Now if you would please take your Bibles in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians chapter 1; page 952 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. We have, over the last few weeks, been working our way through the book of 1 Corinthians and so far we’ve seen Paul introducing himself and some of the major themes that will be the focus of his letter. But now, in verses 4 to 17, sorry, 10 to 17, he turns to pick up and address specific problems more directly. Thus far it’s been a generally positive introduction. Now he’s responding to specific information that he has received about their particular problems. That information has reached Paul by two different routes. When we get to chapter 7 verse 1 we’re going to see that Paul has actually received a letter from the Corinthians. They’ve written to him asking for his input and guidance on points of controversy and confusion in their fellowship. But then if you look down at chapter 1 verse 11, you will notice that information has come by another route. Some of Chloe’s people, presumably members of the Corinthian church, have been with Paul and have been, as it were, eye-witnesses to the problems that were plaguing the Corinthian congregations. And so, Paul is responding not just to their letter but to firsthand accounts of real issues in the church.
Just as an aside, I can’t help but think about that Sunday, you know, when the elder stood up – you come in, you take your seat at Corinth, the elder stands up and says, “Now everyone, I’ve received a letter, we’ve received a letter from the Apostle Paul. I’m going to read it to you.” And so he begins verse 1, “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and Sosthenes our brother.” And everyone smiles and nods. “Paul’s writing to us! Isn’t that lovely? And Sosthenes, you remember him. He used to be the ruler of the synagogue and he was marvelously converted. That really put the cat among the pigeons then, didn’t it? And now he’s working with Paul. Isn’t that great?” And so the letter goes on. It’s encouraging, upbeat. Paul is writing words of thanks to God concerning all that he sees God doing in our midst. And the elder continues to read until you get to verse 11. “It has been reported to me that some of Chloe’s people are telling me there’s division among you.” And a sudden chill begins to steal through the room as every head turns to glare at Chloe and her household in the Corinthian congregation as they studiously stare at their shoes and try to sink as low in their chairs as they can go. It must have been a tense moment in the Corinthian congregation I’m sure!
But Paul is dealing head-on with a real issue before them. Isn’t it fascinating that of all the many and various problems confronting the Corinthian churches, number one on Paul’s list, the first thing he wants to address, is the problem of division and disunity? Division and disunity, which is our theme in these verses, verses 10 to 17. As we read them, I want you to listen out for two things in particular. First of all, Paul’s diagnosis. He tells us about the problem to be avoided. The deep problem of division. And then secondly, Paul’s treatment plan, the principle that we must apply, which comes out when you think about these rhetorical questions that Paul asks the Corinthians in verse 13, verse 12 rather. It also comes out if you look at Paul’s example in verses 13 to 17. The principle that must be applied if we are to overcome division and establish unity.
Now before we read the Word of God, let’s bow our heads as we pray together.
O Lord our God, we bow before You with gratitude that You speak to us in Your holy and inerrant Word. Would You pour out the Holy Spirit to take up Your Word and wield it with power in our hearts to slay pride, to kill division, and to establish our unity in Jesus for the glory of Your great name? Amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 1 at verse 10. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ is emptied of its power.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and authoritative Word.
So human society is riven by deep divisions, isn’t it? One of the mottos of our country is “E Pluribus Unum” – “From the many, one.” That expresses an aspiration, a longing of our hearts, for unity. And yet however far we’ve come as a society from the early days of our founding, don’t we have to admit there are still profound divisions among us? We are fragmented and divided. Along lines of class and race and education and culture and economics and religion and politics and a thousand other things besides. Unity is the desire of our hearts, something we aspire to, long for, but we have to confess, don’t we, that it is also a perpetually elusive goal. And so it really shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise to discover that division and disunity is a problem that rears its ugly head not just out there in the world but from time to time in here, even in the Church of Jesus Christ. Certainly, that is the problem to be avoided at Corinth.
You’ll see that very clearly if you look at verses 11 and 12. Look at verses 11 and 12 with me. “It has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” They are quarreling, bickering about the respective merits of their particular party. And what Paul calls in verse 10, “divisions,” the word he uses is “schismita.” There are schisms tearing the church apart. And there are two factors in particular that cause these dreadful tears in the fabric of the Corinthian fellowship. In the first place, as you can see on the surface of verse 12, there is the cult of personality. The cult of personality. But then secondly, and standing behind the cult of personality and giving it its power and its force, there is what we will call the cult of personal pride. The cult of personality and the cult of personal pride. Both of them are there in verse 12.
The Cults of Personality:
The Paul “Party”
First of all, the cult of personality. These four groups are each claiming to be the standard bearers for a particular and much-loved leader or approach to the Christian life. First of all, there is the Paul party. Paul, you will remember, was the one who founded the church at Corinth. And these folks claim to be the stalwart defenders of the original vision. “We are the Paul people; loyal to the good old days and the good old ways. That’s not how Paul would have done it. That’s now how Paul would have said it. Things were so much better when Paul was here.” Those are the expressions often found on their lips.
The Apollos “Party”
But then, in addition to the Paul party, another party arose within the Corinthian congregations – the Apollos party. Apollos, Acts 18:24, came from the city of Alexandria. Luke, in the book of Acts, tells us he was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures, fervent in spirit. He spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. Apollos eventually made his way, according to Luke, to the province of Achaia; that is, to the city of Corinth. And there we are told he greatly helped those who, through grace, had believed. For he powerfully refuted the Jews in public showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. And so Apollos, you see, is a great preacher. He is a skilled orator. He is a passionate and dynamic expositor of the Bible. And the church at Corinth was richly blessed through his preaching ministry. All the members of this party, therefore, were always downloading Apollos’ sermons on their iPhone and re-tweeting Apollos quotes on their Twitter feeds. They were all about Apollos. Apollos was the grid through which they measured every other ministry and everyone else’s Christian life. The Apollos party.
Paul actually talks about Paul, himself, and Apollos and the founding of the Corinthian churches in chapter 3 verse 6, if you’ll turn there very quickly. Chapter 3 verse 6, he said, “I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the increase.” And so the first wave, if you like, of Gospel ministry in Corinth came through the mighty Apostle Paul. And then the second wave was through this powerful preacher, Apollos. But God blessed both men’s ministries and caused the church to grow. But there were those in the church that were looking back at Paul and Apollos and claiming one or other as the paradigm, the lens through which to view everyone’s work and worship, convictions, style, attitudes, and stance.
The Peter “Party”
And then along comes another group arising within the Corinthian fellowship. At some point, apparently, various members have moved to Corinth who was influenced neither by Paul nor Apollos but presumably were led to faith in Christ or came under the influence particularly of Cephas; that is, the apostle Peter. They know neither Paul’s ministry nor Apollos’ ministry. For them, Cephas is the “bee’s knees.”
The Jesus “Party”
And then there’s one more division in the church. These guys, I think, are the worst of the bunch. These are the holier-than-thou, no creed but Christ crowd. They pretend to stand above everyone else. “You people are all squabbling about Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but we’re the Jesus people and we got it right.” And so there’s this growing rift between these different groups using Paul and Apollos and Peter, even Jesus, like brand names, labels, and badges, not simply to identify a set of convictions but to belittle others who did not share them.
The Cult of Personal Pride
And why are they doing all of that? Why do people sometimes still do that every today? That gets as the second cause of division. Behind the cult of personality, there’s the cult of personal pride. Listen again to the text! There is one thing at Corinth that unites them all; one thing they all have in common. Listen again to verse 12. “Each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” What is it that they all have in common? Not their favorite leader but their massive egos. They seek to enlist their favorite leader, attach their own names to the names of their chosen great one, in order somehow to borrow some of their perceived glamours, to attach themselves to the glory of this figure that he might make them look good.
“I Follow Dr. So-and-So!”
We’ve all heard people do it, haven’t we, to drop a name here or there as you establish your credentials? Maybe you’ve done it yourself sometimes. You’re just letting folks know that you’re on first-name terms with that preacher or this author or that leader. You know how it goes. “Oh, I remember when Dr. So-and-So was saying to me the other day blah-blah-blah…You know Dr. So-and-So, don’t you? Oh, you don’t know Dr. So-and-So? I’m sure I can arrange an introduction. You just stick with me!” Well, what is that? What is that? That’s ego, isn’t it? It’s not really about Dr. So-and-So at all. It’s all about me! “I follow Paul” or “I follow Cephas” or “I follow Christ.” Behind the cult of personality lurks the cult of personal pride and it was tearing the Corinthians apart.
Called to Unity
But then, notice verse 10. Not only the depth of the problem but the heights of the unity to which they were called. Now you see the real dimensions of the challenge before them. Verse 10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” That is an awfully high standard, isn’t it? The word “united” is an interesting one. It was used of fishermen mending their torn nets. It was used for a shoulder that was dislocated, that was snapped back into its socket. Paul is saying to the Corinthians that “You’re not to be torn apart by schism but mended and knit together in love; not to be a church whose members are put out of joint” as we might say “but one that is whole and mobile and ready for action.”
Speaking the Same Things
And notice how far that unity is to penetrate. It’s not surface and superficial, is it? Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers, that you all agree.” That phrase, “you all agree,” could be translated, “that you all say the same thing; that you all speak the same thing.” They are to confess the same truths, share the same convictions. Their unity, you see, is not the product of doctrinal minimalism where we find the lowest common denominator and look the other way on questions of truth so that we can all get along. Neither is it the product of ecclesiastical formalism, imposing an external structure to maintain unity where no real unity exists. Rather, their unity is to be founded on a common commitment to a body of truth, confessed and preached in their midst. They’re going to speak the same things.
It goes even deeper than that, of course. It’s not as though they were to say, “Well, you know, I guess I’ll keep my mouth shut or I’ll line up with my words, but I’ll keep my own counsel privately.” Look how much further it goes. Unity touches not just what they said but how they thought. He wants them to be united in the same mind and the same judgment. They are to discipline their minds and submit even their private judgments to the authority of the Word of God and to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This is not a superficial, merely verbal consensus, is it? There’s no “go along to get along” here. This is a thoroughgoing, deep, root and branch, head and heart and tongue unity. And so now you see the dimensions of the problem confronting the Corinthian church, can’t you? Division, after all, fueled by ego, is easy. And unity, of the kind to which Paul is calling us, this awfully high standard of Christian unity, that is hard work. That is a tough call to hear from the apostle.
Principles of Unity
And so praise God that he simply doesn’t leave us with the difficult diagnosis, the problem to be avoided and a command to do better. He also comes behind with a treatment plan, with some principles which, if we learn to apply them faithfully, will shatter our divisions and establish our unity. There is a principle here to apply. Look at verse 13. They’re all boasting in their favorite celebrity preachers, but look how Paul responds. Verse 13, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” These three rhetorical questions, all of them demanding a negative answer, “No. Christ is not divided. No, Paul was not crucified for us. And no, we weren’t baptized into the name of Paul.” And the force of all of that really is to redirect our gaze away from our favorite leaders and away from ourselves back onto Jesus Christ. “Christ isn’t divided,” he says, “as though we could apportion Him among ourselves each taking a piece for our particular party. We have a whole Christ or no Christ at all. Since Christ is one, we who follow Him must be one also. And Paul wasn’t crucified for us. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who gave Himself for us. So why in the world are we boasting about Paul when we have Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us? We weren’t baptized into Paul’s name. What in the world are you doing boasting in Paul’s name when your baptism, you remember, your baptism is a sign not of union with Paul but of having been planted into union with Jesus Christ. Jesus is everything, and what is Paul?”
Why wear zirconium when you could have diamonds when you have diamonds? Why watch a TV chef prepare filet mignon when you force down a microwave meal when you have filet mignon in the refrigerator? Why boast in men when you have Jesus Christ? What a waste of energy and passion! What misplaced faith to focus on the leaders Jesus uses instead of the Jesus who uses the leaders. And so here’s the principle we need to learn to apply. I wonder if you see it. Prideful boasting in the parties and divisions that we create will always shrivel and die when our great singular boast is Jesus Christ and Him crucified when He is all in all to us. Schism cannot tear a church apart when its members know they’re united to Jesus and in Him, therefore, we are necessarily united to one another. Fight division, Paul is saying, by a superior pursuit of Jesus Christ.
The Example of Paul
And Paul himself is the great model for us of this very thing. He applies this principle in his own case with deliberation and determination. That’s the point of verses 14 to 17, isn’t it? Look there with me. Verses 14 to 17, having mentioned baptism, Paul immediately backs up a little. He wants to make sure he speaks the truth. He knows he did, in fact, baptize some of the Corinthians after all, “but only Crispus and Gaius, and oh yes, I think I baptized Stephanas, but beyond that, I really don’t recall who I baptized.” No one can claim to be baptized into Paul’s name since Paul hardly baptized any of them. And once he’s gotten all of that straight, he says this. Here’s the guiding principle of his life and his ministry. “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, and not with words, eloquent words of wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Paul is the model of the very principle he is calling all of us to apply. And he presses it all the way through every facet of his ministry. He avoids a heavy emphasis on sacramental rites like baptism and he avoids high-flown oratory in preaching because he doesn’t want people focusing on Paul. “Oh, it was Paul who baptized me. I have a special bond with Paul.” Or, “You’ve not heard preaching until you’ve heard Paul. Paul’s the man. We need to hear Paul.” Paul is allergic to that way of thinking and speaking and he is doing everything he can to ensure that when he does Gospel ministry he welds the attention of his people to Jesus Christ and to His cross. He rejects manipulative, ostentatious ways of preaching. He rejects a heavy emphasis on sacraments. He does not want attention resting on the man, on the minister, but on the message – on Christ Himself.
That is, after all, where the power lies. Not in the preacher but in the Christ he preaches. Not in oratory or sacraments or liturgy or ritual or form, but in the Christ who meets us as we gather in His name. And so let the good news about Jesus, what He has done for your soul in His love, fill your gaze again and you will find that ego begins to die and with it, our divisions crumble. We’ll find the ground level at the foot of the cross once again. Isn’t that the case when we come back to the cross? The ground is level. We look at Jesus bearing the condemnation we deserve and we see that we are, all of us, without hope, save in God’s sovereign mercy, wretched sinners deserving the wrath and curse of God. Nothing to boast in there. Then we glance again at the cross and we see Him in love pouring Himself out for us. And because He did, we are saved. He’s done it all and so I take no glory to myself there and the ground is level, therefore, at the foot of the cross. As we fill our gaze with Jesus, ego dies and divisions crumble.
And isn’t that, after all, what the Lord’s Supper is all about? As we prepare ourselves to come to the Lord’s Table, we are being pointed back to the cross here in the bread and in the cup, the great emblems of Christ’s being broken and poured out for you. Here, Jesus, at the Table, Jesus is renewing His promise to be enough for you. “I’m enough for you. I will nourish, sustain, and keep you.” That’s what He’s saying in the Supper. The centrality of Christ, the necessity of Christ, is being pressed upon us again as we eat and drink. And we are saying to one another, we’re saying to one another as we eat the bread and drink the cup, “We are one under the Gospel. We are one in Christ. We are one here as we gather at the foot of the cross. We are one because of His great love with which He has loved us.”
Let’s pray together!
O Lord, we confess to You that oftentimes pride, ego, has led us to speak in a manner and act in a manner and think and harbor attitudes and cultivate a disposition that is hostile to Christian unity. So as we come back together here this morning to the cross, to the foot of the cross, would You strip from us all boasting, show us the bankruptcy of all our own claims to greatness. Instead, would You capture our hearts anew with the greatness and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ? He is enough, more than enough; altogether sufficient for all our needs. And as we remember that, would You make us profoundly, gloriously one as we celebrate our union with Christ and our union, therefore with each other in Him? For we ask it in His name, amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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