My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NET)
When the Apostle Paul writes these words, is he denouncing or decrying the diligent pursuit of wisdom and knowledge through intensive study? Is he indicating that his preaching itself is somehow a demonstration of the Spirit and of power? Is he claiming that the preaching itself, rather than being based on investigation and research and a searching out of truth through all available means, is based exclusively on a delivery of knowledge by the Holy Spirit? Contrary to how this passage is often widely understood, the answer to the questions just posed is “absolutely not!” Unfortunately, there is sometimes a tendency to over-spiritualize things, which usually occurs through a willful lifting of words from their context, thereby creating a paucity of meaning. It is up to those in a position to do so, to set about in correction of the error.
The context for the text is to be found in the first chapter of this letter to the church at Corinth. In the eighteenth verse Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). That actually lines up quite nicely with the last part of the fifth verse of the second chapter, where we see Paul sharing about “the power of God.” In 1:18, Paul says that the message of the cross is the power of God for those who are being saved. This idea echoes well with Romans 1:16, in which we find that the “Gospel…is God’s power for salvation.” The message of the Gospel, that Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, is Lord of all, naturally carries with it the message of the cross, thus making it possible for these verses to be linked.
Returning to the first chapter of the Corinthian letter, we find that “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom” (1:22). Paul’s response to that is to say “but we preach about a crucified Christ” (1:23a), which of course includes the message of the cross---part of the Christ-event, all of which is intended to speak to the power of the Creator God. Paul adds that this preaching about the cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23b). Going further, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Paul says the “Christ,” that being Jesus, the man that was ignominiously crucified and put to a horrible, cursed death on a Roman cross, “is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24), as well as the One “Who became for us wisdom from God” (1:30b). Without getting into what precisely is meant or implied by the use of “wisdom” here, we see that throughout this section of the first chapter, Paul sets up the clear contrast between God’s wisdom and human wisdom. In God’s wisdom, as Paul has come to understand it, Jesus went to the cross. This defied all human wisdom (as Paul has also apparently come to understand it), as in the eyes and hearts and minds of most observers, and on the surface, nothing good or positive could come from such a thing.
Having prepared his readers, Paul goes on to say, “I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God” (2:1b). Because of what the cross represented (cursing, shame, and the end of a movement in the case of the now failed revolutionary leader), there was no human wisdom in what he preached, which we saw in the first chapter. However, Paul insists that the testimony of God that he brought was “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2b). Indeed, to this he shortly adds that his conversation and his preaching “were not with persuasive words of wisdom,” which is obviously the case, as he has already declared that the message of the cross, of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, which Paul said was the only thing with which he was going to concern himself (2:2a), was foolishness. He agreed that it was the antithesis of human wisdom, and he well understood this, so Paul has created the very construct of comprehension in which his preaching the message of the cross could not have been conducted in persuasive words of human wisdom.
His preaching of the cross was the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” As was said earlier, it was not the act of preaching that was the demonstration. Paul was not necessarily declaring himself to be “under the anointing” of the Spirit and in the power of God, at least in the way that many in our own time hear and define such a thing, with this then being subsequently demonstrated in his preaching. Far from it. In fact, Paul would say that any proclamation of Jesus as Lord (the Gospel) was made under the Spirit’s power. It was the facts that he preached, that of the cross, the death, and the subsequent Resurrection of Christ from the grave, that was what he understood to be God’s demonstration of the Spirit and of power. His message, which spoke of the work of the Spirit and God’s power over death, was not going to be understood in the normal way, as the crowning of the world’s King, most definitely, had not taken place in the normal or expected way.
Yes, Paul determined to preach Jesus, and to preach Him crucified, so as to be able to preach Him raised up from the dead, in an impressive display of the power of God. That is most certainly the non-human-wisdom message that Paul preached. It was that message---the content rather than the manner of preaching---the bringing and hearing of which Paul believes to be the source of faith (Romans 10:17), that would enable the one that comes to be a believer, by the same Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead, to bypass the inherent and underlying foolishness of the message (and the method), so as to be brought to the place of belief in the content of the message, and to an understanding of the salvific power of God.