When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was at pains to remind them that “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2: 3-5). He opened his first letter to the Thessalonians in a similar way; “our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1: 5). In both of these cases, and implicit in his letters to the other churches, he was reminding them that the gospel did not transform their lives just because he stood in front of them and spoke well, or argued confidently or persuasively, but that there was something, or someone, demonstrably at work in their midst that moved them into faith. Indeed, he almost suggests that this happened in spite of himself, because he was with them in weakness and fear!
These verses should be both a challenge and an encouragement to those of us who are in small rural churches and groups of all descriptions. The challenge is a profound one: is the power of God being demonstrated alongside our message, or are we just talking? A little further in Corinthians, Paul says that, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4: 20). Are we, like the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, stubbornly pushing onwards, fulfilling our role while ignoring that we are not ‘clothed’ as we should be (Luke 24: 49)? If this is the case then Jesus’ sobering assessment of the Laodicean church may well fit us; “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3: 17). How terrible to find ourselves fitting Paul’s description of the last days in Timothy’s second letter, where he concludes that people will follow their own desires, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3: 5)!
Regardless of our assessment of the challenge, we can all take great encouragement to know that, whatever our circumstances, we have everything we need to stand alongside Paul in the place of effectiveness of which he speaks. It is of tremendous comfort to know that God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1: 3). We do not need large congregations, expensive equipment or slick publicity machines in order to qualify. A tiny bank account is no object! We simply need to apply the word of Jesus to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9a), and take note of Paul’s own conclusions; “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12: 9b). So many of the great moves of God have come about because simple, humble people took this word seriously and decided to pay the price of laying down their own egos (Mark 8: 34) in order to dedicate their lives to Him (not just their careers, or their Sunday mornings, or…). Very few of them became well known, except to God – and there have only ever been very few of them! Are you such a one?