Over the years I have known and listened to speakers and Bible teachers who made enjoyable presentations. They were fun to listen to, full of colorful stories, making for an all-around pleasant experience. Yet also, some hours later (if that), I reflect upon what I heard and can only recall the fun parts of the sermon or presentation. The content was lost in a sea of oratory.
That is not what we want preaching to be. We want to hear the Word of God and be able to see how the text contains eternal truth. If it is fun, colorful, energetic, and skillfully presented, all the better. That is a good thing.
But for the Word of God to have an impact, it has to have the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit to make it come alive within the listener. It is not that one person will have the Word come alive within them to do one thing, while another person also has the Spirit direct them to an opposite application. No, there is objective truth in the Scriptures; it is more than what the listener has as an experience with the Word.
The responsibility of the preacher is to know the truth and to present it in a way that displays it to the hearer in a logical and persuasive way. Content has to carry the day, not cleverness or elocution.
As Paul continues here in chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians, he is reflecting personally on the truths mentioned in the preceding sentences – speaking of the “foolishness” (by worldly standards) of the gospel message and the very ordinary people whom God had chosen to receive and communicate this message. And Paul readily identifies himself and his style of presentation as very ordinary by worldly standards …
1 Cor. 2:1-5 – And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human 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 with great fear and 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 human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Paul had come to Corinth after a series of very difficult experiences in several cities where there was great opposition. And his immediately previous place of ministry was Athens, where he had the experience of being called before the Areopagus to defend his teaching. There, the “idle babble” (as he was mockingly called) was brought before the greatest minds to hear what he had to say. When they heard he was talking about a man named Jesus who (so silly) was presented as risen from the dead, they wrote him off. Even so, a few people came to faith.
Paul likely came away from this with some measure of introspection about what he was doing and how he was doing it. Likely also he could see that where fruit did come of his efforts, it was never because of his great skills, but rather because of a work of God using the truth of his presentation to effect change in individual lives.
We don’t know for sure what Paul looked like or exactly how he presented himself as a teacher. Though a bold person of passion, nothing leads us to believe that he was uniquely gifted in oratory or commanding in physical presence. Quite the opposite. We’ll see later that the Corinthians were unimpressed with him personally, as Paul wrote of them saying, “For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’” (2 Cor. 10:10). As well, a second century document says of Paul that he was “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs … with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.”1 (Not every church can have an extraordinarily handsome preacher, if you know what I’m getting at.)
So it is all about the message. The speaker needs to remember this as he works to make the message clear, relating the text to the immediate context of that Scripture passage, as well as the whole picture of God’s big story. And the listener needs to have a heart of dependence and openness to listen to the work of the Spirit in bringing the Scripture alive, also convicting of the need to apply the truth in life. If great oratory and colorful speaking skills accompany the presentation, amen! But the life, the truth, the agent of change – it is not in the energy of the presenter, but in the message of the Word.
- Drane, Paul: An Illustrated Documentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 14.