I Corinthians 2:1-5
I have heard Billy Graham speak in person twice. The second time was in Central Park in New York City in 1991. Annie and I took our daughters and we were so far away from where Billy Graham was speaking we could see him only on the huge screens set up at various points.
The first time I heard Billy Graham speak in person was when he came to my seminary. I sat in the first row, just four meters away from him. I was in my last year of seminary, at the height of my cynicism, and not sure I was terribly impressed with him. But his spirit and charisma overwhelmed me. He was wonderfully impressive. He cut through my defenses and spoke to my heart.
In over 55 years of ministry, Billy Graham has preached the Gospel message to more than 215 million people in over 185 countries around the world. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which he founded in 1950, reaches out to millions more each year through radio and television broadcasts, films, literature, training, events, and the Internet.
In his ministry he has met with Presidents, kings, queens, celebrities, and everyday men, women, and children. But no matter who he speaks to, the message is still the same. Billy Graham has said, “Everywhere I go I find that people … both leaders and individuals … are asking one basic question, ‘Is there any hope for the future?’ My answer is the same, ‘Yes, through Jesus Christ.’”
An old preacher approached Billy Graham following the 1954 Harringay Arena Crusade in London. “I have come here every night” and listened to many different sermons, the minister told him, “and I have heard only one message.” It was a compliment, for he, like Billy Graham, knew that there is only one message that can bring real hope to a lost world.
Billy Graham’s message never changed. It is a simple message, but one that comes straight from God’s Word. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV).
This morning we return to a series of sermons from the book of Acts that began in April 2005. Each year, after Easter, we pick up this book and preach from it up to the summer. Since I was away after Easter this year, the series has been pushed into the summer.
We left off last year with the move of Paul from Athens to Corinth which takes us from chapter 17 to 18.
500 years before Paul arrived, Athens had been the foremost Greek city-state. It was impressive then and today, when you visit Athens and see the ruins of the Parthenon, even as a ruin it is very impressive. Athens was an intellectual center of the Roman Empire and had a rich philosophical tradition, the legacy of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others who taught in that city. It was the birthplace of democracy and of the three most famous universities of antiquity (Alexandria, Tarsus and Athens), it was the most distinguished.
When the Roman Empire took over, Athens began to diminish and by the time of Paul it is estimated there was a population of only about 10,000 living there. But what Athens lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality. Even with such a small population, it was viewed as the intellectual capital of the empire.
Athens was also known as a religious city and as Paul walked around, what caught his attention was the idolatry of Athens. A Roman satirist wrote that it was easier to find an idol in Athens than a man.
In this climate, when Paul spoke, he tried to appeal to the intellect of his audience:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
The response to his message was not overwhelming.
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
From here Paul went to Corinth. Corinth and Athens were two completely different cities. Whereas Athens had a population of about 10,000, Corinth was a city of about 750,000 people. Athens was a small city of intellectuals but Corinth was a major business center. It was an important passageway between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. Taking cargo across the 6 kilometer isthmus saved 360 kilometers of difficult sea passage. This made Corinth a very international city with sailors from around the known world passing through.
Corinth was a wealthy and proud city with many impressive buildings. Julius Caesar had beautifully rebuilt this city just a hundred years earlier.
Corinth was also a very immoral city. The 1,000 female slaves at the Temple of Aphrodite roamed the streets at night as prostitutes. As I mentioned last week, the immorality of Corinth was proverbial with a new verb, Corinthianize, created which meant, to practice immorality.
Paul left Athens after a less than enthusiastic response to his preaching and came to Corinth with its pride and wealth and immorality. In his first letter to the church in Corinth we get an insight about how he felt as he arrived. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)
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.
I will use these five verses to share five observations about how we are to share our faith.
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.
When Paul came to Athens, he was not outclassed by the intellectuals in that prestigious city. He had graduated from the university in Tarsus and been a prize student of Gamaliel in Jerusalem. God gave him a massive intellect. Paul spoke as a peer.
Now if it had been me coming to Corinth, like Paul, I would not have come with eloquence or superior wisdom. In my case it would have been because I had no choice. Minds like Paul’s are exceptional. Paul had the intellectual capability of eloquence and superior wisdom but he chose not to take that route. Paul used his eloquence and superior wisdom in his address in Athens but I think he learned from that lesson and chose not to do that in Corinth.
Eloquence and superior wisdom are great gifts. I do not want to demean them. The world needs these gifts. The church needs these gifts. I am grateful for people like Dallas Willard and N.T. Wright and J.I. Packer and Gordon Fee. They add depth and breadth to our understanding of God, the Scripture he has given us and how we are to live out our faith.
But there is a difference between evangelism and discipleship. Discipleship needs depth and breadth but evangelism needs something different. This difference comes in verse 2.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
John 3:16 is probably the best known verse in the Bible.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This was the centerpiece of Billy Graham’s preaching and he preached that message over and over again. Millions came forward in the invitation at the end of his messages. People were not bored hearing it. People did not say, “Oh no, not that message again.” Of course Billy Graham varied how he came to this theme but this was his message in meeting after meeting. I will post in the RICEmail this week a youtube of Billy Graham’s preaching over the decades. There was a beautiful and powerful simplicity in his preaching.
This simple but powerful message has cut through the defenses of life after life and brought people to a relationship with Jesus. There has to be someone who speaks this message. If we do not speak, how will people hear the truth? But this is a message we can all deliver because the power is in the message, not in us.
We may not be able to speak and reason with the intelligence of Paul, but in this way we can be just like him. We can speak of Jesus Christ and him crucified. We may not be able to write books the way Packer, Willard, Wright and Fee do, but we can tell someone about the truth of Jesus.
Dwight Moody was the leading evangelist in the 19th century, in the US and Britain. His father died when Moody was four years old, leaving nine children for his mother to raise. His mother never encouraged Dwight to read the Bible, and he only acquired the equivalent of a fifth-grade education.
In April 1855, at the age of 17, Moody became a follower of Jesus when his Sunday school teacher talked to him about how much God loved him. He applied for church membership a month later but was rejected. He was not received as a church member until a year later, May 4, 1856. As his teacher, Mr. Edward Kimball, stated:
I can truly say, and in saying it I magnify the infinite grace of God as bestowed upon him, that I have seen few persons whose minds were spiritually darker than was his when he came into my Sunday School class; and I think that the committee of the Mount Vernon Church seldom met an applicant for membership more unlikely ever to become a Christian of clear and decided views of Gospel truth, still less to fill any extended sphere of public usefulness.
Another observer talked about his meetings he began in Chicago, just a couple years later:
The first meeting I ever saw him at was in a little old shanty that had been abandoned by a saloon-keeper. Mr. Moody had got the place to hold the meetings in at night. I went there a little late; and the first thing I saw was a man standing up with a few tallow candles around him, holding a boy, and trying to read to him the story of the Prodigal Son and a great many words he could not read out, and had to skip. I thought, ‘If the Lord can ever use such an instrument as that for His honor and glory, it will astonish me. As a result of his tireless labor, within a year the average attendance at his school was 650, while 60 volunteers from various churches served as teachers.
What was the message of Dwight Moody? He talked about the three Rs: Ruin by Sin, Redemption by Christ, and Regeneration by the Holy Ghost. Saving souls was his priority. In his most famous remark he said, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’”
When asked about his fame, Moody admitted, “I know perfectly well that, wherever I go and preach, there are many better preachers … than I am; all that I can say about it is that the Lord uses me.”
Moody said, “If this world is going to be reached, I am convinced that it must be done by men and women of average talent. After all, there are comparatively few people in this world who have great talents.”
The power of the Gospel is not dependent on our eloquence and superior wisdom. All we need to do is be faithful in proclaiming that truth. We don’t have to memorize elaborate evangelistic techniques; we need to speak out about the truth that has drawn us to be followers of Jesus.
I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.
What made Paul come to Corinth in weakness and fear, and with much trembling? Was it because of his past experience?
When Paul preached, wherever Paul preached, he threatened the established order. Each city had a social order and the economy was based on this order. In chapter 19 we will read about the silversmiths in Ephesus, who made silver images of Artemis, leading the attack against Paul because his preaching was causing them to lose business. When change came that threatened the pocketbook, people reacted with force. Because Paul was an effective preacher and teacher, by the time Paul came to Corinth, he had been beaten with rods, flogged, and stoned and left for dead.
I have tried to think about what it would be like to be Paul and approach yet another new city. In the countryside it was quiet and peaceful. Walking by day, sitting by a fire at night, looking up at the stars. But then as the city was approached the time drew near when he would enter the city. He would go to the synagogue and stand up to preach and then what would happen? Would the leaders of the synagogue throw him out? Would he be brought to the Roman authorities and accused of some crime? Would he be once again beaten? That would make me approach a city with fear and trembling.
But I don’t think that is why Paul came to Corinth in fear and trembling.
Athens had a large reputation, far larger than its population, but Corinth was a huge city, three-quarters of a million people. It was one thing to step into a small city and preach, but what would he do in a city the size of Corinth?
This was a city that intimidated with its wonderful buildings and this was a city that intimidated a man coming to preach the gospel of Jesus that included turning away from immorality of all kinds.
It might have seemed to be an impossible task. The established order of Corinth, along with its wealth and immorality was overwhelming. How would a church be started in this city?
Paul knew the obstacles before him and so he came with an awareness that the task was beyond him. Even with his great mind and the teaching he received from Jesus in the Sinai Peninsula, how would he bring the people of Corinth to faith in Jesus?
Here at RIC we know what it is like to pray for a city when the obstacles seem so large. Only a fool comes to such a place with confidence that he or she can transform that city with the gifts and talents they have.
The truth is the task, large or small, is always too much for us. The transformation of a life lived for self to a life lived for God is a miracle and only God can do those miracles. So to realize that what we are praying and hoping for is beyond us and that our gifts and abilities are not sufficient for the task, is a good thing. When we realize that, we depend on God. This leads to verse 4.
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,
Luke does not record what miracles took place in Corinth, but from Corinth Paul went to Ephesus and there Luke records: (Acts 19:11–12)
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
Miracles of healing and casting out of demons accompanied the ministry of Jesus and after his death and resurrection, accompanied the ministry of his disciples and the ministry of Paul. Luke records many such miracles in the book of Acts.
There are some who say these kind of miracles no longer are a part of the ministry of followers of Jesus. But this belief ignores the testimony of followers of Jesus throughout church history. There have continued to be these miracles in the life of the church.
I read a recent article about Heidi Baker in Mozambique through whom God is working in miraculous ways. The deaf are now hearing, the blind seeing, the crippled walking and there are even credible reports that the dead are being raised to life.
Why this is happening in Mozambique and not in Morocco is a mystery. But God has his purposes and sometimes God uses these miracles to grow his church in a particular place.
When Paul came to Corinth with all the obstacles before him, he relied on the Holy Spirit and the Spirit worked through Paul to bring many into the church.
The intellectuals resisted Paul’s arguments in Athens, but the people of Corinth listened when they saw miracles in the ministry of Paul.
Remember the story in John 9 about the healing of a man born blind? Jesus healed him and then because his healing created such a commotion, the Pharisees came to question him.
the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
This created a theological debate and the Pharisees called for him to come a second time and accused Jesus of sinning by healing on the Sabbath.
A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
This man, with no education, bested the highly educated Pharisees in a debate because his life had been transformed. He did not offer any complex theological concepts. He did not quote Torah. He simply stood on the reality of what Jesus had done for him.
Transformed lives speak powerfully of the truth of God. Sometimes lives are transformed through miracles of healing and deliverance, but every life lived in submission to God is transformed.
You can be the most eloquent speaker with a wonderful grasp of theological truth but if your life has not been transformed and is not being transformed by God, what you have to say will have little effect.
Leslie Newbigen, who served in India for many years, wrote that the sermons in the book of Acts are almost always given in response to questions asked. There is a miracle of healing or deliverance or the miracle of Pentecost and then questions are asked.
When our lives are transformed, people ask questions. A young woman was living a social life, rebelling against her parents. She became a follower of Jesus and began to respect and honor her parents and they wanted to know what had changed her.
A young man who had left home at the age of 16 and been physically aggressive toward his brothers and sisters and who once threatened his father became a follower of Jesus. He came home, kissed his father’s hand, gave gifts to his sisters and brothers and they wanted to know what had happened to him.
Your transformed life is your best tool for evangelism. With a transformed life, your witness for Jesus will come with power into the lives of people around you.
Verse 5 (starting with verse 4)
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
What is accomplished when you build a large church, have a wonderful music team, a great Sunday School and fill it with people? What is accomplished if you use your brilliant personality to encourage someone to come and be part of the church? What is accomplished if you have a ministry that helps people in difficult circumstances and people come to church because that is where they can get food and clothing?
I am not opposed to these things. In fact, I think these are things a church should do if it is able to do them. But my point is that only when God changes someone’s heart does anything of eternal significance happen to that person. A church full of people means nothing unless God has transformed their hearts.
A faith that rests on men’s wisdom does not have the strength to hold on to Jesus when life becomes difficult. A faith that rests on men’s wisdom is like the seed that gets choked by the thorns or has shallow roots and dies when the heat comes.
But when faith rests on God’s power, then we see miracles. We see people forgiving. We see people persevering. We see people refusing to give up. We see marriages working out the tension that come rather than divorcing. We see ordinary people standing up for Jesus regardless of the cost. Faith that rests on God’s power is holy and wonderful and we step back in awe.
Paul had a brilliant intellect but he also had a transformed life. What he said was backed up by his life and the dramatic change that took place on the road to Damascus. As the years went by and the Holy Spirit continued his work of mending Paul, his life increasingly reflected Jesus who had appeared to him.
In this way we can be just like Paul. As we persevere, submitting to Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in our lives and we become transformed. The transformation of our lives gives increasing power to the message we bring that Jesus is Lord, that he died for us so we can live for him.
May God bless you as you grow in your relationship with Jesus and share what he has done for us.