Rejecting the War of Words

1 Corinthians 1:17
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 be emptied of its power.

The Story

Because it was such an important trading center, every religious and spiritual idea floating across the Roman Empire came, sooner or later, to Corinth. The city was filled with holy places dedicated to the Greco-Roman gods and to the gods of the “mystery cults” that arrived from the east (1Corinthians 8:5). Religious teachers competed with each other for followers and their primary means of competition was what Paul calls “eloquent wisdom” (literally “wisdom of word”). While Paul, in a sense, competed with the rest of the religious teachers, he refused to play by their rules. Rather than relying on the power of rhetorical techniques to entice people into the Church, Paul relied on the power of the cross.

The Structure

The “eloquent wisdom” employed by many teachers in Corinth was fundamentally manipulative. If they put on a good enough show, the ranks of their followers would swell. The same is true today only today we have much more sophisticated techniques to manipulate others. Powerful sights and sounds combined with excellent customer service and plenty of free parking beats ancient rhetoric by a long way. Not that using modern media and communicating with excellence are necessarily bad. They can be useful as long as, like Paul, we never forget that the power to convert people, change lives, build churches, and renew cultures is not found in our technique, but in Christ’s cross.

How do we evaluate sermons and preachers? Do we concentrate on the method or the message? Do we arrive at church hoping for a good performance or hoping to experience the power of the cross?

Priorities and Perseverance

1 Corinthians 1:17a
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel...

The Story

Again, it would be wrong to conclude that Paul didn’t think baptism was important. It would also be wrong to conclude that Paul thought preaching was more important than baptism as though Word and sacrament were somehow opposed to each other. It would, however, be correct to conclude that Paul thoroughly understood God’s call in his life. Later in his letter, Paul will affirm that there are various gifts given by the same Spirit, various ways of serving the same Lord, and various ways the same God works in our lives (1Corinthians 12:4-6). God did not call Paul to pastoral ministry. God called him to the apostolic work of preaching and evangelism and to that call Paul remained absolutely faithful.

The Structure

Setting priorities (things we will do) and posteriorities (things we will never do) takes time and a realistic assessment of ourselves, our gifts, and our circumstances. That requires thoughtful reflection, earnest prayer, good counsel, and patient listening to God. Once we arrive at a clear understanding of God’s call in our lives and begin living out that call, it will result in greater direction and energy along with misunderstandings and conflict. That was Jesus’ experience (Luke 4:16-30), Paul’s experience, the experience of saints through the ages, and it will be ours as well. That’s both unfortunate and unavoidable. Persevere and follow God anyway.

What is God’s call in your life? It may be nothing more complicated than persevering as a faithful employee, spouse, parent, student, neighbor. On the other hand, it may be time to reassess and listen to God anew.

Crossing the Water That Divides

1 Corinthians 1:14-6
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.)

The Story

It would be wrong to conclude that Paul didn’t think baptism was important. His point is that Christ and only Christ matters. That Paul baptized Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas does not mean that they have a special relationship with Paul. It means they have a special relationship with God through Christ. Valid baptism always has been and indeed must be “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In baptism we die with Christ and are raised with Christ (Romans 6:4). It marks our entrance into a formal relationship with Christ (Galatians 3:26-27) and his Church (1Corinthians 12:13).

The Structure

Baptism is the center of Christian unity across all of our various theological and ecclesiastical divides. Christians of good faith differ about the nature of baptism (ordinance or sacrament), the subjects of baptism (believers or babies), the means of baptism (immersion or sprinkling), and the meaning of baptism (my promise to God, God’s promise to me, or regeneration and removal of original sin). And while these differences matter, on this we agree: baptism with water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit marks us as belonging to Christ and thus to one another.

How do you perceive Christians who differ from you on issues such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Church government, the End Times, or worship? How can we love each other, work and pray together for the common good, and demonstrate our unity in Christ while at the same time acknowledging our differences?

Personality Problems

1 Corinthians 1:11-13
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?

The Story

The divisions and quarreling among the Corinthian Christians was apparently less about substantive theological questions than it was about personalities. Paul was the first to preach in Corinth and a group named him as their hero. Paul was not impressed. Some exalted Appolos. Contrary to Paul’s weak speaking skills (2 Corinthians 10:10), he had a reputation for eloquence (Acts 18:34). Others claimed Cephas (that is, Peter). Contrary to Paul’s message of freedom from the Mosaic Law (Galatians 3:23-26), the Cephas group (who probably had nothing to do with Peter) probably stressed dietary and other Jewish rules and regulations. The “Christ” group may have been on the right track, but seemed just as exclusionary as the others. To overcome the divisions, Paul points to Christ who is without division. As he wrote to the Ephesians, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6a).

The Structure

That personalities drive much of our divisiveness today is hardly news. “I follow Stott.” “I follow MacArthur.” “I follow Francis.” “I follow Begg.” “I follow Colson.” And the list goes on. This is a problem in itself, but it also spawns a much larger worldview problem. With all the picking and choosing, some get the impression that there is no truth or that the truth cannot be known or that what is true for me may not be true for you or that truth does not really matter. If everyone’s opinion on spiritual matters is to some extent valid (after all, we should all read the Bible on our own), then what is the “true truth” about God, Christ, life, and the Bible? Gathering up the broken pieces not only witnesses to the unity of Christ, it witnesses to the unity of truth.

How have you allowed personalities rather than the wise discernment of truth to dominate your Christian worldview? How can you get beyond the personalities and grow in new ways?

How Good and Pleasant

1 Corinthians 1:10
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.

The Story

“Behold,” says Psalm 133:1, “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” The psalmist compares that unity with sacred oil dripping off the head of a priest filling the temple with the scent of holiness and to dew on a mountain refreshing a parched land. Paul, a veteran of the polarization within Judaism between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, was well aware of the anger, resentment, and bad blood that come with disunity. So Paul prioritized saving the Church from war between splinter groups—splinter groups that had already formed though war had not been declared—yet.

The Structure

Today divisions, not unity characterize the Christian Church. There is a niche group for just about every theological, cultural, or stylistic persuasion. Some see this as a blessing: greater diversity means a greater reach for the Gospel. Yet on the last night of his life, Jesus told his disciples that love for one another would be their strongest apologetic to an unbelieving world (John 13:35). Then he prayed to his Father that his followers “may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22b). Paul addresses the Corinthian Christian as brothers and appeals to them “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Unity comes not from being members of the same organized group, but through our relationship with Christ. Christians belong to each other because we belong to him first.

How do you think about and understand the divisions in the Church today? How can you be God’s agent for greater unity and cooperation across ecclesiastical lines?

But First, Gratitude

1 Corinthians 1:4-9
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Story

Paul was about to excoriate the Corinthian Christians for a whole host if sins: divisions, dissension, theological errors, the mistreatment of the poor, sexual immorality, and more. They deserved the criticism and they needed to repent. But repentance and the change that is part of repentance were not within the Corinthian’s natural powers any more than they are within your natural powers or mine. Repentance begins with God’s grace or it doesn’t begin at all. And so Paul expressed gratitude for the grace at work in Corinth. In doing so, he reminded the Corinthian Christians that, by grace, God gave them the ability to understand, to mend their ways, to live holy lives, and to persevere until the end. And in the end what matters is not Paul’s faithfulness nor the Corinthians’ faithfulness, but God’s faithfulness.

The Structure

Conversations about worldviews include criticism. The culture in which we live is disordered and distorted. Far too many Christians think that Christianity is little more than a bus ticket to heaven rather than a worldview that informs every part of a Christian’s life. Criticism is appropriate. Yet we must avoid becoming critical, unpleasant, and even cynical—easy traps to fall into. Giving thanks for the grace those around us have received from God will enable us to keep our equilibrium, grow in love for those we seek to influence, and increase the likelihood that we will be heard.

Who are you most likely to criticize? Bring that person or persons before God in prayer thanking him for the grace they have already received and asking him to grant them even more. N.B. Even nonbelievers have received common grace and the law written on their hearts (Romans 1:18-23).

Three Miracles: #3 - Grace and Peace

1 Corinthians 1:3
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Story

The ancient Greco-Roman world, despite its reputation for cruelty and debauchery, had a strong sense of sin and of the judgment of the gods (See Virgil’s Aeneid, Chapter VI, Aeneus’s visit to the underworld). The Jews and thus the Christians had even a stronger sense of right and wrong, sin and righteousness, eternal condemnation and eternal reward. The character of the city of Corinth was such that it and its inhabitants were destined for judgment. As we will see, even the Corinthian Church was in danger of judgment. Paul in his letter will highlight and judge the sins inside the Church. And yet even in light of great sin, Paul announces to the Corinthian people grace and peace from God. As the psalmist wrote, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Instead, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:10, 13). In spite of our sin, God wills our good. It’s a miracle.

The Structure

Studies of religious and moral attitudes today indicate that, in our society—even in our churches—we don’t take sin and judgment very seriously at all. We have “foibles,” indulge in “bad habits,” and make “mistakes.” “Sin” sounds so judgmental. Besides, God made us this way and loves us just the way we are. If all that is true, grace and mercy are our due, the Cross makes little sense, and pursuing holiness becomes superfluous. Meanwhile we know from history that church renewal and cultural renewal always begin with a proper understanding of morality and sin. Only then will the miraculous nature of God’s grace and peace thrill our souls and lead us to worship, service, and holiness.

What do you believe about your own sin and God’s judgment? Do you believe you’re not so bad or, that like Paul you are the foremost of sinners (1Timothy 1:15), doomed but for the grace of God in Christ? How does your answer affect your worldview?

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