Summary: Preaching is folly to the world, but the means God has chosen to express the power of the cross.
How would you start a church? How would you start a church in a city such as Corinth? Here are your conditions. It is a major city that is relatively new and prosperous. All kinds of people from around the known world have come to make their fortunes there. You can have your pick of religions and cults. There is a special interest in mystery wisdom, i.e. possessing special knowledge that leads one into the mysteries of God or the cosmos. The one religion that is not known is Christianity. Where would you start? How would you get across your message?
By the way, you are well equipped to do the work. You have had the finest education and have earned respect for your intellect. You also have demonstrated great power – healing a cripple, casting out a spirit from a girl, even striking an opponent temporarily blind. By now you are a veteran in missions, experienced in ministering among hostile and indifferent people.
So, what do you do? Perhaps display a few miracles? That would be sure to draw a crowd and win respect. There are plenty of crippled beggars on the streets. Heal some during rush hour. Surely such display of power would win an audience. And once you have an audience, turn on the charm. The people like an entertaining speaker; they respect eloquence. Furthermore, they are open to new religions and teachings. All you have to do is seem wise and you have a following. It’s the old bait’em and hook’em trick, what every good evangelist and church planter knows.
Except Paul, it seems. Remember what Paul is writing about. He is contrasting the wisdom of God against the wisdom of the world. He reminds the Corinth believers that the message of the cross itself runs counter to the world’s sense of wisdom and power; then he notes that they themselves exemplify what seems to be folly to the world. Now, he reminds them of how he, by the way he conducted his ministry, also contradicted the world’s ways of success.
Paul says to them, We’ve talked about you being poor material for a church; let’s turn to me. I was determined not to use the techniques that would have gotten your attention.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
I did not speak eloquently not did I use the terminology that would have impressed you with how wise my message seemed. I did not clothe “the testimony of God” – i.e. the gospel – in clothing that was most appealing to you. Instead, I resolved to present the message unadorned and keep it focused on what is central – the atoning work of Christ. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Does that mean that Paul did not preach about any other work of Christ? No. Paul preached the resurrection of Christ (cf. 15:15); he preached Christ as the fulfiller of God’s promises (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:19-20); and he preached the Lordship of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:5). It is the cross, though, that is central. All these other things take place because of, and in context of, the cross.
Why did Paul choose to preach so simply? So that the power of God might be clearly displayed. As he continues to explain: 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 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Let’s go through this long sentence. I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling. It is hard to picture the mighty apostle Paul as weak, fearful, and trembling. We need to take two things into account. First, our image of Paul is like that we have of many historical figures, i.e. bigger than life. The truth more likely is that if we could see Paul, we would respond, “You’re kidding; that’s Paul?” In another letter to Corinth, Paul repeats the talk going around about him: For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Corinthians 10:10). Evidently, Paul was not an impressive man. To the Corinthians and the Galatians he makes note of a bodily affliction, even referring to the trial his illness must have been to the Galatians (Galatians 4:14). And though he won many converts, in many towns he was literally run out under the danger of losing his life. In 2 Corinthians 4:7 he refers to his body as a “jar of clay,” a weak vessel.