To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours … (1 Corinthians 1:2; NIV84)
So Paul began his letter to the Corinthian church this way.
Written from the city of Ephesus, three years or so after he left Corinth, he began this letter with this solid claim:
Believers are different — “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
And believers form their own culture, around Jesus — “called to be holy, together, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Yet Corinth was an overwhelming city, with its own culture, and the believers were bringing the culture of the city into the church.
In Paul’s time, it was a Roman colony, enjoying Roman privileges and Roman government and Roman buildings. It had 90,000 people, and hosted an athletic festival second only to the Olympics. It had two ports, each of which faced both east and west, and connected it to both sides of the Roman empire. And it was wealthy, due, in large part, to its extensive slave trade. The temple of the Roman goddess Aphrodite alone had over 1,000 religious prostitutes, to celebrate, worship, and beseech the goddess for fertility and success.
It was stable, wealthy, and entertaining. And it’s values were a drug to the believers who lived there.
Because very quickly in this letter, we see the root of all Paul will write in the following chapters.
The Corinthian church was divided. And all subsequent issues stem from this unhealthy division. In Corinth, the believers were divided along the lines of their teachers, both Paul and Apollos.
Apollos, we’ve learned from reading Acts, was a student of Priscilla and Aquila, and who came to Corinth after Paul left. Whatever his intention while there, divisions arose, and believers picked sides — picked teachers.
Yet Paul doesn’t condemn Apollos. The division of the church was not his fault. In fact, Paul said that Apollos “watered” what Paul “planted.”
These divisions were so sharp that Paul addressed them first, though. It may be unusual to us, but Corinth fashioned itself as a city that enjoyed the presentations of famous philosophers and teachers. Remember, there were no comforts of modern entertainment. Listening to great orators was in fashion, and the believers abandoned their transformed lives, to turn the church into a cultural counterpart to what the city of Corinth offered.
Is it safe to say that we do the same? Do we mimic, in our own churches, the divisions found in our culture? Or celebrate it? Absolutely. We are human, and we sin.
But when we do, we abandon the message of the cross, just like the Corinthian believers. And like the Corinthian church, we divide, and castigate people over mere opinions, as if our intellect and passion can offer anything to the message of the cross!
But isn’t it possible for people to disagree, and still be united?
Yes. But only because we recognize our transformations, and others, because of the message of the cross.
I want to include a 10 minute clip here of Rick Atchley, who is the preaching minister for The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas. His illustration, regarding divisions over petty opinions, is memorable, and convicting. If you have time, please watch this today.
For the Corinthians, Paul was only concerned about the message of the cross.
But what is the message of the cross?
Here are Paul’s words, from 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.
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.”
The message of the cross is a transformed life. It is how God takes the weak and the poor, and resurrects them into a transformed life, so that others will see God through that transformation.
The message of the cross is not tribal warfare. It is not focused on opinions or ideas or traditions. Those things completely reject the message of the cross, and prove, to the world, that the message of the cross is not capable of any sort of transformation.
Believers in Corinth were living and acting like their surrounding culture. And for Paul, who spent around 18 months of his life there, this was a hurtful report. They had emptied the cross of its power, by their divisions over “words of human wisdom.” Here are his words:
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 Corinthians 1:17, NIV84)
If we are united around anything other than the message of the cross, then we are turning our backs on our own call to be different. We’ve accepted the spirit of the world, rather than the spirit of God. Here, again, are Paul’s words:
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. (1 Corinthians 2:12; NIV84)
God offered the Corinthian believers unlimited access to his work in the world, yet they refused it for their opinions and divisions.
He offers the same to us, too.
The Corinthians, though, exchanged the truth of God for the opinions of people, and the church, as a whole, suffered. Paul’s letter to these believers will attempt to weld their factions back together.
And he will do so with the message of the cross. Here’s what he wrote, at the close of our reading today.
Together you are God’s holy temple, and God will destroy anyone who destroys his temple.
Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. This is because God considers the wisdom of this world to be foolish. It is just as the Scriptures say, “God catches the wise when they try to outsmart him.” The Scriptures also say, “The Lord knows that the plans made by wise people are useless.” So stop bragging about what anyone has done. Paul and Apollos and Peter all belong to you. In fact, everything is yours, including the world, life, death, the present, and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:17-23; CEV)
The image of God destroying those who divide his temple is powerful.
God cares deeply that believers are united around the message of the cross, because any other identity only empties the cross of its power. When that happens, we only tell the world around us that we are better at fashioning unity than God is.
I make no claim to supreme authority, but feel moved, by God’s spirit, to share, here, what the passage speaks to me. Thank you for indulging my opinions, but, by all means, don’t follow them. Follow Jesus. Embrace the message of the cross, and that message only.