This post is part of a multi-part blog series called Preaching Principles. Click here to watch the introduction video.
“I perceive that power has gone out from me.”
This was Jesus’ response in Luke 8 when the woman with the issue of blood touched the hem of his garment without his knowledge and was healed. It’s as if momentarily, Jesus had been an unsuspecting conduit of God’s pass-through power. Healing power passed through him and into the woman.
I’m not claiming to be anything close to Jesus, but on a Sunday afternoon after a full morning of preaching when I’m collapsed in my living-room chair, snoring and drooling, and feeling like I’ve just been run over by a bus, I can relate in some small way to the feeling that “power has gone out from me.”
Regardless of how much or little you prepared, how effective or ineffective you thought your word choices were, or how enthusiastic or disinterested the congregation was, the power of God passed through you and into those who were listening. It’s as disorienting as it is exhausting.
In 1 Corinthians 1:22-2:1-5, Paul makes some statements about power and preaching that I think are instructive for us today. ]
The Unique Positioning of the Preacher
Starting in 1:22-25 Paul describes the unique positioning of the preacher during the act of proclamation.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
On one side of the equation stands the hearers of the message. In this case the Jews and Greeks. Each who come with demands and expectations. Sometimes those demands and expectations may even be petty, however, the mindset of the hearer must always be taken into account.
On the other side of the equation stands the greatness of God in all his power and splendor. His foolishness is wiser, and His weakness is stronger than anything mere mortals can comprehend. What a great picture of the otherliness of God and the ordinariness of humankind.
So, on one side stands the hearers with all their petty demands, and on the other side stands a God who is almost indescribable in His greatness. And in the middle stands the preacher. No wonder your comfy chair is so well-worn on a Sunday afternoon. This is a tall task for a broken and fallen messenger.
The Key to Paul’s Pass-Through Power
Paul starts chapter 2 humbly as he reflects on his own preaching when he was with the people of Corinth, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come … with lofty speech or wisdom.”
Does this mean the preacher shouldn’t prepare? Should we stop caring about choosing phrases carefully and wordsmithing sentences for maximum memorability? I don’t think so. This verse should be balanced with Paul’s command to Timothy that he “rightly handle the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15). There’s also plenty of evidence that Paul was well-trained in literary artistry, and 1 Corinthians itself is carefully crafted using various literary devices used to persuade his readers. I think Paul may be comparing his preaching to the lofty oratory style offered during public speeches in the Greek and Roman society in which traveling orators would go from city to city as part of the entertainment culture of the day. Also, there’s evidence in 2 Corinthians 10:10 that Paul was aware of some critics in Corinth who were claiming that his written pieces were pretty solid, but as a live orator he was unimpressive and his words didn’t amount to much. It may be the ancient equivalent of “he has a face for radio…” he works on one platform but not so great on the other. The lesson here does not let preachers off the hook from diligently preparing our messages, instead it’s a reminder that homiletical techniques by themselves don’t prepare us to preach with power. So, what was the key to the powerful nature of Paul’s preaching? I think these few verses demonstrate his winning preaching pattern.
The MOTIVATION of his preaching was A TESTIMONY of GOD (:1)
The reason Paul had gone to Corinth was not because of a personal agenda, he wasn’t trying to sell them a product, he wasn’t trying to advance his own name or gain a following. He had one motive only. Verse 1 clarifies that Paul came to Corinth, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. Notice, Paul is ‘proclaiming,’ this is the work of a herald sent to authoritatively declare some news. In this case, Paul is acting in the authority of the Lord and the news he declares is the best of all possible good news. Specifically, he’s declaring the ‘testimony of God.’ This includes those things God has chosen to reveal to us. He has made known to us truths about Him as God and us as mankind, Christ as savior, the nature of the church, eternal things. So, Paul’s sole motivation was to share with the people of Corinth the things that God has chosen to reveal. That’s the first aspect of powerful preaching.
The SUBJECT of his preaching was JESUS CHRIST (:2)
Look what Paul says in verse 2, For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This obviously doesn’t add to or subtract from the ‘testimony of God’ in verse 1. In fact, the very core of God’s testimony to the world is the good news of the cross of Christ. The preacher must therefore determine to focus the core of their preaching on leading sinners to the cross. Our preaching must not first and foremost be leading people to earthly wisdom, or social causes, or therapeutic solutions, but to Jesus himself. We must have nothing else in mind when we mount the pulpit other than lifting high the name of Jesus Christ.
The POWER of his preaching was the HOLY SPIRIT (:3-4)
Paul is very clear that he wasn’t exhibiting impressive personal power when he was with these believers. In fact, he describes it this way in verse 3, 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… I don’t think Paul is putting on an ‘awe shucks’ kind of false humility, I think he was feeling that appropriate smallness that all authentic communicators of God’s word feel. It’s not a concern about style, it’s not an obsession with impressing people, it’s a deep recognition of our own weakness to obediently perform the task at hand. That’s where the real source of power comes in, in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (:4). Only when the Spirit first convicts us from a given text do we then have the right to preach it to others. Because the Spirit’s power is a force no man can create, contend with, or resist. The Spirit of God can make greedy hearts generous, addicted hearts free, prejudiced hearts accepting, and dead hearts alive. The power of the Spirit will often take flight on the wings of the words of the faithful preacher.
The OUTCOME of his preaching was EXPANDED FAITH (:5)
So far, every person of the Trinity has been involved in the preaching process. The testimony of God, the preaching of Christ, in the power of the Spirit. Now Paul arrives at the reason he declared these truths, the desired outcome of his proclamation was for the benefit of the hearers. Specifically, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (:5). Paul was not looking for personal glory, he wasn’t hoping for an expanded following for himself, his goal in preaching was that the faith of his listeners would increase in keeping with the power of God. Preaching Christ crucified plants deeply in our congregations a rich, profound, personal knowledge of God that allows them to boldly live out their expanding faith in the real world.
For all the modern concentration on styles and platforms and social reach, may we be reminded afresh of the simple formula for powerful preaching and the great honor of being a conduit for the pass-through power of God.