God’s decision to save the world through the lowly word of the cross was demonstrated through his calling together of lowly people in the Corinthian church (1:18-31). Paul tells us that God chose the “foolish in the world,” the “weak” (1 Cor. 1:27), the “low,” the “despised”, and the “things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28). He did this “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:29). God’s choice defied the logic, power, and wisdom of the world. Rather, God demonstrated his wisdom, freedom and sovereign love in the pouring out of his gospel grace on lowly sinners through the work of the crucified Christ. Through faith, Christ Jesus is to the “foolish in the world,” the “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:27, 29).

God’s rejection of the wisdom of the world was also to be demonstrated in the ministry of apostolic preaching and by extension by shepherds in post-apostolic churches. The apostle Paul recalled his gospel mission work among the Corinthians about five years earlier when he first came to them (1 Cor. 2:1). The gospel message of Christ-crucified shaped the way Paul approached the task of preaching. He explains that he did not come proclaiming to the Corinthians “the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1). It was not that Paul was lacking the rhetorical skill or the ability to debate wisdom. Instead, it was a deliberate choice Paul was making because of the way the message of the cross provided a shaping influence on the practice of preaching.

Paul, the rhetorician 

Paul was born in a Jewish family in Tarsus (Acts 21:39, 22:3). His family was of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5) and he was named after the most prominent member of the tribe–King Saul. Paul came from a family of tent makers and leather workers and it appears his family was well off financially. He was born a Roman citizen, grew up in Jerusalem, and was trained by the leading Jewish Rabbi of his day, Gamaliel (Acts 22). He was an excellent and zealous student (Phil. 3). Paul was studying the Scriptures long before his conversion and had certainly memorized much of the OT.  He rose to a position of cultural prominence as a leading Pharisee very quickly (Acts 26:9-11). Nothing in his biography paints the picture of a man who could not hold his own in rhetoric, the academy, or philosophical debate. 

After his conversion, Paul was proclaiming the truth of God in Lystra and the pagan crowd who heard him exclaimed, “The god’s have come down to us in human form” (Acts 14:11). Paul was a gifted rhetorician and logician whom listening crowds identified with Hermes, the Greek god of communication, “because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:12). Steven W. Smith, in his book Dying to Preach, rightly observes, “Paul was wise, his speech was superior, and he was indeed a brilliant intellect who took advantage of the classic rhetorical devices in his writings and sermons” (43). What Paul avoided was that form of rhetorical eloquence and wisdom that minimized the content and centrality of the gospel because Christ crucified was considered a crude message of folly according to the world’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18). He was appealing to the contrast introduced in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “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.” The problem was eloquent wisdom that forsook or minimized the reality of a crucified Messiah.

Know only this 

Christ crucified—what an unbelievably odd pairing of words. The anointed One, the Messianic King who would reign eternally, marked out as cursed by God through the grotesque, bloody, cruel act of crucifixion? A dead Messiah? The was no way to turn the gospel message into something rhetorically beautiful and entertaining. There was no way to fit a crucified Messiah into the so-called enlightened wisdom of the world. Paul refused to tamp down the raw, confrontational reality of the gospel message. Rather, Paul declares there is a simple relentless consistency to his preaching, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). 

Calvin explains in his 1 Corinthians commentary, 

The substance of the passage amounts to this: “As to my wanting the ornaments of speech, and wanting, too, the more elegant refinements of discourse, the reason of this was, that I did not aspire at them, nay rather, I despised them, because there was one thing only that my heart was set upon—that I might preach Christ with simplicity…. It is as though he had said: “The ignominy of the cross will not prevent me from looking up to him from whom salvation comes, or make me ashamed to regard all my wisdom as comprehended in him—in him, I say, whom proud men despise and reject on account of the reproach of the cross…. Here we have a beautiful passage, from which we learn what it is that faithful ministers ought to teach, what it is that we must, during our whole life, be learning, and in comparison with which everything else must be “counted as dung” (Phil 3:8) (vol. 1, 97).

No anti-intellectualism 

Let’s also be clear about what Paul is not teaching, since this passage is so often abused. He is not advocating anti-intellectualism for preachers, affirming a lack of sermon preparation, praising no concern regarding sermon form and development, encouraging monotone delivery or failure to work on delivery, or blessing boring sermons. Absolutely not. Pointing people to Christ through proclaiming the Scripture demands committed excellence in every way from every fiber of our being.

There is no more vital work in the cosmos. Therefore, the preacher must abandoned himself to the task and never stop learning and trying to do it more faithfully. Paul absolutely wanted his sermons (and ours) to be clear, persuasive, eloquent, interesting, and wise in powerfully communicating Christ crucified. We must not stop attempting to improve our preaching until we die. Andrew Fuller got it right when he said about preaching, “I would apply as close as though I expected no help from the Lord, whilst I would depend upon the Lord for assistance as though I had never made any preparation at all” (Complete Works, vol. 3, 442).

True eloquence 

What Paul is rejecting was not preparation, effort and learning how to preach. Rather, he was rejecting a willingness to smooth off the rough edges of the gospel message so that hearers would focus on the crafting of his sermons as clear, persuasive, eloquent, interesting, or wise. In other words, Paul did not want anyone to ever say, “Wow, that message was entertaining, enjoyable and that preacher is really smart.”

Paul believed that if sermons were faithful, appreciating them would always involve humble faith in Christ crucified and repentance, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5). True eloquence in preaching does not leave hearers thinking about the preachers eloquence, but about Christ crucified. Let us work hard and pray fervently to see that happen.