It’s the message not the messenger

These first three chapters in 1 Corinthians are really all about disunity in the church in Corinth which resulted from people putting too much emphasis on their liking for individual leaders – so much so that they had divided and started quarrelling on the basis of which leader they held in the highest regard. As we will see in later chapters, the root cause of this problem was immaturity in Christian development. Paul seeks to address these issues and at the end of chapter 1 and in chapter 2 he demonstrates that the leaders who present the message (whether eloquently or otherwise) are nothing, it is the message that counts.

  1. Wisdom and Power

In verse 17 of chapter 1, Paul states that his mission is not to baptise “but to preach the gospel – but not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power.” He then spends the rest of chapter 1 contrasting the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God. (see notes on chapter 1). His point is that God’s wisdom may look foolish to this world, but it is real wisdom.

  • I’m no salesman with a clever sales pitch!

I recall hearing a critique of the perfume industry. Apparently for many perfumes the cost of the raw material is extremely low – many of the fragrances that are blended to make the perfume are now made by industrial chemical processes and thus cost very little. Critics of the perfume industry point out that there is evidence of profiteering on a vast scale and that the perfume companies exploit their customers. The response from the perfume companies to this criticism is quite revealing, they have said that customers would not buy their products if they were too cheap!  They were buying an ‘experience’ and a ‘name’ and part of this was the costly perception or aspirational nature of the product! Just think of that the next time you are buying that hugely expensive bottle of perfume with the exotic sounding name and the slick advertising! The Corinthians seemed to be susceptible to valuing the presentation rather than the content – in the case of the gospel the product in the package is priceless!

We need to remember that the problem in the Corinthian church was related to quarrelling over which leader was the one to follow, it seems that part of this related to the perception amongst the Corinthians that style mattered much more than substance.  The gospel is too precious to be allowed to be obscured by wise and persuasive words, says Paul. In fact Paul did not come with eloquence or human wisdom, he came in weakness and fear and trembling! Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to put their faith in God not in a slick presentation – for this reason his message came with a demonstration of God’s power.  Ideally the response to the preacher should not be ‘what a marvellous sermon’ but rather ‘what a marvellous saviour!’

Does this mean that we should deliberately present the gospel and do our preaching with no preparation and merely dump the message on our hearers with no thought to presentation and let God do the rest? I think not. Paul demonstrated whilst in Athens that careful presentation of the gospel with intelligent analysis of the thinking and likely barriers in the minds of the hearers is an important factor in gospel preaching. We have tried to do this at West Street too as we gave careful thought to the way the brochure was to be written and presented. We did not want it to end up in the bin without being read, we did not want it to be filled with Christian jargon – rather we wanted the message to get through and not be obscured by Christian traditions or shoddy presentation. I suspect that Paul would have approved!

  • It’s all about God’s wisdom

In verse 6, Paul speaks of a wisdom of ‘this age.’ There always seems to be a wisdom of the age that obscures the true message about God and the world that we inhabit. The prevailing wisdom of our age seems to go something like this; “Science has demonstrated without any doubt that we are products of evolution – in spite of our appearance as products of design, there is no designer, there is no need of any supernatural explanation to our being. Our world has been around for more than 4 billion years and in that time life sprang up and evolved to where we are today.” This ‘wisdom’ has profound influences on the thinking of the people we meet every day. Because evolution explains everything there is no absolute right or wrong – people are neither good nor bad, they just are. Some philosophers have taken this to its logical conclusion and have said that in order to assist the forward and upward march of evolution we ought to allow (or even facilitate) the weak to die (a key component of the natural selection idea). The life of individuals is of no concern, the quality of the gene pool matters much more! We teach our children this and because there is no right and wrong, human actions simply need to be managed so that society is not too unpleasant for everyone. You can (and should) live as you please – just so long as you don’t make life unpleasant for others. Our schools teach our children to explore their sexuality, are you gay, bi, trans? Doesn’t matter, be who you are, just remember to use a condom. These are tragic times, there is certainly a wisdom of the age that obscures the truth.

Paul speaks of God’s wisdom  – a wisdom that is not understood by the leaders or rulers of this age. This wisdom is revealed to believers. Paul says that the rulers of the age in which he lived did not get God’s wisdom otherwise ‘they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’.

The question arises how can we know the wisdom of God?

  • The beginning of wisdom – The Holy Spirit

In describing God’s wisdom Paul quotes Isaiah: what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love him. Note that God’s wisdom does not have its source in human beings. God’s wisdom is not seen, heard or conceived in the mind of people, it is external to our being.

I have a mind that has loads of thoughts whizzing around in it, but those thoughts are only known to me, there is no such thing as a mind reader! But if you ask me about my thoughts I can tell you about them because I know them. So it is with God, it is his Spirit that knows and discerns his thoughts. That’s a remarkable statement – God’s thoughts are only known through the Holy Spirit. But here’s something that is even more remarkable; as believers we have not been given the spirit of the age or of the world, but we have been given the Spirit of God! Because we have his Spirit within us we have an ability to respond to his wisdom and to recognise it for what it is. The wisdom of God that no eye has seen, that no ear has heard, that no human mind has conceived is ours!

Paul’s message is not his message, or words taught by human wisdom, but his words are Spirit-taught words!  For a moment imagine yourself as one of the Corinthian church members who have been quarrelling over whether you were in the Paul’s, Apollos’ or Cephas’ group! You may well be hanging your head in shame by now – it’s not about these people it’s about the Spirit of God!

God’s wisdom is imparted through the presence of the Holy Spirit – if a person does not have the Holy Spirit within them they cannot understand God’s wisdom – it seems foolish to them. This begs a rather obvious question, if believers have the Holy Spirit within them, then how come the Corinthians were doing so badly? Is it possible to have God’s Spirit within us but live as if he is not there? The answer to that question is yes. Although as believers we have the mind of Christ we can ignore it, suppress it neglect it. This was what was happening in Corinth.  When we live in this condition our thinking no longer displays the wisdom of God, but rather the thinking of the world. What a tragedy that the mind of God could be opened up to us and we end up living according to twisted human wisdom – what a waste. More of this in chapter 3.