1 Corinthians 2:1-12 ~ God’s Wisdom, Secret and Hidden
INTRODUCTION TO SCRIPTURE
When our daughter Whitney was a junior in college, she spent a semester in Spain. The day she was to fly out was the day of the great blizzard of 2005. Flights were being canceled; planes were being diverted. And here we were about to put our daughter on a plane that was supposed to go to Newark, where she could board a flight to Madrid. But I worried: what if her plane were diverted away from Newark? What if our daughter had to spend the night by herself in, say, Cleveland?! Driving to RDU, I told Whitney that I would fly with her as far as Newark. My daughter was mortified, but I promised I would disappear before any of her classmates could catch sight of me.
We got to RDU as the cold and the clouds gathered. Whitney got a ticket on the last flight out. Then I stepped up to the counter: “I’d like a ticket on the same flight.” The lady said, “Yes sir, we have a seat. Now, for a same-day purchase round trip to Newark, that will be $900.” I looked at my daughter, my only child, and said to her, “You’ll be fine!”
I tell you that story so that I can tell you another story. A couple of months later, Candy and my mother and I flew to Spain to visit Whitney. She showed us around the ancient University of Salamanca. We walked through halls and rooms hundreds of years old. Whitney took us into one ancient classroom and told us that this was where one professor was teaching during the dark days of the Inquisition. Right in the middle of his class, the authorities came and arrested the professor on charges of heresy and took him away. Months, maybe years went by. No one knew whether the professor was alive or dead. Then one day he returned, free! So he returned to his old classroom to teach again. He stood behind the same lectern where his last lecture had been so rudely interrupted. He looked out across his students and began, “As I was saying….”
Well, that’s how I feel today! Not that anyone arrested me last Sunday. But between last Sunday and today, I felt as if I’d been sentenced to do funerals for the rest of my life. We’ve done four funerals this week. Thank goodness last Sunday had wonderful attendance in worship and Bible study, so we’re not worrying about the church dying, not at all. But the past week has been hard, and I am grateful for all the thoughts and prayers you’ve been sending our way.
So it’s good to be back in the pulpit, and good to return to Paul’s letter to that wild church in that wild port city of Corinth. And as I was saying last Sunday, Paul told those Corinthians:
…the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Cor. 1:18
It is indeed a strange statement, to say that “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.” If you’ve heard that all your life, then you may not even think twice about it. But if you hear it for the first time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Nevertheless, when Paul proclaimed Jesus on the cross, people were touched deeply and changed completely. The word of the cross is powerful. The image of the innocent Son of God being crucified touches me, as I struggle with why there is so much evil and innocent suffering in the world. I still don’t really know why, but when I ponder Jesus on the cross, I see that he understands what it is to suffer. That draws me to him. I am also moved when I see how this gospel is not reserved for the rich and smart and beautiful, but is available to all. I can follow a savior like that. And so I have, and it has made all the difference in my life. I still can’t fully explain it, but the thought of Jesus dying on a cross is a mystery that has power to save me.
And that brings up the question for today: if the saving power of Jesus on the cross is a mystery, if it’s beyond words to explain, how can I explain it to anybody else? How can I share my faith? That was Paul’s problem exactly. We hear him deal with it in the next part of his letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 2:1-13 (read).
HOW DID PAUL COMMUNICATE THE MYSTERY OF WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM?
“Imagine finding yourself standing up to make a speech in front of an audience of the great and the good, and having nothing to say except some stammering words about a strange thing that happened a few years ago which you know sounds crazy but which you just happen to think contains the secret to everything.” (N. T. Wright, 1 Corinthians for Everyone)
So Tom Wright described Paul’s predicament. One thing Paul did not do, although many wanted him to: he “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God … in lofty words or wisdom…” (2:1) In the first century, people loved nothing so much as a great speech. Orators honed their skills in the art of fine rhetoric. They perfected the techniques of elegant and theatrical speech. Some of them were so good that they could convince crowds of anything, even if it were the furthest thing from the truth. Paul could have used his own skill in rhetoric to persuade his hearers to believe Jesus. But he did not.
Instead, Paul “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (2:2) He did not try to pretty up the gospel for them; he did not try to play down the scandal and mystery of a Messiah’s shameful death on a cross. He just laid it out, as strange and ugly as it was.
And with what kind of tone did Paul try to share his faith? “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” (2:3) Paul didn’t come with his oratorical artistry; he came with his anxiety! He didn’t present himself as the all-knowing answer man. He didn’t present himself as a confident speaker. He let them see his vulnerabilities. He let them see him sweat.
Why on earth did Paul ever think that would work? Here is the heart of it in verses 4-5:
My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
He did not want his presentation to overshadow the message. He did not want people coming to Jesus because he was an artful speaker who could persuade people to believe anything. Paul wanted people to come because they encountered the gospel of Jesus — crucified, risen, and reigning – the gospel on its own terms, in its own power. Paul got out of the way, and let the power of the gospel speak for itself.
And that’s what happened. Paul stayed away from the rhetorical tricks of the trade. The truth of the gospel carried its own power. Peoples’ hearts and minds and lives were changed. And the way it happened left no doubt about the genuineness of their experience. They had not been brainwashed by an artful orator. They had been transformed by a powerful Savior.
You and I both know that it’s possible to present any message so manipulatively that people will come forward and join anything they’re told to join. We know the tricks of the trade: how to vary the music to manipulate people’s heartstrings during a service; how to use guilt and fear to trap some poor soul into a theological corner. Oh, we don’t minimize sin and death; they are real indeed. But you know what I’m talking about. When it comes to sharing the gospel, there is no place for manipulation. Just tell it straight.
BUT HOW? THE QUESTION OF PAUL BECOMES THE QUESTION FOR YOU AND ME: HOW CAN I COMMUNICATE THE MYSTERY OF WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ME WITH JESUS?
The answer is to do just what Paul did. We don’t have to pretty it up. We don’t have to have a perfect technique. We don’t have to add a lot of verbal bling. We just lay it out as it is:
Jesus died on a cross to save me from my sins, and God raised him from the dead, and he is Lord. I’ve found myself drawn to that Jesus. In fact I’ve decided to follow him, and it has made all the difference. In fact it has saved me.
You don’t have to present yourself as an answer man. You don’t have to be a great speaker. You don’t have to look super-confident or pretend that you have it all together. In fact, you can be just as weak and scared as Paul was. Truth be told, people are tired of slick presentations. They’re tired of bling and technique; they just want you to be yourself — to be your real self.
So just tell it straight. Just let the message speak for itself. The story of Jesus has its own power far greater than anything we can add.
Yes, it’s a mystery. Yes, it sounds strange and foolish to say Jesus died on a cross to save. But there’s power in it, power to speak to the heart, which has its reasons the mind knows not of. It will draw people. It will make all the difference. It will save.
– Douglas E. Murray