The Priority: Preaching the Gospel
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 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. For Christ sent me not. He anticipates an objection that might, perhaps, be brought against him—that he had not discharged his duty, inasmuch as Christ commands his Apostles to baptize as well as teach. Accordingly he replies, that this was not the principal department of his office, for the duty of teaching had been principally enjoined upon him as that to which he should apply himself. For when Christ says to the Apostles, (Matt. 28:19, Mark 16:15,) Go, preach and baptize, he connects baptism with teaching simply as an addition or appendage, so that teaching always holds the first place.
Two things, however, must be noticed here. The first is, that the Apostle does not here absolutely deny that he had a command to baptize, for this is applicable to all the Apostles: Go and baptize; and he would have acted rashly in baptizing even one, had he not been furnished with authority, but simply points out what was the chief thing in his calling. The second thing is, that he does not by any means detract here, as some think, from the dignity or utility of the sacrament. For the question here is, not as to the efficacy of baptism, and Paul does not institute this comparison with the view of detracting in any degree from that; but because it was given to few to teach, while many could baptize; and farther, as many could be taught at the same time, while baptism could only be administered to individuals successively, one by one, Paul, who excelled in the gift of teaching, applied himself to the work that was more especially needful for him, and left to others what they could more conveniently accomplish. Nay farther, if the reader considers minutely all the circumstances of the case, he will see that there is irony tacitly conveyed here, dexterously contrived for making those feel acutely, who, under colour of administering a ceremony, endeavour to catch a little glory at the expense of another’s labour. Paul’s labours in building up that Church had been incredible. There had come after him certain effeminate masters, who had drawn over followers to their party by the sprinkling of water;2 Paul, then, giving up to them the title of honour, declares himself contented with having had the burden.
Not with wisdom, of words. There is here an instance of anticipation, by which a twofold objection is refuted. For these pretended teachers might reply that it was ludicrous to hear Paul, who was not endowed with eloquence, making it his boast that the department of teaching had been assigned to him. Hence he says, by way of concession, that he had not been formed to be an orator, to set himself off by elegance of speech, but a minister of the Spirit, that he might, by plain and homely speech, bring to nothing the wisdom of the world. Now, lest any one should object that he hunted after glory by his preaching, as much as others did by baptism, he briefly replies, that as the method of teaching that he pursued was the farthest removed from show, and breathed nothing of ambition, it could give no ground of suspicion on that head. Hence, too, if I mistake not, it may readily be inferred what was the chief ground of the controversy that Paul had with the wicked and unfaithful ministers of the Corinthians. It was that, being puffed up with ambition, that they might secure for themselves the admiration of the people, they recommended themselves to them by a show of words and mask of human wisdom.
From this main evil two others necessarily followed—that by these disguises (so to speak) the simplicity of the gospel was disfigured, and Christ was, as it were, clothed in a new and foreign garb, so that the pure and unadulterated knowledge of him was not to be found. Farther, as men’s minds were turned aside to neatness and elegance of expression, to ingenious speculations, and to an empty show of superior sublimity of doctrine, the efficacy of the Spirit vanished, and nothing remained but the dead letter. The majesty of God, as it shines forth in the gospel, was not to be seen, but mere disguise and useless show. Paul, accordingly, with the view of exposing these corruptions of the gospel, makes a transition here to the manner of his preaching. This he declares to be right and proper, while at the same time it was diametrically opposed to the ambitious ostentation of those men. It is as though he had said—“I am well aware how much your fastidious teachers delight themselves in their high-sounding phrases. As for myself, I do not simply confess that my preaching has been conducted in a rude, coarse, and unpolished style, but I even glory in it. For it was right that it should be so, and this was the method that was divinely prescribed to me.” By the wisdom of words, he does not mean λογοδαιδαλία, which is mere empty talk, but true eloquence, which consists in skilful contrivance of subjects, ingenious arrangement, and elegance of expression. He declares that he had nothing of this: nay more, that it was neither suitable to his preaching nor advantageous.
Lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. As he had so often previously presented the name of Christ in contrast with the arrogant wisdom of the flesh, so now, with the view of bringing down thereby all its pride and loftiness, he brings forward to view the cross of Christ. For all the wisdom of believers is comprehended in the cross of Christ, and what more contemptible than a cross? Whoever, therefore, would desire to be truly wise in God’s account, must of necessity stoop to this abasement of the cross, and this will not be accomplished otherwise than by his first of all renouncing his own judgment and all the wisdom of the world. Paul, however, shows here not merely what sort of persons Christ’s disciples ought to be, and what path of learning they ought to pursue, but also what is the method of teaching in Christ’s school. “The cross of Christ (says he) would have been made of none effect, if my preaching had been adorned with eloquence and show.” The cross of Christ he has put here for the benefit of redemption, which must be sought from Christ crucified. Now the doctrine of the gospel which calls us to this, should savour of the nature of the Cross, so as to be despised and contemptible, rather than glorious, in the eyes of the world. The meaning, therefore, is, that if Paul had made use of philosophical acuteness and studied address in the presence of the Corinthians, the efficacy of the cross of Christ, in which the salvation of men consists, would have been buried, because it cannot come to us in that way.
Here two questions are proposed: first, whether Paul here condemns in every respect the wisdom of words, as opposed to Christ; and secondly, whether he means that eloquence and the doctrine of the gospel are invariably opposed, so they cannot agree together, and that the preaching of the gospel is vitiated, if the slightest tincture of eloquence is made use of for adorning it. To the first of these I answer—that it were quite unreasonable to suppose, that Paul would utterly condemn those arts which, it is manifest, are excellent gifts of God, and which serve as instruments, as it were, to assist men in the accomplishment of important purposes. As for those arts, then, that have nothing of superstition, but contain solid learning, and are founded on just principles, as they are useful and suited to the common transactions of human life, so there can be no doubt that they have come forth from the Holy Spirit; and the advantage which is derived and experienced from them, ought to be ascribed exclusively to God. What Paul says here, therefore, ought not to be taken as throwing any disparagement upon the arts, as if they were unfavourable to piety.
The second question is somewhat more difficult, for he says, that the cross of Christ is made of none effect if there be any admixture of the wisdom of words. I answer, that we must consider who they are that Paul here addresses. The ears of the Corinthians were tickled with a silly fondness for high sounding style. Hence they needed more than others to be brought back to the abasement of the cross, that they might learn to embrace Christ as he is, unadorned, and the gospel in its simplicity, without any false ornament. I acknowledge, at the same time, that this sentiment in some respects holds invariably, that the cross of Christ is made of none effect, not merely by the wisdom of the world, but also by elegance of address. For the preaching of Christ crucified is simple and unadorned, and hence it ought not to be obscured by false ornaments of speech. It is the prerogative of the gospel to bring down the wisdom of the world in such a way that, stript of our own understanding, we show ourselves to be simply docile, and do not think or even desire to know anything, but what the Lord himself teaches. As to the wisdom of the flesh, we shall have occasion to consider more at large ere long, in what respects it is opposed to Christ. As to eloquence, I shall advert to it here in a few words, in so far as the passage calls for.
We see that God from the beginning ordered matters so, that the gospel should be administered in simplicity, without any aid from eloquence. Could not he who fashions the tongues of men for eloquence, be himself eloquent if he chose to be so? While he could be so, he did not choose to be so. Why it was that he did not choose this, I find two reasons more particularly. The first is, that in a plain and unpolished manner of address, the majesty of the truth might shine forth more conspicuously, and the simple efficacy of his Spirit, without external aids, might make its way into the hearts of men. The second is, that he might more effectually try our obedience and docility, and train us at the same time to true humility. For the Lord admits none into his school but little children. Hence those alone are capable of heavenly wisdom who, contenting themselves with the preaching of the cross, however contemptible it may be in appearance, feel no desire whatever to have Christ under a mask. Hence the doctrine of the gospel required to be regulated with this view, that believers should be drawn off from all pride and haughtiness.
But what if any one should at the present day, by discoursing with some degree of elegance, adorn the doctrine of the gospel by eloquence? Would he deserve to be on that account rejected, as though he either polluted it or obscured Christ’s glory. I answer in the first place, that eloquence is not at all at variance with the simplicity of the gospel, when it does not merely not disdain to give way to it, and be in subjection to it, but also yields service to it, as a handmaid to her mistress. For as Augustine says, “He who gave Peter a fisherman, gave also Cyprian an orator.” By this he means, that both are from God, notwithstanding that the one, who is much the superior of the other as to dignity, is utterly devoid of gracefulness of speech; while the other, who sits at his feet, is distinguished by the fame of his eloquence. That eloquence, therefore, is neither to be condemned nor despised, which has no tendency to lead Christians to be taken up with an outward glitter of words, or intoxicate them with empty delight, or tickle their ears with its tinkling sound, or cover over the cross of Christ with its empty show as with a veil; but, on the contrary, tends to call us back to the native simplicity of the gospel, tends to exalt the simple preaching of the cross by voluntarily abasing itself, and, in fine, acts the part of a herald2 to procure a hearing for those fishermen and illiterate persons, who have nothing to recommend them but the energy of the Spirit.
I answer secondly, that the Spirit of God, also, has an eloquence of his own, but of such a nature as to shine forth with a native lustre peculiar to itself, or rather (as they say) intrinsic, more than with any adventitious ornaments. Such is the eloquence that the Prophets have, more particularly Isaiah, David, and Solomon. Moses, too, has a sprinkling of it. Nay farther, even in the writings of the Apostles, though they are more unpolished, there are notwithstanding some sparks of it occasionally emitted. Hence the eloquence that is suited to the Spirit of God is of such a nature that it does not swell with empty show, or spend itself in empty sound, but is solid and efficacious, and has more of substance than elegance.
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 / As one sees from Paul’s statement in here (1:17), he is able to relativize the importance of baptism (which the Corinthians apparently think gives them special identities and status) because he understands his call as a call to preach. The sentence begins with for and looks back to the last phrase of verse 16, “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.” Baptism is a part of the larger picture of Christian faith and practice, but Paul’s principal interest is in the proclamation of the gospel. Given the particular problem in Corinth with the Corinthians’ concern with baptism and spiritual boasting, Paul claims that he is thankful that baptism per se was not his primary ministry. Paul understands his primary ministry to be to preach the gospel, that is, the cross of Christ.
As Paul continues he creates a remarkable contrast between wisdom and the cross—literally, “the wisdom of word” and the cross of Christ. He articulates disdain for sheer eloquence, for in Paul’s evaluation, loquacious rhetoric that wins allegiance merely through its beauty is inadequate, since it draws attention to itself or to the one who utters such lovely lines. The good news of God’s saving work in the cross of Christ, however, is not a message that is to be sold through elegant presentation. The cross is not a pretty sight, and sheer manipulative eloquence is not a medium that can bear the weight of the message of Christ’s cross. Above all, the shocking claim that God saves humanity in the cross of Jesus Christ demonstrates that God works in defiance of this world’s norms. Paul’s unstated point here is that the substance of the gospel—the message of the cross of Christ—determines the appropriate style of the proclamation of that message. Human wisdom is smooth and easy to hear, but the gospel confronts humanity with power that is real and urgent, even offensive. Paul’s statements here are an aggressive apology for the form of his work and preaching but also for the gospel itself, which is his ultimate concern. Only as the Corinthians hear and heed the gospel will they exist as the church in the way God intends.
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.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 1, pp. 71–78). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 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.
 Soards, M. L. (2011). 1 Corinthians (pp. 35–36). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 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.