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Doug Van Meter - 5 February 2023

The Messenger of the Cross (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)

Paul, having spoken of the message of the cross (1:10–31) now writes about the messenger of the cross. Both appear foolish to the world. But so be it. In reminding them of his ministry among them, Paul instructs Christians what should characterise us as messengers of the cross. 1. The Messenger of the Cross is Determined about the Message (vv. 1–2) 2. The Messenger of the Cross is Deliberate about the Method (vv. 3–4) 3. The Messenger of the Cross is Discerning about the Motive (v. 5)

Scripture References: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

From Series: "1 Corinthians Exposition"

An exposition of 1 Corinthians by Doug Van Meter.

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Paul, and no doubt Apollos and Peter, were horrified that church members were seeking their identity from them as they wrong-headedly aligned themselves along these factions. Paul therefore exhorted them, in chapter 1, to follow Christ. They were to do so by focusing on the message of the cross rather than mimicking the man-centred culture. He now speaks about the messenger of the cross, emphasising that the message of the cross determines the message, the manner, and the motive of the messenger. In other words, it’s all about the message, not the messenger. In fact, the messenger is hidden by the message of the cross. This is the theme of 2:1–5.

The one thing that matters is that which the church had neglected: Jesus Christ and him crucified. Rhetorical brilliance and display god not matter. Cultural popularity does not matter. Educational prominence and respectability do not matter. What does matter is the countercultural truth and therefore hated message that Jesus Christ crucified is mankind’s only hope for reconciliation with God. As Tom Schreiner says, “Even though human beings are gifted in astonishing ways, including, for some, rhetorical brilliance, the inventiveness of human beings cannot solve the human problem. What is needed is nothing other than death and resurrection, which means that the only answer for the redemption of human beings is Christ crucified and risen.”

Jesus Christ crucified for sinners by the just and gracious design of God is the only hope to turn an upside-down world right side up. This is the message that guides the messenger(s) of the cross.

In 2:1–5 Paul focuses on three characteristics of the cruciform messenger of the cross. He observes that the messenger of the cross is (1) determined about the message (vv. 1–2); (2) deliberate about the method (vv. 3–4); and (3) discerning about the motive (v. 5).

The Messenger of the Cross is Determined about the Message

The messenger of the cross is deliberately decisive about what is declared and therefore how it is declared. The former determines the latter. We see this in vv. 1–2: “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.”

A Deliberate Decision

In v. 1, Paul returns to the more personal word he spoke in 1:17, describing his ministry to the Corinthians. Having emphasised his call from Jesus Christ to preach the message of the cross and the manner in which he was not to do so (“with words of eloquent wisdom”), he picks up this theme again, offering a biographical reminder both of what he preached and how he did so. In this five-verse passage Paul makes the point that the messenger’s manner is determined by the messenger’s message. The cruciform message, rightly considered, produces a cruciform manner. The medium matches the message.

The point Paul was making was just this: “When I declared the gospel to you—when I declared to you the message of the cross—communication was such that it did not contradict its content. That was a deliberate(d) decision.”

It was for this reason that he highlighted how he did not use “lofty speech or wisdom.” He did not try to sound highbrow and to present himself as a prominent figure. Rather than foolishly attempting to impress his hearers with himself, he sought to impress them with the God whom he represented. He was more concerned, in other words, about God’s testimony than his own. He made a deliberate, determined decision concerning this.

 “I decided to know nothing among you expect Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul was deliberate and decidedly determined both about what he proclaimed and how he did so. The word “decided” means to resolutely determine. He resolved concerning what he would preach. He made a reasoned decision. He thought about it. And it seems that he thought about it before arriving in Corinth.

Though we should be careful to not overemphasise the historical context, it is interesting that Paul came to Corinth directly from Athens, where he encountered the Athenian philosophers and sought to point them to the one true God (Acts 17:32–34). He experienced some gospel fruit, but largely his ministry, because of his message, was rejected and seen as folly. So it is not beyond imagination to think that, while he made the one hundred-kilometre journey from Athens to Corinth, he gave thought to his next sphere of ministry. Perhaps the evil one tempted him with thoughts of making some slight change in his message and manner to secure a more favourable hearing. Or perhaps he didn’t have any doubts at all. Rather, as he journeyed toward Corinth, perhaps he resolved more than ever to remain faithful to this message and to an appropriate manner of presentation. Perhaps his experience in Athens reenforced his conviction how desperately the world needs to hear in order to experience the power of the cross. Perhaps his seeming fruitless ministry empowered enthusiasm for this glorious message.

Regardless, whatever Paul’s state of mind, he decided to keep the main thing the main thing. And we must do so as well. Clearly, he was well aware of the culture in which he ministered and therefore thought through, deliberated, and hence determined how he would engage them. We need to do the same.

For example, Paul knew what he was up against in Corinth, both in the synagogues and among the Gentiles. He knew his message would be mocked. He knew it would raise up opposition and even persecution (see Acts 18). And he prepared himself. Before he ever arrived in Corinth he determined to be faithful to this most important message of the cross. He was prepared for the onslaught of rejection by a godless culture and determined beforehand to not change his message—at all. And this commitment to the message of the cross is what also guided his manner. He did nothing by way of deliverance of this message that would contradict his message. Had he sought to impress them with worldly impressiveness, he knew they would never understand “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” And though Paul may have escaped opposition, his hearers would not be equipped to escape the judgement and wrath of God.

Brothers and sisters, our day is no different and our determination must be as firm as Paul’s. Many Christian writers over the past three decades have noted parallels between our “postmodern” and “pre-Christian” world and the days of the new testament church of the first century. That should give us pause when tempted to change the message to make it more interesting, palatable, or believable. No, like Paul, we must be deliberately decisive to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. It is still the power of God for salvation.

My favourite John MacArthur book is Ashamed of the Gospel, which I read nearly thirty years ago. In it, he addresses the pragmatism that has invaded the church precisely because of a loss of confidence in the gospel. He points to Charles Spurgeon and how he faced the same battle. And yet Spurgeon was faithful to the message of the cross and God saved multitudes and built hundreds of local churches. Contrary to Bob Dylan, when it comes to gospel proclamation, the times are not “a-changin.” Rather, we are up against the same fundamental problem of a world that sees our message as foolish. As in the past, the church that remains full of faithful messengers will see God continue to save his people (see Acts 18:9–11).

When witnessing to your family and those with whom you work or go to school, faithfully declare the testimony of God. Don’t try to be clever. Instead, be conscious of the power of God. As a church, we must continue to be deliberately decisive to proclaim a cruciform message (the only true gospel) in a crucified manner. That is, there is no substitute for the faithful and accurate proclamation of the word, especially when it is not “in season.” This determination rises and falls with our confidence in the message of the cross and our commitment to it. Live daily in light of it! Let us do all we can to further our confidence in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

A Determined Declaration

Paul’s determination concerning what he would declare in Corinth was actually pre-determined—by God! The message he was to declare was not his own; it was God’s. It was literally “the testimony of God.” And according to Paul, the testimony of God is Jesus Christ and him crucified. This remains the message we are to be determined and dedicated to declare. Let’s try to unpack this “testimony of God,” which is not unlike draining the oceans with a thimble!

The word “testimony” means something evidential—evidence that is given as proof. It is a “word of witness.” Paul came to Corinth with the determination to properly witness to the character of God. And nothing better reveals the character of God than Jesus Christ and him crucified. The cross is God’s self-revelation. It is evidential testimony to what God is like. The message of the cross—the good news of what God has done for repentant sinners who believe on his crucified Son—is God’s self-revelation. It is worth noting a couple of important things about this.

First, the message of the cross is God’s message. It is his word of witness, his self-testimony. It belongs to him. Therefore, we must be careful to handle it wisely and well. We must handle it with holy hands, sober mind, and careful tongue.

Second, Paul essentially wanted his hearers to see that, in Jesus Christ accursed by God on behalf of those who deserve to be condemned, we have irrefutable evidence of God’s character. And it is not open for debate. The cross is irrefutable evidence of God’s character in at least four ways.

First, the cross is irrefutable evidence of God’s love. When we see Christ crucified, as in John 3:16, we see God’s love for a sinful world. The verse does not speak primarily to the bigness of the world and hence the wideness of God’s love but rather it speaks to the badness of the world and hence the bounty of God’s love.

Second, the cross is irrefutable evidence of God’s holiness. Jesus Christ crucified reveals God’s holiness: that he hates sin. By turning his face away from his Son as the sins of his people were placed upon him, God revealed his absolute holiness and impartiality to sin. Brother and sister, properly see Jesus Christ and him crucified and your hatred of sin will grow. And your love of repentance will also grow.

Third, the cross is irrefutable evidence of God’s justice. The cross reveals that God is just, that sin will be punished, and that there are no loopholes. God said, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4) and that he would by no means clear the guilty. How then can we be saved? By God punishing someone in our place, who carries our guilt. And, of course, the cross—Jesus Christ crucified—satisfies God’s justice (Romans 3:21–26). God does not simply, with a wave of his hand, dismiss sin and reconcile sinners. Rather, he does so by exercising his wrath on Jesus Christ in the place of those who cry out for his mercy.

Fourth, the cross is irrefutable evidence of God’s grace. See all the above!

This, my friend, is the testimony of God, which we are called to proclaim. This message is to be unaltered. If we change it, we mar the testimony of God and the cross loses its power. We must be determined to not compromise God’s testimony.

Remembering the testimony of God—such a short and simple statement: Jesus Christ crucified!—will keep us sober and amazed before God, helping us to not play fast and loose with the truth. We will be careful to proclaim the full gospel, presenting Jesus as both Saviour and Lord. Remembering the testimony of God will help us as we regularly sit under the gospel. We will engage ourselves with this revelation from God. We will work at appreciating its naked truth rather than demanding it be present with rhetorical attractiveness.

Let us beware of trivialising the cross by diluting its message and/or drawing attention to ourselves, its messengers. This brings us to the next point.

The Messenger of the Cross is Deliberate about the Method

We might say that the messenger is deliberately decisive about that on which he or she depends. Paul writes, “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” (vv. 3–4).

Having said, “I … did not come … with lofty speech or wisdom” (v. 1), Paul emphasises this point. In short, his message determined his method of delivery. And both his message and method determined his means of dependence. He was dependent on the Lord.

The Messenger’s Demeanour

Paul reminds them of his unassuming demeanour and disposition among them, physically and emotionally. What humility!

First, Paul reminds them that he was with them “in weakness.” The word can speak of physical weakness, referring to that which is infirmed. We know from Paul’s testimony elsewhere that he was physically frail, perhaps because of the many beatings he experienced for his faithfulness to the message of the cross (e.g. Galatians 4:14). We also know that his appearance left a lot to be desired (2 Corinthians 10:10). Perhaps he was speaking of physical frailty.

On the other hand, the weakness may refer to a comparison with the “mighty” speakers for which Corinth was well-known. Unlike them, Paul’s proclamation was without flash, and certainly nothing that would draw crowds. Earlier Paul spoke of the message of the cross as being “weakness” in the eyes of the world (1:25, 27). Again, Paul’s manner was shaped by the message. But, as he knew, it is in weakness where God’s power is made known (2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:5, 9–10).

Despite Paul’s weakness, God performed a powerful work in their lives. This was to serve as a gentle jab to bring them back to reality—to a cruciform life.

What are we to make of his statement that he was with them “with fear and trembling”? Was he physically fearful of the crowd or the culture? Was he fearful about how he would be received? Though it is true that a divine vision with a promise of protection had been given to encourage him to persevere (Acts 18:9–10), most likely his fear and trembling arose from the state of mind of one who was facing a task of enormous responsibility.

The word “fear” often refers to reverence for God (Matthew 14:26; 28:4, 8; 2 Corinthians 5:11), while the word “trembling” is likewise used the same way (see Philippians 2:12). One lexical definition of trembling says that the word is “used to describe the anxiety of one who completely distrusts his ability to meet all requirements, [yet] religiously does his utmost to fulfil his duty.” This is probably what Paul has in mind here. After all, he was handling spiritual dynamite (Romans 1:16), and so fear and trembling is understandable. Such is the righteous disposition and demeanour of the messenger of the cross.

To declare the message of Jesus Christ crucified is an awe-inspiring responsibility. To handle this precious and powerful message superficially, carelessly, or irresponsibly should be a terrifying thought to the messenger. Like dynamite, the message ought to be handled with care. Since our message is the self-revelation of God, we ought to handle it with profound reverence. We dare not misrepresent him. Since our message is the only hope for lost and dying people, the only hope for a lost world, we must handle it soberly. Since the messenger will give account for the stewardship of God’s testimony, we should fear and tremble (2 Timothy 4:1–5).

There is nothing quite like a holy hush that pervades a congregation when the testimony of God—the message of the cross—is at the centre. When experiencing God’s gracious and awe-some self-revelation, the life-transforming response of weakness, fear, and trembling to the sense of the presence of God is what worship is to be.

Dourness is certainly not to be encouraged when it comes to gospel proclamation. And humour is not necessarily wrong in the ministry of the word. But there is a difference between being witty and silly. There is a difference between trying to entertain and illustrating a truth. The gospel message is quite literally a matter of life and death. Therefore take it seriously. Realise what is at stake. Do not mess with the testimony of God.

The Messenger’s Dependence

Paul continues in v. 4, emphasising that the Corinthian church could testify that, when he was with them, he refused to use manipulative persuasion in his engagement with them. In other words, he did not depend on himself for a believing response to the message of cross. Rather just as the message of the cross cuts across all boasting of self-sufficiency, so Paul, shaped by this message, was a messenger who likewise eschewed self-sufficiency. Rather than depending on his skills and schemes, he depended on the Spirit of God.

The word plausible (“persuasive”) is a rare word referring to that which is outwardly enticing. Paul was denying that his preaching was effective because of rhetorical skill. He did not secure their conversions through persuasive art of wisdom. He did not wow them, thereby wooing them to a profession of faith. His method was not one of manipulation.

Now, we need to be careful. Paul certainly wanted—rightly—to persuade his hearers to believe the message of the cross (see Acts 18:4, 13; 19:8, 26; 26:28; 28:23; 2 Corinthians 5:11). He therefore used his gifts to reason with his hearers. But he refused to use rhetorical gimmicks to manipulate them (see 1 Thessalonians 2:1–6). Rather, he self-consciously restrained himself from any methodology that would confuse the message. For Paul, substance outweighed the superficial; the message outshined the messenger. As we will soon see, the power of God trumped the presentation of man.

Marshal McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher who specialised in the study of media theory in the early 1960s, famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” That is, the medium through which we choose to communicate is often heard louder than the message we intended to give. Significantly, McLuhan highlighted the well-known Nixon/Kennedy presidential debate, the first of its kind in 1960. In that debate, Nixon’s answers were more concrete and substantial than Kennedy’s. However, Kennedy’s good looks and media projection proved more powerful. Kennedy was deemed the winner of the debate. Many believe that medium of television secured the Kennedy’s successful election. The medium became (while also obfuscating!) the message.

Years ago, when I read one of McLuhan’s works, I was struck by his use of Billy Graham as an example. He argued that the televised crusades often put the focus on the messenger rather than the message. In contradiction to what Paul argues here, the medium obscured, and perhaps even reshaped, the message. Watching people respond to an altar call became a means of plausible words of wisdom, with the result that responses were not necessarily indicators of reality.

With that said, I interacted with a blind man who was converted at a Billy Graham crusade, clearly more moved by the message than by any visual spectacle.

My point is that the messenger must deliberately avoid obscuring the message by a wrong-headed dependence on him- or herself. Salvation is of the Lord.

Now, we would be very wrong to conclude from this passage that we can be sloppy in our presentation of the gospel. These verses give no support to lazy pastors who simply “depend on the Spirit.” Hard work in preparation, empowered by the Spirit, is necessary. After all, this is the King’s message and we must handle it with care and therefore with prayer.

Paul is saying that, precisely because it is the King’s message, we must take care not to adulterate it with either human wisdom or fleshly arrogance. The purpose of gospel proclamation is not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to draw attention to Jesus Christ. As Don Carson puts it, “These verses do not prohibit diligent preparation, passion, clear articulation, and persuasive presentation. Rather, they warn against any method that leads people to say, ‘What a marvellous preacher!’ rather than, ‘What a marvellous Saviour!’”

This is Paul’s point when he writes of the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” We can observe at least three things that he means by this.

First, Paul is saying that, as a messenger of the cross, he depended upon the manifestation of something outside of himself. He did not depend upon his skills and abilities. He required outside help. Literally.

Second, this demonstration was most certainly not some miracle or exercise of a sign gift. After all, he had just rebuked the Jews for seeking signs (1:22). If Paul relied on miraculous signs, it would blow a hole in his argument that the messenger is not the main thing! (NB: Acts 18 mentions nothing about miracles in Corinth but rather the emphasis is upon the word [vv. 5, 11].)

Third, the combination of “demonstration of the Spirit” with “and of power” are two sides of the same coin. They are saying the same thing. Paul’s point is that the fruit of his ministry was completely due to the power of the Holy Spirit to raise the spiritual dead. To God alone be the glory.

The messenger of the cross is to minister with the same weakness and therefore with the same dependence upon the Spirit of God as Jesus Christ who died on that cross. And just as Jesus commended himself into the hands of the Father, trusting him for resurrection, so does the messenger of the cross. It is when we are weak in this way that we experience God’s power to raise to newness of life those to whom we preach.

It is quite likely that Paul was thinking of Zechariah 4:6 at this point” “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” In chapter 3, Paul will identify the new covenant church as the temple of God. Just as the restored temple under Zerubbabel was rebuilt by the power of God, while using human means, so it is with the new covenant temple of God. The messenger of the cross knows this and therefore proclaims the gospel with the same mindset of divine dependence.

Brothers and sisters, the new birth comes from above in response to proclaiming the message of the cross here below. Remember that as you seek to be a faithful and fruitful messenger of the cross.

The Messenger of the Cross is Discerning about the Motive

We might say that the messenger of the cross is deliberately decisive about what is desired: “So that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (v. 5).

It is said that Charles Spurgeon was once walking down the street when a drunkard came stumbling toward him. The man said to Spurgeon, “Sir, I am one of your converts.” Spurgeon replied, “I am sure you are, for you are certainly one of the Lord’s.” That somewhat illustrates Paul’s closing words in v. 5. He was deeply concerned that the faith of believers would exist (“rest”) truly in God’s saving power rather than falsely resting in an argument of man. As Tozer once said, if someone can argue you into the kingdom, then someone with a more clever argument can argue you out of it.

Paul’s motive and passionate desire was true converts—those saved by the power of God. Those are the only kind of conversions that persevere to the end. Those are the only conversions that will pass God’s final judgement.

Brothers and sisters, though there is no sure-fire method of avoiding empty professions of faith, we should strive to get out of the way of the message we are proclaiming lest we indicate a wrong motive for making such a profession. We must unashamedly proclaim Jesus Christ crucified.

Tell your hearers that it will cost them, perhaps even their lives. Tell them that they might lose friends, that they might lose family relationships, that they might lose their jobs. Tell them they will need to confess that they are unworthy sinners while turning their back on a wrong-headed self-centred self-esteem. And when the person believes, it will clearly be only because of the power of God. That my friend, is the motive of the messenger of the cross.