Why did Paul Go to Corinth with a Demonstration of the Spirit’s Power?

“My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power….”

Ruins of Ancient Corinth in Peloponnese, Greece

Over the couple weeks that I was paying attention to what happened at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY (and other places now too), and considering the people criticizing it or cautioning us about it, I have prayerfully considered the matter. I have written about the “Asbury revival” a handful of times, so I am not going to rehash what I have written.

I continue to mull over the seeming positive development of 20-somthings worshiping, publicly confessing sins, praying for each other, and exalting the name of Jesus while people have been critical of what was happening and questioning God’s involvement in it. At the same, I have been drawn in my daily Bible reading to the concern Paul expressed in most of his letters for unity in the body of Christ.

This focus that has been impressed on me as I read the Bible and meditate on it predates the Asbury thing by many months, but it is directly relevant to it. The lack of unity in the American Church stands in sharp contrast to Paul’s emphasis on unity in the body of Christ. Our lack of unity has been publicly demonstrated in the vitriolic responses to the “He gets us” commercials aired during the Super Bowl and now to the Asbury “revival”.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is all about unity and order in the local body of believers in Corinth. At the same time, the Corinthian Christians seemed to lack no shortage of what we might call the “outpouring” or “movement” of the Holy Spirit. None of Paul’s letters deals more with “the spiritual gifts” than this one.

I need to comment that the free exercise of the spiritual gifts, and God moving in peoples’ hearts and minds do not necessarily go hand in hand, as we will see, Paul also did not discourage the Corinthians from using the spiritual gifts.

This is the problem, though: while the spiritual gifts were demonstrably evidenced in the Corinthian church, they Corinthians were not producing an abundance of the fruits of the Spirit among. This lack of the fruit of the Holy Spirit was the problem in Corinth.

As a key indicator of that lack of fruit, Paul focused on their quarrelsome cliques: one group followed Paul, another group followed Apollos, and other groups of people claimed to follow Cephas, or simply Christ. That local body was being torn apart by arguments over who they should follow and other aspects of the Christian life, like whether they should be eating food sacrificed to idols. Meanwhile, they were ignoring other problems in their midst like sexual sin, relational issues, and other things.

They exhibited the spiritual gifts abundantly. Those exhibitions of spiritual gifting might be called today a “movement” or “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit, but the fruit of the Holy Spirit was lacking. Whether the Spirit was “moving” or people were simply exercising gifts given by the spirit are two different things.

I have experienced that incongruity myself. A lack of harmony between a hyper focus on the spiritual gifts and a lack of unity, faithfulness, maturity, and holiness in the local body of Christ has caused many to pull back from Charismatic and Pentecostal forms of Christian expression. Me included.

We sometimes fail to appreciate the difference between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We think that a demonstration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit means that we are blessed by God, and everything we do is approved by God, but that isn’t necessarily true.

If those two things went hand in hand, Paul would have had no issues with the Corinthian church, because the Corinthians experienced a liberal “outpouring of the Spirit” characterized by prophecy, speaking in tongues, miracles, etc. Though the Corinthian church was demonstrably Charismatic (or Pentecostal), it was woefully lacking in unity and personal holiness.

Having acknowledged that, we need to notice that Paul’s issue with the Corinthians wasn’t (primarily) their misuse (or ineffective use) of the spiritual gifts. The more serious concern was their prideful, boastful, quarrelsome lack of unity and toleration of sin in their midst.

Something else occurs to me that I hadn’t noticed before, and this is the focus of my writing today. The Corinthians were Greek, of course. Paul famously says to the Corinthians that Greeks demand wisdom, while Jews (his people) demand signs.

Both of these things are forms of error, but the Corinthians, being Greek, were particularly prone to err along the lines of their particular, cultural bias. They valued discourse, argument and persuasive oratory. Thus, Paul said,

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, announcing the mystery of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.”

1 Corinthians 2:1‭-‬5 CSB

Paul says he did not come with brilliance of speech or with persuasive words. He came with “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. As I will show below, Paul’s focus is on the Greek tendency to err in demanding “wisdom”, not the Jewish tendency to demand “signs” (though the Corinthians experienced no shortage of “signs”). This is interesting to me in the light of the Asbury University phenomenon.

I have been thinking about comments made by critics of the Asbury “revival” who found fault in the fact that no man of God preached the Word of God from the pulpit (which isn’t accurate, by the way). I wonder what some people today would have said about Paul in Corinth who came with no brilliance of speech or persuasive words?

Paul said he came with nothing but the simple message of Jesus and him crucified. No lofty theological construct. No great sermon. Just the reality of Jesus, and him crucified for us, sacrificing his life so that we might have access to God the Father and be called children of God.

In more modern language, Paul might have said that he did not come with a great sermon but with an outpouring of the holy Spirit. He didn’t aim to preach eloquently to them; he came with a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. He purposefully underemphasized the message, keeping it simple.

Keep in mind that they were quarreling over who they should be following: Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or just Christ. Paul didn’t want to feed into that dissension; he didn’t want to add to the arguments. Paul wanted their meeting to be about God and not about him. Therefore, Paul toned down his rhetoric so that God would have prominence through His Spirit.

Paul acknowledges that we can err in different ways. We can err by focusing too much on wisdom (intellect), and we can err by focusing too much on signs (spiritualism). (1 Corinthians: 20-25) In the Corinthian context, however, Paul did not give them what they demanded – “eloquence” and “wise and persuasive words”. He came in weakness – not with powerful oratory, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.

Signs and wonders were not the primary issue in the Greek city of Corinth. Thus, Paul’s letter focuses on their argumentative nature (a focus wisdom/knowledge) in Chapter 2. After setting out the twin errors of overemphasis on wisdom/knowledge and overemphasis on signs/spirit in Chapter 1, Paul focuses only on the former in Chapter 2.

A demonstration of the Spirit’s power, therefore, was his response to an overemphasis on argumentation, which was the cultural stumbling block for the Greek Corinthians. For that reason, Paul came to them in weakness, fear and trembling. He did not come with bold, powerful words to persuade anybody; he came with a demonstration of the Holy Spirit.

Paul made a decision to let the Holy Spirit do the work among the Corinthian people rather than rely on his own powers of persuasion. (“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor. 2:20))

Paul doesn’t even get to “signs” until Chapter 12. After dealing with dissension, sexual immorality, lawsuits among believers, relationship issues, food sacrificed to idols, the meaning of freedom and the importance of self-discipline, Paul finally turns to spiritual gifts in Chapter 12

Similar to the way the Corinthians lacked unity and order about who to follow, they lacked unity and order in the use of spiritual gifts. Paul, therefore, urges them to use the gifts for the mutual benefit of everyone, like a body that depends on all of its parts to function for the mutual benefit of the whole body. (1 Cor. 12)

Significantly, Paul does NOT discourage them from the using the spiritual gifts. He even told them to desire eagerly the greater gifts. (1 Cor. 12:30) His only instruction was to use those gifts “for the common good” in a way that is honoring to God and characteristic of the nature of God – for the to build up the whole body in unity in the Spirit.

This presupposes that the gifts can be used for lesser purposes (such as benefit only people we like or to glorify one’s self) Paul would not have instructed them in the use the gifts if they could not be abused or misused. Again, the manifestation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is not a stamp of approval from God on the conduct of the people using them.

In this context, Paul leads into what is, perhaps, the most eloquent and beautiful piece of writing in all of Paul’s epistles: 1 Corinthians 13 – the “love chapter”. In this Chapter, Paul discounts persuasive speech, knowledge, faith, and even self-sacrifice, highlighting that the greatest of all things we can desire, apart from God, Himself, is love.

At the same, I note that love doesn’t exist apart from God, Himself! All the other things can exist apart from God – knowledge, prophecy, faith, giving, self-sacrifice, etc. We can exhibit all of those things without love and, therefore, without reflecting the nature of God – who is love.

Love, however, does not exist apart from God, because love is the very essence and nature of who God is. (1 John 4) If we have not love, therefore, we have nothing. We can “have” all those other things – including spiritual gifts and powerful preaching – but we have nothing if we do not have love, which is the nature and essence of who God is.

I will end this with a final thought. Pride and boasting were at the center of the problems in the Corinthian church. They had the spiritual gifts and used them liberally, but those gifts didn’t ensure that they were “right with God. Paul’s initial focus – his primary concern – was with the Corinthians’ preoccupation with powerful, eloquent and persuasive speech, perhaps, because it fed their pride and boasting.

Paul acknowledged that his people (the Jews) erred in their demand for signs – a different problem. The Corinthian problem was overreliance on argument and oratory (we might call it truth), so Paul came in weakness, addressing only the simplest, basic points of Christian doctrine: Christ and him crucified.

Because the Corinthians were overly focused on intellectual arguments, Paul came with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. He did not discourage their use of the spiritual gifts (in the same way he downplayed the power of eloquent words). Paul applied the “medicine” the Corinthians needed to address their particular “ailment”.

Jesus said that true worshipers worship in spirit and truth. To emphasis one over the other is to be out of balance. The Corinthians were out of balance, but it wasn’t that they were too “spiritual”.

We have in the American Church, collectively, different errors in different expressions of the body of Christ. We have hyper-intellectualized faith in some circles and hyper-spiritualized expressions of faith in other circles. Neither extreme is healthy.

Paul appeared to come to the Corinthian church with a demonstration of the power of the Spirit because that is what they needed most. Not more argument, but a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. This might apply also in certain Christian circles today, while other church bodies exhibit a hyper-spiritualized, emotional expression of faith the is very low on basic doctrine and truth.

While, Paul exhorted Corinthians to desire spiritual gifts eagerly, he pointed them to “the most excellent way”. (1 Cor, 12:31) That most excellent way is the way of faith, hope and love – the greatest of which is love. (1 Cor. 13:13) the same exhortation to love, I believe, would apply to a hyper-spiritualized church today as it was applied to the more argumentative Corinthians in Paul’s day.

Faith, hope and love are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. They are not just manifestations of God’s presence, but the essence of God’s nature. Unity is evidence of that fruit, and lack of unity is evidence of the lack of that fruit.

Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) I believe that the lack unity that seen in the American Church over recent months, suggests our need to focus back on the things that Paul urged were of most importance, the greatest of which is love.

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

One thought on “Why did Paul Go to Corinth with a Demonstration of the Spirit’s Power?

Comments are welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.