Matters of message, manner, and motive.

No one can read the New Testament without being impressed by the effectiveness of the early church’s preaching. The apostles preached with supernatural power.

Dr. F. D. Coggan puts it: “The infant church was multiplied out of all recognition by a single sermon. By preaching, a fellowship was formed which astounded the world by its demonstration of love, which held together in community men and women of different races and conflicting backgrounds. The modern preacher is compelled to question his own heart as he faces the astounding success of the apostolic preaching.”

We find certain clues to effective preaching in 1 Corinthians 2. Here, in the first five verses, Paul points to the preacher’s message, manner, and motive.

First, the power of preaching was related to the very message Paul proclaimed. Paul writes, “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.” The message of true preaching is the Person of Christ.

In the fine book, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development, C. H. Dodd points out that the central message of apostolic preaching was the Person and work of Christ. He notes five emphases: the fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures about the Messiah’s coming, the earthly life of Jesus, his death, his exaltation, and last, repentance toward God and faith in Christ because of coming judgment.

In Dr. Coggan’s similar study, The Ministry of the Word, we see that each of the four main words used in Acts to describe the activity of Christian preaching has as its object “Jesus”: “Jesus Christ,” “the Lord Jesus,” “Jesus and the Resurrection,” “peace through Christ,” “the word of the Lord,” and so on. It becomes clear, therefore, that the central message of apostolic preaching was the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This was not only true of the apostles, but also of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. One German theologian has phrased it, “Jesus Christ the Son of God knew no greater task than to point men and women to Himself.”

We stress Christ’s centrality in our preaching because Jesus himself is “the power of God, and the wisdom of God,” as Paul makes plain in this very epistle. Only as we make Christ our message does preaching become powerful. There is little to encourage us to believe that God will bless our homiletics; but we can be sure that when we preach Christ, the Spirit of power will overshadow us. God make us like John Wesley who could say again and again as he traveled across England, “I offered Christ to the people.”

Article continues below

But notice that with the message of the Person of Christ, the message of true preaching is also the passion of Christ.

Ellicott’s commentary says, “We can scarcely realize in our day the stumbling block which the preaching of a crucified Christ must have been to Jews and Greeks, the enormous temptation to keep the cross in the background, which the early teachers would naturally have felt, and the sublime and confident faith which must have nerved St. Paul to make it the central fact of all his teaching.” And yet the apostle knew from the Scriptures, as well as from personal experience, that the preaching of the Cross constituted “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The Cross expresses the divine mind, reveals the divine estimate of human sin, exhibits the divine righteousness, demonstrates the divine love, and yet does all this on a human platform so that we can appreciate the mystery of the heavenly counsels. Although the Cross is a stumbling block to the religionist and a laughingstock to the rationalist, it is nonetheless the power of God to those who are being saved. Only in the Cross is our greatest need dealt with, and God’s provision offered.

The message of the Cross is irresistibly attractive. Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). What is more, we can never have a Pentecost in our preaching until we have a Calvary. The Moravians used to put it, “The Spirit always answers to the blood.”

Luke Two

Starshine dusts and dulls our sleeping

fields of random cattle;

sheep drift the night through

in woolen warmth.

Now, Morning Stars—

heard, felt—quicken us

with a first inkling of knowledge.

We tremble, colder than air.

Winds chant a canticle

of songs to the dark

and the night, shouting,

“Glory-glory in the highest!”

at our king’s star-told birth.

Wonder-drawn breath, (“Can it be?”),

shrills reedpipes, floods running cries,

hushes by His manger door.

Black-robed night fades with the dawn.

A quiet wind rushes cold

over this straw-nestled star,

counterpoint of spirit and flesh

in a rough-hewn cradle.


So the power of preaching is related to the message of the preacher. But in the second place, what is the relation of the power in preaching to the manner of the preacher?

In his inscrutable wisdom, God has chosen people like you and me to be preachers of the gospel. The awesomeness of this calling is almost overwhelming when we realize that God had only one Son, and he made him a preacher. It follows, therefore, that the nearer we conform to the character of our Lord, the more effective preachers we are.

Article continues below

Paul underscores this in our text when he describes what the manner of the preacher should be. Three characteristics suggest themselves. First, the humility of Christ. Commentators are not all agreed on what Paul means by the words, “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” Some suggest that he was referring here to physical weakness (2 Cor. 12:7), particularly to his “bodily presence” and “contemptible speech” (2 Cor. 10:10). Others maintain that he was acutely conscious of the shocking wickedness and bitter antagonism that awaited him in Corinth. But over and above this surely was the self-distrust his sensitive spirit experienced as he contemplated the exalted mission of preaching the Cross. William Barclay renders it as “the trembling anxiety to perform a duty.”

This sense of helplessness in the work of God is evidence of true humility. To quote Barclay further: “It is not the man who approaches a great task without a tremor who does it really well. The actor who is really great is the actor who is wrought up before the performance; the preacher who is really effective is the preacher whose heart beats faster while he waits to speak. The man who has no fear, no hesitancy, no nervousness, no tension, in any task, may give an efficient and a competent performance; but it is the man who has this trembling anxiety, who has that intensity which is the essence of real greatness, who can produce an effect which artistry alone can never achieve.” Paul may be suggesting this when he says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Paul had discovered that only when he was weak could he be strong. The Spirit’s power can rest only upon those who know the humility of Christ. So Jesus says, “Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart.”

Paul describes the second characteristic of the manner of the preacher in terms of the simplicity of Christ. Already he has said in the opening verses of this section, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.” The reference here, of course, is to what was known as “the Corinthian words.” The philosophers and orators of Corinth were known for their Corinthian words of human eloquence and brilliant rhetoric. They were masters of “crowd psychology,” as we would call it today. But such “speechifying” lacked the quality of real instruction or authoritative power.

Article continues below

The Bible teaches—and experience proves—that one of the secrets of effectiveness in preaching is simplicity. Some maintain that Paul learned this lesson through his experience on Mars Hill when he met the philosophers and tried to speak in their own language and quote their own authorities (Acts 17:22–31). If so, Paul resolved from that moment to tell the story of Jesus in simplicity. He would never again attempt to wrap it up in human categories; he would know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.

This simplicity, of course, characterized our Savior’s utterances. Read through his sermons and stories and you will be impressed all over again by the sheer simplicity and directness of his language. No wonder Paul exhorts the Corinthians to beware lest the devil, through his subtlety, should corrupt their minds from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Cor. 11:3).

Our danger today is to preach over the heads of people. The philosopher has a jargon of his own, the physical scientist has his, and the preacher has his own variety. If God is to own the message, then it has to be delivered in language understood by the people and in words dictated by the Spirit. This is implicit in the apostle’s statement “which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13).

The third characteristic of the preacher’s manner is the authority of Christ. Paul affirms that his speech and his preaching were “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” This literally signifies “a showing forth” and has the force of that which carries conviction through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the authority of Christ in preaching.

We read that when the Lord Jesus Christ preached, “the people were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:28–29). He spoke not only as one who imparted truth, but as one who was the living demonstration of truth. This is why Phillips Brooks defined preaching as “truth through personality.” And Dr. H. H. Farmer defined preaching in the words of John’s majestic prologue, “The Word became flesh.”

Preaching is only authoritative when a man wields “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” When Jesus spoke, people had to make a decision. They either believed him or picked up stones to stone him. He never neutralized people—individuals or congregations. His authority was both incisive and decisive and this is the evidence of the authority of heaven.

Article continues below

Now the secret of this humility, simplicity, and authority is explicit in the words of our Savior. He said: “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you” (Acts 1:8). This is the anointing of the Spirit. More than the filling—even though it includes the filling—it is an anointing that gives first the ability to appreciate the Word of God. John says, “Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.… and ye need not that any man teach you” (1 John 2:20, 27). And it is an anointing that gives the authority to communicate the Word of God. This seems to be Paul’s thought in 2 Corinthians 1, where he reminds his readers that his preaching of Christ was not sometimes “yea” and other times “nay,” but rather an unwavering “yea,” since God had established him in Christ and also anointed him.

Thus the manner of the preacher has much to do with the evidence or the absence of divine power. We should long to know the mighty filling and anointing of the Spirit, which brings the humility, simplicity, and authority of apostolic preaching!

Finally, the power of preaching is related to the motive of the preacher. Richard Roberts in his book, The Preacher as a Man of Letters, says “It is our calling to persuade and if it may be to convince. That is not preaching which is not preaching for a verdict.”

With the proclamation must be invitation. If the proclamation declares what God has done and is doing in Christ and his Cross, then the invitation is the call to men and women to respond. If this is not our motive, then our preaching will be powerless and fruitless. God never releases his power for personal aggrandizement or carnal objectives; on the contrary, he sends his Holy Spirit only to seal whatever fulfills his redemptive purpose. Therefore, the motive of the preacher must be to lead men and women into an experience of a sound, saving, steadfast faith in Christ.

There must first be a sound faith. In the preceding verses of this epistle Paul has demolished the notion that faith can be sound when reposed in the wisdom of men. In the language of the apostle James, such wisdom is “earthly, sensual, and devilish.” On the other hand, to be sound, faith must be exercised in the Savior himself without dependence upon this human wisdom. Paul develops this point when he writes, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). In other words, if Christ were not alive from the dead, then sin was not put away, the gospel was not true, the Christians had believed a lie, the apostles were false witnesses, and the loved ones who had fallen asleep were lost forever. On the other hand, to believe in the Son of God who literally and physically rose from the dead, was to be truly sound in the faith, since all other tenets of the evangelical faith are both included and implied in the great doctrine of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Article continues below

But with a sound faith there must be a saving faith. Paul has already interpreted to us the meaning of the power of God in the previous chapter, saying, “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Saving faith, to Paul, was a faith that was effecting a mighty transformation in the believing soul. It meant knowing the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, in every sense of that word.

Our motive then, as preachers, is to bring our listeners to a sound and saving faith. But it is also to be a steadfast faith. We must all agree that “what depends upon a clever argument is at the mercy of a cleverer argument.” This is not so, however, when faith is centered on the unchanging Son of God. This is what Paul means by a faith which “stands … in the power of God.” The word conveys the idea of “steadfastness.” Twice over in this epistle he exhorts believers to be steadfast in the faith. The first mention follows his treatment of the unalterable facts of the death and resurrection of Christ. Having declared him as the triumphant one, he says, “Be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The second occurrence coincides with the conclusion of his letter, where he exhorts “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13).

Here is the supreme motive of the preacher: that the faith of his hearers should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. We see that to be pure in our motives is to be powerful in our preaching. When the purpose of God is fulfilled, the Spirit of God confirms the Word with “signs following.” It is not without significance that Paul describes the object of preaching in terms of settling men and women “in the power of God.” It follows, therefore, that only when this “power” is manifest is preaching authentic and effective.

Article continues below

Thus we have seen what we mean by the power of preaching. No greater task has ever been entrusted to the sons of men. And in these days of what Dr. J. I. Packer calls “the lost word” we need to recapture not only the glory of preaching, but also the power of preaching. R. H. Fuller has put it, “In preaching, God speaks, God acts, God produces faith or provokes unbelief, God builds up the church.”

And through preaching God revives his church; this is the greatest need of the hour. Let us then preach Jesus Christ and him crucified with the power of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.