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1 Corinthians 4:20–21

“For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

In Paul’s absence from Corinth, some of the believers there were calling his Apostleship into question based on his apparent weakness as a suffering servant of the Lord and lack of eloquence in his preaching (1:10–3:23). This could only contribute to the factionalism in the Corinthian church as believers aligned with more eloquent speakers such as Apollos against Paul even though they were both orthodox in teaching. (We should note that there is no reason to believe Apollos approved of this behavior.) So, Paul has defended his Apostleship, warning the Corinthian believers that the ultimate judge of His work is God and that suffering and weakness are far greater signs of the Lord’s calling than eloquent speech (4:1–17). After all, the power of God for salvation comes through the “weakness” of Christ crucified.

Some Corinthian Christians had wrongly equated power with refined rhetoric, calling into question the Apostleship of Paul behind his back. So, the question was whether Paul’s opponents’ beliefs could be verified. The Apostle knew that they could not, and he warned them that he would be coming back to Corinth to see if the ministry of those who have only eloquent speech actually has the power of God (vv. 18–19). In turn, that enables Paul in today’s passage to draw to a close his complex argument against factionalism and worldly wisdom and his case in favor of the power of the cross and his own Apostolic authority by stating that “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (v. 20).

Essentially, Paul wants us to realize that it does not matter how well spoken a person may be, for good speech is powerless to save and thus is not the vehicle through which the kingdom of God comes. Preachers can and even should strive to improve their communication skills. However, if they are not proclaiming Christ and Him crucified, their teaching cannot be used of God to powerfully change hearts and build up faith in the gospel. All they have in such cases is powerless words. As John Calvin comments, “How small an affair is it for any one to have skill to prate eloquently, while he has nothing but empty tinkling.”

The kingdom of God is not about style but about substance. Good style is not inherently bad, but it is pointless without the substance of the cross, the gospel of which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16–17).

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

How things look and sound is important. However, we must be cautious, for appearances can be deceiving. If the content of what is presented is unsound, no manner of presentation can give it power. Therefore, we must put the soundness of teaching in first place, not the outward trappings in which teaching comes to us.

For Further Study
  • 1 Samuel 17
  • Psalm 62:11
  • Romans 14:17
  • 2 Corinthians 13:1–4

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From the February 2021 Issue
Feb 2021 Issue