Christian Unity (1 Cor 1-4)

by on Jun.11, 2017, under Sermon

The Apostle Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, before moving on to work in other places. While in Ephesus, however, troubling news started to reach him from Corinth. Though it was only two years since he had left, much had happened in the church he founded there. So he wrote his dear friends a letter, the letter we now call 1 Corinthians.

The first and most troubling issue, from Paul’s perspective, was an utter lack of unity within the church.

My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Cor 1:11-12)

Some high-profile Christian leaders had visited Corinth since Paul left. We know from Acts that Apollos, a ‘learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures’ who ‘spoke with great fervour’ (Acts 18:24, 25), visited Corinth not long after Paul departed. Luke records that, ‘On arriving [in Corinth], he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ’ (Acts 18:227b-28). Some of the Corinthians, evidently impressed by this articulate young man, started identifying themselves as followers of Apollos.

It is also possible that the Apostle Peter also visited Corinth, though this is less certain. Peter was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, and given the name Cephas (which means ‘rock’) by Christ himself (Jn. 1:42). Whether or not he did visit Corinth, a group of people arose within the church claiming allegiance to him.

Paul was not concerned about other Christian leaders visiting the church he planted; what did worry him was that the Corinthian church was now split into factions, with some following Apollos, some Peter, some loyal to Paul himself, and some opposing all of these groups and claiming allegiance only to Christ. Perhaps some were new converts who had never met Paul, and so preferred to identify with those who led them to Christ, rather than a man they didn’t know. Maybe the Pauline group were claiming they were the ‘original’ Corinthian Christians. Peter’s followers thought they had it direct from the horse’s mouth, from an original disciple. And so on.

Paul’s response is vivid:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name… For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel — not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor 1:13–17)

Paul will use the image of baptism again several times throughout this letter (1 Cor. 10:2; 12:13; 15:29). Most significant is in chapter 12:

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Cor 12:13)

Baptism is a symbol of unity: people from all walks of life become united in one body. If the Corinthians have all been united in one body, the body of Christ, how can there be such disunity among them? Is Christ divided? Surely not! Paul was not in Corinth to gather a following for himself. ‘Christ did not send me to baptize [people in my own name], but to preach the gospel’. It is not the messenger but the message that unites the church, not the evangelist but the evangel, the gospel itself.

This is good news because it means our hopes don’t hang on our leaders. The modern world is no stranger to personality cults such as found in Corinth. And the church is often no better, idolising her favourite preachers, teachers, writers and evangelists. Yet as we witness so many Christian leaders going astray we need not be dismayed for it is not the messenger but the message that unites us. And we need not despair when our favourite pastor, preacher, small group leader or worship leader moves on; rather we rejoice in the messenger’s faithfulness in proclaiming the message. A church centred on messengers will inevitably devolve into factionalism when the messenger fails or another comes along; a church anchored in the message of the gospel will not.

And what a message! It is certainly not a conventional message; nor is it presented in a conventional way.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Cor 1:18–19)

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor 1:22–25)

Reading between the lines, the reason many preferred Apollos to Paul was that Apollos spoke and taught in the Greek wisdom tradition. Certainly he was a well educated man, and persuasive in his speech – perhaps unlike Paul, of whom the Corinthians would later say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (2 Cor 10:10). But the Corinthians were so caught up looking for the wisdom of this age that they did not recognise the wisdom of God right in front of them.

Friends, the wisdom of God is not a matter of fancy words and flowery speech. It does not require you to conquer great intellectual mountains to understand it. The gospel message that brings unity is such that it can be grasped by a child. Yet at the same time, it is a message so rich that a lifetime of study is not enough to completely plumb its depths.

It is also a message of great power, but it is a power demonstrated in weakness and suffering rather strength and success. Many of the Jews in Jesus’ day believed that the Christ was to deliver them from Roman rule, and would be a conquering king. Instead, he was crucified on a Roman cross… and in that way delivered them from the much greater oppression of sin and death!

Woodcroft Christian Centre, what kind of church are we? What is the focus of our unity? Why do we meet together as we do? Perhaps we like the Sunday service: it’s at a good time, the format is familiar, they play the kind of music I like. Or is it the kids’ program? The facilities? The bread ministry? The people? What is it that brings you here week after week? What do you have in common with the person next to you? Or, more to the point, with the people who sit over the other side of the church?

What we have in common is this: we are all sinners by nature and by choice, and deserving of the righteous wrath of God. But God is not content that it remain so. Instead, he sent his beloved son, Jesus, to rescue us. Jesus left his place of power and was born to an unwed teenage mother in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. Before he was 2 years old, he and his family fled to Egypt as refugees. The Word of God became a child who had to learn to speak. Jesus, the Lord of all creation, had ‘no place to lay his head’ (Matt 8:20). He was mocked and ridiculed, falsely tried and condemned to death on a Roman cross. This is the opposite of what the world calls power or wisdom. Yet this is the wisdom and power of God, that the world should be saved through the weakness and suffering of the Saviour. Both the wisdom and the power of God find their fullest and final expression in Christ. He is the true and only source of our unity. We are united in Christ!

The world may call our gospel message foolishness, but ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom'; the world may call us weak, but ‘the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor. 1:25). And it is offered as a free gift to all who will receive it.

I have spent considerable time this week investigating home loans. Each lender has their own requirements: you must have so much for a deposit, then so much for fees, insurance etc. And each one calculates it differently. It is so frustrating to answer 1001 questions only to be told, ‘You don’t qualify.’ But it is not like that with the gospel. You don’t have to be wealthy, educated, or successful in order to receive it. There are no entry criteria beyond repenting of your sins and trusting in Christ.

Just look at the Corinthians themselves:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:26–31)

My non-Christian friend, if you are sitting here this morning thinking that there is some aspect of your life that disqualifies you from becoming a Christian, I want to tell you that you are wrong. You don’t need to be strong, rich, clever, moral, successful, well-liked, powerful, educated, influential or famous to come to Christ. The only requirement is that you humbly receive the gift God is offering you today in Christ. If this is something you would like to investigate further, please take action today – talk to a Christian friend, one of the elders, or me. We’d love to walk the next steps with you.

The free availability of the gospel also has implications for Christians. For a start, it shapes the way we share the gospel with others.

Immediately prior to coming to Corinth, Paul had preached in Athens, one of the most famous centres of worldly wisdom in the ancient world. When called to address the Areopagus, Paul gave a speech in the best traditions of Greek rhetoric, citing Greek poets and philosophers. Yet, we are told that only ‘a few men became followers of Paul and believed’ (Acts 17:34). Paul was obviously capable of the kind of ‘wisdom’ that the Corinthians so highly prized.1 Yet, whether because of his lack of success in Athens, or because of his reflection on the nature of the gospel itself, he decided on a different course in Corinth.

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much 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 men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor 2:1–5)

If the church is to be united it must be the message rather than the messenger that holds the power and the wisdom. It has been truly said that what you win people with is what you win them to. That is, if you try to build a church by clever speeches, funny anecdotes, slick presentations, charismatic leadership, exciting music, or whatever, you will have a church that depends for its existence on the speeches remaining clever and the music remaining exciting. It is those things that have the ‘power’. On the other hand, if a church is founded on the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ, then it will be a boat anchored in the ocean floor, rather than tied to a piece of driftwood; a house built on rock rather than flood plain. The gospel can and should be creatively, winsomely, and thoughtfully presented in all kinds of ways; but those ways should be in service of the message and not the other way around.

Even the ability to understand and respond to this message is a gift of God – it is the work of the Holy Spirit in us:

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor 2:10–16)

There may be some here not yet convinced that trusting in Christ is truly wise. After all, it may mean significant changes in your life: you may need to step off the ladder of success; or rethink some deeply held presuppositions; or hang out with a different crowd; or spend your money differently. All of this may be true. Yet I still want to say to you this morning that trusting in Christ is not only the best way, it is the only way that holds eternal hope. I could offer you evidence from my life, from history, from Scripture, from philosophy. Those things would all be good, but without the Spirit’s help they are insufficient. You see, sin makes us all predisposed to reject and dismiss such evidences because they challenge some of our most deeply held beliefs. See if any of these ring true for you:

  • I am free to do what I want; or
  • I’m basically a good person.

Sin makes us want to believe these things and many others like them, rather than trusting in what God says to us. So the first and most important thing I must do in telling you about Jesus is to pray that God will open your eyes by means of his Spirit. He may well use the things I say, the experiences I share, the arguments I use. But in the end, it is the work of the Spirit that is the only necessary and sufficient condition for you coming to Christ.

So my prayer for you this morning is that God will send his Spirit to help you see that the gospel, the good news, is indeed good news.

Let’s summarise chapters 1 and 2, then: The unity of the church flows from the message rather than the messenger; and the message is the wisdom and power of God rather than the wisdom and power of the world. In chapter 3, Paul circles back to the role of the messenger and, in particular, the roles he and Apollos had in the Corinthian church.

Paul and Apollos were both servants, with different tasks but the same master and the same goal. He uses two images to illustrate this. The first image, of farmers, reiterates his point about the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:6-9). Paul planted the seed of the gospel, Apollos watered it through his ministry, but it was God, through his Spirit, who brought the growth.

The second image is of Paul as a master builder who laid a foundation upon which other leaders and teachers would build. Here, Paul is warning those who would come after him:

[E]ach one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:10–15)

This is critical because it is not just any building that they are constructing; it is the temple of God:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16–17)

The temple was the place where God dwelt with his people, Israel. This side of the cross, God’s Spirit lives in his people, both within individual believers and the church as a whole. Those building this temple need to be careful that they build right; those trying destroy it ought to repent for they are themselves on a path to destruction.

The Corinthian church was in division because of differing evaluations of their leaders. Does this mean that we are better off without leaders at all? No. Paul shows that they have an important role in the life and growth of the church. It is not a way of power. It is not a way of wisdom – at least, not wisdom as the world sees it. It is rather the way of the servant.

We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. (1 Cor 4:9–13)

We can be grateful that we have such leaders, who are willing to sacrifice so much for the sake of those who will hear the gospel as a result. And we must be especially grateful for those who serve us in person. I love that we live in an age where so much good teaching and counsel is available via podcasts, books, conferences, DVDs and many others. Truly we have ‘ten thousand guardians in Christ’ (1 Cor 4:15). But those who we do life with, those who are willing to enter into the messiness and trials of life with us, these are our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, and are deserving of special honour and respect. And so, it is fitting that we conclude by praying especially for them this morning.

Let’s pray.

Father, thank you for those whom you have appointed to lead us. In particular, we thank you for our elders: Harry, Steve, David, and James. You have given them many responsibilities: to lead; to teach; to encourage; to discipline; and to pray. Thank you for the many sacrifices that they make on our behalf, must unseen and unknown to any but you. May they build well on the foundation you have laid, and in the day of judgment let them be honoured when their work is proved genuine.

Please strengthen them in all of these tasks, giving them wisdom to make good and godly decisions. Guard them and their families from the attacks of the world and the devil, for the enemy likes nothing better than to see Christian leaders fall. Give them the grace to bless when they are cursed; to endure when they are persecuted; to answer kindly when they are slandered. Help them to be men worthy of imitation; and help us to imitate them as a child imitates their father.

Lord, we at Woodcroft Christian Centre want to be a church united by your message; we are so grateful for the messengers you have anointed to proclaim it.

Amen.


Endnotes

  1. Indeed, his ode to love in chapter 13 of this epistle is a fine example.
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