Before I preach I nearly always ask God to cleanse my heart and purify my motives. It’s so easy to preach the right message for all the wrong reasons (cf. Phil. 1:15-17).
In a section dealing with division within the church at Corinth, Paul writes,
11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I followApollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. . . . 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. (1 Cor. 1:11-17)
Paul was called to preach the gospel not to win people to himself. In other words, “he was not sent to start a cult of people baptized by him” (MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 33).
But even in his primary calling of preaching he sought to direct people away from himself and toward the cross. He says his preaching was “not with the words of eloquent wisdom.” That means Paul’s preaching of the gospel wasn’t characterized by “clever, skilled, educated, or rhetorically sophisticated speech” (Garland, 56). For Paul preaching wasn’t about “winning arguments and impressing an audience by rhetorical display rather than content” (Witherington, 103-104).
Why not? What’s the problem with that kind of preaching? It’s found in the reason Paul gives at the end of v. 17: “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Leon Morris explains that preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom”
would draw people to the preacher. It would nullify the cross of Christ. The faithful preaching of the cross leads people to put their trust, not in any human device, but in what God has done in Christ. A reliance on rhetoric would cause trust in men, the very opposite of what the preaching of the cross is meant to effect. (1 Corinthians, 48)
Or in the words of David Garland,
The problem with this style is that it earns the preacher the crowd’s golden opinions. Consequently, Paul is not defending his apostolic power in spite of his speaking deficiencies but attempting to undercut one of the values that has contributed to their divisions: the thirst for honor. Eloquence that elevates the status of the preacher cancels the power of the cross. (56)
Paul bent over backwards, as it were, even in his rhetoric, to point people away from himself and toward the cross and thereby foster unity within the body of Christ.
Perhaps we should do some self-assesssment in order to bring ourselves more in line with Paul’s cross-centered philosophy and practice of preaching:
- Does my preaching draw more attention to me than to Christ?
- Am I more concerned about how I preach than what I preach?
- Am I preaching to secure the approval of Christ or the approval of my listeners?
- Am I preaching in such a way that it encourages people to follow me or to follow Christ?
- Does my preaching encourage unity within the body of Christ or disunity?
Questions: What does preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom” look like today? What can we as preachers do to avoid emptying the cross of Christ of its power?