By Hoyt Houchen
Question: What does this verse mean: “For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power?” (1 Cor. 4:20).
Reply: First, we need to consider the context of the verse. In the preceding verses (vv. 18, 19) Paul had written, “Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will; and I will know, not the word of them that are puffed up, but the power.”
There were some at Corinth who were “puffed up.” They were enemies of Paul and were gloating because they thought Paul was afraid of them; this was the reason that Paul had delayed his coming. They asserted that his letters were weighty and strong, “but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). However, simply because Paul had sent Timothy to them (I Cor. 4:17) was no indication whatsoever that he himself did not intend to come to them. To offset the idea that he was afraid of these conceited false teachers, Paul assured his readers that he would come to them shortly, “if the Lord will” (v. 19). He would then put his accusers to a test. Since they denied his apostleship, he would have a showdown with them. He was not at all impressed by their vauntings but rather by what they could do. Their true character and power would be seen when he arrived.
With this before us, we can now see more clearly what Paul means in verse twenty, “For the kingdom of God is not in word; but in power.” The kingdom of God is spiritual in nature. Christ reigns in the hearts of His people, so therefore the kingdom of God does not consist of what is apparent and outward. “. . . for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). And, as David Lipscomb has well stated it, “God’s kingdom does not rest on eloquent and persuasive words (2:4)” (Commentary on First Corinthians, p. 70).
Whether or not “power” mentioned in our verse under consideration refers to the power to perform miracles is not certain. Some conclude that Paul would work miracles when he arrived at Corinth and would thereby confirm his message as the word of God in contrast to the boastful, haughty words of the false teachers. We can be certain that the kingdom of God is expanded by the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18) and by pure and holy living upon the part of those who are citizens in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not characterized by the words of men, but by the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is spiritual or true power. This meaning seems to be more in harmony with the context. Paul did not come to the Corinthians with “excellency of speech, or of wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1), but he knew only “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v. 2). He would return to them the same way.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 12, pp. 358-359
June 16, 1983