In his greeting to the church in Corinth Paul has referred to some of the benefits they have received from the Lord. Do you remember? They’re the church of God, or the assembly of God, so that they were able to gather in the presence of the Lord God Almighty every week to hear his word.
And they were sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints. So, they were God’s sanctified saints who had been washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ and justified by God and therefore accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ. Though they were sinners, they were more than sinners, because for the sake of Jesus Christ, they had become God’s sanctified saints.
And God had been very gracious and kind to them, enriching them with all kinds of spiritual gifts. There was no lack or shortage of spiritual gifts among them.
And though they were not yet perfect, and were waiting for the coming of the Lord when the imperfect will give way to the perfect, nevertheless Paul was able to tell them that the Lord Jesus will keep them to the end. Like a faithful shepherd, he will watch over them to lead them and to defend them and to keep them so that they will persevere in the faith right to the end.
And at the end, when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, they will be found blameless. Though they were sinners who deserved to be condemned, they will be pardoned and brought in to enjoy everlasting life with God in the heaven and the new earth.
So, those were the great benefits the members of the church in Corinth had received from the Lord. And those are the great benefits you have received if you have repented and believed. If you have turned from your sin in repentance and turned with faith to the Saviour, then you too have become a member of God’s assembly; and you too have become one of God’s sanctified saints; and you too have been enriched in many ways; and you too will be kept to the end; and you too will be found blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, if you have repented and believed, you should spend your days giving thanks to the Lord for all his benefits: for all the good things he has already done for you; and for all the good things he has promised to do for you in the future.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
Verses 10 to 12
Having begun his letter in this way, Paul goes on to address a problem in the church in Corinth. In fact, throughout this letter, Paul addresses one problem after another in the church in Corinth. I’ve said before that this was a messy church and there were all sorts of problems in this church. Church life is rarely simple, because, of course, we’re sinners who sin continually against the Lord and against one another. And Paul has to deal with these things, one after another. And if you’re reading from an NIV Bible, you’ll see from the headings that the first problem for Paul to address was ‘Divisions in the Church’. So, instead of being united, and instead of loving and serving one another, there were rivalries and divisions among them. And the Lord’s people should not be divided; and the fellowship of God’s people should not be broken. And so, in verse 10 Paul appealed to his readers to agree with one another.
Notice that he based his appeal on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, what he was saying to them was that, out of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, or out of reverence for him, you should set aside your differences. And, of course, since they love the Lord Jesus and are eager to please him, then they should be willing to do what Paul has said and set aside their differences and agree with one another, because this pleases the Lord who commands us to love one another.
And if they set aside their differences, and agree with one another, then, Paul says, there will be no divisions among you and you will be perfectly united in mind and thought. The Greek word which is here translated as ‘united’ can be used in medical settings to refer to the way broken bones are reset. So, just as a doctor needs to fix a bone which has been fractured, so that the broken pieces are put together again, so the Corinthians need to fix their relationships which have been fractured so that the people are once again united under Christ. Their broken relationships need to be healed and restored so that the members of the church are united once again.
And the reason Paul wrote to them in this way is because he had heard from members of Chloe’s household that there were quarrels among them. We don’t know who Chloe was; and we don’t know who the members of her household were; we don’t know anything about them. However, whoever they were, they had come to Paul with this troubling report about the church in Corinth and how the members were quarrelling. And it seems from what we read in verse 12 that a number of different groups or parties or cliques had formed in the church. So, one group said:
I follow Paul.
Another group said:
I follow Apollos.
A third group said:
I follow Cephas.
And another group said:
I follow Christ.
We read about Apollos in Acts 18. He was a Jew from Alexandria who came to Ephesus and began to preach with great fervour about the Lord Jesus. However, his knowledge of the gospel was incomplete; and so Priscilla and Aquila — a godly married couple who had helped Paul and who were living in Ephesus — took him aside and explained the gospel to him more adequately. He then moved from Ephesus to the region of Achaia where he was a great help to the believers including those in Corinth. So, Apollos was known to the church in Corinth and had ministered there. Cephas, who is also mentioned here, is another name for the Apostle Peter. We don’t know whether he was ever in Corinth, but it’s likely the believers in Corinth had at least heard of him, since he was one of the Apostles.
And from what Paul says, it now seems that in the church in Corinth there was a Paul group and there was an Apollos group and there was a Peter group and there was even a Christ group. Now, if you read the commentaries, you’ll discover that the Bible scholars have lots of theories about what each of these groups stood for and what the differences between them were. However, that’s all they are: theories. And they’re only theories because Paul doesn’t tell us what each group believed; he doesn’t say what made them different from one another. However, whatever their differences, the fact is that the church of Jesus Christ in Corinth had become divided into these different groups or parties. The perfect unity of the church had been destroyed and the church of Jesus Christ has splintered into rival and quarrelling factions. And, of course, Paul and Apollos and Peter and the Lord Jesus Christ had nothing to do with their rivalries. They hadn’t set up these groups. Paul hadn’t gone to Corinth to set up a group of followers for himself. Apollos, when he went to Corinth, didn’t gather together a group of followers for himself. Peter wasn’t responsible for those who claimed to follow him. And the Lord Jesus Christ certainly didn’t do anything to create the divisions in this church. No, these divisions had been caused by the people themselves who had formed themselves into this competing groups. And if you look at verse 6 of chapter 4 you’ll see that they were taking pride in one man over against another. In other words, the followers of Paul exalted themselves over the others; and the followers of Apollos exalted themselves over the others; and the followers of Peter exalted themselves over the others; and those who claimed to follow Christ — and it’s not at all clear what made this group different — but whoever they were, and whatever they meant when they boasted about following Christ, they too thought that they were superior to the others; and so, just like the others, they exalted themselves over everyone else. So, instead of being humble towards one another, instead of loving and serving one another, the members of these groups exalted themselves over everyone else and they boasted about themselves and quarrelled with one another.
I remember listening to someone on a podcast who teaches in a theological college in the United States and who is also a part-time pastor when he mentioned that a group of students came to him once and asked if they could meet with him regularly to talk about theology and problems in the church and in society. They looked up to him and they wanted to spend time with him to learn from him. Well, when they first asked him, he was delighted: the idea of sitting around with these young students, passing on his wisdom and knowledge, appealed to him. But then, on second thoughts, he realised it appealed to his pride. And he also realised that he didn’t want to become the kind of man who has a group of followers. And that’s always a temptation for ministers and preachers and church leaders. Our calling is to do what John the Baptiser did and to point men and women and boys and girls to the Lord Jesus Christ. The preacher must say:
Don’t follow me; follow him, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But we’re sinners, who sin continually, and who are continually tempted to sin. And it’s very easy for someone in the church with a bit of influence or with a bit charisma or for someone in a leadership role to gather around them a group of followers. And once you have a group of followers, then it’s very easy for that group of followers to divide the church.
It’s very easy for someone in the church to gather a group of followers. And it’s very easy for members of the church to let themselves be led by someone with a bit of influence in the church or with a bit of charisma or in some kind of leadership role. Young people especially need to be careful, because they’re sometimes impatient with the church leaders and they’re looking for someone with a new perspective and with new ideas and with a new outlook and who challenges the way things are. And they’ll rally around a person who can give them that. But it’s not only young people who need to be careful, because the temptation is always there. And we must always be alert for anything or for anyone who might spoil the unity of Christ’s church by forming groups and parties and cliques. That’s what was happening in Corinth: the church had become divided because of these different groups.
Verses 13 to 16
Look how Paul addresses this issue. He brings his readers back to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the gospel. And so he asked them:
Is Christ divided?
No, he’s not. And since there’s only one Lord Jesus Christ, then there can only be one church of Jesus Christ whose members are united under him and who are called to follow him and no one else. Then Paul asks:
Was Paul crucified for you?
No, he was not. So, why follow him? Or why give your allegiance to Apollos or to Peter? They didn’t die for you; but the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified for you; he died for you and you’ve been purchased with his blood to belong to him and to no one else. And then Paul asked:
Were you baptised into the name of Paul?
When a person is baptised, they don’t become a member of the church of Paul. No, when a person is baptised, they become members of the church of Christ. So, instead of following Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, everyone who is baptised is to follow Christ the Lord.
And since sinful men and women in Corinth might have boasted about being baptised by Paul, Paul is now thankful to the Lord who so ordered things in Corinth, so that when he was there, Paul baptised only a handful of people: these men Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanas. You see, since he only baptised a handful of them, then there’s less opportunity for boasting among them.
It’s very easy for someone in the church to gather together a group who will follow him or her. And it’s very easy for people in the church to rally around someone with a bit of influence or with a bit of charisma or someone who comes along with new ideas and a new perspective and a new approach. And it’s very easy for those in one group to exalt themselves over everyone else and to look down on their fellow believers. And so the church of Jesus Christ is divided. So, what should we do? Well, we should make sure that the only person we follow is the Lord Jesus Christ, because he’s the one who loved us and who gave up his life for us; and we’ve been baptised into his name and not into the name of anyone else. The Lord Jesus Christ is the one who deserves our love and loyalty and our allegiance above everyone else. And he’s the one who commands us to love and serve one another as members of his church.
In verse 17 Paul mentions preaching; and he continues to write about preaching for quite some time. And it’s very easy to assume that he’s gone off on a tangent and that he’s forgotten all about the divisions in the church. However, if you have an NIV Bible in front of you, you’ll see from the heading above chapter 3 that he hasn’t forgotten about the divisions in the church. And, in fact, what he says about preaching is connected with what he wants to say about divisions in the church.
So what’s the connection? Well, it’s this: whatever success any preacher has in his ministry, is due, not to his own ability, but to the wisdom and power of God. So, here were these people in Corinth, boasting about this preacher and that preacher:
I follow Paul.
I follow Apollos.
I follow Peter.
And in response, Paul shows his readers that there’s no reason for them to boast about Paul or Apollos or Peter. The one they should boast in is the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, when we get to chapter 3, Paul explains that preachers are like labourers, working in the field, planting and watering and doing what they’re told to do by their master. But none of them, not even the best of them, is able to produce any growth, because it’s the Lord, and not the preacher, who causes the seed of his word to grow and to bear fruit. And Paul concludes in verse 21 of chapter 3:
So then, no more boasting about men!
That’s what they were doing in Corinth: boasting about these men, these preachers in the church. And that’s what we do in every generation: we boast about this person and that person; and we rally round them and follow their leadership. Well, no more, says Paul, because we’re to boast only in the Lord.
And so, from verse 17 Paul refers to preaching; and he draws a distinction between the wisdom of God on the one hand; and the wisdom of the world on the other hand. Now, we’re not going to get very far this evening. In fact, we’ll not get further than verse 17. But that’s where Paul is going and we’ll learn more about the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world next time.
But take a look at verse 17 for now: Paul tells his readers that Christ did not send him to baptise, but to preach the gospel. That’s why he didn’t baptise many people in Corinth, because his true calling was to preach the gospel. And then he adds:
not with words of wisdom.
What did he mean? If you read the commentaries, the Bible scholars tell us all about the sophists who were professional speech-makers who went around the ancient world and who were very popular in Corinth. You might have employed a sophist to act as your representative in court. So, they acted like a lawyer and spoke in your defence. But they also gave speeches as a form of entertainment. And when they did, they would impress the audience with their eloquence and the beauty of their language and by their ability to come up with convincing arguments in a debate. What they were speaking about didn’t really matter; the main thing was the way they said it. It was mostly style over substance. And many of the commentators think that when Paul refers here to ‘words of wisdom’ he’s thinking of the sophists and their skill at using words to impress an audience. In fact, the ESV translation of the Bible, translates the phrase ‘words of wisdom’ as ‘words of eloquent wisdom’. So, many scholars think Paul is saying:
You know those sophists who impress you with their eloquence. Well, I’m not like them.
Although that’s a very popular interpretation of this verse, I don’t think it’s correct. Paul will go on in chapter 2 to speak about the manner of his preaching and his style of preaching. But here in chapter 1, he’s referring to the content of his preaching. So, when he came to Corinth to preach, he didn’t preach words of wisdom. In other words, he didn’t come to them with human ideas. He didn’t come to tell them what the philosophers of the age had to say. Think about what we read in Acts 17 when Paul went to Athens; Luke who wrote the book of Acts explains for us that the Athenians and others who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Well, Paul wasn’t like that; he didn’t come to tell the Corinthians the latest ideas. No, he came to preach to them the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of coming to them as a philosopher, he came to them as a preacher. Instead of coming to them as a great thinker, with new and original ideas to teach, he came to them as a herald; and a herald’s job is very simple and straightforward; the herald’s job is to pass on the message his master has given him to announce. That’s the job of a herald: to make known what his master has said. And that was Paul’s calling, a calling which was given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ: to make known what his master had said. He was called to preach the gospel: that and nothing else.
And then Paul adds:
lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel — not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
The Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins. So, he went to the cross and he suffered and died there in the place of sinners, taking the blame for us, suffering the punishment we deserve, bearing the wrath of God in our place satisfying God’s justice on our behalf, before being raised again. There on the cross, he accomplished our salvation, doing everything necessary to pay for our sins. However, how do we receive the salvation he won for us? How do we receive the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of everlasting life? The Lord Jesus died on the cross for sinners; but how do we benefit from his death for us? How do we connect today with what he did for us in the past?
Well, we need to believe in him; we need to believe that salvation is found in him and in no one else. Unless we believe, we cannot be saved. Unless we believe, we cannot receive forgiveness and everlasting life. Unless we believe in Jesus Christ, who died for sinners, we cannot be saved.
But where does this belief, this faith, come from? Well, in order to believe in him, we need someone to preach the gospel to us. The people in Corinth did not know about the Lord Jesus Christ; they did not know that the Son of God had come into the world as a man; they did not know that he lived a perfect life among us; they did not know that he died on the cross for sinners; they did not know that he was raised from the dead to give them life. They did not know any of these things, until Paul came to them. And if Paul had come to them and had taught them the latest ideas, if he had come to them and taught them what the greatest philosophers had said, if he had come to them with words of wisdom only, then none of them would be saved. But since Paul came, not as a philosopher with the latest ideas, but as a preacher of the gospel, they were able to hear the good news. And the power of the cross to save was unleashed; and the power of Jesus Christ to give salvation was set free; and men and women and boys and girls in Corinth heard about the Lord Jesus Christ; and they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and they called out to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. And so, they were saved from the coming wrath; and they were added to the church of God as sanctified saints who were washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ; and they enriched with spiritual gifts while they waited for the coming of the Lord, confident that they would be found blameless in him. Paul came to Corinth and he preached the gospel, which is the wisdom of God, and which is far superior to the wisdom of the world. And when he preached the gospel, the power of the cross to save was unleashed in that city.
And it’s the same in every generation. God raises up preachers and he sends them out to preach. And they’re not to preach the latest ideas; and they’re not to rely on their own ideas or their own cleverness or their own ingenuity. Their calling is simple and straightforward: it’s to preach the message the master has given them, which is the message of the gospel, the message of the Saviour who died for sinners and who was raised and who gives forgiveness and everlasting life to all who believe in him. That’s the preacher’s calling.
And as God’s people, you’re to pray that the Lord will continue to raise up and to send preachers out into the world, who will be faithful to their calling, and who will preach the gospel to all, so that the power of the cross to save is unleashed throughout the world.
So, you’re to pray. And whenever you hear the gospel, you’re to pay attention to it; and you’re to believe the message and you’re to believe in the Saviour; and you’re to confess your sins and ask for forgiveness; and you’re to give thanks to God, because whenever the gospel is preached and the power of the cross to save is unleashed, the power comes from God, and not from the preacher. And so, instead of boasting in the men who preach, we’re to boast in the Lord who loved us and who gave up his life for us and who works through the preaching of the gospel to save sinners. He’s the one we should boast in; he’s the one we should praise; he’s the one we should follow; and every true preacher will say to his congregation: follow him and not me, because in him, and not in me, you’ll find peace and joy and everlasting life.