And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 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, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV
As followers of Christ, we can be easily impressed. We can fall prey to persuasive words and convincing arguments. We can find ourselves becoming fans of various teachers, preachers, and religious leaders. Style and charisma can become the primary criteria by which we judge a speaker. If we’re not careful, we can allow entertainment value to become the primary factor by which we critique a sermon – trumping biblical accuracy or spiritual efficacy. We can become fans of men rather than followers of Christ. We can elevate our desire for comfort over our need for conviction. Paul had warned Timothy that the day was coming when this would be exactly what would happen.
For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Timothy 4:3 NLT
The situation in Corinth had probably not reached this point, but Paul saw that there was a disturbing trend taking place. The believers there had allowed their personal preferences to become a point of division within the church. Some were claiming to be followers of Paul, others of Cephas or Apollos. And evidently, the primary criteria behind their particular preferences had more to do with the style of the messenger than the content of their message. So Paul attempts to remind his readers that his initial ministry among them had been anything but impressive. He reflected back on that occasion, recalling that “my message and my preaching were very plain” (1 Corinthians 2:4a NLT). Rather than delivering cleverly worded sermons and powerfully persuasive arguments, Paul exhibited weakness, fear and trembling. He had been anything but impressive. But he had made an impact. Why? He provides the answer. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV). Paul wasn’t interested in fame or recognition. He wasn’t out to build a personal following or win a popularity contest. He had gone to Corinth in order to share the testimony of God concerning His Son, Jesus Christ. And the message he shared had made an impact on the lives of the people of Corinth. But not because of Paul’s oratory skills or well-articulated arguments.
What had happened in Corinth as a result of Paul’s initial visit had been the work of the Spirit of God. “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4b ESV). It had had nothing to do with Paul’s powers of persuasion. Their radical life change had been the result of the message of the cross and the regenerating work of the Spirit of God. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out that “we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17 ESV). Paul’s primary goal had been to preach Christ and the message of His crucifixion and resurrection. Later on in this same letter, Paul outlines exactly what he preached to them:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 ESV
It was this message and their acceptance of it, that had changed their lives. It had had nothing to do with lofty speech or human wisdom. The message of the gospel was not man-made, but God-ordained. The power of the gospel lies not in the oratory skills of the messenger, but in the simple, life-altering truth of the message. The gospel doesn’t need to be tricked out, spiced up, or improved upon. It doesn’t need better music surrounding it, brighter lights or the latest technology to help it, or an entertaining delivery to improve it. Of course, it is a sin to bore anyone with the gospel. It was Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life who once said, “We believe it is sinful to bore kids with the gospel. Christ is the strongest, grandest, most attractive personality to ever grace the earth. But a careless messenger with the wrong method can reduce all this magnificence to the level of boredom …. It is a crime to bore anyone with the gospel.”
There is no doubt that a poorly prepared sermon can obscure the message of the gospel. But at the same time, an overly produced, entertainment-driven worship service can also overwhelm the simplicity of the life-altering message of salvation in Christ alone. It seems that Paul would have preferred the power of the Spirit of God over his own powers of persuasion. He had seen the life-impacting nature of the good news of Jesus Christ firsthand. For him, it was essential that the faith of believers rest “not in human wisdom but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5 NLT). The power of the gospel resides in the simple message of Christ crucified, not in the wisdom and eloquence of men. Paul said, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24 ESV). There will always be those who balk at the message of the cross. They will see it as foolish and nonsensical. But there will also be those who find its message impactful and life-altering, and their transformed lives will give ample evidence that its power comes from God, not men.