Before Paul brings up Apollos, who is renowned for his eloquent speech and his ability to employ lofty speech in his presentation and defense of the Gospel (thereby explaining Paul’s making mention of Apollos), Paul defends this recognized deficiency in his own abilities. Naturally, though he may see his abilities as being deficient, he believes that the message that he preaches, and the effects that it produces in those that hear it and live it, more than make up for his perceived failings.
With a solid framework in place, it is now possible to better understand what Paul is getting at when he writes “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. 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” (2:1-5).
This very thing that he did not want to see, which is faith based on human wisdom (with this being tied to the honor competition rather than this being a knock on the mental pursuit of the appropriate understanding and application of facts, not to mention that the message of the cross as the place of actual honor for Jesus and those that would follow Him, when the world saw it as the place of the greatest shame), is what was happening among those that were inclined to identify themselves with Apollos, in alignment with the prevailing principles of honor and shame. This also illuminates Paul’s asking them “are you not merely human?” Again, Paul takes no issue with Apollos. Indeed, Paul may have desired to possess Apollos’ abilities. At the same time, what he saw in Corinth, as the people were perhaps reacting to Apollos more based on his abilities rather than on the message that he faithfully delivered to the best of his abilities, served as a tremendous example to Paul.
In the end, he would rather see that the message of the Gospel (Jesus as Lord of all) and its cross (humiliation, suffering, weakness, cursing, shame) carry the day, for then there would be no doubt as to wherein lied the mysterious efficacy of the message against all reasonable expectations (the whole thing being absurd prima facie). It was Paul’s underlying hope that if honor was to be accrued and assigned, that it would not be assigned to the one that delivered the message, but to the one of whom the message spoke, and it would hopefully spark imitation of the supreme honoree along cross-shaped lines.
This must be approached carefully, especially if one finds himself in the midst of a Christian culture that decries deep learning as being somehow antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel. Paul does not take issue with learning and the ability to speak persuasively. He is taking issue with the response of the people in accordance with social norms that valued power and persuasion and the individual pursuit of honor at all costs as the dominant ethic of society, rather than the embrace of suffering and shame if need be as the dominant ethic of the society of the followers of Jesus as they turned the world on its head.
Failing in this area would mean that they were continuing to value the standards of the kingdoms of man rather than the standards of the kingdom of the Creator God as demonstrated by Jesus, as those standards were outlined in the what they have would known about Jesus through the traditions that were being orally transmitted about Him (in word and deed), and as displayed through His cross.