What do you think of when you remember high school? When I think back I think of fads and trends and following the herd – year 7 it was white leather adidas three stripe shoes, year 8 Reebok pump basket ball shoes, year 9 Nike Air Jordan. By year 12 it was Oakley frogskin sunglasses. I'm told this year it was Superdry Jackets.
The thing that stands out to me now is how silly it was for everyone to want to wear exactly the same clothes – what was with that? If someone cool got something we all wanted to have that exact thing, as if that would make us cool. But all that following the crowd ever did was mark us out as followers, not cool at all.
Of course there's always the counter culture isn't there – when everyone was listening to AC/DC, some guys were listening to the Cure and wearing make up – make up! Today they're Gleeks or Freaks or still Goths…
They look different, but really, underneath, they're still doing the same thing the rest of us are, they're just attaching themselves to a different group to be a different type of cool.
What were we doing? We were trying to find a competitive advantage over everyone else so we'd look good – and since we ourselves didn't stand out, we tried to ride on the backs of things/brands/people that did.
But we've grown out of that now haven't we? Have we – I heard this week plastic surgeons are reporting a massive surge in interest from people wanting to be reshaped to look like Pippa Middleton! And don't we still try and buy the best car or the best house, the trendy Jimmy Choo's or the Amani's. Isn't that why we follow our team, why everyone wants to talk to me about cricket now that Australia's losing?
Ultimately if we dig deep enough into our psyche we have to admit we can turn anything into a competition because we want to believe that we're winning, we want to be the big man, we want to be the boss – I want to be part of the most powerful, most successful, most influential crowd, because I want to rule. In that respect all this one-up-man-ship is just another aspect of our trying to be king, we want to have influence over others, to be great and respected. It's sin finding another way to rule us.
Over the last few weeks in 1 Corinthians Paul's been dealing with an ugly outbreak of just this competitiveness in the church at Corinth. Today he finishes his argument telling us not to put our trust in fame and glamour and influence, but instead to go the route of humility and weakness, be prepared to look the fool because that's the gospel way.
What's his argument? He uses himself as an example of how the gospel transforms our behaviour… by examining how he shared the gospel with them in the first place.
Remember the context – Chapter 1 verse 10 they've been forming into cliques and competing for prestige and influence in the church. – treating church leaders like pop stars and lining up to be their number one fans.
Paul's already argued that competing for prestige is the very opposite of what the church is all about. In 1.18-25 he reminds them the gospel isn't all glory and power, but Jesus dying in shame and weakness. The gospel isn't impressive philosophy – it's foolish simplicity. But it's powerful to save all the same.
And verse 26-31 the message didn't appeal to the cultural elite, but to the weak and lowly – the church was never going to win any prizes for being impressive.
Now he moves on to a third angle – not just the message and the congregation that's unimpressive, the very people they're claiming to follow were also unimpressive, take Paul – when he came to Corinth there was no way he could be called impressive.
So the message sounded like foolishness, the message attracted a crowd that was frankly pathetic, and the messenger was just as unimpressive.
Paul says that his preaching was foolish, and he himself was weak and unimpressive; àbut he was happy to make a fool of himself because that spotlighted Christ.
Let's unpack that sentence as we look through the passage. That'll give us three points to look at –
Paul's preaching was foolish;
Paul himself was weak and unimpressive; and
Paul was happy to make a fool of himself to spotlight Christ.
Firstly, Paul's preaching was foolish compared to what they were used to. Look at verse 1:
1 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,
Paul came to the home of impressive public speakers in Corinth and among the many great orators he really stood out – but not in a good way. He wasn't the most impressive he was the least impressive.
Corinth was full of professional speakers – guys who could really hold a crowd. The sort of guys who could convince you black was white or white was black – depending on whether it was Mr White or Mr Black who was paying for their services.
But Paul wasn't like them, he wasn't playing their game. Instead of strutting and boasting, instead of carefully crafting elaborate word structures he had a simple and direct message. He simply testified to what God did through Jesus.
And as he's already reminded them his testimony was of weakness and shame personified. In verse two he reminds them of his theme – I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him Crucified.
That was his theme: Jesus is the crucified Lord. Really? Jesus is Lord? Your Lord was executed as a common criminal? And you still think he's somebody worth following?
In 1.18 Paul said the message of the cross is foolishness to the world – as if the Corinthians needed reminding of that! The Romans used the cross to degrade and humiliate as well as to punish. You couldn't be more beaten, more humiliated, more disgraced. Crucified Lord – that's an oxymoron – you can't be a conquering ruler and dead in shame and disgrace.
And the Jews recognised crucifixion as falling under the very curse of God – Deuteronomy 21.23 'anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse' – you can't be God's King under God's curse.
This message of yours Paul, it just doesn't work, it's Foolishness! Weakness!
But this was Paul's deliberate strategy. Look at the start of verse 2 again – Paul says 'I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified'. This was Paul's deliberate choice; he wanted to focus on the one thing that made his message seem most ridiculous.
It certainly marked him out in the crowd – but not in a good way. He sounded like a fool among the philosophers, a laughing stock.
The point is Paul's alright with that, he wasn't there to win the crowds over with rhetoric, with verbal dexterity or showing off, just to testify to what God had done. His point is he had absolutely no ego about his preaching, he wasn't in it for his own reputation.
So why are they using his name in their bragging and competing with each other? They're just showing that they haven't listened to the message Paul preached. They want everyone to know that they're Paul's followers because they think that following Paul will give them more prestige – but don't they remember what Paul was like, don't they remember what he said, what he preached? He wasn't impressive, he shunned anything that make his speech sound impressive and concentrated on preaching a message that made him seem very stupid.
The Corinthians are like the high school students who all have to have the same shoes, or jacket, or hair style or sun glasses – they're trying to mark themselves out by following the crowd, by riding on Paul's reputation; but Paul stepped outside of that star system all together and had nothing to do with it – how can they now make his name a rallying point in a new Christian star system?
Why is this important?
Because they're ripping the church apart in competition with each other by trying to come up with the best Christian leader to attach themselves to so that they'll be more glamorous and respectable within the church. But those same leaders did all they can to shun the glory they're giving them!
Remember who you're claiming to follow… remember what it is we said to you – we're not about glory and glamour and pride and bragging, we're the opposite of all that.
Does that mean we shouldn't listen to smart guys at church, that only simplistic sermons are any good?
No, it means that preachers shouldn't preach to impress people by how smart they are, or how cleverly can construct sentences or how well read they are – preachers should be pointing away from themselves and to God, and that means they need to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified.
If you're looking for good bible teaching – great – don't look for the preacher who sounds the most impressive – look for the preacher who's most faithful in pointing to Jesus.
See the problem with preaching to impress people is that the gospel doesn't impress people. So preaching for applause must distort the gospel; it has to – it's a message about shame and disgrace, you can't be proud and preach this message without distorting it, misrepresenting it, changing it.
Let me illustrate that with some examples: Miracles are hard to believe nowadays, so some people edit them out of the gospel; Judgement in hell sounds a big harsh so some preachers take the bits about judgement out; The morality of the Bible is a bit out of step with the modern world, so some say God's Spirit's leads them to see more clearly than the writers of the Bible, now we know better – so we can accept things that the bible says are wrong; In a pluralistic world the exclusive claims of Jesus sound shocking – so some people say that maybe Jesus isn't the only way to God, or that everyone will be saved by Jesus, but some people won't know they were saved by Jesus, they might think they're being saved by Allah, or Kristna or Bhudda. That's just four examples. I could go on… But it's easy to point at those terrible people out there, and do the very same thing ourselves. Haven't there been times when you struggled to own that bit of the gospel that the person in front of you finds offensive, or ridiculous; times when you keep quiet when people ridiculed things you believe as a Christian; have you, like me, found yourself backing away from Christian beliefs because you felt like a fool?
The gospel will offend people, it will divide people, it will make people laugh. But chucking out the gospel won't solve the problem – it just makes it worse. Not everyone will believe the gospel, but without it no one will come to God.
So Paul made a point of preaching a simple message, a foolish message – the message of Jesus Christ, Crucified Lord. He was happy to sound like a fool. That's the first point.
But he went further than just sounding like a fool. Paul was happy even to look a fool for Christ. That's our second point:
Paul himself was weak and unimpressive; and
Look with me at verse 3:
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,
This is Paul, the great apostle speaking. In the Christian world Paul is one of the absolute giants, God used him mightily. It's easy now to call him great because we can see the impact he had, he still has.
But they saw him in a different light. He wasn't much to look at. He wasn't very impressive. He came in weakness and fear and with much trembling – it sounds like he had an attack of stage fright or malaria.
Either way, we know what people in Corinth thought when they heard him speak – Paul quotes them in 2 Cor 10, in verse10 he quotes 'some say 'his letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing'.
Ouch! He talks himself up when he's not there, but see him in person and he's a nobody, and his sermons are rubbish! That's how they remembered him.
But that doesn't matter, he didn't come to impress people, he came to point to Christ. And he took that seriously – even in himself he tried to demonstrate that the weakness and humility of the gospel.
He's already said he didn't go in for their showy public speaking. But this goes further – he was weak and fearful in himself. What was he afraid of? Maybe that they would reject the message, maybe of more physical persecution. How was he weak – it could be he was ill – some have suggested he may have gone to Corinth with Malaria (hence the trembling); or it could be a reference to his weak and vulnerable position – when he came to Corinth he came alone and instead of working as a public speaker he went to work as a tent maker – he was so weak and vulnerable he had to work with his hands to eat, what a pathetic excuse for a public speaker.
Whatever the details, the point he's making is that he illustrated the weakness and folly of the message in himself. Let me explain it this way. A lot of people, the sort of preachers you see on TV, preach that God wants us to be rich and successful – they preach a prosperity gospel. Now if I got up today and preached that here, you'd know something was wrong – not just because it doesn't match up with the bible, but you just have to look at me to see that I'm not rich.
If you're going to preach a prosperity gospel you need to be rich to back it up. That's why those guys are always immaculately dressed, why they look rich, teeth whitened, perma-tans– some of them even bling up with gold chains and rings and things. And yes, they own mansions and fancy cars and all the rest. They have to, those are props that demonstrate that they're living the healthy, wealthy and wise life they're promising you. They have to embody that wealth or we'd always be thinking – if that's what God wants for us, why didn't he make you rich?
Well Paul embodied the message too. But he wasn't rich and powerful and impressive looking. He was the very opposite. He didn't have any bling – he sowed tents. He didn't get his teeth whitened and his hair straightened and his tan topped up – he embodied the humility and weakness of the gospel he was preaching.
Back when I was in high school, dreaming of Oakley sunglasses and Nike shoes I prayed every day for a great list of celebrities – I thought if God just converted Michael Jackson and the members of Nirvana and Metallica, then people would believe. By all means, pray for celebrities, they need Jesus too, but don't think that God needs a celebrity endorsement. It's not like that.
And it's not like we need to be big shots before people will listen to us either. In fact we need to be prepared to humble ourselves and admit that we're the weak and foolish people who need God's help.
Don't you remember - the foolish gospel and the weak and unimpressive speaker turned the world upside down. We're still reading Paul's letters today, we're still feeling the effects of the revolution that started where ever he went and preached this foolish message.
The message worked, because the power of the gospel doesn't come from the speaker, but from God. This is the third point Paul makes, the climax of his argument:
Paul was happy to make a fool of himself to spotlight Christ.
The gospel sounds ridiculous, like a hand full of magic beans from Jack and the Beanstalk. And Paul looked ridiculous, weak and hopeless. But there's power in the gospel – not the power of the great speakers, not the power of prestige and the lure of wealth and health – no much better than that, the power of God, working through his Spirit.
Look at verse 4:
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.
A demonstration of the spirit's power – how did Paul demonstrate the spirit's power? He's already said that he didn't pander to Jewish expectations by giving them miraculous signs, so I don't think he's talking about miracles here. I think he's talking about the way the Holy Spirit took what was preached in all it's weakness and foolishness and used it to bring conversions. (I don't mean to say that he never did miracles, but they weren't his evangelistic strategy, his strategy was preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified, that message needed no miracles to give it power, it was powerful itself.)
He says something similar in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5
For we know that God has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction
He knew God was at work because the gospel was effective in people's hearts and minds and lives – when the gospel is preached God by his Spirit convicts people of the truth of the message that's preached, leads them to respond in faith and obedience. God's power is there in the seeming weakness and humility of the gospel. It doesn't need great preachers or laser light shows, it just needs to be preached, to be spoken, to be told.
No doubt Paul could have impressed them with his learning, dazzled them with show business, put the razzle dazzle. But then they might have put their trust in Paul and how smart he was, how impressive a show he put on. And they would have missed the point. Paul was prepared to look and sound a fool because he wanted them to look past him to put their trust in Jesus. To hold on to God's power, not Paul's wisdom.
So the irony of the cross continues. Paul deliberately rejected the things that they found most fascinating and persuasive – the showy rhetoric and the speakers tricks that held the audience – and instead preached a message that sounded weak and foolish. He preached in a way that looked weak and foolish. He even embodied the foolishness and weakness of that message as he preached it to them.
As I said at the beginning Paul's preaching was foolish, and he himself was weak and unimpressive; àbut he was happy to make a fool of himself because that spotlighted Christ.
And we know that Paul and his weak and unimpressive preaching had a far greater effect than all the showmen and all the wise men and all the miracle workers put together. Can anyone name a first Century Corinthian today? But here we are reading Paul's letter, basing our lives around the simple gospel he proclaimed.
But this is more than just about preaching as important as preaching is. Remember this is the end of an argument to teach them to stop comparing themselves with one another, to stop playing games of one-up-man-ship, to stop competing for glory and influence in the church.
So what does Paul's preaching teach us about our competitive spirit? It says that just like Paul, we need to internalise the foolishness and weakness of the cross. If we're bringing our competitiveness into the church and making the church the arena for our competitions, then we haven't yet understood the gospel.
The gospel is the message that the weak and helpless can get help, the morally bankrupt can be bailed out, the enslaved sinner can be released from slavery and forgiven their sins. And that gospel isn't just the way to get in – it's the pattern for all of life.
To get God's help we need to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness, we need to recognise that we are the weak, we are the helpless, the bankrupt, the enslaved, we are the insignificant and shameful, the things that are not that Paul talked about in 1.28. And that's not an entry requirement, that's the whole bag – the gospel humbles us, we're supposed to live that humility, embody that humility.
Don't look for glory, don't seek influence, forget about competing with each other – As 1 Peter 5.5 says: clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
Let's Pray .