“A Demonstration of the Spirit’s Power”
This conclusion has a lot going for it, by the way. I think an awful lot of people do respond more favourably to the gospel on seeing miracles than on hearing arguments. In Acts, both works and words came together, and in the vast majority of Western churches, there are a lot more words than works. So I actually agree, to a significant extent, with the punchline.
But that isn’t what Paul is talking about here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s virtually the opposite of what Paul is saying here. What he is saying, I think, is not that miracles are better than eloquent arguments, but that preaching the cross is better than both.
In order to understand what key words like “power” and “wisdom” mean in these particular verses, we need to read the whole passage in context. When we do, we immediately notice that throughout 1 Cor 1:10-4:21, Paul is mounting a sustained argument for cruciform leadership in the church, which involves reconfiguring worldly notions of power, wisdom and spirituality in particular.
In brief: you guys are dividing, because you’re thinking in a human way about baptism, leadership, power and wisdom, but Christ didn’t send me to baptise; he sent me to preach the gospel, not with human wisdom (the Greeks’ obsession) but with the power of a crucified Messiah (1:10-17). The cross, you see, is foolishness to the perishing, but power and wisdom to the saved: Greeks want “wisdom” and Jews want “signs”, but the power of God expressed in Christ crucified undermines worldly notions of both wisdom and power, because it looks like foolishness and weakness (1:18-25). To be honest, you guys prove how foolish and weak the cross is, by being such a mix of undesirables before God got hold of you, and put his power and wisdom on display through you, in Christ, which means all boasting should be in him (1:26-31). My mission worked the same way: not the things the world was looking for, but merely the cross, in all its weakness and foolishness, which is the ultimate demonstration of God’s Spirit and power (2:1-5). I do believe in wisdom and spirituality, of course, but they’re not the worldly kind that you guys love, which prompted the rulers of this age to crucify Christ; they’re given by the Spirit himself (2:6-16). And frankly, your divisive behaviour shows that you’re still fleshly, even though you fancy yourselves as so “spiritual” (3:1-4). If you look at what Apollos and I did, you’ll notice that we worked together, under God, to build God’s house, where God lives by his Spirit – which is what makes your arrogant and destructive squabbling such a big problem (3:5-17). You’ve misunderstood divine wisdom (3:18-23), and if you’d seen what we apostles did, you’d have realised that power and honour and wisdom don’t look like you think they do; they look like cross-shaped leaders (4:1-13). Please: I’m not saying this to make you feel bad, but to urge you to copy us, as Timothy says too (4:14-17). If you don’t, then we’ll see what your “power” really adds up to when I next visit (4:18-21).
In other words, Paul’s point is precisely that worldly notions of wisdom, power and spirituality need to be rethought in light of the cross, which Jews (with their obsession with with signs), Gentiles (with their obsession with with wisdom) and Corinthians (with their obsession with leaders) risk missing completely. In that context, 2:4 is an appeal to the subversive power-in-weakness of the cross, just as he talks about the subversive wisdom-in-foolishness of the cross. I don’t think he’s talking about working miracles here; it would cut against the grain of his whole argument if he did. He makes a similar argument in 2 Cor 10-13.
Or, more briefly: both intelligent argument and miracles can help bring people to faith, and Paul happily used both in his apostolic ministry. But when all is said, and done, preaching the cross is where the power comes from.