The Priority: Preaching the Gospel
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gains, that no man should say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void. (1:14–17)
Crispus was the leader of the synagogue in Corinth when Paul first ministered there and was converted under the apostle’s preaching. His conversion led to that of many others in the city (Acts 18:8). Since the letter to the Romans was written from Corinth, this Gaius was probably the Corinthian “host” to whom Paul refers in Romans 16:23. The apostle was grateful that he had personally baptized only those two and a few others.
Jesus did not baptize anyone personally (John 4:2). To have been baptized by the Lord Himself would have brought almost irresistible temptation to pride and would have tended to set such people apart, whether they wanted to be or not. As an apostle, Paul faced a similar danger. But he also had another: the danger of creating his own cult; and so he declared, I thank God … that no man should say you were baptized in my name.
As already mentioned, it is not wrong to have special affection for certain persons, such as the one who baptized us, especially if we were converted under his ministry. But it is quite wrong to take special pride in that fact or pride in any close relationship to a Christian leader. Paul was not flattered that a group in Corinth was claiming special allegiance to him. He was distraught and ashamed at the idea, as he had already said: “Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). “How could you even think of showing a loyalty to me,” he was saying, “that belongs only to the Lord Jesus Christ?” He wanted no cult built around himself or around any other church leader.
Paul was not certain of the exact number he had baptized in Corinth. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. This comment gives an interesting insight into the inspiration of Scripture. As an apostle writing the Word of God, Paul made no errors; but he was not omniscient. God protected His apostles from error in order to protect His Word from error. But Paul did not know everything about God or even about himself, and was careful never to make such a claim. He knew what God revealed—things he had no way of knowing on his own. What he could know on his own, he was prone to forget. He was one of us.
Another reason for Paul’s baptizing so few converts was that his primary calling lay elsewhere. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void. He was not sent to start a cult of people baptized by him. Jesus had personally commissioned him: “For this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:16–18). His calling was to preach the gospel and bring men to oneness in Christ, not in baptizing to create a faction around himself.
As we each have the right priority in our lives, we too will be determined to serve the Lord in truth and in unity, not living in the carnality and confusion of dissension and division.
17 Paul then uses the opportunity to reflect on what Christ did call him to do—“not … to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (euangelizō, GK 2294). It is not, of course, as though Paul considered baptism to be an unimportant or even optional element in a Christian’s life. In Romans 6:3–14, for example, he uses baptism as a powerful argument for living a Christian life that is dead to sin and alive to God, and he assumes that all believers have been baptized (cf. also Col 2:11–12). But Paul’s unique gift—that for which Christ commissioned him as an apostle—was to evangelize. By the same token, however, Paul’s comments on baptism also rule out any sort of magical view of baptism; the crucial thing in a person’s life is to hear the gospel message and to respond in faith.
In the last part of v. 17, Paul shifts his emphasis from the nature of his calling to its execution. When he preaches, he does not do so “with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Paul does not speak his words in the manner of the Sophists, who were more concerned about eloquence than content. For the apostle, content—namely, the message of the cross of Christ—is the most important thing. It is the message that has the power to save, for “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Ro 10:9). This should be the focus of any preacher’s or evangelist’s message.
1:17. This verse serves as a hinge in Paul’s discussion. It closes his preceding discussion of baptism and transitions to his next topic. The conclusion to the previous matter amounts to an explanation that Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel. It would appear that Paul followed the example of Jesus in this matter. Christ preached, and delegated baptism primarily to his disciples (John 4:1–2). Paul followed the same practice; he proclaimed the gospel and left baptism primarily to his converts, who supervised the ongoing life of the church.
The expression “preach the gospel” moved Paul’s thoughts in a different but related direction. What was the nature of the gospel he preached? It was devoid of words of human wisdom. This phrase may be translated more literally, “wisdom of words.” The idea is that his preaching did not rely on cleverness or eloquence. Paul distinguished himself from the Greek orators of his day who sought to persuade with impressive rhetoric and style. Paul insisted that his own preaching was simple and straightforward. He avoided great oratory because he did not want to distract from the message itself. His style of preaching was self-effacing, pointing to the source of salvation, Christ.
Paul was concerned that the cross of Christ not be emptied of its power when presented in preaching. The gospel message contradicts human wisdom, so that it cannot be mixed with the power of human wisdom and manipulative persuasion. For this reason, those in Corinth who tried to defend their faith and practices through human wisdom actually opposed the way of the gospel. The power of the cross was the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Salvation comes only from the atonement of Christ, purchased by his suffering on the cross. The recognition and reception of that power was Paul’s chief concern as he proclaimed the gospel.
17. For Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the gospel, not in wisdom of words that the cross of Christ may not be emptied.
In this text, Paul expresses one positive element and three negative ones. The affirmative statement is that Christ sent him to preach the message of salvation. The disclaimers are that Paul was not told to baptize believers, that the proclamation of this message should not become a philosophical treatise, and that Christ’s cross should not lose its central position.
- Task. In the preceding two verses (vv. 15, 16) Paul emphatically states that he has no interest in baptizing converts. Now he conveys the reason: Christ commissioned him to be a preacher of the gospel (Rom. 1:1; 15:15–16; Gal. 1:16). The task of preaching the gospel requires talent, education, tact, and skill. Baptizing believers is a simple act that requires no training, but preaching is a constant task of leading people to repentance, faith, new life, and growth. Baptizing is a one-time act that distinguishes a Christian from the world, but preaching takes place every Lord’s Day and often on weekdays.
Paul is by no means discrediting baptism. He is following the example Jesus set during his earthly ministry: Christ proclaimed the gospel and the disciples baptized the believers (John 4:1–2). Jesus designated the apostles fishers of men (Matt. 4:19) and commissioned them to catch men through preaching. “To preach the gospel is to cast the net; it is apostolic work. To baptize is to gather the fish now taken and put them into vessels.” Paul had to use all his time and talent to preach the Word and hence left the matter of baptism primarily to others.
- Manner. “Not in wisdom of words.” Paul does not say “words of wisdom” or “wisdom to speak,” but, to be precise, “in wisdom of words.” This is the first time in the epistle that Paul writes the word wisdom. In the succeeding verses of chapters 1 and 2, he uses the word as he contrasts God’s wisdom and worldly wisdom. But in this verse, the phrase wisdom of words describes the manner of a Greek orator who eloquently delivers a speech. In Greek rhetoric, speakers cleverly presented philosophical arguments to support a particular viewpoint. Paul separates himself from this procedure, for he proclaims the message of the cross in simple terms.
By preaching the gospel in plain terms, Paul follows the example of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the message of salvation and the common people heard him gladly. Similarly, the apostles were commissioned to preach the gospel with simplicity and clarity. “ ‘To tell good news in wisdom of word’ is a contradiction; ‘news’ only needs and admits of straightforward telling. To dress out the story of Calvary in specious theorems, would have been to ‘empty the cross of Christ,’ to eviscerate the Gospel.”
“[So] that the cross of Christ may not be emptied.” When Paul proclaimed the message of Christ’s death on Calvary’s cross, he was scorned in the Greco-Roman world. That world rejected the message of an ignominious death on a cross. If Paul, however, had adopted Greek practice and had delivered his message with rhetorical eloquence, the message of the cross would have been emptied of its power and glory. Then his message would have had a hollow ring and consequently no conversions and baptisms would have taken place.
The Corinthians knew that Paul had preached the gospel of Christ’s death without resorting to oratory and human wisdom (see 2:1). In humility, he had called them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. He had pointed to the shameful cross of Christ by which they were saved from sin and death.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 32–33). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 267). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Pratt, R. L., Jr. (2000). I & II Corinthians (Vol. 7, pp. 10–11). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 50–52). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.