RPM, Volume 12, Number 18, May 2 to May 8 2010

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

This morning we are continuing in our series on Paul's letter to the Corinthians, picking up where we left off, at the 10th verse of chapter 1 and working through to the 17th verse of that same chapter. If you remember from last week, we looked at the first 9 verses and at Paul's very hopeful and positive expectations for the Church of God at Corinth, in spite of their many and difficult internal struggles.

In the passage before us this morning, Paul begins to address some of the Corinthians' problems, tackling an issue that has come to his attention by means of a personal report. With that stunning introduction, let's pray together and then we'll have a look at the passage ......

(Pray and read passage).

The first thing I want you to notice is Paul's appeal for Corinthian unity. After describing the Corinthians in verse 9 as having been "called into the fellowship of. ... Jesus Christ", Paul appeals to them here on that same basis - "...by the name of OUR Lord Jesus..." - says Paul, recognizing with those words the very real spiritual unity that they have in Christ. And on that basis, Paul says he wants them to "agree" and to "have no divisions" and to have the same "mind" and the same "judgment".

Now, admittedly, at first glance you might read something like this and wonder if what Paul was asking was not a little crazy, expecting the Corinthians to become spiritual clones of each other, exact duplicates in all that they say and do. But that's not what Paul is saying here. And what makes this a little more difficult to see is the way that the NIV has translated part of this verse for us.

At the very beginning of this section, when the NIV portrays Paul as saying that he wants all the Corinthians to agree with one another, what is actually said in the Greek is that Paul wants them to "say the same things" and that there should be "no divisions among [them]." Now, when you take the translation literally like that, and compare it to what Paul says further along, you can see more easily what Paul is talking about.

For example, have a look at verse 12. Now, we'll look at this in more detail in a moment, but for now all you need to know is that within the Corinthian Church there are a number of people who have aligned themselves with various Christian leaders and as a result are "saying different things" - one says, "I follow Paul", another says, "I follow Apollos", another "I follow Cephas (Peter)" - they're all saying different things as a result of some fundamental divisions and disunity that has been creeping into the Corinthian congregation.

So, in light of that situation, Paul wants them to stop saying different things and instead to "say the same things" - i.e., to describe themselves in the same way, in a way that demonstrated not their divisions but their unity. And so, the idea is not so much of "agreement" in the sense that they would be perfectly identical to one another in every detail but rather that they would be unified in how they saw themselves as belonging to the one Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, to these statements about their "saying the same things" and "not having any divisions" Paul then adds that he wants them to be "united in the same mind and the same judgment..." And when we look closely at what Paul says here and at the words he uses for "mind" and for "judgment" we see that, as John Piper points out, these are words that are not used to describe emotion and feeling but rather "the mind and its products", i.e., it's thoughts. And so, as Piper concludes, what Paul is aiming at here is a unity of ideas about God.

You can see the same sort of thing in operation in Paul's other writings. For example in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, verses 1-6, he also appeals to unity among God's people and he does so there, as he does here, on the basis of their understanding of God - that is, on their having a common doctrine, a common view of God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit.

Now, we'll say more those things in a few minutes, but at this point I don't want you to miss the fact that Paul approaches the problem of Corinthian disunity by appealing to doctrine, by drawing their attention to theological truth. Strangely, it seems that all too often in the church today the search for unity takes people in the opposite direction - to downplay theology and doctrine and rally instead around ideas and slogans decidedly lacking in substance.

I remember once having a conversation with a man from another church and he was telling me how his church was experiencing a lot of disunity and had seen a lot of people leave for doctrinal or theological reasons. And then, in an attempt to place himself above all of that, he said something to the effect that he had wrestled with the same sort of issues and just decided that "for the sake of the Gospel" he was going to just "ignore the theological problems."

Now, on the one hand, I admire that sort of sensitivity toward the issue of unity in the church, but, at the same time, I think a person is sadly mistaken if he thinks that unity can come apart from, and in spite of, a person's theology. Friends, it can't. And Paul doesn't show any such belief either as he, throughout this letter and indeed, throughout all his letters, will appeal to people to be united around certain theological truths and beliefs related to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Indeed, any unity that is alleged to have come apart from such things is a sham and a fake and is bound to, sooner or later, shatter into a thousand pieces. It may sound high and mighty and pious and holy and super spiritual to decry doctrine and theology "for the sake of Gospel" - but friends, the only Gospel the Bible knows is a Gospel that is deeply doctrinal and theological and which searches us to the core of our very being. The truths upon which the Gospel rests are not merely matters of opinion which are up for negotiation, they are essential truths without which, you have no Gospel to which you can cling. They are necessary truths without which the phrase "the Gospel of Jesus Christ" just becomes a meaningless linguistic statement devoid of any real content of substance.

So, Paul appeals to unity on the basis of doctrine - not in an exhaustive, encyclopedic sense but in a sense which is concerned for unity on the central issues without rendering the Corinthians as carbon copies of one another in every detail.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration that Paul does not expect them to agree in every detail can be seen later on in this same letter - in chapters 8-10 - where Paul will talk to them about how they ought to respond to one another when they do differ on lesser matters.

I like the way that one commentator described Paul's pleas here as an appeal that the Corinthians will sing in harmony, but not necessarily in unison. They are to function together much like the various instruments in an orchestra which are working together to perform the same piece of music - each player having a different part but one which coordinates with and contributes to the overall harmony of the piece being presented.

Let's move on...

Following his appeal to the Corinthians for unity, Paul then shows the reasons behind his appeal by describing, as we have already seen, the current situation at Corinth - a situation that saw the people of the congregation aligning themselves with certain persons and thus creating, to one degree or another, factions within the church. Whether or not there were actual "parties" or groups within the church, we don't know, but at the very least there was a "party-mindedness" that was rampant among the members of the congregation.

It should be added, that it does not appear from Paul's words here or elsewhere in this letter that the individuals mentioned (Paul, Peter and Apollos) are encouraging these factions. What that means is that what you have at Corinth is a "follower problem", as one writer has put it, and not a "leader problem".

So, what were these groups or factions all about? Well, asking the question is a whole lot easier than answering it and, at the end of the day, the best we can do is try and piece together some strong possibilities as to what these groups or loyalties might have been all about. And in order to do THAT it helps to try and reconstruct how these factions may have been started in the first place.

Well again, we cannot know for sure how it happened, but one reconstruction which seems to fit well with the facts that we DO know goes something like this:

While Paul was there in Corinth during those first 18 months, the church would have enjoyed a high degree of unity and then, after Paul left, Apollos stayed behind and looked after the church, for a time. In that position, Apollos apparently came into his own and, unfortunately, there began to form a group of devotees around him - not because of Apollos - but because of both his abilities and the context in which he found himself. The Corinthian culture, you see, was one which was frequented by traveling philosophers who would go from place to place, espousing their views and displaying their speaking gifts to eager audiences.
With that sort of background, many of the Corinthian converts were easily impressed by the very gifted Apollos - a fact to which Luke draws our attention in Acts 18:24-28 and which is further highlighted, negatively, by Paul's self-evaluation of his own speaking abilities which he holds to be, by comparison, ordinary and unimpressive in every way (see 2 Cor. 10:10 and 1 Cor. 11:6).

So, compared to the Apostle Paul's unimpressive speaking abilities, and against the backdrop of so many fine, traveling speakers, Apollos comes onto the scene at Corinth and develops an immediate following of those who were overtly impressed with such things. Unfortunately, as so often happens, people who commit the error of rendering undue esteem to a person will often commit the companion error of disdaining those who do not share their view. Thus, the elevation of Apollos meant, for many, the denigration of Paul. Well, the natural response to this promotion of Apollos would have moved many people no doubt, out of loyalty, to say, "I follow Paul". And it would seem that although there were a number of factions in the church, it is likely that these first two were the primary ones.

But they were not the only ones. And so, to these two parties there was added a third - "Cephas/Peter Party". It is difficult to know when or even how this third group might have formed because we don't know much about Peter's movements in Corinth. But you can see their presence and influence when you read between the lines of 1 Corinthians and especially in the discussions about what sorts of behavior are and are not appropriate for Christians (8-10).

The reason I say that is because of the likely nature of this third group. By looking at other letters of Paul's, most notably Galatians, it would seem probable that this third group was composed of mostly Jewish Christians who more readily identified with Peter, who was the main Apostle to the Jews. And, as the Jewish Christians seem to do throughout the NT, especially in the early days of the church, they would have most likely struggled with issues of legalism and the temptation to reduce Christianity to lists of right and wrong behavior.

Then in the wake of all these other loyalties being formed around mere persons, it is not surprising to discover that a fourth group - the "Christ Party" would come into being. Now, while we cannot be certain about any group, understanding the nature of THIS particular group is perhaps the most difficult of all. Over the years, scholars have offered a number of possibilities, but the two most likely seem to be that either:

a) this is a group of Christians who were disgusted with the way people were elevating certain leaders and who, as a result, asserted the primacy of Christ. They were sort of a "anti-group group". That is possible. However, as I think seems more likely given the things that Paul says later on in this letter,

b) this is a group who felt that they had somehow attained to a higher level of spirituality than those around them, that somehow they possessed something more of God's Spirit, and so were a kind of "spiritually elite" sub-group within the congregation, claiming independence from any human leader and only attaching themselves to Christ.

So, there were a number of factions or at least faction-minded people in the Corinthian Church - some were gentile, some were Jewish, some were cerebral intellectual types, some were more driven by emotion than reason, some were legalistic, some were not, some felt they were superior because they had converted under Paul, some felt superior because they placed great stock in things like gifts of rhetoric and oratory and Apollos had greater gifts in this area than Paul and so their conversion under Apollos was somehow more significant, some felt superior because they felt they were more "holy", others were sinfully proud of the fact that they didn't align themselves with any person except Christ - there were all sorts of factions in Corinth and Paul is distressed and grieved by what has been reported to him and, in verses 13-17, begins to respond to the Corinthian disunity in at least 2 important ways.

First, he asks a series of rhetorical questions designed to draw the Corinthians' attention back to some of the basics of the Gospel message. His opening question is: Is Christ divided? - by that indicating, of course, Christ is NOT divided, he is not "apportioned" out to the church in discrete quantities. Now Paul's point in asking this question is simply to underscore the truth that no Christian can claim to have "more of Jesus" than the next. No believer can claim any sort of advantage over another one in this regard.

Now, while this would have been an important reminder for all the factions at Corinth, the one party to which these words would seem to be especially directed would have been those who said, "I follow Christ". This group, in all likelihood, is composed of those who felt themselves to be spiritually elite. Paul's first question should have disavowed them of that sort of thinking.

His next question is: Was Paul crucified for you? Now this, and the next question, seem to have been aimed at all the groups that claimed allegiance to a person and especially at those who referred to themselves as ones who "follow Paul". And notice Paul's humility in choosing this group, the one with his name on it, to show the absurdity of what some of them are saying in Corinth. That is, rather than attaching Apollos' name or Peter's name to this outlandish suggestion of an alternative Savior, he uses his own name to point out the foolishness of their aligning themselves with personalities.

You see, by resorting to such a ridiculous question, Paul is reminding all the parties of the truth that, at the end of the day, none of these "personalities" in the church, no matter how gifted they are, none of them can claim to be anything other than sinners for whom Christ had to die, and thus they ought not to be exalted in the eyes of the people. What better way to get a true and realistic perspective on others, and especially upon our leaders, than by looking again at the cross and what it meant and what it required and realizing that the Cross of Christ IS the great humbler and leveler of all humanity?

His third and final question is: Were you baptized into the name of Paul? Now, of course, Paul knows the ridiculousness of this question before he ever asks it. But he still must ask the question, partially because it would appear that perhaps there were some at Corinth who were making too much of baptism - and so Paul addresses that here, and in the verses which follow. But he also asks the question because he again wants them to see the silliness of exalting human leaders - an act that was full of pride and vanity and self-congratulation and which therefore contradicted the very meaning of their having been baptized into Christ in the first place: namely, that they had "died to self, and to these silly games of self-promotion and spiritual one-upmanship."

So, taken together, these three questions are meant to drive the Corinthians back, in their minds at least, to some of the basics of the Gospel message and its significance for them amidst this current crisis. By refocusing their gaze upon the fullness that each one of them had in Christ, and the necessity of Christ's sacrifice for all people and the significance of their baptism into Christ - by re-focusing their gaze upon these things, Paul is urging them to have a more sober, and more humble, and more appropriate perspective on their earthly, human leaders.

That is the first way that Paul responds to the Corinthian disunity, by drawing their attention back to the basics of the Gospel message. The second way that Paul responds to the Corinthian disunity is to draw their attention, if only briefly, back to the basics of Gospel ministry.

Now while a lot more can be said about Gospel ministry, Paul narrows it down to just two main points for the Corinthians. Firstly, Paul asserts the primacy of preaching over baptism. And this is because many from among the Corinthians had made an inordinately big deal about baptism, and especially about Paul's baptism. So, Paul goes out of his way to say that baptizing people was not the main reason why he was sent. And, let me just say, if there ever was a passage which showed clearly the fact that baptism is not a requirement for salvation - it would be this one. To be sure, Paul is fully aware of the command of Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations and to baptize those people who had become disciples. Paul is all in favor of baptism, as he shows in places like Romans 6:3 and Colossians 2:12.

Nevertheless, as important as baptism was it paled into insignificance next to the primary task of preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. And the fact that Paul had so seldom engaged in the practice himself says to me that he was especially aware of the danger of people attaching more freight to baptism than they ought and, further, of making something special out of being baptized during Paul's ministry and then using information like that to create further factions in the church.

The second and more important truth about Gospel ministry about which Paul reminds them is that authentic ministry is always a function of God's power working through the weakness and foolishness of human flesh, and not through the innate gifts or powerful abilities of mere human beings. Now, this will be developed more fully later on, but for now notice that this would have been a crucial message for all the factions at Corinth and especially for those who described themselves as "followers of Apollos" and who were no doubt quite easily impressed with the very things which Paul says have no real power and, indeed, have the effect of emptying the cross of Christ of its power, i.e., of working against and getting in the way of effective Gospel preaching.

Well, that's a rough sketch of what Paul is saying in this section of his letter which, if I had to summarize it, is telling us that Christian unity and fellowship is to be centered upon the Cross of Christ, not on those who proclaim the Cross of Christ.

Now, having taken far too much time developing this passage, let's spend a few minutes at the end thinking through some particular applications and implications which flow from what we've seen. For the sake of simplicity, I have lumped these applications into two parts: a) what this passage says to individual Christians and Christian congregations and b) what this passage says to Christian leaders. Let's start by thinking for a moment about what this passage has to say to Christians and Christian congregations.

First, one thing this passage surely tells us is that one of the best things we can do to promote unity and work against divisions in the church is to make sure that as individual believers we are keeping our gaze upon Christ, and not upon other Christians. Listen to what one writer (John Piper) in this regard,

There is great danger of taking pride in knowing and being associated with important people. Most of us feel like nobodies in a world where the media are constantly holding up the desirability of being well known. So, the way millions of people try to satisfy this desire is to line up behind someone who is somebody...We may read all their books [and listen to all their tapes]. We may listen to their radio programs or watch their TV programs. We may go to their churches, take their classes, get on their mailing lists, and get so familiar with their teaching and their ways of doing things that we begin to idealize them and even absolutize them. The effect of this vicarious ego trip is that anyone who is not on the same bandwagon is generally looked down on, and the result is the emergence of factions and schisms and splits.
Is there anybody here this morning who can say that they have NEVER been guilty of this sort of thing? Perhaps some of you here this morning have brought your "party affiliation" so to speak, with you as you walked through the front doors - carrying with you the ghost of some person that had a strong influence in your Christian life - which can be a great thing - but which, I suspect, for many has, in time, become NOT such a great thing as in your mind you have built up a certain person in a way which is inappropriate, in a way which is very much in the spirit of what was happening at Corinth, and in a way which the person you are building up would, if they knew about it, probably rebuke you for.

Yet this image, this memory, has become the standard against which all things are compared and by which all things, predictably, fall short. If that sounds at all familiar to you, let me encourage you to spend some time in prayer, thanking God first of all for the great influence that this person or these persons have been in your life and yet, at the same time, asking God to show you if perhaps your faith is inordinately tied to a particular person or a particular ministry.

That is one issue that congregational members need to think about. Sometimes, however, there is a problem that develops, not because a person is inordinately tied to a particular person and ministry but because a person is determined never to do so in a kind of reactionary sort of way which smacks of pride and self-righteousness. Again, one commentator is helpful here:

...if there is a kind of derivative ego boost that comes through attaching ourselves to someone else's importance, there is an opposite reaction that has the very same root of pride. There are those who are very defensive and reactionary about any kind of influence coming from a Christian leader. So if you've learned something helpful from a book or sermon or lecture or radio message, and you try to tell this kind of person about it, he/she will immediately impute to you some kind of hero worship or herd mentality. And further, this person will feel the need to make it very clear that they do not believe everything the teacher in question is saying because they are more critical and independent and cautious than you are [i.e., they are superior to you in this regard] ...And so there are two forms of pride in the church when it comes to Christian leadership - one wants to ride the coattails of a leader to a kind of vicarious glory; and the other is a kind of anti-authoritarian, suspicious, skeptical, often cynical attitude that wants to make clear to everybody that it is not part of the herd. Both kinds of people tend to destroy the unity of the church.
So, the first thing we can do as individuals is keep our gaze upon Christ, not other Christians and yet, not do so in a reactionary way which does not respect and value the legitimate leaders that God has placed in our midst. The second thing we can do is to work hard to discourage the formation of personality cults around Christian leaders - i.e., we need to learn to encourage our leaders but to not do it by discounting someone else in the process.

Someone tells the story of how one year Dick Lucas, an evangelical minister from London, was notified by some evangelical group or organization (can't remember exactly) that had voted to grant him the "Preacher of the Year" award. Well the story I heard was that when Lucas was contacted by them he burst out laughing and said that he couldn't possibly accept an award that was as shallow and meaningless as that. And of course, Lucas was making an important point in refusing to take part in such a stupid exercise by Christians who ought to have known better. Lucas understood all too well that to elevate one preacher above others by means of some ridiculous "award" process was completely antithetical to the spirit of the New Testament. It was to do the very thing that Paul rebuked the Corinthians for in this chapter.

Even further, Lucas well understood what Martyn Lloyd Jones meant in his book "Preaching and Preachers", when he said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that there are no great preachers, there is only faithful preaching that, occasionally, becomes great preaching under the movement and application of the Spirit of God.

So, again, we must fix our gaze upon Christ and we must make sure that we find ways to build up our leaders, but not in a way that encourages the formation of personality cults that lose sight of Christ and the Cross and which forget where the real power and the real authority in every church can be found.

Finally, it is helpful to think not only what these verses have to say to Christian congregations, but also what they have to say to Christian leaders. Firstly, if members of congregations are not to align themselves with certain personalities in the church and elevate and exalt them in inappropriate ways, then Christian leaders also have a responsibility for not encouraging this sort of thing to happen. And the sad truth is that leaders do not always discourage this sort of thing when they have every chance to do so.

One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is about David, in 2 Sam 23, when he was on the run and hiding from the Philistines and at one point, expressed a desire to taste the water from the well at Bethlehem, where the Philistines were encamped. Well, three of his best soldiers heard David's comment and took off, broke through Philistine lines and risked their lives to get water from this well for David. However, when they got back and presented it to him, David did a strange thing. He poured the water on the ground. Why?

Because he was saying, by that action, "I am not worthy of that kind of devotion and that kind of sacrifice". David knew that only ONE was worthy of that, and so he poured the water on the ground. And that story stands forever as a model of what a Christian leader ought to do on a regular basis - to not believe your own press and to, instead, direct attention back upon the one who IS worthy of our highest praise. In short, as Haddon Robinson titled his sermon on this text, "Real leaders don't drink [the] water". They point beyond themselves to the person of Christ.

Second, and in closing, this passage encourages Christian leaders to pursue unity in the same way that Paul pursued unity - by preaching the Gospel, by not backing down from truth but continuing to hold it forth. Christian leaders should never be ashamed or feel that they have to apologize for focusing on Christ or for teaching Christian doctrine to God's people. Because at the end of the day, that is the only way to have a unity that is worth having.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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