Text: 1 Cor. 2:1-5
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Is it good to be single-minded? Should you have a central theme or activity which the entire rest of your life is centered around? I remember when I was about 10 years old, a popular series of t-shirts was going around which said “Basketball is life. The rest is just details.” Another might say “Fishing is Life” or “Soccer is life. The rest is just details.” Is that sort of outlook a good thing? Well, it depends on what you put at the center. Ask yourself honestly, what central thing or pursuit controls your life? Many of you might answer with “family.” That’s certainly understandable, as children are a good thing and take up so much time and energy. Others of you, if you’re being honest, could answer with your job, produce sales, perhaps, or maybe healthcare or investing. Others might say, “You shouldn’t have just one focus. Be well rounded.” What is the Biblical perspective?
Here in chapter 2 of 1st Corinthians, Paul utters his famous line, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (vs. 2). What does he mean by this? As we’ll see, he doesn’t mean that he only ever talks about the crucifixion, but he does mean that it is his singular focus, his central idea or concern, on which everything else is founded and to which everything else must point. Keeping the cross at the center or everything guarantees that Paul will stay “weak” and not trust in his own power. It puts God’s power at the forefront. And this needs to be true of us today. While Christians can have a wide range of interests and passions, everything they do must be founded on the cross of Christ, and everything they do must find its fulfillment in the cross of Christ and the exaltation of God’s power.
Weakness, Fear, and Trembling
Now this whole section is a continuation from the 1st chapter, where Paul has warned the Corinthians not to follow after the wisdom of the world and not to chase after a worldly understanding of power. He has already said this:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Cor. 1:27-29)
Paul applied this to the Corinthians themselves, showing that not many of them were “wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” (1 Cor. 1:26). Now he applies it to himself and his skills, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God… I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:1, 3). Paul was not an impressive person “in the flesh,” nor did he use worldly tactics to promote his message. All of this was so that the strength of God might be put forth all the more.
Now does this mean that God’s people cannot use skilled rhetoric? What about technology or marketing strategies? No, I don’t think Paul is giving an absolute prohibition here. After all, Apollos is said to be “eloquent,” and, in context, that is meant as a compliment (Acts 18:24). King David instructed his musicians to play “skillfully” (Psalm 33:3). Jesus even told his disciples to be “as wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16). So the point isn’t that Christians may not be successful or impressive. No, Paul’s point is that they must not rely on earthly power and success, but instead must wholly trust God’s power and provision. The message is the same as that of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; But we will remember the name of the Lord our God.”
This One Thing
In order to keep himself from falling into worldly techniques or mindsets, Paul made a decision to be single-minded. “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). “I determined”—the word here means “I made a judgment.” This was a self-conscious act on Paul’s part. It was his strategy. The verb for “to know” here actually means “to look at” or “to pay attention to.” And so what Paul is saying is that instead of having all sort of worldly strategies to grow the church, the only thing he was really going to concern himself with was the message of the cross. Paul was going to preach, teach, and promote the story of Jesus Christ and especially Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for sinners. Everything else, he would leave to God to handle.
While I do think Paul prioritized the content of his message, making sure that he always connected topics to the work of Christ on the cross, his basic point here has to do with what makes the message effective. He does not use worldly techniques or strategies, he does not use especially impressive oratorical skills, and he does not try to flatter his audience. This last point comes up several times in Paul’s letters, and so it was obviously a concern of his. For instance, in Galatians he says this, “…do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). In 1 Thessalonians, he even says:
But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. (1 Thess. 2:4-6)
The primary lesson that we learn here is that Paul trusts in God’s power and the integrity of the message of the Cross. He does not resort to human tactics to achieve “results,” but instead sticks to his message, keeps it simple, and allows God to do the work.
Many people have read this verse as also limiting the content of what Paul would talk about. This is why some pastors will argue that every sermon needs to be a particularly evangelistic sermon, by which they mean that it needs to explain how a person is saved and then call the audience to that salvation. Now, I happen to agree that every sermon needs to be evangelistic. As Paul says a little later on, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). But preaching the gospel is not limited to “how to get saved.” It actually entails the entire good news of the kingdom of God, what the reign of Christ means. There is no necessary contradiction between knowing nothing except Christ and Him crucified and preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
But having said this, I do think it is important to retain that concept of being single-minded. While “preaching the cross” can and should involve a range of other topics, we need to make sure that the reason we are interested in those topics is because we are primarily concerned about the cross. A lot of churches like ours can easily become distracted with politics, social issues, and the culture wars. This is understandable in one sense, since these things are important and are all around us. They really do seem important. The Church certainly should have a prophetic ministry, and it certainly should engage with each of these topics, but it must always take care to see to it that the gospel is what’s driving the conversation. The Church must address the culture because it is focused on the gospel, and not vice versa.
I think this means a few things, practically speaking. First, it means everything that the Church preaches must be Biblical. And I don’t just mean that it needs to be supported by the Bible, though it certainly must be. I mean that everything the Church preaches needs to “come from” the Bible. It needs to find its starting point in the Bible, especially the life of the messiah and His atoning work on the cross. We should not have an idea of what we want to say first and then go mining the Bible in hopes of finding support. We should study the Bible on its own terms first and then ask what it means for today.
Secondly, this means that we cannot “react” to the culture. While we will need to work to apply the gospel in new ways, the basic message will remain the same. Resist the temptation to always have something “new” to say. Don’t give way to anxiety. Be still and know that the LORD is God and that He has always already understood our needs. The first response to any new situation is always to preach the same gospel.
Thirdly, we need to be content to let God provide the results. Too many Christians have a preconceived notion of what it ought to look like if the Church is doing its job and being “successful.” When that notion doesn’t come to fruition, then they can grow discouraged and look for new strategies or even a new message. But God doesn’t promise us the results we want, and He doesn’t promise them in our timing. What He promises is that His word will not return to Him void (Is. 55:11). He will take care of it, on His terms. The “result” that we should be looking for is our own transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Power of God in the Power of the Spirit
This leads into Paul’s next point about humility and power of God. He says:
And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:4-5)
Here he contrasts worldly power, “persuasive words of human wisdom,” with divine power, the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Paul’s preaching was powerful, to be sure, but it wasn’t powerful because of how it sounded but rather because of what it did. It brought about the Holy Spirit’s work on its audience.
The word “power” is important here. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come with power. “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Again in Acts, He says, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). The coming of the Spirit, the miracles that the Spirit worked, and the transformation the Spirit achieved are all “the power of God,” and it is this kind of power that the Church should have.
Paul points to this power of the Spirit as a confirmation that his preaching is from God. In chapter 4 of 1st Corinthians, he writes:
I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. (1 Cor. 4:18-20)
In 1st Thessalonians, he writes, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5). Perhaps most famously, though, Paul points to the work of the Spirit in his ministry to the Galatians as proof that the Judaizers are promoting a false gospel:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Galatians 3:1-2)
In that section we also see the priority of the Cross, as Paul says that he has “portrayed” Jesus Christ “as crucified” before them. This is a reference to his preaching, and the Spirit is then an effect of that preaching. The Judaizers, even with their works of the law, did not have this effect.
And so we learn that the preaching of the Gospel has power in itself. It does not need to be supplemented by other things, neither special rhetorical deliveries nor enticing new messages. The one and only gospel, the story of Jesus crucified, is sufficient for relaying the power of God to those who believe. Indeed, the message of the Cross will overcome the wisest and most eloquent delivery of the words of men. Therefore Christians must keep the Cross first in their preaching and first in their minds.
During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther had to fight on two fronts. He was arguing against the Roman Catholic Church, of course, but he also had to face those radical reformers who wanted to go much farther than he did. Many of these wanted to take up arms and lead a revolution. Luther opposed them because he saw that as worldly wisdom and reliance on human power rather than God’s. About that, he had this to say:
In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work. What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For it is almighty and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself. (from Eight Sermons at Wittenberg)
We have to continually remind ourselves of this truth today. It will not be our power, our anger, or our busyness which changes the world. No it will be the power of God, and that power comes chiefly through the preaching of His Word.
Paul’s point in this section of 1st Corinthians is that the Church does not have to aspire to be great in the eyes of the world. Instead, it need only preach the Cross and the power of God will be displayed. And what is that message of the Cross? It is this, “For God so love the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
The world was full of sinners who were hostile to God and could not change their ways. Yet God loved them anyway, and He gave His Son as a sacrifice for sin so that those sinners could be accepted, made righteous, and given new life. All of this was grace. All of this was from the power of God. If He can do this, what can stand in His way. This is our message. Let it loose, and the world will be changed.
Let us pray.