Weakness is the Way

Would you rather look strong and be weak, or look weak and be strong? Spoiler alert: you actually need to choose.

JDudgeon on August 6, 2023
Weakness is the Way
August 6, 2023

Weakness is the Way

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Passage: 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5
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At some point this last year, my kids picked up on “would you rather” questions. I think they got this from Awana. And over my recent months of sabbatical, as I spent more time with them than usual, I found myself being subjected to repeated questions of “would you rather.” Some of these questions got fairly elaborate, and one of the things I tried to teach my kids is that a good “would you rather” should be short, not have a lot of detail, and should really make you think.

So, in the spirit of my sabbatical this summer, I have a couple of “would you rather” questions for you all this morning.

Would you rather have everybody think that you’re strong, but actually be weak, or would you rather have everybody think that you’re weak but actually be strong?

Or what about another one: would you rather have everybody think that you’re wise, but actually be a fool, or would you rather have everybody think that you’re a total fool, but actually be wise?

Now here’s the punchline, which some of you have probably anticipated already: this isn’t just a brain game. You actually need to answer these questions, in real life. Because the gospel forces these questions on us. The gospel makes us choose, in real life, whether we will look weak and be strong, or look strong and be weak. Whether we will look wise and be a fool, or look like a fool but actually be wise.

And where this comes to us from this morning is 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5, a passage that doesn’t come from the Psalms but which has been bubbling over in my heart over the past few months, and which the elders thought I should preach from today as a way to help us all prepare for another year of ministry together. And we’ll get back to the Psalms next Sunday.

1. Corinthian Criticism

This passage comes to us in a section of Scripture in which Paul is defending his ministry to the Corinthians. And he’s defending his ministry because, almost as soon as he left Corinth, some of the Corinthians began to criticize Paul and his ministry. There were other teachers they liked better. Other people they wanted to follow. And one of their main criticisms of of Paul is summed up in 2 Corinthians 10:10, where “they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.’”

Paul was not a great speaker by the standards of the day. And that might surprise you. You might think, “I can’t imagine a better preacher than the apostle Paul.” But that’s just the problem. The people of Paul’s day weren’t really in to preaching. They were used to a much more elaborate form of public speaking that nowadays we call classical rhetoric.

Classical rhetoric had been around for almost 500 years by the time of Paul. It was a highly developed art form in which professionally-trained public speakers used sophisticated language to persuade their audiences. History tells us that the people of Corinth, specifically, loved rhetoric and treated these public speakers the way that we treat celebrities and movie stars today. 1I’m indebted to Duane Litfin whose book “Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth” (IVP, 2015) informed this introduction and helped sharpen much of my thinking in what follows.

So for Paul to not be a good public speaker was a pretty big deal. No wonder some people preferred the much more eloquent Apollos (1 Corinthians 1:12). And by the time that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, it seems like he had become something of an embarrassment to many of the Christians in that city.  Compared to their public speaking heroes, he seemed weak and foolish, and they might have felt about him the way a teenager might feel about their middle-aged dad as he picks them up from a party. “I’m glad you brought me into this world, but please, could you just stay in the car?”

2. Paul’s Defence

And so Paul defends himself. He wanted the Corinthians to know that his weak and foolish ministry wasn’t a problem to him, and it shouldn’t be a problem to them. Weakness and foolishness were an important part of his ministry which he embraced, because it was through the foolishness of preaching and the weakness of people that God did His best work.

And that’s what we’re going to see as we look at these verses together. We’re going to see Paul describe his foolish method, and then his foolish message, and finally introduce us to some weak people. Then we'll see how these three ingredients come together into a display of the power of God. Finally, we’ll ask what all of this might mean for you and I, almost 2,000 years and 9,000 km away.

A Foolish Method

We’re going to start by looking at Paul’s foolish method—in other words, the way that he shared the gospel with the Corinthians. This aspect of his ministry is actually what gets most of the attention in our passage today. He begins in verse 17 by telling the Corinthians that when he brought them the gospel, he didn’t do that in the way that they would have expected—in the polished, persuasive speech of classical rhetoric.

“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17).

“Words of eloquent wisdom” is what the Corinthians would have expected, it’s what they loved, and it’s what their whole culture, in many ways, was built on. But instead trying to persuade them this way, Paul simply came and “preach[ed] the gospel.”

That phrase “preach the gospel” in verse 17 comes from a single Greek word that suggests a messenger who comes to declare or proclaim good news. And what we need to understand is that this kind of good-news preaching was a totally different business than the “words of eloquent wisdom” that the Corinthians were used to.

We know from all the writings left behind that the public speakers of Paul’s day did not see themselves as proclaimers of a message. In fact, their message—what they said—was the most flexible part of their presentation.

For them, it was all about the results they were after. They wanted to move the crowd in a certain direction, or get the crowd to come to a certain conclusion. So they’d try to understand their crowd, and how this group of people could best be persuaded. Only then would the public speaker would draw on all of the techniques he had learned to try and overwhelm the people with his wise speech and make his ideas seem irresistible to them.

So you can see how it’s a totally different mindset than a simple messenger who just shows up to tell people that something good has happened. And so already in verse 17 we can see that Paul’s preaching was totally different than what the Corinthians were used to. Paul did not see himself as a persuader who tried to use eloquent wisdom to sway an audience. He was just a simple announcer of good news.

Verse 18 makes this picture even more clear, where Paul describes his preaching as “the word of the cross” and says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”  Remember how verse 17 said that he did not preach “with words of eloquent wisdom?” Instead, he spoke the “word of the cross.” Note the contrast there between the different kinds of words. This is one reason why I love the ESV, because many translations use different words in verse 17 and 18 and totally miss that Paula is deliberately contrasting “words of eloquent wisdom” with “the word of the cross.”

He’s not just saying that the cross itself is folly to those who are perishing. He’s saying that the word of the cross—the simple preaching of the cross—was folly. The way that he preached the gospel—the word of the cross—was so very different from the fine speech the Corinthians were trained to expect.

And that different is explained in more detail down in verse 21: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

The word “preach” here is a different Greek word than the one Paul uses up in verse 17. This word comes from the background of heraldry. You might remember heralds from stories or movies about medieval times—he’s that guy with a trumpet who walks into the square and unrolls a scroll and “hear yee, hear yee, the king has announced…” and goes on from there.

And that’s actually pretty close to what Paul had in mind. A herald, just like a good news messenger, was just a simple announcer. He wasn’t a man of eloquence or wisdom who was trying to persuade people. He didn’t argue for the probability of his message. He wasn’t allowed to tinker with his message to try and get people to believe him. Whether people believed him or not wasn’t even his responsibility. And in fact, he himself was relatively unimportant in the whole thing. In the Roman world, a herald was often a very common or unimportant person who was sent by an important person to proclaim a message for them.

The herald had one job, which was simply to faithfully proclaim the message that had been entrusted to him. Once again, you can see that this is very different from the celebrity public speakers that the Corinthians loved to much. It was so different, that Paul’s simple heralding of the gospel seemed downright foolish in comparison. That’s what he’s saying in verse 21. In the ESV, verse 21 says “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

But if you look above the word “preach” in your Bible, you’ll see a little number. And down at the bottom of your page, you’ll see something that says, “Or the folly of preaching.” That’s actually what the Greek words say in a straightforward way. This is how the KJV translates it: “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Corinthains 1:21b, KJV).

Now the reason that the ESV says “the folly of what we preach” instead of “the folly of preaching” is that Paul is talking about both of those things here. If you went home from church one Sunday this summer, and one of the new guys was preaching, and someone asked you “how was the preaching this morning?”, your answer would probably include both what they said, and also how they said it.

And that’s what’s going on here in verse 21. Yes, Paul is talking about the foolishness of what he preached. But just as much he’s also talking about the foolishness of preaching itself. The foolishness of simply proclaiming a message to a group of people who were expecting something a lot more fancy.

And this foolishness gets explained even further in verse 22: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,’ (1 Corinthians 1:22–23). For years, I misunderstood this verse, thinking that it was a general comment on the way that Jews had a craving for signs and Greeks had a craving for wisdom.

But just think: where, in the Bible, do we see the Jews demanding signs? It’s when they were hearing a new message from a new person, and they wanted to know whether to believe it or not. Doing a miraculous sign was the way you persuaded Jews to believe your message.

Similarly, “wisdom” was a short-hand word used by the Greeks for the kind of public speaking that they found persuasive. They loved chasing after wise-sounding words that would sweep them off their feet.

“Signs” and “wisdom” are what Jews and Gentiles found convincing. It’s what you had to give them if you wanted them to listen to you.

But Paul refuses to play their game by their rules. Verse 23: “But we preach Christ crucified.” Don’t miss the word preach there. It’s the same word as from verse 21. Instead of trying to convince people with the signs and wisdom that they wanted, he simply heralded—proclaimed—the cross of Christ.

And that was hard to swallow. Especially to the Greeks and Romans, it was an offence to their pride. They loved their role as connoisseurs of wisdom. They loved being the judge and deciding whether they’d let themselves be convinced or not. Duane Litfin writes that “The occasion of listening to a speaker thus provided audiences not only amusement and entertainment but also immense ego satisfaction.”2Litfin, ch. 14.

And Paul refused to give that to them. What’s he say in 2:1? “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” In verse 4 he says that “and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom” like they would have expected and like they would have craved.

So here’s what we need to see: Paul’s whole ministry was built on this very foolish method called preaching. He refused to try and persuade them. He simply took on the low and humble role of a herald, who simply proclaimed a message. This was humbling for him, and it was humbling for his audience, who had to come down from their high horses and submit to his message, not because it tickled their ears, but simply because it was true.

A Foolish Message

So that’s Paul’s foolish method. Very briefly we’ll consider his foolish message. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” says verse 18. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” says verse 23. These verses point us to the profound foolishness of the message of the gospel.

We know that the gospel message was foolish to the Jewish people of Paul’s day. They were looking for a powerful political leader, not a homeless man from the boonies who was hated by all their leaders and died under God’s curse. They were looking for a king with a sword in his hand, not nails through his wrists. They were looking for salvation through Jewishness and law-keeping, not grace alone through faith alone.

It was a tough sell.  And we know how it went. Follow Paul around in the book of Acts and see how, from town to town to town, Jewish people tripped over the stumbling bock of Christ, and Paul got the same reaction that Jesus Himself did as they tried to kill him again and again and again.

We also need to remember was just how foolish the gospel was to the Greek and Romans. The idea of a God becoming a man was totally backwards to them. They thought the goal was to get out of this physical realm into the pure spiritual world. The thought of God going backwards seemed crazy.

But the cross was way too far. Crucifixion wasn’t something you were supposed to even mention in polite society. The cross was a slave’s death, a way for the empire to crush someone and show the world that they were garbage. Literally. Corpses cut down from the cross were often tossed in the ditch to be eaten by animals. They were yesterday’s trash, less than human. A crucified king was an impossibility to them.

Not to mention the resurrection. The idea that this crucified God-man would come back to life in his body once again was about as strange an idea as anybody could invent.

The gospel message was deeply offensive and deeply foolish to the Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s day. And the way that he shared it, through simple preaching, made zero sense to anybody.

Weak People

At least, though, if you’ve got a message that seems foolish, and for whatever reason you don’t want to use the latest methods to share it, the least you could do is try to get some powerful and influential people on your team. “Whoah, look, that famous guy is a Christian? Maybe there is something to this after all.” But Paul refused to play even this game. Look at verse 26: “For consider your calling, brothers [speaking of their salvation when they were called by God]: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). He suggests in verses 27-28 that many of them were seen by others as foolish, weak, low and despised.

In other words, the Corinthian church wasn’t full of the most important people in the city. The gospel did not attract crowds of influencers and young professionals. If you walked into the church in Corinth you’d see mostly people who weren’t very important, weren’t very smart, and weren’t very powerful.

And this applied to Paul himself. He reminds them in chapter 2 that when he came to down, he didn’t come in as a slick professional with a fancy press kit and a persona of strength and competence. Verse 3 of chapter 2: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” You ever see someone get up to speak and they’re so afraid they’re shaking? You ever been that person? That was Paul.

And this was totally opposite of what the Corinthians expected from a good public speaker. They were supposed to look powerful and strong and in command. Not Paul. Paul got to Corinth after a string of being kicked out of one city after the other. It seems like he was so afraid he almost left until God sent him a vision telling him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent” (Acts 18:9). That was Paul in Corinth—weak, scared, shaking.

And that’s what Paul brought to Corinth. A foolish method called preaching, a foolish message called “the gospel,” and shaky preacher who attracted a group of slaves and other low-lifes.

The Power and Glory of God

That, at least, is how the world saw things. The world thought that preaching was dumb, the gospel was stupid, and the Christians were weak and embarrassing.

But what did God think about these three ingredients? More importantly, what did God do with these three ingredients? And here’s where everything changes. Everything in this passage changes when we see things from God’s perspective. From God’s perspective, what the world sees as foolish is wise. And what the world sees as weak is strong.

Let’s start seeing this back up in verse 18: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

The preaching of the gospel is not foolishness to those whom God has chosen to save. To them, the preaching of the gospel is itself the very power of God. Because God had chosen to save people that way.

“For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of [preaching] to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:19–21).

Do you see that? Where has all the wisdom of the world gotten them? All their supposed wisdom, all their fancy public speaking, all their powers of persuasion, none of it has gotten them any closer to God.

And that’s why God takes pleasure in using the supposed foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.

Yes, the preached gospel of a crucified Messiah is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, “but,” says verse 24, “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.”

It’s the supernatural calling of God that makes all the difference. When God calls someone, what once seemed foolish and weak is seen for what it actually is: wise and strong.

This is true even for the Corinthians. Verse 27: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:27–30).

Do you see this? God delights to save using weak people and foolishness of preaching because that brings Him glory. It makes it so obvious that it’s Him and nobody else who is doing the saving.

If God had chosen to use human strength or human wisdom to save, then you could always ask the question, “Was it God who saved, or was it just that those people were particularly strong or smart? Was that just a human experience?”

But instead God has chosen to save through ways and through people that look stupid to the world, so that when someone comes to believe the gospel, they can say that “the only thing that made me believe was God himself. God Himself is the only reason that I am in Christ.” And we boast not in ourselves, nor in the wise and strong person who convinced us to believe, but in the Lord.

And this is the secret of Paul’s ministry. Paul was so determined that God alone get the glory that he deliberately embraced his own weakness. He deliberately embraced the foolishness of preaching the cross. He deliberately rejected any attempt to persuade people by human wisdom or flashy signs. He wanted the Christians to know that God’s power, not Paul’s power, had saved them.

Isn’t that how he opened this whole section up? “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17).

If Paul persuades the Corinthians of the gospel with words of eloquent wisdom, then nobody sees the raw power of the cross. Maybe people will join the church simply because they’ve been drawn in by Paul’s convincing strength. So instead, Paul just proclaims the gospel, like a fool, so that those who believe will believe only because God called them. God convinced them. God persuaded them. God saved them through the power of the cross.

That’s his point yet again in chapter 2, verse 2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 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”—not just by accident, but on purpose—so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:2–5).

Do you see? What you win people with, you win people to. You win people with human wisdom, you’ve just made converts of human wisdom. But if your ministry rejects human wisdom and relies on the power of God, then the result will be that people’s faith rests in God’s power.

We can sum up this whole section by saying that Paul’s ministry not just “leave room” for the power of God. His whole ministry was based on making it absolutely clear that God’s power and God’s power alone was the only thing that could save.

So he rejected the slick rhetoric that everybody expected him to use. He didn’t want to convince anybody with his own wisdom or words. He embraced the folly of simple preaching, the shame of a crucified king, and the embarrassment of his own weakness. He was okay for everybody else to think that he was nuts. Because all that did was highlight the saving power of God.

3. From Corinth to Nipawin

So that’s Paul. And what about you? What about me? What happens when we take these truths and bring them with us from Corinth all the way to Nipawin?

Well, there’s a lot we could say. But I’ll try and make some brief comments to three groups of people here. First, future missionaries, second, future pastors, and finally to all of us as a church.

Future Missionaries

First, missionaries. There are a number of you in this room who are headed for full-time missionary work. Some of you know this, and some of you have yet to realize that’s where you’re headed.

And for anybody who is just a little bit familiar with the world of modern missions these days, you will recognize that Paul’s ministry approach here in 1 Corinthians is very different from the advice and training given to many missionaries today.

If Paul had been trained the way many missionaries today have been trained, he would have been told: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, so you’d better give that to them. How else are you going to convince people to believe the gospel?” Much of modern mission method is based on giving people what they want and expect while we shave all the rough edges off of the gospel to make it as easy and natural as possible for people to respond.

And it might work, on the outside, for a time. But how many converts have been made who outwardly look like Christians but inwardly have simply placed their faith in the wisdom of men instead of the power of God?

Missionaries and future missionaries: reject the wisdom of the world. Embrace the powerful foolishness of the preaching of the gospel.

Learn from Paul, who was very happy to adapt himself (1 Corinthians 9) to his different audiences. But as you listen to Paul preaching Acts, you can see that he adjusted himself not to make the gospel appear less foolish or easier to swallow, but rather to help those different groups of people better understand the scandal of Christ crucified.

Read Acts 17 and see how even on Mars Hill, Paul still acted like a herald. He confronted the Greek worldview any chance he got. He worked hard to help them grasp the sharp and offensive edges of the gospel, and he left the work of persuasion up to the Holy Spirit.

Future Pastors

A brief word for you future pastors in the room: don’t be embarrassed by the folly of preaching. The focus in this passage is on evangelism, but these same words for preaching are used in 2 Timothy to describe the ongoing work of a pastor. The preacher, like the missionary, remains a simple herald. We don’t get to tinker with our message or our methods to try and get a result. We proclaim, and God persuades.

Every few years another fad pops up in the preaching landscape that tries to convince pastors that “traditional preaching doesn’t work with people these days, so you need to use this new method if you want to reach people these days.” And instead of preaching the word, pastors think they need to deliver TED talks, or have conversations, or tell stories, or do stand-up comedy, or whatever the fad is.

And our passage today cuts through all of that to remind us that we don’t preach because it “works.” We preach because God told us to preach, because He delights to work through preaching.

We are simple heralds of the king. We work hard to make sure people can understand the message, but what people do with that message is between them and God. Our job is not to produce a result but simply to be faithful to Him who sent us.

All of Us

Finally, for all of us. I wonder if one of the reasons we don’t tell more people about Jesus is that we feel silly. The message feels foolish. We feel scared, and think there’s something wrong with us, and we can’t imagine that our shaky sharing of the gospel will convince anybody.

But what if fear is normal? Paul experienced it. That didn’t stop God from working.

What if we knew that it’s not our job to convince anybody? Hasn’t our passage today shown us that God is the one who calls and convinces and saves? And what if, though many people will reject it, your shaky sharing of the gospel is exactly the channel that God delights to use as He saves His chosen ones?

The gospel has never been popular or easy stuff. But it is the power of God for those who believe. What might our lives look like if we believed that?

More broadly, what about about our ministry to one another in the body of Christ? What if we got rid of this idea that if you feel weak and scared, then you must not be cut out for something and you should just avoid it?

Isn’t that the subtle message behind those “spiritual gifts assessments” some of us have taken? If you’re not strong in a certain area, if it scares you, then it must not be for you.

I’m glad Paul didn’t think that way about his ministry in Corinth.

Ministry to one another can feel scary. Asking someone to pray for you can feel scary. Going to visit sick people in the hospital can feel very uncomfortable. You might not feel very “strong” in your hospitality abilities. Meeting up with someone to read the Bible with them might fill you with self-doubt. Watching toddlers in the childcare room or serving in some other ministry might scare the living daylights out of you.

But what if, just like Paul, we understood that our fear and weakness doesn’t disqualify us from these ministries, but actually sets us up to lean on the Lord and experience His power?

What if weakness is the way?

I’ve been learning that message myself a lot lately. I hoped that my sabbatical would fix all of my health issues. It didn’t. But the Lord has been helping me understand that my weakness is not a barrier to my ministry—it’s a crucial part of my ministry.

It’s good for me, because it keeps my eyes on the one whose “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And it’s good for you, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).

Weakness is the way. And as we very quickly head into another fall of ministry together, let’s ask the Lord together how he might use us in our weakness to serve each other and share the gospel in order to make His power known.