The church at Corinth had a problem with preaching. I do not mean to say that they did not like preaching. No, indeed. They liked preaching a lot. In fact it was one their favorite forms of entertainment. And this, of course, was the problem. Preaching had become a show. It had become an amusement, a diversion to be appraised and applauded as just another form of sophisticated Greek rhetoric.
The Greeks of Paul’s day prized skilled oratory above all other forms of public entertainment. The most celebrated personalities of their day were the sophists and rhetoricians. Accomplished public speakers were the rock stars and movie stars of that day. This attitude bled over into the church at Corinth, and preaching was being corrupted into just another form of public speaking.
Paul highlighted this problem in I Corinthians 1-4 while addressing the more obvious problem of division within the church. The church at Corinth was divided into several factions, and these factions were formed around the names of certain prominent preachers. Some said they were of Paul, some of Apollos, some of Cephas, and others said they were of Christ. These new disciples organized themselves around certain preachers as if they were founders of different schools of philosophy. The Greeks had been reared on the various schools of thought within Greek academic culture, and it seemed very natural to do the same within the church. Of course, the true motive of such posturing was self-promotion and aggrandizement, but pride always wears better under a cloak of piety.
Paul rebuked this division sharply, but then he dug deeper than just surface fissures in the congregation. Paul perceived that there was something more at work there than just a natural human tendency to form parties and organize factions. The division at Corinth arose from a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of preaching and how the gospel is effectively communicated. Corinth was divided around preachers because Corinth misunderstood preaching. This is how Paul’s opening rebuke on division quickly became an extended discourse on the message and methods of preaching.
Just after Paul reminded the Corinthians that they were one in Christ because of their one baptism in His name, he launched into his sermon on the preaching of the Cross. He said, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (1:17). It becomes evident from this point on that Paul was exposing their pretensions to wisdom that so powerfully dominated the way they viewed preaching and preachers. He asserted that their view of preaching—that the gospel can be effectively presented in “the wisdom of words”—missed the point and the power of the Cross. Men could not be truly converted through the force of Greek rhetoric. They cannot be brought to genuine faith in Christ by human performance.
To think so is to think that men are saved by how we preach rather than what we preach, more by method than by message. And most importantly, to think so is to think that men are saved by the power of man, by the effect of human persuasion. This is intolerable to God, for He insists “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1:29). God has deliberately determined that His saving gospel cannot be presented in any way that allows preening flesh to take credit for its success.
The wisdom of man negates the power of the Cross. Paul said it makes the Cross “of none effect” (1:17). This means human-powered preaching cannot communicate the gospel. The preaching of the gospel only works when it is empowered by the Spirit of God. For the Corinthians this meant that the gospel could not be presented in the popular forms of Greek oratory. Wonder what it means for us today? Could it have any bearing on our current post-postmodern craze for “relevant” preaching?
Paul insisted that the world in its wisdom would not acknowledge God, so God determined to confound their wisdom with the folly of the Cross and the foolishness of Cross-preaching. To the Jews, it is a scandal: no true Messiah would suffer the curse of hanging upon the Cross. To the Gentiles, it is pure folly: no true sage would establish his philosophy on the basis of death and defeat. The world despises everything the Cross represents. This is by divine design. God planned it this way.
Thus, to attempt to borrow the world’s wisdom to preach such apparent folly is senseless. We cannot persuade the world to accept the premise of the Cross if we present it in a culture-relevant way. Even foolish pagans are smart enough to know when we try to put the message of the Cross over on them under the guise of sophisticated arguments. They recognize very quickly that the preaching of the Cross offends their intellectual sensibilities, and they walk away in utter contempt. Paul made it clear that there is no way to “pretty up” the Cross. Its power lies in its stark, brutal reality. God has saved the world through a hideous murder.
Think about this. The universal symbol of Christianity is the cross. People wear it around their neck. Churches hang it on the wall. Drivers plaster it to the bumper of their car. And yet, the cross is a symbol of execution. We see it so often it has lost its power to shock and offend. But what would we do if we beheld a man walking quietly down the street with a miniature, silver electric chair hanging from a chain around his neck? Or a hangman’s noose? A guillotine? And yet, this is exactly what the symbol of the Cross is meant to convey. It is not meant to convey an exciting new philosophy of life. It conveys the sentence of death upon sin, the judgment of God upon the wicked, and the hope of eternal life for those who are baptized into the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And it is only when the Cross is understood in this way that it has the power to save. A culturally neutral, ambiguously relevant Cross is pure nonsense. The only way the Cross makes sense is when the Cross is boldly proclaimed in all its harsh reality as the sign of God’s terrifying hatred for sin and His astounding love toward sinners.
To present the gospel in a way that entertains pagans only ensures their damnation, for the only thing that saves—the gospel of the Cross—is “made of none effect” when presented in the words of man’s wisdom. This must have been very sobering for the Corinthians. I wonder how this should make us feel?
In chapter 2, Paul reminded the Corinthians of his method of preaching when he first came to Corinth. He determined that he would stay intently focused on the message of Christ and His cross. He overcame the temptation to present the gospel in a manner palatable to intellectuals and deliberately avoided “enticing words of man’s wisdom.” Of course, this does not mean that Paul used coarse language or that his speech was uneducated. It means simply that he refused to use the rhetorical methods of the Greeks to persuade unbelievers that the gospel was true. Paul understood that the only true persuasion of the gospel was the persuasion of the Spirit converting the heart of the hearer. If the Spirit did not persuade men, all of Paul’s fancy tricks of oratory would never do it.
The Corinthians considered Paul too simple. Paul responded that his preaching was too difficult. They thought his message was beneath them; Paul said it went over their heads. Paul’s simple preaching imparted the most profound form of wisdom ever revealed, the mysterious and hidden wisdom that God ordained to our glory before the world began (2:6,7). Yet, the sophisticated and urbane Corinthians failed to recognize Paul’s preaching as the highest form of wisdom because their sophistication was of the wrong sort—the worldly sort.
They were carnal and walked as men (3:1-3). Because Paul did not use words of wisdom to present the gospel, the Corinthians concluded that Paul’s preaching was shallow and simplistic. They could not have been more wrong. They thought his preaching was beneath them because they were unusually wise. In reality, Paul’s preaching was beyond them because they were unusually carnal.
They were too fleshly, too spiritually immature, to recognize true wisdom when they heard it. Paul underscored this fact throughout the rest of his discourse, especially in chapter 4, where his subtle irony broke down into outright sarcasm. The Corinthians were so wise that they had become fools.