1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.
One of the great mysteries of life is trying to determine why we are here, how we got here, in short, what is the meaning of life. The Jews believed that they knew the answers to those questions. They were God’s people, here for God’s purposes. This doesn’t mean that the Jewish worldview wasn’t still full of mysteries, though. Although they knew that God had called them to be his people for his purposes, there was still a profound mystery for the Jew when it came to knowing what that exact purpose was and what God was going to do with them and through them in the future. Much of the Old Testament consists of people trying to penetrate that truth and determine what God’s purpose was and where his people would fit into that purpose.
What the Jews were still contemplating, Paul declares clearly. He says that all of history, all of God’s purposes, past, present, and future had been revealed in Jesus the Messiah. Paul had first come to them around 50 AD, about five years before this letter was written. He spoke, he reminds them, a message that although foolish to the world, in fact contained all the mysteries of God and his purposes.
One of the reasons that Paul would classify the gospel as a mystery, still, was the fact that the last place anyone would look for the answer to the secrets of life was on a cross of execution in a small, rebellious outpost of the Roman Empire. God chooses the weak and seemingly insignificant things of the world. The message of the gospel seemed weak and unlikely, which was exactly the condition of the Corinthian Christians when they were called, and the same condition of Paul when he came to speak to them for the first time. The full reason that he speaks of the gospel as a mystery, though, was that in Paul’s time, the word “mystery” was used a little differently than we use it. It more carried the meaning of something that had been concealed that was now revealed. God’s purposes, in other words, that had been concealed up to this point were now revealed in the life of the Messiah.
Imagine Paul’s situation. He was going to speak before some of the most intellectually impressive people of his time, in a city that valued and prized intellectual excellence. Yet he did not have any impressive or superior worldly message or technique with which to argue his message. He had nothing but a few stammering words about a strange event that had taken place twenty years previous in a city that few of them cared much about. This message would make no sense and the most likely reaction of the majority would be one of derision and ridicule.
His words were not wise and persuasive, but they had some sort of power all their own. Where that power came from is clear. It came from the Holy Spirit. In what form it came from, we can only speculate. Perhaps Paul is referring to the accompaniment of special healing miracles, but he may just be referencing the inner moving of the Holy Spirit in the spirit of each individual. The most likely explanation, however, is that the demonstration of power to which Paul refers is not any sort of worldly power or anything that would be impressive by worldly standards at all, but rather the simple and shocking message of the gospel itself. In Romans 1:1-6, Paul declares that his gospel is the declaration that Jesus Christ has raised from the dead. In Romans 1:16, he goes on to say that this gospel is the power of God to bring salvation to all men. The demonstration of power to which he likely refers, then, is the message of the crucified and risen Christ. That is the power of God. That’s not something that would impress someone looking at things from a worldly point of view but those who looked at things from God’s point of view (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14-21) would realize that this is how God has acted to set things right in His creation. The simple gospel of Christ crucified and raised from the dead is the power of God on display to the entire world. This gospel didn’t have a world kind of power either. It had a power that could not be explained. It was the power to change people’s hearts, lives, and minds.
What separated those who responded to this power from those who rejected it? Paul is clear that it all comes down to faith. He doesn’t describe explicitly what he means by faith in this verse but in Romans 10:9, Paul says that faith consists of declaring that Jesus is Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead. In chapter 15, when Paul summarizes the basic gospel message that he announced to them, he speaks of Christ’s death and resurrection. But here, he says he spoke of nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Why would he do that? Does Paul mean that he spoke of only the death of Jesus and never mentioned his resurrection? No, what Paul means is that he emphasized the crucifixion, he didn’t try to cover it over, or candy-coat it. No decent person would speak of crucifixion in the ancient world. It was horrible, revolting, and degrading. It would be like going to a fancy restaurant, standing up, and announcing to everyone that you once saw a bunch of rats gnawing at the corpse of dead homeless person in an alley behind the restaurant. Paul wanted to be clear that by emphasizing the crucifixion, he wasn’t trying to pull any impressive rhetorical tricks. He wasn’t blowing into town and glossing over certain details to try to please the crowd. No self-respecting sophist would do what Paul did. He spoke plainly of the embarrassing and weak things. He let the power and mystery of the gospel speak for itself. The testimony and new-found faith of the Corinthian Church was a testament to the true power of his message.
When Paul announced the gospel, he was clear that its life-changing power came from the Holy Spirit, not from any fancy techniques or up-to-date methods. The trendy message in the religious world today is that we must use market-driven and popular techniques to attract people to the gospel. Do you believe that or do you believe that the raw power of the gospel is enough? When we preach nothing but the raw Word of God, the Spirit will move. Try it and see what happens.