Paul carries into the meat of his first letter to the Corinthians with a look back at what brought him to Corinth in the first place. We know from Acts 18 that Paul came to Corinth from Athens. He was alone at the time, because Acts 18:5 indicates that Silas and Timothy caught up with him in Corinth a bit later.
From there, we have Paul’s overall explanation about the wisdom of God as revealed in Christ Jesus. He uses the term “mystery” in 1 Corinthians 2:7, using an idea that many people in Corinth would understand. Generally speaking, most people recognized that there were mysteries to be understood. Paul places the answer to that mystery in Christ Jesus. There is also a worthwhile diversion in 1 Corinthians 2:8 that points out how missing the mystery led to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Let us take for our focus 1 Corinthians 2:5. Paul leads up to this verse by essentially denigrating his own work and preaching in Corinth. By his evaluation, he was not persuasive nor strong in his words there. Instead, he was weak and afraid.
The Holy Spirit, though, demonstrated His power in the life of Paul and people came to faith in Christ. Acts does not record any specific miracles associated with Paul’s preaching in Corinth (like we have for Philippi in Acts 16:16-18). Instead, we are left to fill n that the people saw that evidence in individual lives. I would be inclined to fill in the blank with the Spirit-driven miracles of life transformation as much as any other sign-type miracles. After all, there would have been no better demonstration of the Spirit than people abandoning the typical debauchery of Corinth for a life modeled after Jesus.
The primary point, though, is that Paul recognized that the work in Corinth was not of his own doing. This connects back to the division in the church seen in 1 Corinthians 1:11-13. People in Corinth were overlooking that it was not Paul or Apollos who had saved them or even truly started the church there. It was a work of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
First of all, we should take from this the importance of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit for what we do. Without the power of God, we are reliant on the cleverness and wisdom of men. Guess where that leaves your local church? In a bad place. Your pastors and teachers are inadequate to the task of solving all of it. Cry out to Jesus first.
Second, make sure that your faith rests on the foundation of the power of God. Paul celebrated his own shortcomings because it kept people from basing their faith on him. Where is your faith? It should be focused on the God who you serve, not on His servants. If your faith is based on how amazing your preacher is, most likely you are in trouble.
Third, the source of our growth in following Jesus is based in the same place. Always start with Jesus and His Word. The question should never begin with “what will people think?” but always with “what does God say?” From there, we go forward into learning with the help of other people. The first place, the foundation, is God’s power to reveal Himself to us.
Now, the next angle of application goes in the other direction. At times, we are not the learner but the teacher. When that occurs, make it a point that you will do the best that you can but your ultimate reliance in on Jesus. In other words, while you ought to be a good steward and do well while you teach, preach, etc., do not rely on your cleverness. Instead, fully rely on God’s power to bring your hearers to a full understanding. It is worth remembering that you do not have the power to change people. God does. Teach, preach so that they will hear from Him.
This goes even stronger for witnessing to those without Christ. Cleverness wins arguments. Wisdom and persuasion win arguments. The power of God wins souls. What are you trying to win? Let God work through you to win souls.
This chapter, when taken with Acts 17 and Acts 18, is often used to fill in more of a story about Paul than we have definite evidence for. I’ve heard it said that the reason Paul came without persuasive words was because of his “failure” at Mars Hill in Athens. We see this event in Acts 17, but I think it’s a wash as to whether or not it was truly a failure. Perhaps Paul was simply led by the Spirit to simplify his preaching in Corinth. He may have felt the Corinthians were too far afield in their thought processes to deal with complex arguments.
Or it could be that Paul arrived in Corinth beaten down by Athens. But it’s not definite.
The other key point for this section comes in 1 Corinthians 2:16. No one knows the mind of the Lord to teach God anything, but if we allow the Spirit to mature us, we will have the mind of Christ—something Paul brings out again in Philippians 2.