Saturday 13 November 2010

The power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive 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.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

We have been looking at the letter of 1 Corinthians this past month. And so far, chapter 1 can be summarised under two headings – the call of God and the wisdom of God.

The call of God

And I said that the call of God is first and foremost, not a call to do something, but to be in Christ. Often you’ll hear Christians use the word “call” in terms of doing something for God. “Are you called to serve in the children’s ministry? Is God calling you to be a missionary?” But in the bible, Jesus calls sinners – not the righteous – to be his followers and disciples. And here in chapter 1 verse 2, God calls the church be sanctified in Christ. It is a call to faith and repentance in Jesus.

Yes, I do believe in the importance of God’s calling and confirmation when pursuing ministry. But we are not saved through ministry. Rather, if we do not first answer God’s call to be in Christ, any call to serve Christ is meaningless and idolatrous. This is a sober reminder to those who have spent any length of time in leadership, in service of God and the church – leading bible study, playing music on Sundays – you are not saved through service, sacrifice, sincerity or even you suffering – but only through Christ by grace through faith alone.

We also saw how God uses this call to gather his church. As Christians respond to God’s call in repentance and trust in Jesus, so they are gathered into fellowship with Jesus. And it is this assembly; this gathering, that is what the New Testament calls the church.

Yes, Hebrews 12 does talk about the heavenly assembly –the true church in the presence of God – the heavenly Jerusalem where thousands of angels gather in joyful assembly. But this heavenly reality is mirrored here on earth through small, scattered groups of Christians, sometimes just a few in number. And these groups of Christians are what the New Testament means by the church. The church in Galatia, in Ephesus, in Thessalonica, in Corinth – Paul addresses each and every one of them, never as part of the wider church, but always individually as the church. So, you are the church. That means the guy in front of you, the bunch of jokers sitting behind you, yes even those noisy kids you can’t stand, next to you. Together in Christ, you are called the church.

The wisdom of God

Secondly, chapter 1 is also about the wisdom of God. And a couple of weeks ago, I said, “Look out for that big twist at the end of chapter 1.”

Paul begins verse 20 by issuing a challenge to the intellectuals of his day. Where is the wise man? Where is the philosopher? Where are the smart alecs and know-it-alls? (1:20)

Now remember, Paul was writing to Corinth, a city full of philosophers and wise guys. He could easily have been writing to Cambridge – with Richard Dawkins in the front row, together with Hitchens and Professor Hawking sitting next to him – those who are universally recognised as leading thinkers; experts in their fields.

And to all of them Paul says, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1:20) Meaning: God has ordained that the world cannot know him through its wisdom.

This is Paul’s version of Smack talk! Who da man! Who da man!

He’s just torn down the wisdom of the world. And yet, what you find in verse 30, is Paul saying something totally unexpected. Because there he says, “Jesus has become for us wisdom from God, - that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”

And remember I said, take notice of the hyphen! Because what Paul is saying is, Jesus is our wisdom – through which we receive righteousness, holiness and redemption.

What’s going on? Didn’t Paul just condemn wisdom? But now Paul is elevating Christ as true wisdom, as the gateway to salvation and all the blessings of salvation?

Paul is talking about salvation, yes, but he has been talking all this while about the message of salvation – the gospel. It is a message that has to be heard, to be understood.

He clarifies this later on, in Chapter 2 verse 6, where Paul says, “we do speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age.” We’ll pick that up in a couple of weeks. But today, we’re looking at the first five verses of chapter 2, which is all about the foolish way we come to know this wisdom. Today we look at the topic of preaching. Yup, that’s right. I will be preaching – about preaching.
That is: Paul is going to show us how the call of God and wisdom of God come together in preachingthe power of God. Preaching issues the call of God – it calls us to repentance and trust in the message of his salvation. Preaching displays the true wisdom of God – through Jesus on the cross. The power of God is seen and heard through the preaching of God’s message – that is how we see and hear the wisdom and call of God.


When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. (Verse 1)

Proclamation is an old English word we don’t use in our daily conversation. To proclaim something is to announce it, which sounds even weirder, when you think of it. Because, don’t we make the announcements at the end of our meetings? “Stay back for tea and coffee.” That’s an announcement.

And yet, preaching is first and foremost, an announcement of the gospel. It is proclamation. When we are introduced to Jesus in Mark’s gospel, the first thing he does is “proclaim the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news!”

That sounds old-fashioned. People today don’t like to be told to repent, or told to believe. Instead shouldn’t we simply talk to one another, in conversation about God? Proclamation is monologue, conversation is dialogue. Why go down a one-way street, when you can have two-way communication?

So today, there are churches you can go to, where there is little or no preaching. Instead the emphasis is on the worship experience – prayer, singing, the lighting of candles or the reading of poetry. Each individual receives a unique experience of God. Everyone is allowed to participate.

Why make a big deal about preaching here in the Chinese Church? We do all sorts of other things: food, fellowship, we have lots of fun – why not make one of those the main thing?

That’s actually a very good question because we find a very good answer here in the bible. In previous weeks, we have seen in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians that God defines his church. The church does not define God. It is God who calls the church into existence.

Beginning with verse 2: the church of God is called to be holy

Then, in verse 9: God … has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ.

And again, in verse 24: To those whom God has called, both Jew and Greek

God calls his church; meaning: he speaks the church into existence. This same God who called Paul in verse 1 to be an apostle, sends Paul in verse 17, to preach the gospel. So the question really is: Why does God make preaching central to the ministry of Paul, and central to the call of the church?

And the answer is: God is a speaking God. He speaks through the gospel, and he calls the church into fellowship with Jesus through the preaching of the gospel.

Thus saith the LORD
It all goes back to the Old Testament. God spoke through the prophets. If you look down at the footnotes, you will see that Paul quote two prophets, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Prophets were messengers. They began their sentences with “This is what the LORD says,” or in the King James, “Thus saith the LORD” – which is way cooler! And that was an important phrase. Isaiah and Jeremiah were not speaking their own thoughts or opinions. They were messengers speaking the word of God to the people of God.

That is what Paul is doing with the gospel. He is speaking the word of God to the people of God. So, the preacher has a very weighty responsibility to show that everything he says comes from this book – bible. Thus saith the LORD!

At Rock Fellowship, we have been studying the book of Exodus. Most of us watched the movie “Prince of Egypt”, the story of Moses freeing his people from the clutches of evil Pharaoh. In the cartoon – each time he confronts Pharaoh, king of Eqypt, Moses will say, “Let my people go!”

Except that isn’t what Moses said. We read this week in Exodus 5, what Moses actually said was, “This is what the LORD says – Let my people go”. Moses was speaking a message from God. These were not Moses’ words – they were God’s. These were God’s people. And this was God’s salvation. Moses said, “Thus saith the LORD!”

What preaching is – and isn’t

So we see in verse 1, Paul telling us what preaching is. It is proclamation. It is a testimony (2:1); meaning he is witnessing to the truth. But verse 1 also tells us what preaching is not. Paul reminds the Corinthians, that he “did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom”. The ESV has “with lofty speech and wisdom”.

Here is a preacher writing to his congregation saying, “Remember how unimpressive I was!” He goes on to say in verse 3: “I came to you in weakness and in fear, and with much trembling”.

Imagine you are interviewing candidates to pastor your church. What would you be looking for? Experience in leadership? Good with kids? Tells a lot of jokes? Reads the bible in Greek and Hebrew?
What kind of questions would you ask him? The size of his last church. How many sermons he has preached.

Or, think of the interviews for Cambridge. You want to get into Cambridge and you need to get the right grades, but you also need to pass an interview. They ask all kinds of questions at these interviews – to find out what kind of person you are; to hear how you think through problems.

Now imagine a student comes into the interview room and hands you his CV. You look at it, expecting a list of all his achievements, his awards and stuff. But instead, he lists all the times he has been punished in school. All the subjects he flunked.

When he answers your questions, he isn’t confident. He’s stuttering. He is struggling to think of the answers. You notice he is sweating. His whole body is even shaking in fear!

Would you let him in? Is this the kind of person you would be looking for?

Paul says – of himself – as their founding pastor, as an apostle of God - “Remember... remember, I came to you in weakness and in fear, and with much trembling”. Why on earth, does he do that?

The Corinthian church was in a city that placed a high premium on wisdom and intellect, not unlike Cambridge. You could make a good living teaching philosophy, maybe even teaching from the bible, if you sounded impressive and looked confident. If you looked the part!

Now what is Paul doing here? He is saying, I made it a point not to be like one of those impressive philosophers and teachers. I didn’t try to win you over with my smarts or new ideas. I didn’t hide my insecurities and fears. But what I did was preach to you the testimony about God.

In a city like Corinth; in our city of Cambridge – which I know, is clamouring for new approaches, novel ideas, the next big thing from impressive speakers; Paul is saying what we really need are faithful preachers who will speak the gospel with clarity and integrity.


It is worth taking a moment at verse 3 and asking: “what is Paul’s weakness?” He speaks about it fairly frequently in his letters. This same word “weakness”, is elsewhere translated “illness”, as in Galatians 4:13 – “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you”. Again, Paul is pretty unashamed to link his apostolic preaching of the gospel, with a physical disability that he was struggling with.

In fact, Paul will go so far as to boast in his weaknesses in 2 Corinthians 12. There in verse 9, after Paul pleads three times to Jesus to have this thorn in the flesh – a messenger of Satan, he calls it - removed from him. Paul is in agony! He is praying, pleading to God, “Please take this suffering away!” He does this three times.

But God doesn’t remove the thorn.

Instead, Jesus replies with these words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore – Paul says – I will boast all the more of my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Now if you look over to verse 4: in a moment Paul will talk about the power of the Spirit and the power of God. Do you see the connection? Paul isn’t just being honest and open about his weaknesses. He understands that God’s grace is amplified when it is displayed through broken vessels. The treasure looks more precious when it isn’t hidden by packaging.

You see, we read about Paul’s “great fear” and “trembling” and we think: he’s being humble. Those aren’t good qualities. You wouldn’t get into Cambridge by being fearful and trembling. You wouldn’t get that plum job by listing your weaknesses in your CV. We think Paul is showing us he is just human.

But actually, Paul is saying his weakness is almost a necessary qualification! His weakness displayed God’s power! Paul boasts in his weakness – so that Christ’s power might rest on him. Paul reminds the Corinthians of his weaknesses – so that they will remember the power of God’s grace in the gospel.

The cross of Christ

Next, true preaching of the bible focuses on the cross.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (Verse 2)
When Jesus was with his disciples he kept telling them that he would die, but also that he had to die. “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”
Now Jesus says this throughout the gospels. But the passage I just read is from Luke 24 – the last chapter of Luke. This is after the crucifixion; after the resurrection. And here, Jesus is saying to his disciples, “You need to look back! You need to understand what just happened – why I died, why I went to the cross. You need to see that the entire bible points to this one event as its true fulfilment of God’s promises in me!”

Whenever I meet people and they ask me which church I’m from: I always like to tell people that I’m from C4. Not just CCCC, “The Cambridge Chinese Christian Church”; not just “The Chinese Church”. But I usually say, I’m from “C4”, because in Cantonese it sounds like Seiii For (Sure die)! And all the aunties will go, “Choi! Choi! Choi!”

But friends, these are Jesus’ own words. Jesus said he must “Sei For!” And these are words of the apostle Paul, “I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him ‘Sei For’”.

Not only here but in, Verse 17: Paul preaches the “cross of Christ”

Verse 18: It is the “message of the cross

Verse 23: We preach Christ crucified.

That is, it is not enough to simply speak about Jesus as a good man, a righteous man, a holy man. Jesus was crucified.

It is not enough to promise eternal life, blessings from heaven or even forgiveness of sin. Jesus was crucified for our sins, and raised for our justification.

Paul doesn’t let us move one centimetre away from the cross.

Now does this mean that, all of Paul’s sermons were boring? He just kept repeating the same thing – Jesus died for you, Jesus went to the cross for your sins – over, and over again? We can see just from Chapter 1, that Paul doesn’t do that.

In Chapter 1, we’ve seen Paul use Old Testament passages, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, to show how they all point to Jesus on the cross.

So, in verse 19, Paul quotes Isaiah the prophet, saying that will “destroy the wisdom of the wise”, to show that the cross will always appear foolish, in order that salvation is not through wisdom, but through humble trust in God’s provision of forgiveness.

Or in verse 31, Paul quotes from Jeremiah – “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”, to show that the cross destroys all human pretensions to pride. Not only that, he is saying that if you are to praise God – you praise him through the cross. Elsewhere in Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”

Paul is showing us an important application for our reading of the bible. The purpose of God’s word is to point to Jesus as the Christ and the crucified Messiah. Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). That’s the whole Old Testament.

So when we study the bible in our groups or in our personal devotion; when he hear the bible taught in our larger gatherings like today, the question we need to ask is, “how does this connect to Jesus Christ and him crucified?”
True preaching centres on the cross.


Finally, true preaching demonstrates the power of God.

Paul says in verse 4, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”

Then he adds,

“so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.”

What’s he talking about? Many people think this has to do with miracles. Speaking in tongues. Prophecy. “I didn’t use words – I showed you the power of the Spirit!”

And so, ironically, in Paul’s defence of preaching, some would find an argument against preaching. So it doesn’t make sense that Paul would tear down the wisdom of the world, draw attention to his weakness and fear and trembling, his intentional distancing of himself from oratorical stylistic methods in preaching the gospel, and then turn 180 degrees in the same breath in verse 4 and say, “Look how impressive I am”.

Rather, Paul has already explained what he means by “power”. Verse 17: For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Verse 18: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Verses 17 and 18 of chapter 1, perfectly mirror Paul’s argument in Chapter 2 verses 4 and 5. Do you see that?
What is at stake here is your faith – verse 5 “So that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

So what Paul most likely means here is the power of the cross. It is the power of forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death.

But it is important to see the flow of the argument, because what is at stake here is faith. And the question at the end of the day is: what are you putting your faith in?

Is it in the power of God to cleanse you from sin, through the death of his Son? Or is it in the wisdom of man – that includes trusting in yourself, trusting in your mum or dad’s faith, even trusting in this church.

Yet this question, rightly understood, is not directed at the hearer, but at the preacher. To those of us responsible in leading bible study. To song leaders. To helpers in Children’s Church. You see, Paul is saying, that he has done all this, so that he will not put his hearers in danger in trusting in himself and not Jesus.

And the question the bible is saying to me and to you is: are you putting the cross in front of your hearers to place their trust in. Or are you getting in the way?

Paul says (1:16), Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

When we get in the way of the cross we empty it of its power. When we do that, we endanger ourselves; we endanger our hearers. One good way to test that theory is with verse 18 – does the cross look foolish to our fellowship. Do they say, “Aiya! Why do we need to hear the same thing! It doesn’t always have to be about Jesus”
Does the cross look foolish to them? It may be that we have emptied the cross of its power.

Here I am speaking about preaching - preaching about preaching – and I’ve not said one word about sermon preparation, reading the right commentaries, projecting your voice. Because preaching isn’t one guy standing at the pulpit on Sundays. Preaching is proclaiming the gospel. Preaching is what even Christian does when they speak the message of Jesus on the cross.

And here, Paul is saying, the way you share this gospel – this good news – can make all the difference to your faith, but also theirs. For husbands, reminding your wives of the gospel matters to their faith. For parents, reminding your children of Jesus matters to their faith. For pastors, you are preaching to strengthen the faith of your hearers – displaying God’s power not yours.

It matters because their faith needs to be in Jesus – and Jesus alone. Faith means trusting, relying, depending – and they need to trust, rely and depend on the cross. Are we emptying the cross of its power? By getting in the way? By making it about us and not Jesus.

What is at stake is our faithfulness – but also their faith. True faith rests on God’s true power – the power of Jesus’ blood sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.

Paul says:
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

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