And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
— 1 Corinthians 2:1,2
After Paul was finished preaching to the intellectual leaders in Athens, he left the city feeling disappointed and sad. He preached in the great amphitheater on Mars Hill to a packed audience of intellectual pagans who yearned to hear his strange message about resurrection from the dead (see Acts 17:22).
In his sermon, Paul did everything perfect from a cultural standpoint. He used a idol from their city as an example of his message — something that showed them honor and surely must have gotten their attention (see Acts 17:23). He quoted their poets and philosophers (Acts 17:28), reaching out to them with their own culture and proving that he was a man of learning, worthy of addressing such an intellectual audience. With this mixture of culture, brain power, and the Word, Paul attempted to reach the leaders in Athens.
From a natural standpoint, Paul’s message was brilliant. Seminaries, schools of theology, and Bible school instructors would applaud any student who preached a message as exceptional as Paul’s sermon was that day. The message is a superb example for missionaries who invade new cultures as they preach the Gospel in the farthest extremes of the world. It excels at demonstrating how to use culture to reach a group that has never heard the Gospel before.
Yet when Paul finished preaching that day and the meeting was dismissed, the results of his masterpiece were dismal and depressing. The Bible says, “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter” (Acts 17:32). After the meeting, it appears that a group of people stayed in Paul’s company, of which a small, unspecified number became believers (v. 34).
When Paul walked out of Athens on the road to Corinth, he must have thought about what happened in Athens. Why weren’t more saved? How could they walk out mocking after such a masterful message was preached? It was the perfect sermon — the right mix of brains, culture, and the Word — so why hadn’t it produced a better effect? As he pondered on these questions, he came to a conclusion! That conclusion is contained in First Corinthians 2:1-4.
In verse 1, Paul writes to the Corinthians, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.” Paul had nothing against excellency of speech, wisdom, or brain power, but in Athens he had taken a purely intellectual approach to preaching, and he was less than satisfied with the results. Afterward, Paul determined that he would never again lean entirely upon the power of his intellect to accomplish the job of preaching.
Athens was a very religious city (see Acts 17:22) in which pagan religions and temples filled with the supernatural were in abundant supply. For instance, Athens had the Temple of Dionysius, a temple where prophecies and supernatural manifestations were regularly heard and witnessed. Athens also had the famous Temple of Asklepios. This was a temple where people came to be supernaturally healed by the Greek god of healing, whose image had a serpent wrapped around his legs. There were many other temples in Athens where supernatural occurrences were reported. These supernatural events were seen to be the proof that these religions were true.
Because of this, the Athenians didn’t just intellectually believe their religions; they had seen supernatural proof that made them believe. Although the supernatural activities in these temples were demonic, it was nevertheless real supernatural activity.
Thus, Paul’s mistake in Athens was that he forgot to demonstrate the supernatural! In a city like that, it wasn’t enough to come with words only. If the Athenians were ever to believe in Jesus, it was essential to preach the Gospel with the power of signs and wonders following.
If you carefully read Acts 17, you will find this is the one element that was missing from Paul’s message. So as he approached Corinth — another very religious city — Paul resolved that he would never again make the mistake of preaching without supernatural signs and wonders. This is why he said, “And my speech and my preaching [to the Corinthians after Paul left Athens] was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
The word “enticing” is the Greek word peitho, which means to persuade, to entice, or to convince. However, this word also carries the notion of craftily trying to coax someone to believe. In addition, it expresses the idea of someone who is trying to sweet-talk a person into taking some type of action. Apparently, Paul looks upon his ministry in Athens as a futile attempt to intellectually sweet-talk the Athenian intellectuals into faith. Because it failed so miserably, he declares he will never do it again!
He writes that he will never again try to entice a crowd with “man’s wisdom.” The word “wisdom” is the Greek word sophos — the word for wisdom that is attained naturally. Although this kind of wisdom is respected, rare, and honored in society, it is nonetheless insufficient to produce the power that is needed for the preaching of the Gospel.
In conclusion, Paul declares that from henceforth he will preach with a “…demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4). The word “demonstration” comes from the Greek word apodeiknumi — a word that indisputably refers to something that is outwardly seen or something visible that authenticates, proves, and guarantees the message to be true. It means to display or even to show off.
When preaching to a crowd like this, it was mandatory to do it with the vindicating power of supernatural signs and wonders. Because this was a society dominated by superstition and demonic activity, the people needed supernatural proof to authenticate the fact that God was behind the message being preached to them. This demonstration of power would get their attention more than anything else. Their thinking was similar to that of Nicodemus in John 3:2, when he told Jesus: “…Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”
From that point onward, Paul determined to have a supernatural ministry. No, he didn’t abandon his brains, nor did he stop using culture to help him connect to the hearts of the people. But Paul never again preached without the authority of signs and wonders to verify that he was God’s man and that the message he preached was God’s message. All those who saw the mighty “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” that operated through Paul in his ministry knew that God was speaking to them!
As you share Jesus with your friends, family, fellow employees, or acquaintances, you should certainly present the Gospel in an intellectual format that can be easily understood. But don’t be remiss and forget that the supernatural working power of the Holy Spirit is available to confirm the message you are telling your friends, family, and acquaintances. If you’ve made the mistake of trying to present the Gospel only through the power of your intellect, you now have an opportunity to repent and ask the Holy Spirit to come alongside to help you do a better job!
My Prayer for Today
Lord, I want to tell You that I am sorry for the many times I’ve tried to present the Gospel to others in the power of my intellect and flesh, failing to let the Holy Spirit confirm the Word with signs following. I have been timid and shy about moving in the power of God, but I know it’s time for me to push that timidity aside. To the best of my ability and with sincerity of heart, I am telling You today that I want Your Gospel-proving power to flow through me.
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
My Confession for Today
I declare by faith that I am not timid or afraid! God wants to pour His power through me, and I am receptive and open to His using me in this wonderful way. People need the power of God, and God wants to use me to bring His miraculous touch into their lives. I am bold and confident — and I am growing bolder and more confident every day!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
Questions to Answer
1. Have you ever felt that your presentation of the Gospel to unbelievers lacked power?
2. Is there a reason you are timid about letting the Holy Spirit and His gifts work through you when presenting the Gospel to unbelievers? If yes, what is that reason, and what steps do you need to take to start getting rid of this fear?
3. What kind of difference do you honestly think it would make if signs and wonders accompanied you every time you spoke the Gospel to people who are unsaved? For instance, do you think that a supernatural healing of their sick bodies would get their attention more quickly?