Oneness in Christ

Oneness in Christ

As we continue in our study of I Corinthians this morning, we’re going to see a sharp pivot in tone from Paul following his introduction and greeting last week when we saw Paul’s gracious embrace of this church as he extended them God’s grace and peace and assured them of his constant gratitude for them. We also followed the “divine passive” constructions, noting how Paul reminded these believers that

it was God who had sanctified them—who had set them apart from evil and dedicated them to his purposes;

it was God who had given them his grace—his unmerited favor by offering up his Son in their place to take their punishment upon himself that a door of reconciliation might be opened to them;

it was God who had enriched them in every way so that they lacked no spiritual gift for knowing and serving him and those around them;

and it was God who was faithful and had called them into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ.

But though at first blush it seemed as though all was well in this church, I suspect that at least part of what Paul had in mind in stating these initial truths about their identity in Christ—about who God had called them to be in Christ—was because these Corinthian believers hadn’t in fact been living in accordance with this call. As I mentioned last week, this must have been a difficult letter for Paul to write and send to these believers because he puts forth a great deal of effort in trying to address and correct behaviors that weren’t in keeping with Christian belief and behavior.

Paul dives right in beginning with verse 10 by stating one of the key problems frequently mentioned that is plaguing this church, that of division: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” At issue here isn’t that Christians must be exactly the same or agree on every matter, but we should agree on basic foundational teachings of our faith. As we’ll see in the weeks to come, one of the key reasons God gives different gifts and abilities to different people is that all might serve God’s church with whatever gifts they have. Ron and I have been reading through the book of Exodus recently and have been struck by how this was true even among those who were called by God to help with the building of the tabernacle. Listen to these verses from Exodus:[1]

30 See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— 32 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. 34 And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. 35 He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.

By his Holy Spirit, God provides different gifts—here we see wisdom, understanding, masonry, woodworking, teaching—to serve the one and the same Lord and his people. But the problem in the church at Corinth is that rather than owning and uniting behind their oneness in Christ they are dividing, splitting into factions and so creating tensions and hostilities among the body of believers whom God in Christ had set apart for himself to live for him in unity and peace.

Apparently the pluralism of the city of Corinth was having a negative impact upon these believers. Given the many cultures represented in Corinth, there were many philosophical and religious views vying for authority. This isn’t too difficult for us to imagine given our own culture, is it? I suspect that despite the 2000 years that separates us chronologically from Paul’s writing, we’re nonetheless going to resonate with many of the issues he’s addressing for we, too, are a highly pluralistic society and we’re feeling the strain of that diversity even with the transition of power that occurred in our own nation this past Friday.

Positively, we can be moved by the closing lines of Emma Lazarus’ (1849–1887) sonnet, New Colossus, written in 1883 to raise funds for the construction of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty and now mounted on it: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[2] That’s the positive side of our developing story as a nation—our ability to appreciate our freedoms as a nation so much, that we long to extend similar freedoms to those from places where these freedoms don’t exist. But what happens when the huddled masses that accept our invitation bring with them different ideas about how we should live as a country? What happens when there are competing sources of authority? Who gets to have the final say about where our country’s money should go or what laws should be enforced or which behaviors should be shunned or embraced? For the most part, much of our nation’s response to this pluralism has been tolerance. We agree to allow, accept, and hold in tension behaviors and views with which we don’t necessarily agree.

But this becomes difficult to do when said behaviors and views become polarized as they increasingly seem to be. How we understand issues will differ greatly on the basis of whose authority we accept. So, for example:

Is global warning a crisis to be heeded or a hoax to be ignored?

Do immigrants from other countries enrich our culture or take away our jobs?

Is health insurance a right of all people or another example of big government interfering?

Is marriage to be defined by a Judeo-Christian ethic of a union between a man and a woman or as a monogamous commitment between two consenting individuals of whatever sexual orientation is preferred?

Is abortion the ending of a life or the choice of an adult?

Do we believe Fox or CNN?

You get the idea. A nation that was founded on escaping political and religious oppression, understandably values tolerance and the rights of individuals for many good reasons. Differing views and values are part of our national DNA.

But what happens when strong differing views are transferred to the church for which Christ died to unite? What happens when Christ’s church, which claims to hold to a common authority in the teaching of Scripture, begins to turn to other sources of authority? What is a church that is pulling in so many directions that its center in Christ is imperiled, to do in the face of such opposing views? This is the situation at Corinth and the danger facing this church. This is the reason Paul is having to write these believers and remind them of who they are called to be in Christ. And, sadly, it’s a battle that many churches in the United States are undergoing as well.

Verses 11 and 12 begin to specify the nature of their lack of unity: “11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’” So who are these people and why is Paul mentioning them? Well, we don’t know who Chloe was or where she was from but it’s clear that she was an influential Christian and that Paul trusted the reports from her household.[3] As to Apollos, Paul knew him well. Near the end of this letter Paul mentions him in a positive light[4] and in the book of Acts we further learn that Apollos had been welcomed by the Corinthian Christians and been “a great help to those who by grace had believed.”[5] And “Cephas” we know is Aramaic for the apostle Peter.[6]

So what we are beginning to see is that the quarrels, these arguments between those who should be on good terms, are the problem. And notice that all those to whom Paul refers are followers of Jesus Christ—and even he is mentioned as one of the sources of authority being claimed. Talk about playing the “Jesus card”! But the problem with claiming to follow any of these men—whether Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or even Christ—was that they all were providing the same teaching so these believers shouldn’t have been placing them at odds with one another. All of them would have accepted the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures and all of them understood that the promises there had been fulfilled in Christ’s coming to earth—in his living, suffering, dying, and rising—so that all could receive the Good News of his Gospel.

Paul brings home the absurdity of what is happening in this church in verse 13 where he poses a series of questions. And, by the way, the right answer for all of them should be a resounding, “No!”

“Is Christ divided?” No, of course he isn’t divided. In fact later on in this letter Paul will return to this point stating, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.”[7] So, again, despite differing gifts, there’s a unity we’re to have as a body under Christ’s headship.

Next he asks, “Was Paul crucified for you?” No, of course he wasn’t—Jesus Christ was. This was the whole point of his coming to earth—that he might die and rise for us that we might turn from our ways and know the love of our Father in heaven.

And, again, Paul asks: “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” And again, the answer is, “No.” Baptism is to be done in the name of Jesus, not Paul. As Paul explains in the book of Romans, “3…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.” [8] Baptism represents our oneness with Jesus Christ’s death and our new life in him, not Paul.

Apparently when believers in this church stated that they followed Paul—or Apollos—or Cephas—or Christ, it was because they may have been baptized by them and consequently were standing on the authority of the baptizer rather than embracing the salvation in Christ that their baptism represented. Instead of viewing their baptism as an expression of the oneness and new life they now shared with one another and with all who had similarly given their lives over to following Jesus Christ, they were instead associating their standing as believers with the standing of the one who had baptized them after they had come to faith in Christ.

And Paul acknowledges that though he had baptized some of these believers, he was grateful he hadn’t baptized many—no doubt given the way they were misunderstanding the nature of baptism. In verses 14–16 Paul states, “14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)” Now Crispus was probably the synagogue ruler in Corinth who believed in Christ along with his entire household.[9] And the Gaius mentioned here is probably the same one referred to at the end of the book of Romans “whose hospitality,” Paul says, “I and the whole church here enjoy.” [10] And near the end of this letter Paul mentions Stephanus again, stating, “You know that the household of Stephanus were the first converts in Achaia,”—another name for Greece—“and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people.”[11] In all of these references you begin to get a sense through Paul’s frequent mention of various people how very tight-knit these believers were. Much as we shared some prayer concerns this morning by simply mentioning people by their first names, so, too, does Paul, knowing that these believers will know to whom he was referring.

Yet the problem in this church is that though these believers had come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ and therefore should have been living according to his life and teaching—to use Paul’s language in verse 10, they should have been “perfectly united in mind and thought”—they were far from this. Rather than rejoicing in the unity they shared by virtue of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for them, opening the way to our one and heavenly Father whose children together they were, these believers were focusing on those who had baptized them rather than on the One in whose name they had been baptized. I’ve mentioned this illustration before, but I imagine that in our context this would be like one person saying, “I was baptized by Dr. Stuart and therefore follow him.” And another, “Well, I was baptized by Pastor Pressey and therefore followed him.” And yet a third, “Well, I was baptized by Joni Eareckson Tada and therefore follow her.” And yet another saying, “Oh, I can top all of you—I was baptized by Reverend Billy Graham and therefore follow him.” Do you see the problem? Though all of the people mentioned are known to be—or have been—men and women of God, each of them was merely the means God used to draw others to himself. So the glory shouldn’t be going to them but to God who, through sacrificing his Son, Jesus Christ, enabled us to see our need for Christ’s reconciliation to himself by means of his Holy Spirit opening our eyes to the truth of who we are and of our universal need of God’s Son.

In verse 17 Paul clarifies how he understands his role as an apostle of Christ, as one who was called and commissioned by Christ to live for him: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Again, Paul’s point isn’t that baptism is unimportant, but rather that it shouldn’t take precedent over the proclamation of the Gospel for what is essential for our salvation is the hearing and believing in the gospel. As Paul states elsewhere, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”[12] Baptism is important but it is but a sign, an indication, that our lives have been given over to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. We don’t begin sharing our faith by telling others they need to be baptized. No, we pray that they might see their need for Christ that they might first give their lives over to him.

And this is the mission to which Paul was called—not to baptize, but to preach the gospel. It’s important that we get the order right. And when Paul states that he was called to preach “not with wisdom and eloquence”—sometimes translated as “eloquent wisdom”—he doesn’t mean that he took no thought or care in presenting the content of what he taught—even a summary look at Paul’s writing evidences the great care he took in writing—but rather he was writing here as one who knew his audience. As one commentator notes, “The art of rhetorical persuasion was highly valued in the Greco-Roman world, and professional orators frequented large cities like Corinth, giving impressive displays of their ability to entertain and instruct.”[13] But not so with Paul. The Gospel, the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ his Son, isn’t intended as a means of entertainment. It isn’t intended to impress people. It isn’t a message that needs dressing up for anything we add to the Gospel, as Paul states at the end of verse 17, presents the danger of “the cross of Christ be[ing] emptied of its power.”

Notice how Paul builds on this very point at the beginning of chapter 2 of this letter: “1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” It’s all about God, isn’t it? He is the one who has called us; He is the one who has given us his grace; He is the one who has sanctified us; He is the one who has called us into fellowship with his Son and each other. A question I’ve asked before but may be worth re-asking now is this: When someone asks you how many people you’ve led to Christ, what is the only right answer? Right—zero! We are called to testify, to bear witness, to the truth of who God in Christ is. But it is only God, by the work of his Holy Spirit, who is able to bring us from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight; from spiritual death to spiritual life. All thanks and praise be to him.

When people ask me about our church, I sometimes share with them that the only thing many of us at Linebrook—and this would be true of any body of believers—have in common is that we’ve acknowledged our need for Christ and have agreed to live, individually and corporately, according to his will and his ways. But that little “only” thing we share in common carries a world of meaning.

Because we share a commitment to Christ, we share a commitment to learning about him as we study his Word;

Because we share a commitment to Christ, we share a commitment to praying for one another and rejoicing when others rejoice and weeping when others weep;

Because we share a commitment to Christ, we share a commitment to caring for each other and seeking to meet one another’s spiritual, emotional, and financial needs;

Because we share a commitment to Christ, we share a commitment to sharing his goodness with those around us as an encouragement to those who know him and a testimony to those who don’t.

Brothers and sisters, let us embrace our shared identity, our oneness, in Christ, and share the good news of his love with those around us, not with wisdom and eloquence, but in deed and in truth, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Let us pray.

[1] Exodus 35:30–35.

[2] In its entirety, Lazarus’ poem states: Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Originally published 1883.

[3] Literally, “those of Chloe.” ὑπὸ τῶν Χλόης

[4] I Corinthians 16:12: Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity. See also I Corinthians 3:6: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

[5] Acts 18:24–19:1: 24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. 27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. 19:1: While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus.

[6] Crossway Study Bible notes: “Unlike Paul (1 Cor. 7:8 [Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.]), Cephas was married and had traveled to Corinth with his wife (9:5 [Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas]).”

[7] See I Corinthians 12:12–14: 12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

[8] e.g. Romans 6:3–4: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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. See also Colossians 2:11–12: 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

[9] Acts 18:8: Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.

[10] Ibid., re: Gaius: “Probably the Gaius referred to in Ro 16:23.” [Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.]

[11] I Corinthians 16:15. Zondervan Study Bible note on this verse: “Some of the few people Paul baptized at Corinth (1:16). They were among the first converts in Achaia (Greece), along with the few individuals in Athens who had believed a short time earlier (Ac 17:34).” [Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.] [Achaia is in the northwestern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. Corinth is located in Peloponnese.]

[12] Romans 10:17. See also I Corinthians 1:21: For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

[13] Crossway ESV Study Bible. the Holy Spirit so empowered Paul’s words, that they awakened faith in Christ (cf. James 1:18 [He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.]; 1 Pet. 1:23–25 [23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.]) and changed people’s very hearts and lives.”

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