As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had a few bad experiences with people we’ve hired to work on our home. Here’s another example. Several years ago, the house needed a new roof. Color me stupid; we yielded to the high pressure tactics of a sales rep who painted a glorious picture of the service we would receive. The good news: in the end, the roof looked great. The bad news: we endured empty promises and unethical business practices in the process. I won’t bore you with the details; suffice it to say that this contractor averages 1 measly star on Yelp. (I just looked. I wish I had known to look then.)
Talk is cheap. And that applies not only to the marketplace but to the kingdom of God.
God’s kingdom or reign was the central theme of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. Paul, however, uses the phrase only rarely–most frequently in 1 Corinthians. For example, as he winds up his response to the problem of division in the church, he seems to imply that there’s a smaller group of troublemakers he will deal with personally on his next visit:
But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power. (1 Cor 4:18-20, NRSV)
In Paul’s absence, some of the Corinthians had become “puffed up” and arrogant, boasting in their wisdom, denigrating the apostle’s authority and fitness as a teacher. Do their words have any substance? “We’ll see,” Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul, “if they’re full of anything but hot air” (vs. 19, MSG).
But we shouldn’t miss a possible nuance here. In an earlier post, we noted the Corinthians’ fondness for the terms logos and sophia, or “speech” and “wisdom” respectively, which they applied to their evaluation of themselves and Paul. The troublemakers demanded philosophically sophisticated eloquence and pooh-poohed Paul’s comparative simplicity. Paul, however, has already answered that attitude:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. I stood in front of you with weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking. My message and my preaching weren’t presented with convincing wise words but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I did this so that your faith might not depend on the wisdom of people but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5, CEB)
Paul didn’t come to them as “an expert in speech (logos) or wisdom (sophia),” as someone who used “wise words (logos of sophia).” He came preaching the seemingly foolish message of a crucified Christ, so that their resulting faith would be a demonstration of God’s power alone.
Thus, in chapter 4, Paul isn’t just saying that he’s going to see whether the troublemakers’ words have any weight–echoing chapter 2, he’s promising to put their very fondness for wise speech on trial. And why? Because the kingdom of God isn’t demonstrated by verbal sophistication, but the power that works counterintuitively through the weakness of a foolish gospel.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with eloquence in itself, especially if it’s in the service of that gospel. But talk is cheap. What matters is lives changed by the power of God.