdom of men,” but human wisdom works with human power. Even the message of the cross, preached in human power, leaves converts forever vulnerable to a more clever argument, a more impressive presentation, a more charismatic personality. Today’s unanswerable argument by human wisdom is tomorrow’s unnoticed academic footnote. Paul preached as a vessel fit for noble use because the Holy Spirit is moving through the world in power today for this one purpose: to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Friend of sinners.
Let’s never be intimidated or depressed by our ordinariness and inadequacy and unimpressiveness. Most of us are quite ordinary. All of us can improve our preaching, and we will. But the sacred given is the message of the cross, which the Holy Spirit empowers in men of the cross. Let’s not disempower it. Let’s trust God’s strategy. God himself entered into his own strategy through an egoless nobody named Jesus Christ, whom this brilliant world crucified. That Christ is sending us out to preach his message by his power. We are fully equipped in every essential with the testimony of God, the message of Christ crucified, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Will you decide to stake your whole ministry there?