Rewire: A Trinitarian Theology of Preaching

Sermon by David Strain on March 19, 2017

1 Corinthians 2:1-5


Please if you would, take a copy of the Bible in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians chapter 2. We’ll be thinking about verses 1 to 5 and you’ll find it on page 952 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. 1 Corinthians chapter 2, verses 1 to 5. It’s been a number of weeks since we were last in 1 Corinthians. Let me remind you a little bit of where Paul has been going in his argument so far. There are various spiritual problems plaguing the church at Corinth. Paul is going to systematically work through them as he writes to the Corinthians, but he starts with the problem of division. You’ll see that in the early section of chapter 1. There is a schismatic, divisive spirit that has fractured the fellowship of the Corinthian congregation. Some were saying, “I follow Paul!” Others, “I follow Apollos!” or, “I follow Cephas!” or even, “I follow Christ!” And each was looking down on the other claiming to be the truly spiritual ones, which of course unmasks the even deeper problem behind the divisiveness of the Corinthian churches lay the pride and the boastfulness of the Corinthian Christians.


And to address that problem, the problem of pride, the apostle Paul highlights three surprising facts, three counterintuitive realities that shatter pride. And we’ve looked already at the first two of those in the second half of chapter 1. And so verses 18 to 25 of chapter 1, Paul reminds us that the church’s message is weak and foolish, at least by the standards of the world. It is, after all, the message of the cross, the message of a weak, suffering Savior. The church’s message is weak and foolish. Then in verses 26 to 31, again in contrast or to counter the Corinthian boasting, he reminds us that the church’s members are also, at least by the world’s estimation, weak and foolish. He says, “Not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Instead, God chose the nothings, that is, the nobodies, to bring to nothing the things that are.” The church’s message and the church’s members are weak and foolish so there’s no ground for boasting there. Is there? If God saves, it is all the work of God, not the work of men. It is not in consequence of some great, sophisticated rhetorical message, nor is it in consequence of the remarkable pedigree of those who hear it. It is not something in the hearer or something in the preacher that gets the glory, but rather the God who works by a weak message in the hearts of weak hearers to save sinners for Himself. The church’s message and the church’s members are weak and foolish.


And then, Paul’s third surprising pride-killing truth is found in our passage this morning, verses 1 to 5 of chapter 2 – the church’s ministry is also weak and foolish. The message, the members, now the ministry. No one can boast in themselves, but neither can they boast in their leaders – not in Paul, not in Apollos, not in Cephas, not in their favorite pastor or their favorite internet preacher. The ministry that God uses, like the message that He blesses and the people that He saves, is apparently weak and foolish. The blessing of God, you see, is located not in the power of our rhetoric nor in the pedigree of the people nor in the personality of the leader, but in the Gospel itself anointed by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And that, Paul wants us to understand, is where all our confidence must rest. And so, in these first five verses of chapter 2, Paul gives, if you like, a synopsis of his own approach to ministry. And he highlights for us his message in verses 1 and 2 – what he said. Then his method in verses 3 and 4 – how he said it. And finally his motive – why he said it and why he said it the way he said it – in verse 5. The message, the method, and the motive. There’s the outline for us!


And just as an aside as we work through all of that, do look out for the rich Trinitarianism that laces this whole passage. Don’t let anyone ever tell you the doctrine of the Trinity is an abstraction and an irrelevance. It shapes Paul’s thinking about ministry, about preaching thoroughly, believing that Trinitarian preaching produces God-intoxicated believers as they hear the Word of God preached like this. Well that said, let’s read the Word of God together. Before we do, if you would please bow your heads with me once more. Let’s pray!


Father, would You open our eyes to behold marvelous things out of Your Law that all the glory might be Yours. Draw us to Jesus as He speaks to us in His Word that all the praise might be Yours and the blessing ours, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.


1 Corinthians chapter 2 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”


Amen. And we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.


Well, this is one of only a few passages in the New Testament where Paul speaks in an autobiographical mode and he is remarkably candid about himself as he does so. Don’t you think? Look at some of the languages that he uses to describe his first coming to the Corinthian believers. Verse 3, “I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling. My speech and my message were not marked with plausible words of wisdom.” He was not an impressive man and he did not have an impressive ministry. There was nothing of the aura of greatness hanging around his personality. None of the glamor of celebrity to distinguish him from the next guy. In fact, the way Paul describes his ministry here really flies in the face of the expectations of a public speaker in ancient Corinth in those days, and I think also flies in the face of the expectations of our own culture today.


Let me try and illustrate that by citing some recent reflection from Susan Cain in her recent New York Times best-seller entitled, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” – a great title. It’s a great book; let me commend it to you. She writes about a cultural shift that has taken place in American from what one social historian has called, “the culture of character” toward “the culture of personality.” I wonder if you’ll agree with her assessment. Listen to how she describes it. “In the culture of character, the ideal-self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted, was not so much the impression one made in public, as for how one behaved in private. The word ‘personality’ didn’t exist in English until the 18th century and the idea of ‘having a good personality’ was not widespread until the 20th. But when they embraced the culture of personality, Americans started to focus on others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.” Then she quotes a social historian. “The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer. Every American was to become a performing self.” Her thesis is that our culture, not at all unlike ancient Corinth actually, has come to privilege big personalities, to prize charisma sometimes over character.


Paul’s Weakness

And so, when you read Paul’s description, given then shift toward the culture of personality that is so much a part of our day and age, you read Paul’s description of his own ministry in our text, it comes over actually as rather jarring, doesn’t it? Not a few of the Corinthians were altogether unimpressed by Paul. And I rather suspect that with a resume like this one, he’d have an equally hard time finding a call in the Presbyterian Church in America as well. He isn’t gregarious; he’s not loud. He’s not particularly attractive. His preaching purposely eschewed – the usual polish and rhetorical devices that signal sophistical among his hearers. When he showed up at Corinth he was weak; he was a wreck. His health has been shattered by repeated cycles of mob violence and imprisonment. He is jumpy, scared, fearful he says.


And you can’t really blame him if you track his recent past history before coming to Corinth. You can read it for yourself in the book of Acts. When he went to Iconium back in chapter 14 for example, he was almost stoned to death by the mob. When he moved on to Lystra, the mob managed what they failed to do in Iconium and they did, in fact, stone him. They dragged him out of the city, dumped him at the city gate, and left him for dead. When he finally got to Philippi in chapter 16, Paul’s preaching once again incited a riot. He and Silas were beaten and then thrown in jail. In Thessalonica, the same thing happened except Paul was able to escape down to Berea and so the mob seized on Jason and beat him in whose house it seems Paul and his team had been staying. And then when they get to Berea and Paul starts to preach, guess what happens there? There was yet another riot and Paul and his mission team had to flee.


And so by the time Paul gets to Corinth in chapter 18 of the book of Acts, as he tells us here in our passage, he is, you might say, just a wee bit twitchy! Wouldn’t you be? Every time you open your mouth, well, people get converted marvelously. But every time you do, there’s a riot and you get badly hurt time and time and time again. No wonder Paul came to Corinth in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. So by his own admission, Paul really did not cut much of an impressive figure when he showed up in their churches. So why listen to him? Why value his ministry? Or more to the point – Why should we seek to imitate him or look for ministry in a Pauline paradigm?


Paul’s Message


Paul’s answer has, as I said earlier, three parts to it. The first part you will see in verses 1 and 2. Would you look there with me, please? Verses 1 and 2. Paul talks to us first of all about his message. Notice how he puts it first of all negatively and then positively. That’s a pattern that persists all the way through these five verses. So in verse 1, he says negatively, “I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” He is determined, you see, not to use the rhetorical tricks of the trade. He has no intention of trying to manipulate his audience to play on their emotions or to sway them with flights of rhetorical fancy. He has no interest in packaging his preaching in the style the Corinthians preferred. He doesn’t want to tickle their ears. The culture of the day, you see, was used to traveling sophists and orators and entertainers speaking on the street corners and in lecture halls and in the trade guilds and in the social clubs of the day. There were recognized patterns of speech and rhetorical devices that were commonly used amongst all of them and you would be considered a sought-after, valued speaker based on your ability to master those tricks of the trade.


Christ Crucified

But Paul is telling us here that he studied hard to ensure that no one would confuse his message with the empty rhetoric of the culture. Instead, he says positively in verse 2; look at verse 2. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” His preaching ministry was designed not to make much of the speaker as the orators of ancient Corinth did, but to make much of Jesus Christ and His cross. Now I don’t think it is possible to overestimate the importance of 1 Corinthians chapter 2 verse 2 because it is if you like, an architectonic statement for Paul’s whole approach to ministry. This is not Paul saying, “You know, when I came to Corinth I decided to do something a little bit different, to take a different tack. I thought I would just take one theme and pound away at it. I’ll talk about the cross for a change and see how I get on with that.” That’s not what he’s saying in verse 2 at all. No, he’s saying, “This is my basic statement of principle. This is my persistent pattern in all my preaching. And on every occasion when I open my mouth to preach the Word, I will preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”


Give Me Jesus!

This is what makes Christian preaching Christian preaching! We resolve in every message from every passage to tell people the one thing they most urgently need to hear – Jesus Christ was crucified for you. There is pardon for guilty sinners in the cross of Jesus Christ. There are cleansing and reconciliation to God and peace with God and peace from God. There is a new community, adoption into the family and household of faith and a thousand other blessings and glories besides, available to you for free in the cross of Jesus Christ. That is Paul’s consistent message. How does the old spiritual put it? “In the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise, give me Jesus. And when I’m alone, when I’m alone, give me Jesus. And when I come to die, when I come to die, give me Jesus. You can take all the world; just give me Jesus.” That is the cry of every Christian who knows what her soul most needs. Give me Jesus. And that is what Paul resolves to supply in the ministry of the Word. Not, “Five Principles of Better Parenting,” not “Ten Steps to Confidence at Work,” or “Six Techniques for a Happy Marriage.” Jesus Christ and His cross!


The Mark of Faithful Preaching

Now as we’ll begin to discover, God willing, as we continue with the Corinthian correspondence, these are, if not the most practical certainly among the most practical of the New Testament letters. Paul is, in fact, going to deal with questions of marriage and interpersonal breakdown and lawsuits and work and sex and intimacy and many other very real, very practical matters indeed in these letters. But as you work through the letters, you will see over and again that he turns for the remedy, for the response to those practicalities to the cross, to the Gospel of grace, to the good news about Jesus and what He has done for sinners. Paul is consistent in every message on every subject in pointing our attention to Jesus Christ and to His cross. That is the mark, you know, of faithful preaching ministry. That is what our souls, my soul, your soul most desperately needs. That is what you must demand every single Sunday, every Lord’s Day from this pulpit – the message of the Word of God relentlessly pointing you to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the blessed Trinity, crucified for sinners. The message, do you see, focuses on Jesus.


Paul’s Method


Then look at verses 3 and 4 with me please where Paul now talks about his method. The message then the method. And again, there’s that negative/positive pattern. Do you see it negatively? He says, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom.” His confidence for change – now here’s a word for preachers, a word for you Sunday school teachers, for small group leaders, if you handle the Bible for the good of others at all, here’s a word we need to bear in mind. Our confidence for change in ourselves, in those among whom we minister, does not rest with the power of our own reasoning, our rhetoric, our skill. No, our confidence for change must rest elsewhere. Not in self but elsewhere, and we’ll see where in just a moment. Paul is reminding the Corinthians, isn’t he, that they were converted. The church was planted as a result of a ministry actually characterized by fear and trembling and weakness; having none of the marks of culturally plausible, sophisticated, rhetorical work. It was an unlikely ministry conducted by an implausible figure.


The Power of The Spirit

So, how is it that the Corinthians were converted? How did this funny, diffident, Jewish rabbi plant this amazing church in so hostile a context as ancient Corinth? Look at verse 4. If Paul’s hope and confidence for spiritual change does not rest in his ability to reason and argue and convince and persuade, not in the force of rhetoric or in the skill of a Bible teacher, where does it rest? Here’s his method now stated positively. He says, “I was with you in weakness and fear and trembling. My speech and message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Here’s how lives get changed! In demonstration of the Spirit and power. Now he doesn’t mean that he preached a spirited message or that he has a powerful personality. He means as he opened up the text, the meaning of the Bible, and he applied the good news about Jesus crucified to heads and to hearts, God the Holy Spirit took up his preaching ministry and wielded it with power though it came from a lisping, stammering tongue. It was made the instrument of irresistible change in the hearts of those who heard. It came with power, thundering with earth-stopping force, and their minds arresting them, gripping them, and changing them forever. Paul didn’t do it in the end; God did it by the Holy Spirit and in His great power.


Spurgeon’s Conversion Story

And your own experience can probably testify to that. The history of the church is littered with examples of God doing exactly that. I like the story of the conversion of Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher. Do you know that story? The story of his conversion. As a young man he set out one Sunday morning in midwinter to go to church and there’s a snowstorm of such violence that he is forced to turn aside from his usual church to a small, primitive Methodist chapel. And as he takes his seat under the gallery, almost no one else has made it that day. And eventually, it becomes clear that even the regular preacher has been unable to make it through the storm. And here’s what happened next in Spurgeon’s own words:


“At last a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker or tailor or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now it is well that preachers should be instructed,” Spurgeon says, “but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was, ‘Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ He did not even pronounce the words rightly but that didn’t matter. When he’s managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery and I dare say with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me as if he knew all my heart he said, ‘Young man, you look very miserable!’


Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to having remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before! However, it was a good blow struck right home. He continued, ‘And you always will be miserable – miserable in life and miserable in death if you do not obey my text. But if you obey it now, this moment, you will be saved!’ And then lifting up his hands and shouting as only a primitive Methodist could do, ‘Young man, look to Jesus Christ! Look! Look! Look! You’ve nothing to do but look and live!’ I saw at once the way of salvation. I’d been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, ‘Look!’ what a charming word it seemed to me. I looked until I could almost have looked by eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the Son and I could have risen that instant and sung with the most enthusiastic of them of the precious blood of Christ and the simple faith which looks alone to Him.”


Here’s a man who can’t preach, he has no training, he could barely pronounce the words, but he’s full of His message and with urgency and passion he pointed to Jesus Christ and to His cross and the Spirit of God took it up and changed a man’s heart forever. It wasn’t the skill of the preacher but it was the demonstration of the Holy Spirit and power wielding the Gospel in Spurgeon’s heart that made the great change! I wonder if that has happened to you? Has that happened to you? Do you know anything of the demonstration of the Spirit and power? It needn’t happen in the same way or look exactly the same. It need not be some dramatic, sudden experience as was Spurgeon’s. It may be slow and mysterious, sometimes even almost unnoticed in your life. The question is not how it has happened but whether it has happened. Have you been born again? Do you know anything of the life-giving, soul-renovating ministry of the Spirit of Jesus Christ? That is the most urgent question before you today. The Spirit must take up the Gospel and bring it home in power to your heart.


I know many of you pray for me each Lord’s Day as I get up to preach and I’m so very grateful to you that you do. Let me make a plea for you as you pray for me? First of all, pray for my holiness! Then next to my holiness, would you pray the words of this text, that as the Word of God is read and preached that it might come, not in words of eloquent wisdom, but in demonstration of the Holy Spirit and power, that the glory might be God’s and the blessing might be ours?


Paul’s Motive


The message – Jesus Christ crucified. The method – reliance on the demonstration and power. Then finally and very briefly – the motive. Why do it this way? A weak, foolish man, preaching what is apparently a weak, foolish message. It seems so improbable, so ineffective, so inefficient, so unlikely to get results. Why would Paul persist in a method like this? Look at verse 5. He does it negatively, he says, “that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men.” He doesn’t want people being impressed with Paul, following Paul. He has no interested in “extending his personal influence” and gathering a following. He has no interest in people hanging on his every word. He wants their faith, rather, to rest elsewhere. Look at what he says. He says he wants their faith to rest “not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” The power of God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and of earth.


Look to Christ

Would you please resist the urge to look to your pastors for what only Jesus can give you? The apostle Paul says, “I don’t want you following me! I want your faith resting on the power of God and resting upon the work of Christ and in the mighty working in your heart of the Holy Spirit. Not in me.” Don’t look to your pastors for what only Jesus can give you! We have enough of a trouble with a Messiah-complex as it is without your help, thank you very much! Look to Christ, Paul is saying. Trust in God, Paul is saying. That is where your confidence must land. Not in men, but in the God who speaks by His Word.


Now did you notice the rich Trinitarianism of Paul’s approach to ministry? He wants our confidence resting in God the Father who has given His Son to the horrors of the cross that we might live. And if we are to receive the benefits of Christ’s redemption, then the proclamation of the good news must sound in the demonstration of the Holy Spirit and in power to take away our dead hearts and give us new life. Would you join me please in pleading with God to give us and to maintain among us a ministry like that, that would be blessed of heaven and anointed by the Spirit? Paul’s message resolutely focuses our attention on Jesus and on the cross. That is what your heart needs, more than anything else. Give me Jesus.


His method is to depend on the help of the Spirit of God and to cry to heaven for power. And his motive – that every eye might look and rest on Abba Father and on Jesus Christ and on the help of the Holy Spirit. It is the Triune God into fellowship with whom we are all called in the Gospel and it is there that the apostle Paul points us in our passage. Let’s pray together!


Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we bless You for Your holy Word. We pray that by the finger of Your Spirit You might write it on our hearts. Grant indeed that the Gospel might come to each of us in demonstration of the Spirit and in power that we might be changed and that You might be exalted, for Jesus sake we pray. Amen!

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