Question: In 1 Corinthians 4:18-20, Paul says he will find out the Corinthians’ “power,” for “the kingdom of God consists not in words but in power.” What does Paul mean?
To answer your question, I focused on the word power in the NT.
First, I eliminated texts where dunamis referred to a spiritual gift to work miracles (1 Cor. 12:7-10) given only to some Christians (1 Cor. 12:28-29), to the human capacity to give money (2 Cor. 8:3), to spiritual forces in the heavenlies (Eph. 1:21), or to the capacity of words to convey meanings (1 Cor. 14:11).
Then, I summarized the data from the rest of the verses in two categories: where Paul speaks of power in relation to himself and where he speaks of power in relation to believers.
Power, for Paul, is not an impersonal force, personal charisma, or magnetism. It is God working mightily through Christ by His Spirit (Phil. 2:13; 1 Cor. 1:24; Rom. 5:18), with surpassingly great power (2 Cor. 4:7) through Paul’s weakness (1 Cor. 2:3) yet in cooperation with Paul’s laborious striving (Col. 1:29).The message of the cross is the powerful means by which God saves the lost (Rom. 1:16) so that their faith will rest in God, not in the vessel or its words, through which He has worked (1 Cor. 2:4).
Power, for Paul, is God working mightily through Christ by His Spirit
The message of the cross is the powerful means by which God saves the lost (Rom. 1:16) so that their faith will rest in God, not in the vessel or its words, through which He has worked (1 Cor. 2:4).
In relation to ministering God’s word, Paul contrasts “cleverness of speech,” “superiority of speech or of wisdom” and “persuasive words of wisdom” with the “demonstration of the Spirit and power” (1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1, 4). He contrasts a gospel that comes “in word only” with a gospel that comes “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5).
The message Paul brought was foolishness and weakness to those in his audience who were considered the wise of the world (1 Cor. 1:18). He did not alter the message to make it more appealing to the philosophically and rhetorically sophisticated. He determined to hammer home the very point that was so offensive: the cross of Christ as testimony to our utter depravity and complete dependence upon Christ to satisfy the wrath of God against us (1 Cor. 2:2).
In relation to believers, God desires for believers to
- know the surpassing greatness of His power which is extended to us and dwells in us in the person of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:19; 3:20; 2 Tim. 1:7);
- be strengthened with power by the Spirit so that Christ may have full right of way in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:16-17) and that we may endure and be patient (Col. 1:11);
- have both the form and the power of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5), which turns men from being lovers of self and money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure INTO others-loving, non-money-loving, humble, edifiers, obedient to parents, grateful, holy, loving, conciliating, avoiders of gossip, self-controlled, kind, good-loving, faithful, sober, discreet lovers of God (2 Tim. 3:2).
Thus when Paul says he will examine and “find out” the power of the Corinthians, it seems likely that what he is looking for is the evidence of the Spirit’s power mightily working in their lives to accomplish His work in and through them. The Spirit’s work in them is the primary emphasis of Paul’s use of power in relation to the believer. The list in the paragraph above is long and challenging!
Paul was looking for evidence of the Spirit’s power mightily working in their lives to accomplish His work in and through them.
Evidence of the Spirit’s work through us lie primarily in how we interact with others, and only secondarily in the effects of our ministry to others. The power of God stirs emotions, but it is not stirred emotions alone that testify to God’s power.
The power of God prompts men to action, but it is not men in action alone that testifies to God’s power. Changed lives—changed interpersonal relationships that exhibit Christ’s self-sacrificing love (1 Cor. 13)—that is what testifies unmistakably to God’s power at work.
May the Triune God strengthen us with all power so that the surpassing greatness of His power will be manifested in our lives for His glory.
Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.