There are those people who are able to take the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and craft them into words, assemble the words into smooth sounding sentences, add rhythm and rhyme, some emotion and inflection, and take their audience wherever they want to lead them. They are passionate, convincing, and possessing the ability to move the hearts of people to the highest heights and bring them down to tears with nothing more than their words.
Back in 1992 there was a movie, “Leap of Faith,” starring Steve Martin playing a tent revival preacher named Reverend Jonas Nightengale. As we’ve been studying 1 Corinthians, Paul has written about being “called” over and over again. Well, Jonas wasn’t called, he was a scam artist who had the very abilities I described to you earlier. He could use words to empty wallets like nobody you’ve ever heard or seen.
Will was the Sheriff in Rustwater, Kansas and he was paying close attention to Reverend Nightengale. At one of the Reverend’s tent revival meetings, the Sheriff showed up and said he wanted to testify. Jonas said, “Speak up, Sheriff!” The Sheriff said, “Before you leave your hard-earned money in those buckets, I want you to know where it’s going.” The Sheriff had done his homework. Nothing Jonas Nightengale had said to the people about himself was true. When the Sheriff began to describe the truth about Jonas, his long list of crimes and deception, the people began to get up and walk out of the tent. Finally, the Sheriff said, “If you feel you’ve had a good night’s entertainment, then go ahead, tip the dancing bear. But, if you think this money’s going to a man of God, you’d better think again.”
Now, don’t forget, there are those folks who have a way with words, they could sell a ham sandwich to hog, and if you think that was the end of the movie then you’ve greatly underestimated the Reverend. Jonas spoke up,
Brother Will! Everything you’ve said is true. Absolutely true. Yes, I was born to lowly circumstances. Yes, I ran with a bad crowd that taught me to smoke weed and steal. I hung out in bars. And I hot-wired cars. I grew up mistreated, so I lied and I cheated. I learned hard crime and I served hard time. I have walked that crooked road and I have danced with the demon Satan. I’ve been down in the gutter and looked up into the face of God. I say to you, if you wanna give up the bottle, who you gonna talk to? Someone who’s never touched a drop? If you wanna give up womanising, who you gonna talk to? Some pale-skinned virgin priest? If you wanna give up sin – and I believe everyone here tonight wants to give up sin – who can lead you? You need a real sinner, people. A sinner of such monumental proportions that all your sins couldn’t possibly equal the sins of this King of Sin! Because you know, if he can walk that righteous path, if he can go from grift to grace, from sin to sanctity, from lowliness to holiness, then you, with all your everyday sins, can rise up like an angel and ride that golden elevator to God’s own penthouse in the sky! (Leap of Faith, 1992)
By the time Jonas stopped to catch a breath the people had filled the tent once again. Jonas Nightengale may have been a character in a movie, but Jonas lives doesn’t he?! Jonas is not just a preacher, he’s a polished politician, a manipulative mechanic, a conniving coach, a scheming salesman; he’s working in your office, and living in your neighborhood. Here’s the other thing, Jonas is not a phenomenon of our modern-day society, he was alive and well in Paul’s day as well. Paul wrote,
1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NIV)
We’ve already talked about the Greeks fascination with philosophers and polished public speakers so I won’t go back and take up our time with the details, but it is important to know that when a public speaker came to town, it was critical that he use his best material for that first public demonstration of his skills. They were all competing for applause, for the affirmation of the crowd, to try and pull followers in from other speakers, and a slice of the financial pie. It was all about the presentation. Paul, unlike the many traveling public speakers, had no desire to present himself, he had a much more lofty goal and that was to present Jesus to the people.
The people of Corinth were impressed by flashy showmanship. They were accustomed to evaluating the many worldly wise, eloquent speakers who paraded their thoughts and ideas about everything under the sun in the public square. So, when Paul came along they wanted to hear how he stacked up against the other speakers. After listening to him most of the people shrugged their shoulders and said, “Meh…”
Paul had spent eighteen months in Corinth, sharing the gospel and setting up the city’s first church. It was about three years later that he sat down to write this letter to the church. He well remembered what others thought about him while he was in Corinth. He had heard their whispers. He saw the expressions on their faces when he spoke. No preacher can ever forget when folks are nodding off instead of nodding in agreement. You may wonder how I know these things about Paul? Paul didn’t hide what many in Corinth felt about him, he wrote about it. In 2 Corinthians 10:10 he writes,
10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (2 Corinthians 10:10 NIV)
“Have you heard Paul speak?” “Yes, but I wasn’t impressed. I wouldn’t go back and hear him again.” Now, Paul could write. Boy, could he write. If you have never read the book of Romans then you don’t know what you’ve been missing. It has to be the single greatest doctrinal work in the history of the world, but evidently those who heard him speak were unimpressed when he was compared with the great speakers of his day. In the next chapter of his second letter to the people of Corinth, Paul wrote,
6 I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. (2 Corinthians 11:6 NIV)
An untrained speaker in Greece was a nobody and Paul had never been to Aristotle’s Institute of Rhetoric, he had never taken a class in the Socratic method, or been invited to the Platonic Academy. Don’t kid yourself, Paul was brilliant. He had been trained at the feet of one of the most famous rabbis in history, Rabbi Gamaliel. Paul had no desire to be remembered for his brilliance so he refused to adopt the methods of the Greek philosophers and flamboyant orators of his day. In 1 Corinthians 2:1, Paul wrote,
1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. (1 Corinthians 2:1 NIV)
We have to remember what we learned in our study of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Do you remember? Paul drew a contrast between worldly wisdom and God’s wisdom. Paul made it clear that worldly wisdom will never be able to comprehend the wisdom of God. After all, a brutalized Messiah, hanging naked and bloody on a cross, is no symbol of victory or power to the world, but Paul knew that Jesus crucified was the very essence and embodiment of the wisdom and power of God. Paul wrote,
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-24 NIV)
You want to build a church? Highlight the miraculous, emphasize the supernatural, and dazzle them with your brilliance and intellect. Paul would have none of it. Paul reminded them of the eighteen months he was with them and how he never resorted to using flowery speech, theatrics, or human wisdom. It was Paul’s aim, his ambition, his prayer, that no one would ever leave one of his meetings and remember anything about him, but only the message of the cross. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, Paul wrote,
2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV)
See that word “resolved?” It is a word of determination, a word of intention; a word that lets us know Paul had set his sights on one thing and one thing only–he would preach and teach Jesus and His crucifixion. Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, in their commentary on 1 Corinthians, write,
Again in contrast to ‘the wise’ in Corinth and in the church, who could expiate endlessly on all sorts of subjects, all Paul wanted to talk about was ‘the cross of Christ’ (1:17). On first blush this may seem rather narrow and limited. After all, Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth and would have engaged in pastoral work alongside of evangelism. However, as 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:17 itself demonstrates, for Paul even the most practical ills, such as divisions and problems of leadership in the church, are remedied by focusing on the cross. For Paul, Christ crucified is more than just the means of forgiveness and salvation; rather, it informs his total vision of the Christian life and ministry. (Ciamp, Roy and Rosner, Brian. The First Letter to the Corinthians. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. pg. 114.)
This is such a powerful thought for you and me. It is all about the cross isn’t it? Let me give you an example of the broad application of the cross for our everyday lives. On Wednesday of this past week, our Promise Keepers Men’s Bible study was talking about the nature of love, so we went to the cross. Later in the day I was talking to a friend who has been deeply hurt by a decision someone else has made. She told me that she knows God wants her to love the person who has hurt her, He wants her to forgive that person and not be bitter. We took a look at God’s Word where we find our motivation to do just that, even though friends would tell her she’s crazy. In Ephesians 4:31-32 we read,
31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32 NIV)
The cross of our Savior is the lens through which we see and understand this broken and oftentimes exhausting world in which we live. The cross of our Savior is the lens through which we see our relationships and determine how we are to relate to one another. I could go on and on, but I think you understand–it all begins at the cross. We don’t begin at the cross and then go on to other subjects; we view every subject through the lens of the cross.
There was another great difference between Paul and the popular speakers of his day. It wasn’t just the presentation of the message, but it was also the presentation of the person. Paul wasn’t self-confident. He wasn’t cocky and arrogant. He’s already told us that he didn’t go to Corinth with eloquence and worldly wisdom, but in verse 3 he tells us even more. Read it with me.
3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:3 NIV)
How was Paul “weak?” I’ve read everything Paul has ever written, I’ve memorized some of what Paul has written, and I would never describe him as “weak.” So how could he describe himself that way? There are different opinions about what Paul had in mind. Some say Paul had some kind of physical weakness, some ailment that weakened him. I can see that. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia,
13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, 14 and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. (Galatians 4:13-14 NIV)
I also remember what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, in his second letter. Paul let them know that he had a “thorn in the flesh.” We have no idea what that thorn was, but we do know Paul prayed and pleaded with the Lord to take it away from him. He writes,
8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10 NIV)
So maybe Paul’s weakness was some kind of physical ailment. Some of the other ideas people have suggested are: Paul’s unimpressive appearance, the fact that he was a tentmaker, not the most impressive of jobs to put on your resume, or his vulnerability to persecution, he ran into trouble everywhere he went. There’s no way for us to know for sure what Paul had in mind.
Paul also said he came to the people of Corinth in “great fear and trembling.” Once again there are different ideas about what Paul had in mind and folks are free to speculate because Paul doesn’t spell it out for us. I’ll just share one of the most popular ideas. You have to remember what Paul had experienced before he arrived at Corinth. John MacArthur writes,
Paul came to Corinth after being beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, run out of Thessalonica and Berea, and scoffed at in Athens (Acts 16:22-24; 17:10; 13-14, 32). Corinth was the epitome of paganism and moral degeneracy. Though having every human reason to be discouraged and no doubt every temptation from Satan to compromise, Paul would not change his message… He was not fearful for his own life or safety or of the gospel’s having lost its power. He was fearful only of its being rejected, and of the terrible consequences of that rejection. (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians. pg. 56)
There’s no doubt that all of this is true, but I think there was an even more important component of Paul’s “great fear and trembling.” Paul had an overwhelming sense of awe, fear and trembling, when it came to the holiness of God and God calling him to carry the gospel to those who didn’t know Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul urged the Corinthians to think about what they were before God called them. Paul had a vivid memory of his own state before God opened his eyes and called him. He wrote about it in his letter to Timothy. Listen to this:
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17 NIV)
Paul had been a blasphemer, a persecutor of God’s people, but God had chosen him and appointed him to be a messenger of the grace he himself had received. This experience of Paul marked him for the rest of his life. He never became casual with his call. His urgency to share the gospel was never diminished. He didn’t want to misspeak. He didn’t want to act in a way that would bring dishonor and shame to the Lord in any way.
Paul was not fearful of losing his salvation or of Jesus abandoning him. He wasn’t trembling with doubt regarding God’s love. It was with fear and trembling, knowing that He was called by God to carry the invaluable message of grace, that Paul carried the gospel every step of the way throughout the rest of his life. We would do well to view our call to share the gospel with those in our lives with the same sense of urgency and sense of responsibility.
In the final two verses of our study for this morning Paul reiterates that whatever happened in his ministry, it happened not because he was persuasive and impressive, but it happened because of the power of God. Let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians 2:4-5.
4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NIV)
We read the “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” and think about some miracle like the healing of the blind man or casting a demon out of a servant girl, but Paul is thinking of something far more miraculous, far more powerful than these kinds of miracles. The miracle of the new birth is the greatest miracle of all. No person can bring a spiritually dead person to life. The greatest preacher who has ever lived has never saved even one soul. It is the work of God and God alone through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
God uses ordinary, unimpressive people, even people like you and me to do His work, to share His message of grace and salvation. It is so easy for us to look around and compare ourselves to others who are far more impressive than we are, but we must look to God alone and understand what He has given us to do. There’s no doubt that people are impressed with people. I could announce that Oprah or Elon Musk or Dr. Fauci were going to be speaking at BCC next Sunday and we’d have tons of people want to come and hear them. They may not know the first thing about God’s Word, the message of the cross, or salvation, but folks would flock to hear them speak. People are impressed with high profile, successful, talented people. God is not. He uses ordinary men and women to carry the extraordinary message of the cross to those who are lost, lonely, beaten down, and broken.
He uses people like John Bunyan. John Bunyan wrote, “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” in 1675 while Bunyan was in prison for holding religious services outside of the auspices of the Church of England. The book has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print to this day. The Pilgrim’s Progress is regarded as one of the most significant works of religious, theological fiction in all of English literature. You are probably thinking, “John Bunyan must have been a scholar who graduated from some prestigious university.” No, Bunyan was an uneducated metal worker, they called them “tinkers.” He spent twelve years in prison because he would not stop preaching. All he had to do was stop preaching and they would have let him go free, but he wouldn’t stop–he couldn’t stop.
Bunyan had no formal training as a preacher, but people came from all over to hear him teach God’s Word. It was said that when a day’s notice was given that John Bunyan would be preaching, twelve hundred people would show up at 7 o’clock in the morning before they would go to work to hear him preach. When the King of England, King Charles, asked John Owen, probably the greatest of the Puritan theologians, “Why do you go hear the uneducated tinker preach?” John Owen said, “I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts.”
What was the secret of Bunyan’s powerful preaching? It wasn’t his command of the English language or his P.T. Barnum showmanship. Bunyan, like Paul, knew he was inadequate, but the message of the gospel was burning inside of him and he had to share it with others.
I pray that this very morning the Lord has set your heart ablaze with the realization of His great love for you demonstrated by Jesus on the cross. There is nothing that can set you free apart from the cross of our Savior. There is nothing that can set you right with God apart from the cross of our Savior. There is nothing that can give meaning and purpose to your life apart from the cross of our Savior. If you do not know Jesus as Lord of your life then don’t let this moment pass you by. Won’t you surrender your heart to Him this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
November 15, 2020
1 Corinthians 2:1-5