Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2016
Lesson 6: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (ESV)
A Different Persuasion
Throughout history, powerful leaders have often drawn massive followings.
Some have promoted good, and others have deceived while advancing evil. But both have been effective in their ability to persuade people to follow them. They have gotten people to trust them, and to rally behind their causes. They promise things people want to believe in or see accomplished. But they sometimes help people find excuses to do what’s wrong, and to avoid what’s right.
We have a hard time understanding why so many devoutly follow men like Osama BinLaden or the leaders of ISIS. But they, like so many, know how to manipulate people effectively. They appeal to both real and imagined needs of their people, and to the prejudices that are common in the cultures they perpetuate. They promise what they know the people crave and cultivate the impression that they are able to deliver their dreams.
They know how to stir conviction and enthusiasm. Those who follow them are convinced that they’re doing what’s both right and good.
Historically one of the most horrible of all dictators was Adolph Hitler. He was one of the most gifted and powerful orators the world has ever known. He had the ability to mesmerize crowds and evoke passionate devotion among his people.
He knew how to manipulate the trendy ideas of his era and to appear wise and competent. He cited everything that seemed intellectual, well cultured, and scientific, even though it was mixed with treacherous distortions of the facts. Hitler said, “the masses would more easily fall victim to a great lie than to a small one.”
But he also stirred fear in those who saw his master plan to dominate the world, and to create a master race who would eliminate all who opposed his dream. He crafted his alluring plans in such a way that he massed a blind following. Though many followed because they feared him, and some suspected him of madness, people willingly died for the cause he dangled as a lure before them. He was even named as a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940 for the way he caused the nations to unite together against him for the sake of peace.
There have been many lesser people who have used the power of stirringly dramatic speeches and utopian promises to become powerful and influential. The manipulative leaders of some of the world’s religions and cults often used these methods.
Even in our own country we see how political strategists look for popular issues and phrases to craft moving commercials and headline-grabbing quotes to lure voters to their side, and to get their candidates elected. Skilled advertisers and movie promoters know how get people to pay for things they wouldn’t have chosen to buy or see on their own.
There are those who see Christianity as just one more movement like the rest. And in the largest segments of what the world calls religion — that manipulation is all they have offer.
Paul had to deal with this issue when he heard about the problems in Corinth.
Believers in Christ were being torn apart by factions by skilled manipulators. Local leaders were using even the writings of Paul, Peter, Apollos, and Christ himself to rally people to their divisive additions to or modifications of what God had said. Popular distortions of the gospel made some abandon God’s more simple way. This generated bickerings and divisions, and weakened the true message of the gospel.
In our last study of 1 Corinthians we saw that Paul wrote to expose this danger.
He warned that those who seek to promote themselves, steal God’s glory. But, instead of using the methods of a corrupted world to expand his word, God uses something the world sees as foolish and unworthy of consideration. We are to simply tell people how God fulfilled his ancient promise. He came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to redeem his people. To accomplish this he lived a morally perfect life in their place, and died a disgraceful death which they themselves deserved for their sins.
Paul begins the 2nd chapter by summing up what he had been dealing with. He also makes the point that the gospel should not be dressed in the clothing of the world.
1. And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
The Corinthians were used to great orators and stimulating debates. They were the primary media of the times. They were their entertainment, and way of hearing new ideas. The Greeks hungered for intriguing philosophy and fancy rhetoric. The Jews loved to hear the words of the learned Rabbis who expected a radical revolutionary Messiah.
Some in the churches wanted to be more culturally with the times. They preferred the flashy show and more philosophical message, rather than the simple Gospel which had transformed their lives.
Paul was careful to avoid seeming to promote either of these expectations. He did not come with superior speeches, or wise sounding phrases. He did not cater to the trends that lured the masses with entertaining shows. He came simply teaching them about the testimony of God.
There is a good principle here: we should not try to look like the world, or adopt its manipulative ways, as we present Christ.
Sadly, distortions of the truth become popular because they cater to people’s expectations. There is a temptation to modify the gospel to make it more appealing or less threatening. The modernizing of God’s message has always been a problem. Paul faced it in Corinth, and in many other places. Believers are confused by it today. Those who love to fit the gospel into the latest trends tend to be divisive in the church. They are quick to dismiss those holding to biblical traditions as if they are less intelligent.
There are two kinds of traditions. On the one hand there are the invented traditions like those of the Greeks and Rabbis. Today they are seen in the Romanists, the Cultists, the Cultural Fundamentalists, in those who love elaborate rituals, dramatic emotional displays, and trendy shows. On the other hand there are the traditions established by God in his word to establish a godly culture.
Believers need to be aware of this distinction. We need to lovingly but clearly oppose the one and faithfully preserve the other. Paul gave the same warning later in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” And in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, in one of his earlier letters he wrote, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”
The Scriptural convictions of the true church are not just ideas of men. The tradition which God gave us in his word, should never be modified to avoid positions or ideas that are unpopular, or to create the impression that Christianity is just one more non-threatening religion that is compatible with the superstitions and vain theories of a lost world.
The recent films about the life of Jesus have gotten a lot of attention. They tend to greatly distort the real history and record of the events of his life. They present a Jesus that conforms with what some imagine him to be rather than who he really is. Jesus is presented more as a martyr and victim of prejudice, than as God incarnate. He came to redeem his people and clarify distortions of God’s word. Films like these distort God’s revealed truth with imagined embellishments.
One concern is that their attempt to depict the person of Jesus challenges the 2nd Commandment. It forbids making any image of any member of the Trinity. Though Jesus had a very real human body and nature, his appearance was never preserved by God. Because of statues and carvings we know what the philosophers and Caesars looked like back then. But we have no idea what Jesus looked like, or how his facial expressions, attitude, and tone of voice represented God in human form as an absolutely sinless human.
But films like these also violate the principle taught here in 1 Corinthians 2. It uses the most loved media of the day to do what it believes God’s word is unable to do by itself. The power of the gospel does not rest in spectacular presentations by gifted Hollywood producers. It comes in it’s simple truths explained by God’s people and applied by God’s grace.
It’s alarming to see how few are concerned about the content of the films. Their portrayals are not faithful to the Scriptures. The producers have said in interviews that if people are stirred emotionally they will believe. But believe what? Those making those films have openly said they believe in different ways of salvation,
It’s hard to see how a distorted Christ portrayed so dramatically and memorably, could be thought of as advancing the message of the true Gospel. They aim at the sensitivities of our hearts, but without God’s transforming truth.
For example, the gore and violence of the crucifixion in some of those films goes way beyond the emphasis the Bible itself puts on it. That is not the point of the gospel at all.
The center of the gospel is not how horribly or unfairly Jesus died. It’s how graciously our Savior took up the sins of undeserving sinners, and paid the debt in full so that no merits of saints or declarations of a church are needed to fit a lost soul for heaven and secure blessings for him here on earth.
These films get a lot of attention, but they do not promote the reason Jesus came and died. The focus of the Bible is the gracious act of God that redeemed his people.
These are examples of today’s version of “lofty speech”. They sway hearts and minds that refuse to submit to the simple message of redemption. The films are sometimes done well from a technical point of view. They appeal to the expectations of our culture, but they do not follow the commission God gave us.
These depictions of Jesus Christ by skilled screen-writers and actors, indelibly fix a distorted image in the minds of the viewers.
Deviation from scriptural facts or principles, even if well intended, produce factions and divisions, a weakening of God’s truth, and a departure from his commanded method of evangelism.
But there are other ways the modern church prefers superior speech and wisdom to simple truth. Some truths of God are often strategically hidden or clothed in popular forms to avoid offending. They get more to listen if they offer sugar and sweets, or excitement and drama.
I know a pastor who always warns, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” If we get their attention with a watered down message, that’s what they will always want to hear. Superficial faith stunts their growth. They don’t want the real nourishing meat of God’s word. Worship becomes entertainment and drama, not a time to humbly honor God.
When they are fed this diluted gospel, they become discouraged when things do not change in their lives. They defect back to the world’s ways, follow shallow popular movements, and abandon God’s Kingdom.
The shallow message preaches a Christ that is just a divine martyr, or a fixer of social problems. So, when his sacrifice is presented as morally necessary because we deserve God’s wrath, and because only a perfect human and infinite God could pay for it, the message either converts the fallen heart or offends it. But the simple truth must be told.
Paul’s approach was very different. He carefully avoided the things these compromisers urge us to embrace. God’s people are called to correct wrong expectations by declaring the unadorned truth. Not with words only, but as Paul did, it come through seeing changed lives, and by explaining the gospel.
more acceptable to the lost soul.
2. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
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.
Paul’s approach was very different from the factions in the Corinthian church. He came in weakness to rest their trust in the power of God, not in men.
Our confidence should not rest in the persuasive way a message is presented. It should rest in the power of God to transform a lost soul by supernatural means, not by emotions, special effects, good script writers, or excellent orators.
It certainly does not mean that Paul delivered a narrow message, or that he delivered it poorly. The content of his message was about Christ and him crucified. That included the whole unfolding of the message of grace.
Paul told the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20 that he held back nothing of God’s message. In Matthew 20 Jesus told the disciples to teach all things whatever he commanded.
The centrality of the cross is about our fall into sin, the promises of God’s gracious covenant, the atonement, and its results seen in our changed lives and eternal blessings. The point of his dying on a cross, which in the law represented God’s curse, is central to the real power and efficacy of his death.
As for his presentation, Paul came in weakness, fear, and trembling. He came alone to Corinth after his encounter in Athens. He knew what he was up against. He had recently been beaten, imprisoned, run out of town. He had just faced the jeers and mocking of the philosophers in Athens. Humanly speaking, everything was working against him. It was an impossible mission.
Yet Paul did not come in timid uncertainty. He was always courageous, bold and decisive. He came with what the world saw as weakness realizing the awesome task and that it would be hard and unpopular. He took his responsibility of remaining faithful very seriously. He did not give in to the easy way, or to what the people expected. It was the encouragement of God’s word that kept him focused on his message (Acts 18:9-11).
So he did not come looking for slick ways to impress, appease, accommodate, or compromise. He came with the same power that had redeemed him, a once angry and deceived Rabbi. That same power had converted so many by the simple word of truth. He came in the promised power of God.
He does not mean that he tried to preach poorly or in a boring style. He respected the importance of using faithfully all the skills God had given him. And he did not mean he only used words.
Paul had lived among them for a while. He worked in their community making tents and shopping in their markets. His life, all his genuine emotions, moral practices, gentle demeanor, and compassion declared the real power of the cross of Christ.
The call to evangelize is a call to communicate truth. It’s not a call to stir emotions, or to evoke trust in human works or dramatic persuasion. The emotions are stirred when the Holy Spirit moves to transform a fallen heart. Those who make emotion the cause of faith, turn the work of God around. Those who believe that simple declaring of the word of God somehow is emotionless, are missing the real power God brings into a lost life by his grace.
Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to rest their hope in him or in any other speaker. He wanted them to look back to God’s promise and to the completed work of Christ. He did not want their hope to rest in the circumstances of their response, or their own decision.
So often the waves of many believers that flow in after a great evangelistic or revival event, wash back to sea leaving very few remaining who evidence a true transformation.
This means that each of us, in our daily lives as simple believers, can be effective. Rather than letting spectacular events or the specially gifted do the job, it is our transformed lives, humble obedience to God, and testimony about his grace that will change lives because of the power of God attached to our obedience.
It is also good news to each of us for our own sense of confidence and encouragement. Your regeneration did not come from someone who convinced you, or from some circumstances in your life. It came from God who worked in you supernaturally. That’s where your hope rests. Your duty is to conform to the truth set forth in Scripture and to rest in the power of God which can’t fail or fall short.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)