By Dan King
All of us have felt inadequate before some great task in our lives. The first time we had to speak in front of a group of people was such an experience for most of us. Those of us who were not particularly good in some phase of mathematics, like Algebra, Geometry or Calculus, felt frustrated and weak before these profound disciplines of math. Some have known total frustration on their first day at a new job, learning and having to keep up with those who have been “at it” for some time already. It is certainly a very human emotion, natural to a variety of circumstances and situations.
We have surely known, then, something of how Paul must have felt when he came to the great metropolis of Corinth, capital of Achaia. Trained as a Jewish rabbi, converted to Christianity and empowered by Christ, he still knew the feeling of inadequacy in the face of so grand a work as this among so intelligent and sophisticated a people as these highly cultured Greeks. John Pollock captured this historic moment with the following description:
Corinth was the biggest city Paul had yet encountered, a brash new commercial metropolis founded in its current form less than a hundred years earlier after a century in ruins. It squeezed nearly a quarter million people into a comparatively small area, a large proportion being slaves engaged in unending movement of goods. Slaves or free, Corinthians were rootless, cut off from their country background, drawn from races and districts all over the empire and, except for the Jewish community, without natural groupings: a curiously close parallel to the population of a twentieth-century “inner-city,” the over crowded materialistic heart of any great urban concentration, with the superficial difference that Corinthians masked their materialism, sexual appetites and superstitions behind a cloak of religiousness. . . If the love of Christ Jesus could take root in Corinth, the most populated, wealthy, commercial-minded and sex-obsessed city of eastern Europe, it must prove powerful anywhere (The Apostle: A Life of Paul 121).
His own strength was meaningless, his own wisdom pitiful, as he saw it. He did not know this then, but it is just at such a time as this that we are truly strong, for then is God’s strength capable of being exercised (2 Cor. 12:9). God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, for then we will move out of the way (so to speak) and, in faith, permit God to do his part. It was under such circumstances, and in the context of the Corinthian work, that Paul came fully to comprehend the power of God which had been poured into earthen vessels: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Thus, he made the following observations about his preaching, which ought to have tremendous power in con-soling us over our own feelings of inadequacy about living the Christian life and facing its many trials and challenges:
Paul came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1). Human wisdom was already in great abundance in Corinth, as it is present in our cities and towns today. But the world is not looking to us for either of these, at least that portion that would be saved. The world needs the saving word of the Gospel, the message of truth and hope. Of course, there is a natural appetite that the world has for the appealing things of this carnal realm, but we cannot give it what it wants, but rather what it needs: “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). That is just what Paul did. He delivered them a dose of what was needed, whether it was wanted or not. The result was a bountiful harvest of souls at Corinth: “and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized” (Acts 18:8). This was not always the case, for Athens was relatively negative toward the Gospel (Acts 17:32-34).
Paul was with them in weakness (1 Cor. 2:3). The natural impulse of the male of our species is to show no weakness, but rather to appear strong in the face of all odds. Apparently Paul overcame this impulse, for he really was dwarfed by the immensity of his opposition at Corinth.
This city was the home of a great temple of Aphrodite, a cult dedicated to the glorification of sex. One thousand girls were kept consecrated to the goddess, and their pro-cessions, rituals and individual solicitude so aroused male devotees and set the tone of the city that the ancient world described habitual fornicators as “Living like Corinthians.” Here was also the temple of Apollo, which also glorified sex as well as music, song and poetry, for Apollo was the ideal of male beauty. The temple’s inner recesses held nude statues and friezes of Apollo intended to fire his male worshippers to physical displays of devotion with the god’s beautiful boys. Apollo’s temple encouraged homosexuality and pedophilia. Before such magesterial evil, Paul stood in abject fear: “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). But he knew, even as John did that “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).
Paul determined to know only Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul was a well-educated man: no doubt he knew a lot of things, many facts and figures, names and dates, etc. But he came to these people knowing only the message of Jesus and the cross. Yet, the wonder of it is that this is all he needed, for it turned the city upside down. A fine congregation of saints was borne out of his proclamation of the crucified Christ at Corinth.
4. Paul established their faith in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5). By refusing to promote human wisdom, he turned the people’s attention away from himself and man’s wisdom, firmly planting the Corinthian church on the solid foundation of Christ. Paul could not save anyone, not even himself.
Only the power of God and the blood of Christ could accomplish sin’s remission. But Paul could only establish their faith in Christ when his was first centered upon him. This was the order then, and it is the order now.
In our own struggle toward the goal of the high calling of God, let us remember that a feeling of utter inadequacy is not only normal but even healthy. It is our own opportunity to reach out to the only source of true spiritual enlightenment and strength. When we come to know only “Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” that is, realize our own weakness and inadequacy, and fall back upon the wisdom and power of God. Then and only then, will we be able to accomplish any important thing in his service.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 4, p. 20-21
February 18, 1993