“That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5)
Public speaking was a staple of both Greek and Roman Society. Just a few years before his death, the Roman statesman Cicero penned his last work on rhetoric entitled "Orator", in which he attempts to define the ideal public speaker. In the painting above Cicero stands before the Roman senate to defend his cause, and it is said of Cicero that he was such a talented speaker that people would stop what they were doing to hear his famed skills as an orator. Cicero was also a poet, lawyer, philosopher, and is consider one of Rome's most famous orators. There is no doubt that this man had much wisdom, but what was the source of his wisdom? And did that wisdom carry him any closer to God?
When you read through the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, it quickly becomes apparent that the believers in Corinth had a fascination with human wisdom. Throughout these chapters Paul uses certain words and phrases that reveal this. He speaks of “the wisdom of words,” and “the understanding of the prudent,” and “enticing words of man’s wisdom.” Each of these phrases has a negative connotation because Paul is referring to that wisdom of fallen humanity that exalts itself against the wisdom of God. What exactly is being referred to here? In the first chapter Paul stated that he had been sent to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “…not with wisdom of words…” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Most scholars agree that what Paul is referring to here is Greek rhetoric. Good public speakers were prized in the Graeco-Roman world of Paul’s day. Rhetoric is the art of public speaking, whereby the speaker attempts to persuade his audience to follow and believe his statements. This was often accomplished with no regard for the truthfulness of the statements that were being made by the speaker! Politicians would give speeches, much like today, seeking to amass a group of followers around them in order to positively promote their political careers. The art of rhetoric became very important in that day. Handbooks were written on the subject, schools were created to instruct in the art, and public speakers were evaluated on their rhetorical ability.
To understand what Paul is dealing with you must understand the historical context of the church in Corinth. The outside world around them were fascinated with this art of public speaking, fascinated when a man could stand and use flaunting words of wisdom to persuade others to follow him. Based on the words of the apostle, this sort of thinking had crept into the church, and evidently they were evaluating the preaching of Paul on the basis of his rhetorical ability. In other words, they were comparing the preaching of Paul to the public speaking that they witnessed in the secular world, and were gauging his spiritual effectiveness with the tools of the world! Paul tells them that the message which he preached, the message of the cross, was not in accordance with the wisdom of this world. In fact, the message of Christ crucified and risen again was seen as foolishness to the Greeks! Paul had dealt with this sort of thinking just prior to his trip to Corinth, when he ministered and preached the Gospel in Athens, which is a mere fifty miles from Corinth. On one occasion, Paul stood before the philosophers in Athens and when he preached the resurrection they mocked him (see Acts 17:16-32). Paul’s message was not from man’s wisdom (1:18-25). He also reminded them that they were not called by God to believe the Gospel because they were wise (1:26-31). The Apostle then goes on to show that his manner of preaching was not in line with human wisdom either (2:1-4). He had not come to them with excellency of speech or wisdom! His preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom! Why was Paul distancing himself from the wisdom of men that the Corinthians had become so fascinated with? Because he did not want their faith to rest in his public speaking ability! He did not want their faith to rest in him! Paul states that when he preached in the synagogue and streets of Corinth, it was in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Paul knew that the message of Christ crucified and risen again was the power of God unto salvation, and that God ordained the preaching of that message to be the means whereby He would save those that believe. To the Greek the message was foolishness, and to the Jews it was a stumbling-block; but to those that are called of God from among the Jews and Greeks, it is the power and wisdom of God! Paul preached that message and sought no praise for himself, so that when the Corinthians believed the message, he knew that their faith was resting in the power and wisdom of God. The message was not of man, their calling was not of man, and his preaching was not in accordance with man’s wisdom…how then could they use the philosophy and values of men to be the standard? Paul urges them to glory in Christ and his finished work, not in themselves, and not in men or their feigned wisdom.
The problem in the church at Corinth was this: they allowed the thinking of the world around them to impact their thinking as a church, specifically, what they thought about the preaching of God’s Word. This is something that we must ever be on guard against, as individual believers, and as a body of believers united in a local church. We must remember that our Lord is not of this world, the Gospel is not of this world, and our calling is not of this world. We should, therefore, not expect the preaching of God’s Word to line up with the standards of this world, or the standards of men, whatever “camp” they might identify with. The 19th century theologian Charles Hodge noted in his commentary that Paul shows us five truths in these verses:
1. That the proper method to convert men in any community, Christian or Pagan, is to preach or set forth the truth concerning the person and work of Christ.
2. The proper state of mind in which to preach the gospel is the opposite of self-confidence or carelessness.
3. The success of the gospel does not depend on the skill of the preacher, but on the demonstration of the Spirit.
4. The foundation of saving faith is not reason or arguments addressed to the understanding, but the power of God as exerted with and by the truth upon the heart.*
Paul will go on in chapter two to show that there is true wisdom, but that it only comes from God and is only given to man by the work of the Holy Spirit. Human wisdom and reason cannot carry any man to God, why should we make it our boast? Why should we allow fallen reasoning to dictate the message and preaching of the church? Fallen humanity does not need more “enticing words of man’s wisdom,” because that will not solve the human problem. What they need is preaching, in the Spirit and power, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
*Hodge, Charles. A Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Wilmington, DE: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1972.