by Spiros Zodhiates
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (1 Cor. 1:17).
What did the Apostle Paul mean when he said that he was not called to preach “with wisdom of words”? The Greek preposition en, translated “with” in this phrase, could better be rendered “by means of.” The gospel is a message that God has already delivered to us. It does not appeal to mere human reason, in that it does not depend on reason to be intelligible to people. Dressing the gospel up with human wisdom may make it more agreeable to people, but it will not necessarily cause people to receive the offer of salvation in Christ.
“Wisdom of words” is sophía (wisdom) lógou (genitive form of logos, (word). (Note that lógou is singular and should be translated “word” here, not “words” as the King James Version has it.) Lógos means both word and intelligence. It is the basic word from which we derive our English word “logic.” It is reason. And words are intelligence expressed.
Sophía lógou, then, means natural wisdom expressed in words. Human wisdom expressed in words can never be adequate to communicate the good news of salvation in Christ. It is good news, but to the natural man it seems humanly unreasonable that God would send His son to die for us while we rebelled against Him. Paul seems to be telling us here to use our natural gifts, but not depend on them totally.
Only the power of the cross of Christ can cause sinful man to accept the good news. Paul would not rely on words of human wisdom, “lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” Christ went to the cross to reconcile sinners to a holy God. Are sinners reconciled to God when you preach or speak? Whenever you speak, consider your aim. Is it to make converts, which is the basis of the crucifixion, or is it to gain admiration for yourself, even in the realm of theology?
The verb translated “be made of none effect” is meâ kenoâthe which literally means “be not emptied out.” There is a simple truth in the gospel—Christ died for our sins so that we might not have to die. By accepting His death in our stead, we receive His life. We are born again. This is so simple that words of human wisdom may obscure it. We must be careful that people get the clear-cut message of the gospel when we preach or testify.
We learn from this verb also that we are not to attribute any success that we may have in preaching the gospel to our eloquence or to the force of human argumentation. Instead we are to attribute it to the preaching of Christ crucified. The success of the preaching of the gospel depends on the simple power of its truths, as attested by the Holy Spirit to the hearts of men. If Paul had adorned the gospel with the charms of Grecian rhetoric, he would have obscured its wisdom and efficacy, just like gilding a diamond would destroy its brilliance.
True eloquence, real learning, and sound sense are valuable when they convey the truth with plainness. Certainly these qualities aid in fixing the mind on the pure gospel, and to leaving hearts convicted of God’s power. Paul’s design here cannot be to condemn true eloquence and just reasoning, but to rebuke the vain parade, the glittering ornaments, and the dazzling rhetoric that the Greeks held in such esteem. (See Albert Barnes, Notes on 1 Corinthians.)
Do not shy away from the cross of Christ and the blood that He shed there for sinners. This is the distinctiveness of the Christian gospel. Because it is distinctive, do not neglect it for the sake of ecumenical agreement. At the close of a worship service, a gentleman accosted a preacher and, after conceding that the sermon possessed certain commendable features, added, “But it had one damning defect!” Upon inquiring what this defect was, the startled minister received the following reply: “I am a Jew. I have only recently been born again. Up to that time I attended the synagogue. But there was really nothing in your sermon that I could not have heard in the synagogue, nothing that a Jewish rabbi might not have preached.” “That,” said the preacher in later years, “was the greatest lesson in homiletics I was ever taught.” Be careful lest your words hide the cross, for it is there that sinners can lay down their burden of sin.
When you present the gospel, fruit is what you want. One friend asked another who had heard a moving sermon what he remembered of it. “Truly,” he answered, “I remember nothing at all, but I am a different man as a result of it.” Contrast this with another man’s answer to what he thought of a sermon that had produced a great sensation among the congregation. His reply may hold an important lesson for some of us. “Very fine, sir, but a man cannot live upon flowers.”
Remember, philosophy deals with abstract ideas, whereas the cross of Christ is a historical event and as such it can neither be doubted nor neglected. It is no theory of thought; it is a fact and should be presented as such.
“How is it,” a bishop asked a dramatist, “that I, in expounding divine doctrines, produce so little effect upon my congregation, while you can so easily rouse the passions of your audience by the representation of fiction?” “Because I recite falsehoods as if they were true, while you deliver truths as if they were fiction!” the actor replied. This indeed is the reason for the weakness of most preaching in our day. The truth of the cross is a fact that must be related to the need of men everywhere.
From A Richer Life for You in Christ (an Exegetical Commentary on First Corinthians One), published by AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN