Biblical Theology Briefings

Preaching to impress...or to save?

Mark Meynell


Just a few months ago, a good friend of mine found himself in a tricky situation. He was at home in his village not far outside Kampala where he has helped to plant a small but growing church. He found himself presented with a challenge - a challenge from a very disturbing source - the local traditional healer. This man was challenging my friend's right to minister in the village, threatening all kinds of spiritual attacks if he didn't withdraw. It didn't come out of the blue - one of the healer's followers had recently come to Christ and burnt all her charms and tools of the trade. It was clear that this challenge could not be shrugged off - it was public. People were watching and wanted to know his response. How should he respond? At the top of my friend's mind was the question of how this would affect the church he had planted - would it lead to people joining? Or leaving? What would it do for his reputation in that tiny community? My friend knew that this was a make or break moment for the church, one of those moments you look back on as a turning point (whether good or bad).

I'm sure that even if you've never actually been in that precise situation, you can relate to it. It illustrates the spiritual battle that goes on in different ways all around the world. I wonder what you would have done. I think the temptation to try to make a strong impression would have been almost impossible to resist. Who doesn't want to impress or make an impact? Who doesn't want to demonstrate who's boss and who should bow the knee? We can want this for the very best of reasons - we want our God to be glorified. So I don't know your aim would be - but I wonder if for the sake of God's glory, you would have wanted to present a major display of power, of God's power - a way of grinding the spiritual forces of darkness into submission. Isn't that the temptation? With thunder and lightning, shouting and shrieking, signs and revelations. That would show who's boss. That would bring people to the Lord, surely?

The funny thing is that I suspect the apostle Paul would have resisted the temptation. For one thing, he knew that that these things wouldn't have quite the desired effect. Do you remember what happened when the apostles performed works of power in the Book of Acts? Sometimes people believed the gospel, of course. But others actually dismissed it. On one occasion, Paul was stoned. On others, he was beaten up and thrown in prison; just as Peter and the other apostles had been. Finally, take Stephen; when he performed signs and wonders, and then preached the gospel wonderfully and clearly, he was murdered - which itself sparked a major outbreak of new persecution. Not quite his intention was it? Far from making impressions, these works of power merely seemed to make things worse and cause the enemies of the gospel to become more determined. Now don't get me wrong - that never stopped the apostles persevering in their great works and preaching. But they never went about them in order to impress people into conversion. They were doing it to be faithful and thus save some. And our passage tonight helps us to understand why.

Do you know what my friend did in his village? He started telling that healer and the bystanders about Jesus; in particular, about Jesus' death on the cross, about how that death provided the victory over all enemy powers and forces, and so provided forgiveness for all who believe. And do you know what happened - some laughed. But others listened. My friend was very honest about it afterwards - he said that he felt like a fool. And that is precisely what some of those watching thought he was. It seemed so weak and pathetic. Just to use words. Words about an executed Saviour! But a fool is also precisely what Paul warned us to expect to feel like.

1. We won't impress with our preaching... (1:17-25)

I should warn you that this first point is my longest one - so don't panic if you are frightened 2 & 3 will be as long. Paul is upfront. He never hides the difficult truths does he?

17 For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel-not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The reason my friend felt like a fool and was considered to be a fool is because of what he was preaching - his message. And Paul is clear - it does appear foolish - but that doesn't stop Paul preaching it. It all depends on how you see this message, on your perspective.

To see what I mean, just think about of the effect of wearing sunglasses. You know how these days you can buy different shades of sunglasses - you can colour the world according to taste. You can make everything go green, or dark brown or even red and yellow. Dark glasses can be very helpful, especially on a sunny day - but don't ask a person in dark glasses to describe something's colour. He'll get it wrong. For example, a perfectly sunny day with a few clouds in the sky can look very different in dark glasses - it can look as if a major thunderstorm is about to break at any moment - just because the glasses paint everything dark. They give completely the wrong idea.

When people come to the message of Jesus and his cross, it is almost as if they are blinded by dark glasses - their perspective is completely overshadowed. They don't see the cross in its true colours. They only see it in one way - in the shadows. And according to Paul, the cross actually divides the world into two groups:

  • Those who think the cross is foolishness - i.e. stupidity (verging on madness)
  • Those who think it is the power of God.

The difference comes from whether or not you are perishing (i.e. dying before God) which is like wearing dark glasses; or being saved (i.e. living in God), which is like seeing things in their true colours. Let's think the effect of the world's sunglasses and Christian preaching appears so foolish and so unimpressive. Paul gives two reasons. The first is very surprising.

(i) Because of God's Deliberate Plan

Crazy, isn't it!? But if there is one thing that God hates more than anything else, one thing that lies at the root of all human sin and rebellion it is this - PRIDE. He hates it. You can see that all the way from Genesis to Revelation. So it's no accident that Paul quotes the OT here. Look at v 19-20.

"For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." [So Paul asks] Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Corinthians 1:19-20, NIV)

Taking his cue from Isaiah 29, Paul states God's purpose of destroying human arrogance once and for all. He will destroy human wisdom - because it has too often become the tool of human rebellion. So when it comes to finding God, wise men, scholars and philosophers are no help at all - in fact they do the opposite. They too often lead people AWAY from God. So God has responded; he has made human wisdom look stupid. Why? Look at v21:

"For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe." (1 Corinthians 1:21, NIV)

Just follow the logic there. It is precisely BECAUSE human wisdom is unable to help you to reach God, God is pleased to use a different method - through a message that appears UNWISE. We know this in experience. We know you can't think your way to God. So God uses something that looks stupid and unwise in order to save people - to bring people to himself who are humble enough to believe their way to God, not to think their way to God. And there is something very fair about that. After all, it means that you do not need a PhD to become a Christian. You do not need to go to university; you do not even need to be able to read to become a Christian. You just need to be humble enough to believe. God has done it on purpose like that. So do you see the impact this has on preaching ministry - it means when we preach the gospel we are not ultimately dependent on arguments to win through to people. We need to lead them to faith - that might include defending the gospel and helping people to understand - we can use our intelligence for that purpose. But we're not trying to impress them; we're trying to save them. We're trying to lead them to the cross because the cross is the only way to save them. We preach the cross, even though it looks stupid. We should expect it to look stupid. God has done this on purpose. God is pleased to do it this way. But - why does the cross look stupid in the world's eyes?

(ii) Because of the World's Demanding Pride

Paul divides the world up into to the two major groups he encountered his missionary journeys - Jews & Greeks - after all he was writing this letter to Greek Corinthian Christians. Now the world today can be divided up in all kinds of different ways, on religious, ethnic or tribal grounds (just think of how many divisions there are in Uganda let alone the world). But these two groups in Paul's generation still illustrate our own generation.

"Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom," (1 Corinthians 1:22, NIV)

They do it differently, but these two groups have something in common. Both groups say to God, I will not believe and trust you UNLESS... Unless you satisfy my intellectual demands, unless you satisfy my curiosity. Unless you do what I WANT. Do you see? Who is the one making the demands? It's people - because of pride. You see, it's pride that thinks the Creator God has to meet MY DEMANDS. God must do what I say before I'll even listen to him. See how it works with the people Paul knew.

  • Jews demand signs. Well, you just have to read the gospels to see that - and isn't it interesting that when Pharisees came to Jesus demanding a sign - what did he do? He refused! Remember that - Jesus actually said, "a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign". (Mt 12:39). And so he refused. Instead Jesus deliberately set out for Jerusalem where he would die on a cross - which was a pretty confusing thing to do. Even his closest disciples were confused by that. That wasn't an impressive sign. Wasn't he meant to be the Christ, the Messiah, the King (it all means the same thing)? Wasn't he meant to bring in God's kingdom. And any school child will tell you that you don't become king of a kingdom by being executed. You become king by living and being crowned. A crucified king - as ludicrous as an executed president. Because you see an executed president is an executed EX-president. What power dies he have then? None! For Jews, the king on a cross is ridiculous. They demand signs of power - to prove his worth as a king - and what do they get? Total failure and weakness. A criminal dead on a cross. Who would want to follow a king like that? That is why in v23, the idea of a crucified king is a stumbling block - it offends them, it trips them up. They can never accept that.
  • Greeks demand wisdom. Ancient Greece's greatest legacy to the world is its philosophy. The most respected person in ancient Greek society was the thinker. Today its all kinds of different people - in it some Ugandan circles, it is probably Gaetano. But then it was Socrates, the philosopher, the thinker. And a lot of Greek philosophers decided that this world was evil and our purpose in life is ultimately to escape it, to break out, to become truly spiritual. Think about that for a minute. What will the Christian gospel seem like to them - bring the gospel in - what will they think? In Greek philosophy, humanity is trying to escape the confines of the material world. In the Christian gospel, God is invading the material world by becoming a man - i.e. the exact opposite. It doesn't make sense. Why on earth would God want to do that? Not only that, he comes down to earth and dies. Not only that, he comes down to earth to die as a common criminal. Well, if you're a Greek with any sense, then you're just going to laugh at that. You're going to poke fun at it. It is stupid, absurd and above all UNBELIEVABLE. A Crucified God. Forget that. God becoming a man was stupid enough. As he says in v23, the cross is FOOLISHNESS, stupidity - it's almost madness.

Now I want you to see how both Jews and Greeks fall into the same trap. They both want God, the creator of the Universe and above all, creator of Humanity, to be squeezed into their human agendas, to fit into their boxes, to do what they want. But God will always be too big for any box and every agenda that we come up with. He will always do something far beyond our imaginings. Which is why, Paul resists the demands of the world in his ministry.

He could try to fit with the Jews and Greeks. After all, he wanted people to follow Jesus. He could give them what they wanted. He could try to be clever - he was clever! He could try to impress them with his amazing brain and intellect. He could also call down thunder and lightning as an apostle of the creator God to perform great signs in front of them. You know - he could say well Jesus was weak then on the cross - but look at his power now. You've got to believe now!

But do you see - if Paul did that, he would give his audience the impression that they are the centre of the world - he would give them the impression that God will do what they want. Which is outrageous - it should be the other way round. The point of preaching is this:

  • not that we demonstrate how God does what people want,
  • No! Instead, in preaching, we call People to do what God wants! That is why we preach - that is why we're here at an expository preaching conference. And God wants people to believe and follow Jesus, not just to be impressed with his power or cleverness!! That is why he uses preaching to reach people - it seems so stupid and weak. But Paul perseveres. He knows people will think the cross is stupid and weak. He knows people will laugh. But he has confidence because he also knows this:

... BUT PEOPLE WILL STILL BELIEVE IT AND BE SAVED

Look at vv24-25:

"but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." (1 Corinthians 1:24-25, NIV)

When the message of the cross is preached, God does call people - from both Jews and Greeks, from every tribe, language and nation, even from the Baganda and Basoga. As Paul says in Romans 1, it is the message itself which is the power of God to save. Through the preaching of the message, God removes the dark glasses that make the cross look stupid and weak - and enables some people that he has called to see in the clear light of day that the cross is in fact a sign of AMAZING power and wisdom. Who would ever have thought of the cross? Only God. And it is now what we rejoice in- God's own means by which He saved us from His own judgment on our sin - Jesus dying in my place that I might live in his. That is wisdom - that is power. But no Greek Philosopher or Jewish Pharisee or even Traditional Healer would ever have thought that one up. And it breaks human pride - you have to be humble to admit your need for this cross. You have to be humble to accept it and believe it. But believe it people will - and that's why Paul perseveres in preaching the cross even though this very message will never at first impress anyone in Uganda, in Africa and in the rest of the world - it will always look unimpressive. Never forget that. But it's why my friend in the village church plant did the courageous but correct thing - he told people about the crucified King.

Let me sum up this longer first point like this:

  • Jews think they can be reached through their eyes - by impressive signs and wonders.
  • Greeks think they can be reached through their ears - by impressive arguments and ideas.
  • But God will only reach us through the heart - a heart of humble submission to his Lordship & authority. Any preaching and any ministry that is motivated by a desire to impress people, whether by appealing through the eyes with signs, or through the ears with cleverness, will fail to be faithful to God's call. Our preaching must ALWAYS bring people face to face with the Lordship of our God and the Cross of His Christ, even if people laugh at us when we do so. We preach not to show God doing what people want but to call people to do what God wants. To believe.

2. WE WON'T IMPRESS WITH OUR PEOPLE... (1:26-31)

Let me read the verses again:

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NIV)
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no-one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

Let's go back to Gaetano for a moment. For those who are unaware of the finer points of Ugandan popular culture, Gaetano was last year's Ugandan contestant in the Big Brother Africa house, down in South Africa. He became a national hero - which is pretty weird because he didn't win anything - he is just a person of smooth charm and good looks who rose to national fame - just because he was on TV, in Big Brother Africa. But when he returned to Uganda from South Africa, the crowds meeting him on the Entebbe Rd were incredible - far larger than those to greet the Kabaka of Baganda or the President. I was caught up in the traffic at Kibuye roundabout and the crowds were easily 6 people thick on either side of the road. Apparently it took his car 4 hours to reach Kampala from the airport, a journey that normally takes 40 minutes. Such was his popularity and adulation.

Now wouldn't it be great if Gaetano came to know the Lord. I know many Christian leaders here were publicly rebuking him for his apparently loose morals and easy ways. But how many prayed for him to know the Lord? But I wonder what would happen if he truly was converted. I think I know. His pop-star status would mean that whichever pastor got him in his or her congregation would parade him around to publicise the church and make everyone sit up and notice this particular ministry. People would sit up. The temptation to use high-profile converts in the public arena is strong. We almost boast about them - as if people will be impressed enough to reconsider the gospel. Well they might - it can happen that way. But what do you think Paul would have done? I suspect, and I know I'm guessing a bit here, but I suspect that he would have been a bit more careful. You see those who are opposed to the gospel will not be impressed, whoever gets converted. They will draw one conclusion - they will just assume that Gaetano lost his mind and went mad - that's the only explanation for his conversion. So they'll ignore him. They won't be impressed at all.

You see, Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of what they were. Not MANY were wise, influential or noble. Now note that - some of them were. He doesn't say "not any", he says not many. So, not many were Cabinet ministers, or Directors of NGOs, or high profile entrepreneurs. But even if some in the church were noble, wise or influential in human affairs, it wouldn't impress Paul. And it wouldn't matter if there were no big men at all in the church. Because Paul understands what God is doing. In v27, God is playing the same game as he was before - he is destroying human pride - he chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Do you see the key words Paul is always using - wisdom and foolishness, strength and weakness? What the world thinks is wisdom and strength God despises. He wants to use what the world thinks is stupid and pathetic. And that includes the people. The Corinthian church did not have much to boast about in the world. And none of us has anything to boast about before God. We are sinful, weak and frail. Just look around this room. That's what we are. But that's not a problem for God - that doesn't mean we are without hope.

... BUT WE WILL STILL HAVE SOMETHING TO BOAST ABOUT

When I was working in a church in the north of England before my family moved to Kampala, I often found myself looking out at the church during the song before getting up to preach. I would look along the rows and see all these people that I knew, some of them very well, many that I loved dearly. But I remember often thinking what a strange group of people we are - who would ever have brought us together. We had all kinds of people - some influential yes, but most not - many unemployed, many suffering grief, many struggling with persistent sins, many who just didn't fit in. But they were there. If I was getting a group of people together to follow God, they certainly weren't the people I would choose! But chosen they were. And who could take the credit for that? Who was responsible for bringing this strange mixture of people together? Only one person - God. We've got nothing in ourselves to boast about. But He chose us anyway - not because we are impressive, not because we are clever or powerful or influential. But because he wanted to and he has a plan. No other reason.

He hates human pride. He doesn't want people to boast about themselves. He wants people to boast about Jesus, our Lord. In order to do that, he needs to shame and embarrass the big men and women, the power-brokers and king-makers who think that they understand true power. But God knows they don't. He wants the to look at the prostitutes, the drug-addicts and the homeless, the corrupt and the criminal and the lowest in society and say - look God loves even people like that. It looks so unimpressive. But if you were one of those chosen people- don't you think you would be grateful? That God is interested in me, when no one else is. Don't you think you would boast in the Lord? So let us pray for Gaetano to be saved, and for all the leaders and businesspeople in our countries. It is right to pray for the presidents and kings of the world. But let us never be deceived into thinking like the world thinks - as if God is only interested in the so-called powerful. He is in fact a God who deliberately chooses the weak - to shame the powerful. Don't try to impress the world by parading our people - we won't be able to. They won't be impressed. Instead, only preach about the God who loves anyone without discrimination. As Jeremiah once said, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

3. WE WON'T IMPRESS WITH OUR PREACHERS... (2:1-5)

  • We've seen how our preaching (our message) looks unimpressive - but we preach anyway, because God's power and wisdom at the cross destroy human pride. People will still believe it and be saved
  • We've seen how those people who are saved look unimpressive - but we boast about the Lord who can save anyone, especially if they are at the bottom of society. God does not discriminate.
  • Finally, Paul turns his attention to himself - which brings things right home to us, people who have the audacity to think that we can preach in God's name. Just who do we think we are!?

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (NIV)
2 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

There is no doubt that Paul was a clever man. You just have to read Romans to see the man was a genius. And there is no doubt that he was a good preacher - he preached the gospel faithfully, and many were converted. But what made him good?

(i) Unimpressive to Look At

That's what he claims here. I suspect that he would never have been successful on TV today - I doubt that anyone would pay money for him to have a slot on LTV, don't you. For a start, he got really nervous, and seemed to show it. You could perhaps see the sweat running down his face, as he preached. You could see his hands shake as he turned over the pages of his Bible. You could see that he was unimpressive up front. He was by no means a smooth, celebrity preacher, overflowing with confidence. But it's interesting isn't it? He doesn't seem embarrassed about that at all. He doesn't hide it - it's all there in v3. He is quite open about his public speaking inadequacies. But that's not all.

(ii) Unimpressive to Listen To

Greeks loved a great speaker - not just for the delivery of words and the showmanship, but also for the choice of words, for the use of wit and clever devices. They loved ideas which could twist the mind into knots. They loved what's called eloquence - great public speaking and lecturing. But Paul says he's got none of that. V2: I did NOT come with eloquence and superior wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony about God. I resolved to know NOTHING while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him Crucified.

Now don't misunderstand. He doesn't mean that he was ignorant of all other types of knowledge. He's merely saying that the biggest priority in his preaching was not to impress audiences with his public speaking. He did not want to impress - he wanted to testify, to tell the truth, to be faithful. He wanted to explain clearly, boldly and faithfully that God had sent his Son Jesus to the Cross to die in our place, to save us from our sins. It wasn't his message, it wasn't his idea. He couldn't take credit for any of it. But it was what he preached. That was far more important to him than anything else in all the world; even if it was not an impressive message; even if it did not attract impressive converts; even if it meant preachers like him being thought of as a fools and idiots. Why?

... BUT WE WILL STILL HAVE POWER TO CHANGE LIVES

For my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words,

But that didn't matter - it didn't stop people being converted. Why? Because the preaching itself came with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

Now don't misinterpret that word power. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this is worldly impressive power. You see, where is the power seen then? Not in an impressive message, but a humbling message. Not in impressive converts, but in a converting God. Not in impressive preachers, but in faithful preachers who allow themselves to be messengers. Because the defining mark of God's power of God for all the world is the Cross. There, God destroys the arrogant wisdom and strength of men and women and brings them to their knees. When the cross is preached, God shows his power to remove the dark glasses that blind people to the truth about Jesus and his cross. They then see God's power and wisdom in glorious sunlight.

And when they do, only one person can take the credit - and it's not the preacher. It's God himself. And that is cross-shaped power. Do you see that? This power looks weak; it looks unimpressive - so did Jesus' death. But when you see that death as it is, you realise that the miracle of a saved life is the greatest miracle of all and the most wonderful demonstration of God's power possible on earth. Never be fooled by appearances. And never take the credit for what is God's alone. If people come to the Lord when we preach, it's not because we impressed them, but because God called them. Our job is just to be faithful.

Now, as I finish, I hope you can see why this is relevant to us, and to this conference. Just two very quick points as I close.

  • Firstly, those wanting to be involved in ministry studies need to be careful. It is definitely good to learn and to study - even to the highest levels. After all, that is why I'm in Uganda, to help brothers and sisters at KEST to learn. The African church needs African scholars who will write books for Africa! That is one of my dreams for KEST, as well as to send out godly gospel ministers. But be careful. Check your motives - watch your pride. PhDs are dangerous things. And I am always nervous when friends say they want to get a PhD. Is it to impress and become powerful in the church - or do you genuinely want to serve the church? It is good to have highly educated leaders. But don't think PhDs are the answer to everything! Remember - not one of Jesus' 12 disciples had one! God doesn't require PhD's for conversion or ministry. I just ask the question. We must all watch our pride.
  • But secondly this is relevant to this conference. You see, the essence as I see it of Expository Preaching is simple - we are seeking and learning how to become MORE FAITHFUL to this message of the Bible - the message of God's power ultimately revealed at the cross. By learning some of the skills and tools, we learn how to bring our messages in line with God's message. This means we will forget about trying to impress people with how clever we are, or with how many books we've read, with how many people we can convert or with how brilliant we are at public speaking. We will forget about it! Because they ultimately don't work - that's what Paul is saying. What we are doing will never by itself impress people, it's futile. And if try to, we run the risk of becoming proud of what we think are our own achievements - God hates that. Instead, we must focus on the God whose wisdom thought of the cross, whose power converts rebels and whose grace is sufficient even to use sinners like you and me to save others. So, let us as preachers of God's word, seek not to be impressive but to be faithful. And then, we will be used to save some.

This paper was the Plenary Address at the 2004 Kampala Evangelical School of Theology Bible Exposition Conference. Mark Meynell was Academic Dean of KEST

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