Several years ago, a group of American tourists embarked on a Carnival Cruise Line tour. In Costa Rica, a dozen senior citizens got off the ship to take a bus tour. After sightseeing at a local beach, the seniors’ tour bus was held up by three assailants, armed with a gun and a knife. One of the men, a 70-year-old retired member of the U.S. military, overpowered one of the three muggers—who was 20-years old—by placing him in a headlock/sleeper hold. The young man never woke up from it. The other senior citizens likewise began defending themselves, causing the remaining two accomplices to flee for their lives.
Sometimes the most unlikely people use the most unusual means to protect and preserve others. I would like to suggest that this is true of the teaching ministry of the local church. The ministry of teaching is conducted by unlikely people through an unusual means to protect and preserve God’s people. Thus, teaching about Jesus Christ is one of the foundational tasks of the church. Few Christians will disagree that teaching is essential. After hearing this statement, most Christians will nod their head in agreement and offer up an internal “Amen.” But immediately thereafter, a yawn will slip out and most Christians will quickly tune out. This occurs because most of us don’t consider ourselves teachers. Yet, the sobering reality is that God calls all of us to be teachers of Jesus Christ (see Rom 10:14).
In our last two lessons in the book of 1 Corinthians (1:18-25, 1:26-31), Paul has demonstrated that God deliberately chooses foolish and weak methods and messengers to shame those who are wise and strong. Now in 1 Cor 2:1-5, Paul uses himself as a prime example of foolishness and weakness. In these five verses, we will learn that the effectiveness of the teacher and the teaching lies in one’s dependence on God’s power. However, if this is to be realized we must fulfill two objectives: (1) The content of our message must be Christ, and (2) the delivery of our message must be God’s power.
- The content of our message must be Christ(2:1-2). Paul writes, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.“ Paul reflects back on his year-and-a-half ministry in Corinth (see Acts 18:1-18). He begins by reminding the Corinthians how he did not preach (“I did not come…”). Paul had not dazzled his listeners by his rhetorical or philosophical prowess; he had simply proclaimed the truth about God. Now this was certainly unusual in first-century Corinth. In Paul’s day, Greek orators followed certain well-established conventions when they entered a city. Great crowds flocked to hear them because they spoke in the style of traditional Greek rhetoric—with extensive quotations, with literary allusions, and with a refined style that made them seem brilliant, witty, charming, and entertaining.
Yet Paul utterly rejected this approach to preaching, although he could have done it himself. As a well-educated rabbi, he knew Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Trained at the feet of Gamaliel, he could hold his own in any argument. If Paul wanted to show off his intellect, he certainly knew how to do it. But he rejected that approach. Instead, he proclaimed “the testimony of God.” The word “testimony” is a legal word that refers to something one presents in a court of law. Paul was conscious that God is a Judge. He was speaking in the presence of a Judge and he was presenting His witness (2 Tim 4:1). He knew what the truth was and was announcing it boldly. Paul was not preaching his testimony about God; he was preaching God’s testimony about God (“the testimony”). His message came from God, not himself.
For many today “proclaiming” is a bad word. They say, “Don’t preach to me!” “Don’t judge!” Many preachers, afraid of being thought arrogant, avoid talking about preaching. They prefer to think of what they do as “sharing.” However, if I only make suggestions or throw out a few ideas and opinions, I would be guilty of arrogance. My opinions are no better than yours. But I am not declaring to you my words; I am declaring to you God’s very words (see 1 Pet 4:11a). Therefore, I can preach to you with authority.
But preaching is not just for pastors. You too can preach with authority to people in your life. Whether we believe it or not, there are people who are looking for a man or woman to preach God’s Word with authority. Could you host a Bible study at your state job? As a small business owner, how will you preach to your employees? Preaching doesn’t require a large crowd and auditorium. You can preach wherever God has placed you to serve Him. The only question is, “Will you answer His call and proclaim His testimony?”
In 2:2, Paul explains why he preached as he did: “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” The word translated “I determined” means Paul made a conscious choice to do things a certain way. He didn’t fall into it by chance or by force of habit. Paul preached as he did because he chose to do it that way. That same choice confronts every Christian messenger. It’s so easy to be sidetracked by good and worthwhile things. We can preach about social issues, the political debates of our day, the crisis in the Middle East, or the decline of the family. We can tackle Bible prophecy or we can major on predestination or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There is a place for all those things, but that place is never at the center. For Paul the choice was clear: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He started there and that became the center of his preaching. Once the center was in place, every other truth could be arranged around it. But Jesus must be in the middle of all things and all things must be properly related to Him.
This verse cannot be taken absolutely, as if the only doctrine Paul taught on was the crucifixion, but refers rather to its centrality in his preaching. It is not enough for us to say that Jesus was a great moral teacher. He was, but the world largely believes that already. And it is not enough to say that He came down from heaven. Many already believe that. It’s not even enough to say that He was born of a virgin. We must go all the way and declare that God Himself came down to earth in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We must say that when He died on the cross, He paid the ultimate penalty to deliver us from our sins.
Think about it: If people want to know about sports or the latest news they can read the paper (on the web) or turn on the TV. These days you can watch Fox, CNN, or other news programs. You can surf the Net and watch 500 channels or listen to the radio. If it’s news or sports or the weather or the latest world crisis, there are plenty of ways to follow the story. But if you want to know how to be right with God, if you want to know how to have your sins forgiven, if you want to know how to go to heaven, then you need the message Paul preached: Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Note that Paul uses the perfect tense here for “crucified” (cf. also 1:23; Gal 3:1), which suggests that his focus was not as much on the historical event of the cross but on its ongoing effect for those who believe in Jesus, namely, that in this event they can find personal justification, redemption, and sanctification (cf. 1:30). The point is that the death of Jesus Christ covers everything. Jesus is the one person that fixes everything!
One final thought before we move on: To give people what they need sometimes you must not give them what they want. Most parents learn this early on. When your daughter is sick she may want another cookie, but what she needs is the medicine the doctor prescribed. If you love her you’ll give her what she needs, not what she wants. The same is true as we speak to others about Christ. They may want to hear other things; we must tell them about Jesus, for He alone can save them. Do not back down from people. Do not kowtow to others. He wants us to have a solitary focus and agenda.
[The content of our message must be Christ. Now Paul will share a second objective…]
- The delivery of our message must be God’s power(2:3-5). Paul again shares an autobiographical account: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” Paul did not come to Corinth with any degree of self-confidence. Rather, he came “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” Corinth was a hard city in which to minister. Paul’s reception there had discouraged him to the point that preaching was difficult, because of the inner doubts and uncertainty he faced. He wasn’t the picture of confident self-assurance that many of us may associate with the apostle Paul. He responded in a totally human fashion, which I find greatly encouraging. Like Paul, we live and serve in a difficult city. We want to serve Christ and speak up for Him but sometimes it can be downright scary. Nevertheless, we press on. Even when we find ourselves tongue-tied or just plain forget what we were supposed to say, we must strive to teach.
Occasionally, someone asks me if I get scared or nervous before I teach. The answer is yes, and it happens every single time. No matter how many times I’ve taught or how well prepared I am there is always a sense of nervousness that comes just before I stand up. I hope I don’t ever lose that, because if I do I need to stop teaching. If speaking for Christ ever becomes routine, then something has gone wrong inside your heart. We need “holy nervousness” when we witness to others lest we fail the Lord or fail the person to whom we are speaking.
I am comforted by the thought that Paul was a man like I am—a man of like passions, if you will. As I consider his life, I realize that nothing in Paul could explain his success—except God! The New Testament doesn’t give us any descriptions of Paul’s appearance, but Paul himself quoted his opponents who said of him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10:10). We do have this early description of Paul that comes from outside the New Testament: He was “a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were far apart; he had large eyes, and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long.” If that is accurate, then Paul was no first-century Brad Pitt. He wasn’t much to look at and he didn’t wax eloquent in the pulpit. Imagine two members of the Corinthian church meeting each other in the marketplace: “Hey, who’s preaching this Sunday?” “Paul.” “Paul? Oh, no! I’ve invited my neighbors to church this Sunday. I thought Dr. Smartypants was preaching. Paul is just not very attractive. He is hard to understand. He’s too deep for me. And his sermons are so long.”
Yet, Paul was all about the power of the Spirit. In 2:5, Paul explains that the power of God is the word of the cross (cf. 1:18). Note the striking contrast—the wisdom of men versus the power of God. If you build on one, you cannot have the other. Paul’s concern throughout this passage is self-reliance. It’s not that he doesn’t want us to preach to the best of our ability—he most certainly does! He just doesn’t want us to rely on our own gifts and strength.
In the late 90’s a British company developed a product called “Spray-On Mud” so city dwellers can give their expensive 4×4 vehicles the appearance of having been off-road for a day of hunting or fishing without ever leaving town. The mud is even filtered to remove stones and debris that might scratch the paint. This product sold very well. When it comes to teaching there are many who are more concerned with the outside than the inside. They wax eloquent and wipe fresh pastry speech all over the place. But this type of teaching has no place in our lives as followers of Jesus. Jesus was a carpenter. He was down and dirty! The Bible was written in Koine Greek, the language of the common man. God wants us to rely on His strength to preach Christ-exalting words. When we preach or share Christ our desire should not be that others say, “What a wonderful teacher!” Our desire is that they should say, “What a wonderful Savior!”
So how can we be foolish teachers for Christ? Several biblical principles may help.
Pray for a prepared heart. Ask the Lord that He would supply you opportunities to preach His Word. Pray for boldness to be willing to walk through an open door (Col 4:3). Pray that those you speak to will be receptive.
Meditate on Scripture. As you read God’s Word, ask the Lord to speak to you. Pray for insights into the text. Think about this Scripture continually. Follow a crock pot approach. Let the Word sit, soak, and simmer in you. This will ensure that you are always prepared (1 Pet 3:15).
Listen to people. When we listen to people’s hurts we can learn a lot. Often the felt needs of people will well up sermons within us. God will actually bring a Scripture passage to mind that we can share.
Focus on the essentials. Don’t get lost in the minutia of theological details. Instead, focus on the testimony of God and Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul says that the power is in the gospel. Make sure that you keep the main thing the main thing.
This passage has communicated that the content and delivery of our message must be Christ and the power of His cross.
Telephone poles play a crucial role in developed countries. They support lines of communication that enable people to “reach out and touch” others in just about any corner of the globe. And in many communities, telephone poles carry power lines that make it possible for people to use lights and appliances. Think about these poles and the vast roadside forest they form. What is their shape? They look like crosses, don’t they? Telephone poles remind me of the cross of Christ. Think of the “lines” of communication and power it carries. Because of that cross, God listens to the prayers of any believer on the face of the earth. And because Jesus shed His blood on that cross for lost humanity, believers in Christ have a deep desire to “reach out and touch” others with the message of the gospel. For the apostle Paul, the cross was everything. He had one message when he wrote to the Corinthian believers: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” The cross was the heart of Paul’s communication and the basis of his power. The next time you see a telephone pole, think about the cross of Christ and how much it means to you.