Last week, Paul established the fact that in Jesus Christ, the Corinthians lacked nothing. In Jesus Christ, we have all we need; in Him our spirits have already been made perfect. But we still exist, not only in spirit, but in body in this sin-riddled world. Now, Paul appeals to them (and to us) to let the power of God flow through their spirits into the lives they are living here and now.
The first issue he approaches, is division in the church. As always, we need to understand the context of this passage. Paul is not talking about theological disputes. In fact, from what we learn later that perhaps the Corinthians should have been having some theological differences, and standing up for what is right, even if it caused strife. Thus, in chapter five he calls them out for tolerating open sin in the church. In several other places in the letter he corrects them where they have gone astray from pure doctrine. So they weren’t actually having theological disputes, though, as I say, maybe they should have.
Paul also is not talking about meeting in separate groups in different places at different times. They had to do that. As in all places for the first 300 years of Christianity, they Christians at Corinth did not all meet together in one place. They met in small groups in homes at different times.
He explains specifically what he means by divisions: the Christians in Corinth are splitting into factions because they are following human leaders. In fact, they same to be putting human leaders in the same category as Jesus Christ. The ironic thing is that the human leaders themselves are not even in Corinth any more, and none of them want to be followed in this way. Paul urges the Corinthians to be united with the “same understanding and the same conviction.” In other words, he is saying “you all need to be on the same page,” and that “page” is Jesus Christ.
This is another reason that Paul began the letter the way he did, reminding the Corinthians of all they had in Jesus. They don’t have those blessings through Paul, or Peter (Cephas is the Aramic name for Peter) or Apollos. The life, forgiveness, grace, joy, wisdom, spiritual gifts – all come through Jesus, and only through Jesus. Paul says something interesting here. He says he is glad he didn’t baptize too many people, so that they wouldn’t become confused. This is a hint at part of the meaning of baptism. Baptism (received with faith) is an initiation into a relationship. This was part of the common meaning of baptism for the Jews, and the New Testament also seems to view it this way:
3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6:3-7)
Baptism seems to be, in some sense, something that identifies and unites you with the person in whose name you were baptized. It is like an initiation ceremony. Several other places in the New Testament, it speaks of being baptized “into” Christ. The point Paul is making is that the Corinthians were not united with him, or Peter or Apollos. They were not initiated as followers of those three, or anyone else except Jesus Christ. They were not united with Paul or Apollos or Peter. They were united with Christ. The problem was, the Corinthians were losing their perspective and following the teachers, instead of the Person they were teaching about. To approach it from a different perspective, as a pastor and teacher, I believe firmly that if anyone follows me, I have failed. If anyone follows Jesus because of my words and actions, I have done my job.
There are two important truths here. The first truth is that all people who put their trust in Jesus Christ belong to Jesus Christ. Because of that, we are all brothers and sisters in Him. We are all on the same team, and we have the same Leader. The people who trust Jesus and go the Catholic Church are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Those who trust Jesus and go the Baptist church are my brothers and sisters too. Likewise for believers who attend Pentecostal churches, or Presbyterian congregations. People who do not put their trust in Jesus Christ are not my brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they attend the same worship service I do. This is not my opinion – it is the spiritual reality of faith in Jesus Christ. This is what Paul is trying to hammer home. It doesn’t matter which house you attend worship in. As long as you are not being led astray, it doesn’t matter which teacher/apostle/pastor you relate to the best. What matters is faith in Jesus Christ.
There is another reality also that is often forgotten. And that is, the people of God have never all belonged to the same earthly, human-led church. Even in the middle ages when virtually all Christians in Western Europe belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, there were millions of Christians elsewhere in the world who did not. Paul isn’t concerned about different churches in Corinth meeting in different places – in his time, they had to. He isn’t worried about the fact they had different bible teachers – in fact, it was a gift to the Christians in Corinth that were exposed to three such excellent teachers. True Christian unity doesn’t mean all Christians gathered together in one place, or belonging to one organization or having one human leader. But true Unity is found when we realize that all those who trust Jesus share the experience of knowing Him and walking with Him daily. It occurs when we truly live out the fact that all of us have the same savior and Lord.
I would like to see New Joy Fellowship grow. I would like to see us make disciples of more people. But I am not concerned in the least that we are just one of many, many churches in Lebanon, Tennessee. Pulling all the churches together into one organization would not achieve the spiritual unity Paul is talking about. We are already in spiritual unity with everyone who trusts Jesus, and we need to recognize it.
It is not about human beings and human teachers or human wisdom. This is why Paul launches into a discussion of wisdom in verse 18. He is reminding them of the message of Jesus, that it is not a message that comes out of human individuals or human wisdom. Paul’s discussion of this is longer than we can cover in one message, but I want to point out something he says here that is very important.
For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. Because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than man’s strength (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
Paul is pointing out that we naturally look for one (or both) of two things. He says that Jews look for a “sign.” He means specifically that they want to see a miracle in connection with faith. To put it another way, they want to know if their faith “works.” Does it bring positive results? I don’t think Paul intends to say that only Jews feel this way. Certainly, in Paul’s day, that was a typical approach not only of Jews, but of most middle-eastern cultures. Five hundred years later, Islam grew extremely rapidly in the middle-east precisely because Muslims were victorious in battle – Islam “worked.” This is one approach to faith, and it is actually fairly common even in America today. It is not unusual to hear a testimony like this: “My life was a mess, and then I started going to church and praying, and soon I was out of debt and had a happy marriage.” God does do that for people sometimes. And when we surrender to Jesus, we begin to live our lives more and more the way we were created to be. The result is that sometimes things go better for us – faith really does bring positive results. God really does miracles too. Paul knew all about that – he watched God heal people through him; he prophesied through God’s power; he even raised a dead boy through the power of the Holy Spirit. But we make a mistake if we think that the positive results in this life are the entire point of having faith in Jesus. And the message of the cross is very different from the message of the world. Mohammed, the founder of Islam ended up very wealthy. He had many wives and mistresses. He held a lot of political power. Jesus, in contrast, lived in poverty and celibacy his whole life, and ended up brutally executed in shame. His vindication was not through success in this life, but through resurrection. The fact that Jesus submitted to this kind of life and death is offensive to the “does this work?” mindset. The fact that Christianity is not an automatic path to an easy, outwardly successful life is also a roadblock to people who just want something to make their lives better, and to those who think that outward success is proof of God’s favor. Jesus call to his followers does not sound like the easy, successful life:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
Paul describes another mindset as well. He says that Greeks seek wisdom. Again, I don’t think Paul means only Greeks take this approach, but it was typical of Greek culture during that period, and it has become also typical in much of Western culture in the 21st century. This approach says, “I won’t believe it unless it can be proved intellectually. It has to make perfect sense.” I don’t believe you have to give up thinking to become a Christian. In fact, I think it is demonstrably the most intellectually cogent way of looking at the world. Even so, there are points at which we must take a leap of faith. We would be deceiving ourselves if we said that Christianity can be completely proved. It does require faith. At some point we must step beyond what we can know with our brains, and say “I believe. I trust you, Lord.” This is offensive to the intellectual mindset. Never mind that all worldviews require this, even atheism. Other world views (like atheism) allow their followers to at least pretend that faith is not required, and all is proved. But Christianity puts it right out there in the open: faith is necessary. Human intellect alone cannot arrive at the truth. This is not always well received by people with a primarily intellectual world-view. Actually, Paul puts it more directly: to people like that, it is foolishness.
So the central message of Christianity can appear foolish (it requires a leap of faith, a surrendering to something we cannot know with our minds alone) and weak (it does not always bring about success and prosperity in the world). Paul’s challenge here is to make that leap of faith, to put our trust in Jesus even when it doesn’t all make sense, even when it doesn’t all come out successfully in this life. This is not human wisdom. This is not a leap of faith to follow human leaders. In an initial, shallow way, it even seems counter-intuitive (though if you give it some reflection, you’ll see that it is not).
Is there some way in which the Holy Spirit is reminding you to leap today?