During my trades teaching days, I referred to one of my superiors as an “unbeliever” in correspondence with another Christian. Through a sequence of events, this “unbeliever” read my letter and was greatly offended by what I said. Though he was a religious man, one could not think of him as a Christian. My relationship with this man was greatly impaired, and another Christian gave me this advice: “Bob, ________ is a very proud man. The only way to reach him with the gospel is to appeal to his pride.” Even at the time, I knew this advice was unbiblical, and now, studying Paul’s words in the early chapters of the Book of 1 Corinthians, I am even more convinced that my friend was wrong—dead wrong!
The first nine verses of 1 Corinthians 1 are Paul’s introduction to the entire letter. In these verses, we have been told that Paul is the author and that he is accompanied by Sosthenes. Paul’s epistle is addressed not only to the saints in Corinth but to all saints everywhere. Paul expresses his thanksgiving to God for the Corinthian saints, for the sufficiency of God’s provisions for them, and for the certainty that God will complete what He has begun in them by calling them to faith in Jesus Christ. Based upon this foundation, Paul now moves on to reiterate the call to Christian unity (verse 10). He then points out the ways in which this unity has broken down in the Corinthian church (verses 11-12). In the remainder of this chapter (1), and in the next three chapters (2-4), Paul shows how disunity is a contradiction of the gospel and how unity is a manifestation of the gospel.
The lessons Paul has for the saints of his day are most applicable to our own lives as well. The conflicts which existed then are still very much with us today. We have conflict and strife in the church, in the home, and at work. Paul will have us see that not only are such divisions contrary to the gospel, they should be set aside by the gospel. The gospel strikes at the heart of inter-personal conflicts, then and now. Let us listen and learn, for the lessons Paul has for us here are those which we should apply moment by moment.
A Biblical Challenge Regarding Corinthian Conflicts
10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.”
Paul does not begin with the problem of divisions but with a positive exhortation to maintain Christian unity.22 Paul’s call to unity in verse 10 sets the standard. His exposure of divisions in the church at Corinth in verses 11-12 shows a specific deviation from God’s standard.
I am most reluctant to challenge the translation of the text of Scripture, especially in a version like the NASB, which attempts to be literal in its rendering of the original text. Here, however, I must raise the flag. Paul is not exhorting the saints to “all agree” on every subject, as our translation suggests.23 We will soon come to chapters 8-10, which deal with matters of conscience. Paul expects Christians to disagree as to matters of conscience. He will speak of the diversity of spiritual gifts which are evident in the church, and he does not suppose that this will result in total agreement because our gifts influence our perspective and our viewpoint.
Literally, we see from a marginal note that the text reads, “to speak the same thing.” Paul calls upon Christians to “speak the same thing.” This is quite different from agreeing on everything. When Christians have different convictions, they are not to dispute with one another over them (Romans 14:1). Rather they are to keep their convictions to themselves (14:22). We are not to speak about them in a way that disputes with others about them or which seeks to impose our convictions on others. If we are exhorted to “speak the same thing” so as to practice and promote unity, then we must speak about those truths which all Christians share.
I like what I know of Barbara Bush. I do not know if she is a Christian, but I think she is a woman of integrity. While her husband was in the Oval office, Mrs. Bush did not speak publicly about her views on abortion. I do not agree with her position on abortion, as I understand it. And from all I can tell, Mr. Bush does not agree with her. But while he was in office, she did not speak publicly about her position. She did not “agree” with President Bush, but she did “speak the same thing”; that is, she spoke of those things on which they did agree, rather than on those matters where they differed. Christians are to do likewise in the area of differences, when these areas are not fundamental areas of Christian doctrine.
Paul further defines unity as the absence of schisms. Gordon Fee writes,
Although the Greek word for ‘divisions’ (schismata) is that from which we derive the English word ‘schism,’ it does not in fact mean that, at least not in the sense of a ‘party’ or ‘faction.’ The word properly means ‘tear/rent’ (cf. Mark 2:21) or the ‘plowing’ of a field. The best illustration of the present usage is found in the Gospel of John (7:40-43; 9:16; 10:19-21), where various groups are said to have divided opinions about Jesus, meaning they were arguing with one another as to his significance. Thus Paul does not refer to distinctly formed groups of ‘parties’ here, but to divided opinions over their various leaders, which according to v. 11 and 3:3 have developed into jealousy and quarrels.24
Two further qualifications of unity are indicated by Paul. We are to be made complete “in the same mind” and “in the same judgment.” For Paul, maturity is not just an individual matter but a corporate growth. Maturity here is the process of the mending of relationships 25 that takes place through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Maturity and unity are inseparable. Those who are truly growing in Christ are those who are both growing up and growing together:
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Having the “same mind” refers to the more general “disposition” or “way of thinking” of the Christian. Fee has this helpful insight when he indicates the Greek term rendered “mind”:
… here means something close to ‘disposition’ (J. Beam, TANT IV, 958) or ‘way of thinking’ (BAGGED), cf. 2:16, where in contrast to the people of the world who do not have the Spirit, Paul says, ‘But we have the nous Christ,’ which in this case means something closer to the actual thinking or plans of Christ.’26
To have “the same mind” is to have the same outlook or perspective. To have “the same judgment” is to agree as to a particular decision, to agree on a particular issue.27
When the apostles and the rest of the 120 saints gathered in the upper room (Acts 1:12-14), they were all like-minded. They were one in spirit and in focus. And when they (rightly or wrongly) selected Matthias as the replacement for Judas, they came to the “same judgment.” They reached a particular decision with unity. The same kind of decision-making process can be seen in Acts 6:1-6 and 15:1-35. Paul likewise desired that they would unanimously agree on some particular judgments which he had indicated, such as the excommunication of the wayward brother in 1 Corinthians 5.
If we were speaking in musical terms, Paul is not calling for the church to sing in unison—everyone singing the same note at the same time—but rather he is urging the entire church to sing the same song, in harmony. This is what Christian unity is about. Unfortunately, the Corinthian saints were not living up to the standard Paul set for them. There were quarrels and divisions in the church, which he had heard about from “Chloe’s people.” The situation in Corinth can be summed up with these characterizations of the conflicts which were evident there:
(1) There are problems of division in the church which are wide spread and widely known. The strife and contention in the church is prevalent. When Paul speaks of this problem he says, “each one of you is saying …” (verse 12). This probably does not mean each member, without exception, but those who are not guilty of this evil are the exception and not the rule. The problem is so prevalent that it seems to be well-known. Even as far away as Ephesus, Paul hears of this matter.
(2) The quarrels and dissension are due to a party spirit on divisions which focus on personalities—individuals with which certain members have identified—to the exclusion of others. Every one of Paul’s examples is of a person who identifies with a particular person, and thus who stands aloof from others.
(3) Each of the divisions focuses on leadership. Each of the personalities—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ—is viewed as the one leader that the individual member has chosen to follow. Each says, “I am of Paul or of Apollos or Cephas or Christ.”
(4) In Paul’s example, none of the leaders named is viewed as responsible for the problem or of encouraging any to follow them and not other true apostles (or Christ). The problem as it is introduced here is a “follower problem” rather than a “leader problem,” in that the followers are at fault. Paul’s emphasis will change on this matter as time goes on, but no New Testament writer ever fails to hold individuals responsible for whom they choose to follow. There appears here to be an unholy devotion to godly men.
(5) We should bear in mind that the problem here is just being introduced in the first chapter of Paul’s first (preserved) epistle, and the problem Paul identifies is in its incipient (early and undeveloped) form. As time passes and as Paul’s epistles continue, the problem will more fully develop and manifest itself. A problem in its earliest form may look very different from the problem in its full-blown manifestation. Expect further developments on this matter as we continue our study of the Corinthian epistles.
(6) This example which Paul sets forth is largely hypothetical. The problem is not really one of loyalties and allegiances to different apostles, but of loyalties to leaders who are never named in 1 or 2 Corinthians. Paul will make this abundantly clear in chapter 4, where he writes,
6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6).
(7) The root problem underlying the Corinthian quarrels and factions is pride. We see this clearly stated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:6 (above). Some are “becoming arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” But this same pride is evident in our text as well. “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). The first three hypothetical examples take pride in the leader they have chosen to follow. The last takes pride in thinking he or she is following Christ. But each is proud in feeling superior to the rest of those referred to in Paul’s example.
(8) The most dangerous group of all in these four examples is the last. Surely Paul means for us to assume “guilt by association” here in verse 12. Paul uses the same words, only changing the name in the case of the last group. It is true that we all should be followers of Christ. But we should not be proud of ourselves for doing so. This fourth group is no less proud or arrogant than the others who are condemned. I am afraid that I understand Paul all too well in this fourth example. Those who think of themselves as being “of Christ” also think of the rest as not being “of Christ.”
Exclusivism is wrong, even the exclusiveness of those who think themselves superior to all other believers because they follow Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or Christ. Those who boast of their following Christ are effectively declaring themselves to be the leader. Those who are “of Christ” do not need Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. They do not need an apostle. They can discern Christ’s mind by themselves without any outside help from others. These autonomous folks are the most frightening group of all, and Paul makes this clear.
Paul’s Correction for Corinthian Conflicts
Paul’s rebuke and rebuttal to the Corinthian sin begins at verse 13 of chapter 1 and continues on through chapter 4. In this lesson, we will only deal with his four lines of argument which are found in the remainder of chapter 1.
Christ, or Men?
The Priority of Christ Over Men (Verse 13)
13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
In a nutshell, Paul takes us to the core question: Is salvation about the work of men or about the work of Jesus Christ? All four of the groups mentioned by Paul in verse 12 were man-centered. The fourth group was a little more subtle about it, but all of these individuals took pride in themselves, based upon their perceived allegiance. Paul wants to make the point clear and unmistakable: Our salvation is totally about Christ’s work. Those who are man-centered need to be reminded of the gospel and of their salvation, to recall that salvation is Christ-centered. Christ has not been divided, so how can His body, the church, be divided? It was not Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or any other mere man who died on the cross of Calvary; it was Christ whose shed blood cleansed us from all sin. Baptism testifies to this fact. All of the Corinthian saints were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They were not baptized in the name of any man. This is because salvation is through Christ alone, and not through mere men, even if they were apostles.
Paul’s Priority of Preaching Over Baptism (Verses 14-17)
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 that no man should say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void.
Baptism is a very prominent theme in these verses, mentioned six times here by Paul. I take it that some, at least, took pride in the person who baptized them. Some people appear to have been proud and looked down on others who were not baptized by as great a celebrity as their baptizer. Paul lets the air out of the tires of these proud name droppers by telling them that baptism is not a celebrity affair, and compared to the preaching of the gospel, baptizing is a lower priority to him. Do they take pride in the one who baptizes them? Paul is glad he has not made baptizing a priority, and thus that he has baptized very few of the Corinthians.
It is thus evident that Paul viewed his preaching of the gospel as having a much higher priority than baptizing new converts. It can hardly be overlooked that Paul saw salvation as something which occurs independently of baptism. Baptism is important. It is the believer’s public identification with Jesus Christ. But baptism is not viewed as the means of one’s salvation; rather it is the outward manifestation of salvation. Paul rejects the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Otherwise, if he thought baptism was the means of salvation, he would have made it a much higher priority than he did. People are saved by believing the gospel, and it was Paul’s priority to preach it. Baptism took second place to preaching in Paul’s life and ministry.
We find the same principle of the priority of proclaiming the gospel applied more broadly than just to baptism. It is applied by the Lord Jesus to the working of miracles.
29 And immediately after they had come out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was lying sick with a fever; and immediately they spoke to Him about her. 31 And He came to her and raised her up, taking her by the hand, and the fever left her, and she waited on them.
32 And when evening had come, after the sun had set, they began bringing to Him all who were ill and those who were demon-possessed. 33 And the whole city had gathered at the door. 34 And He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.
35 And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for Him; 37 and they found Him, and said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” 38 And He said to them, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also; for that is what I came out for” (Mark 1:29-38, emphasis mine).
When we wish to be perceived as better than others, we do not emphasize what we hold in common, but what is uniquely us, our distinctives. In an election year, when have you ever heard a political candidate say that he agrees with his opponent? Churches which seek to compete with other churches, or look down on other churches, must do so in terms of their differences rather than in terms of their unity and commonality.
The subject of the closing words of verse 17 Paul picks up in a little while, but for now Paul sets down two powerful arguments against the kind of pride which elevates “silver tongued orators” whose methods are those of worldly wisdom and power which appeal to the lost and ungodly. In verses 18-25, Paul argues that the gospel negates pride in a believer because the gospel is antithetical to human pride, human wisdom, and human power. In verses 26-31, Paul wages another attack on human pride by reminding the saints of who God has chosen to save, and that few saints are those who will ever win acclaim and status in a lost and pagan culture.
The Cross of Christ Has No Status to the Lost
18 For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The Corinthian Christians were characterized by quarrels and a party spirit. In verse 13, Paul indicates what he constantly emphasizes elsewhere, namely that divisions are contrary to Christ and to the gospel. Why then do Christians get caught up by quarrels and strife? The answer seems straightforward and simple: pride. Pride causes a person to desire to think of himself as being superior to others. If one can identify with a leader whom he perceives to be superior to all others, then he, as a follower, can feel superior to those who follow someone else. In verses 18-31, Paul points to two characteristics of the gospel which serve as a death blow to the human pride found in the Corinthian church, and, unfortunately, in every church.
In verses 18-25, Paul reminds the church that those who are status seekers will never gain recognition and status from the unbelieving world. The gospel does not appeal to human pride; it cannot even co-exist with it. The gospel informs us that there is only one thing to do with pride—crucify it.
The “word of the cross,” that is, the gospel, is not a status symbol to unbelievers; it is an offense. For those of us who “are being saved,”28 the gospel is the power of God (see also Romans 1:16). For the unbeliever, the cross is a shame; for the Christian, the cross is glorious.
The conflict between divine wisdom and power and the secular world’s view of these matters should come as no surprise. Throughout history God has worked in ways that the world would never have imagined or believed. God’s purpose in history is not to glorify man but to glorify Himself by demonstrating the foolishness of man’s wisdom. The text which Paul cites in verse 19 is but one indication of God’s intention of proving man’s wisdom to be folly. He refers to Isaiah 29:14 to show that God has always worked in a way that is contrary to human wisdom. Would human wisdom have chosen an insignificant people like the Jews to be the nation among whom God would dwell? Would human wisdom have chosen the land of Palestine over other places on earth? Would human wisdom have led the Israelites to be trapped between the Red Sea and the on-coming Egyptian army? Would human wisdom have instructed the people of God to use their power to help the weak, rather than to use their power to take advantage of the weak? Would human wisdom have purposed to save Gentiles through the rejection and failure of the Jews, rather than through their triumph? Would human wisdom have declared that the coming Messiah was to be born of a virgin?
In verse 20, Paul asks a series of questions. Where is the wise man, the scribe, the debater of this age? I think he means where are they in the church, in the outworking of God’s plans and purposes? Paul would have the Corinthians look around them to see where the intellectual and scholarly giants are. By and large, those so highly esteemed in the world are absent from the church and absent so far as the outworking of God’s purposes in human history. And even when God may draw one of the “greats,” He first humbles them. Nebuchadnezzar is but one example (see Daniel 1-4).
Does the world think that God’s wisdom is foolish? God has set about a course that will prove man’s wisdom to be foolish. God will use foolishness to prove the ungodly to be fools. Since the world has not come to know God through its wisdom, God will make Himself known to some through means which the world regards as foolish. God has chosen the cross of Christ as the means whereby men may be saved from their sins.
Jews and Gentiles may agree on few things, but they mutually hold that the cross of Christ is foolish. The Jews are into power through signs and wonders. All through our Lord’s life, they wanted to see signs and wonders. They expected their Messiah to be a wonder worker, here to do their bidding. Even the disciples bought into this frame of mind, so that Peter rebuked the Lord for speaking of His cross (Matthew 16).
The Gentiles were into a different kind of power—mind power, human wisdom. They took pride in following great intellectual thinkers or powerful orators. The message of a humble carpenter’s son, who died as a common criminal on a Roman cross, was not that which the Gentiles sought. And the straight-forward proclamation of this “word of the cross” by means that were far from entertaining or impressive was not popular either. To those who are called, this humanly unimpressive gospel is good news, and the proclamation of the cross of Christ is a manifestation of the wisdom and the power of God.
There are two radically different views of the same gospel. The view of the unbeliever, whether Jew or Gentile,29 is that the gospel is foolish and weak. The view of the Christian is that the gospel is the wisdom and the power of God. Even that which seems to the unbelieving eye to be God’s weakness and foolishness proves in the end to cause man’s wisdom and power to pale in insignificance.
Those Whom God Has Saved Have No Status Either
The Corinthian saints were status seekers. Paul wanted them to see how foolish this was in the light of divine wisdom and power and how inconsistent status-seeking is with the gospel. First, Paul challenges his readers to take a good look around the church to note who was not present among them. This he did in verses 18-25. Glaringly absent in the church are those people who hold positions of status in the secular world, in accordance with secular values. The church is not made up of wise men, scribes, and debaters (verse 20). Now, in verses 26-31, Paul wants the Corinthians to give thought to who is present in the church.
“Look at yourselves,” Paul challenges the Corinthians. Granting the possibility of a few exceptions, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the rule. By and large, the church is not composed of the wise, the mighty, or the noble, when judged by fleshly (unbelieving) standards (verse 26). Instead, God has chosen to save the foolish, the weak, the base and despised, the “nobodies.” The word “chosen” in verse 27 is very significant, because it underscores that God chose those on the lowest rung of the social ladder. It was not that these were all that would come to God; it is that these are those whom God ordained to come to Him. It was not that God could do no better; it was that God chose not to do better.
Following the principle set down in verse 19, Paul explains why God selected the undesirables of this world for salvation. God has purposed to nullify the wisdom of the wise and to humble the proud. He has chosen to do so by employing means and people that the world rejects as weak and foolish and worthless. God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak things of this world to shame the strong, the base and despised things to humble that which is highly esteemed (verses 27-28).
God has not done this because the weak and foolish are any better than the powerful and the proud. He has set aside the highly regarded and employed those things which are disdained so that all the glory might come to Himself and not to mere men. This is the concluding point Paul makes in verses 29-31. If God were to achieve His purposes through the worldly wise and powerful, we would be inclined to give the praise and glory to the men He has used rather than to God. This world believes the “shakers and the movers” are the ones who make things happen. Even the church seeks to evangelize and train those whom the world regards as “most likely to succeed.” But God chooses the opposite, those whom we expect to fail (or, more accurately, those we already deem to be failures), so that when His wisdom and power are evident, there are no wise and powerful men to take their bows before men. Instead, men must bow before God, giving all the glory to Him. To God be the glory, great things He has done!
Obviously, there are just as many divisions in the church today as there were in Paul’s day. Some of us might argue that there are more divisions today than in his day. The thing that amazes me is the dramatic difference in the way we deal with those divisions and strife. In the church and in Christendom in general, the vast majority of cases are dealt with psychologically. This is the first level of appeal. If all else fails, turning to God and His Word is the last resort.
What is the root of this evil of divisions? The secular world, and a distressingly large number of professing Christians, would answer this question without a moment’s hesitation: poor self-esteem. This alleged “malady” is said to be the root of crime, of moral evils (many of which are no longer a crime), and of inter-personal conflicts. It should come as no surprise that Paul’s “root problem” is just the opposite of the secular world. Paul indicates that the root of the Corinthian conflicts is pride. It is not that the believers in the church think too little of themselves; they think too much of themselves. It is not “poor self-esteem” but “inflated self-esteem” that is the problem.
Why are these secular “cures” being embraced by the church? Why when we seek to heal conflicts and strife do we turn to a psychology book rather than to 1 Corinthians? When Paul deals with strife among the saints, he begins at the beginning—the gospel of Jesus Christ. His introductory words have already taken us to God and to His sufficient provisions for salvation and godly living. Now, after setting the standard of Christian unity, Paul seeks to correct the ungodly divisions in the church. He does so by turning us immediately to the gospel. Our salvation is Christ-centered and not man-centered. How then can Christians divide themselves from other Christians on the basis of the men whom they have chosen to follow? We were saved in the name of Jesus Christ; how is it that we now take pride in the names of the men we follow?
In the past, I have advocated “biblical thinking,” and I still do. But this text has forced me to see that Paul’s thinking goes even deeper. Paul is a model for us in what might be called “gospel thinking.” Baptism is a command of our Lord, and it is an important part of our obedience to Christ. But Paul makes it clear that proclaiming the gospel takes a higher priority in his life than performing baptisms. The Bible teaches us many truths, but the one truth which stands above all is that of the gospel. If any other truth begins to overshadow the gospel, something is wrong.
Notice with me how the gospel colors Paul’s thinking in almost any situation. In Acts 20:24, we see that Paul refuses to take the “advice” of the saints to avoid going to Jerusalem. Paul knows that “bonds and affliction” await him there, but Paul’s consuming desire is to fulfill his mission of proclaiming the gospel. Preaching Christ is more important than saving his skin. In Philippians 3:15, people who have “a different attitude” Paul leaves to God to change their hearts. However, in Galatians 1, Paul has a scathing rebuke for those who have “a different gospel” (see verses 6-10). When Paul is imprisoned, and some use this fact to further themselves at his expense, Paul rejoices because even in this, the gospel is preached (Philippians 1:12-18). In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul documents his right as an apostle to be supported by the churches where he ministers. He purposefully sets aside this right for the sake of the gospel (see verses 15-23, especially verse 23). When Paul encourages the saints in Corinth to give to the poor, Paul appeals to the gospel for their motivation in giving (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Over and over and over again, it is the gospel which provides the standard, the basis, the motivation, and the guiding principles for Christian living. The gospel is not merely that truth which we believe in order to be saved; it is the truth which we are to seek to grasp more fully day by day, and the truth which we are to live out in our everyday lives. As Paul put it,
6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude (Colossians 2:6-7).
Paul gets to the root of the problem of division and strife when he goes to the gospel, for the gospel is the key, the basis for all human relationships:
32 And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; 2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).
1 If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).
12 And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. 14 And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful (Colossians 3:12-15).
Pride is not the root of all evils (see 1 Timothy 6:10), but it is the root of many evils, including strife and division in the church. Pride was the cause of Satan’s downfall (see Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:1-19). Pride and wisdom are closely linked. In his pride, Satan tempted Adam and Eve in the garden. God had reserved certain knowledge for Himself, and that knowledge was there on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of this tree, to gain this knowledge. Eve saw that fruit, that knowledge, as desirable, and sought it by eating the fruit even though this required disobeying God. And the result of this act was division and strife, from that point onward in history. Man does not want to admit that only God is all-wise. Man seeks wisdom because he wishes to bolster his pride.
It was pride that prompted David to stay at home when he should have gone to war. As a result, he committed adultery with another man’s wife, and he tried to cover this sin with murder. As a result of David’s pride, he numbered the troops of Israel, and thereby brought upon his people the wrath of God. It was pride that God warned the nation Israel about, knowing that these people would eventually take credit for that which God had accomplished by His grace. Pride is a great evil, and it has for all of history been a prominent factor in human strife and division, even among the people of God.
Paul spotlights pride as the root problem among the Corinthians. He does not advocate months or years of therapy. He does not see the need to know the childhood, the background, or the individual struggles of each Christian. All they need to know is the gospel. It is by means of the gospel that God removed the conflict, the enmity, between sinners and Himself. It is also by means of the gospel that the enmity between men is removed:
11 Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
The gospel is incompatible with human pride. When saints strive with other saints out of pride, the cure is not to enhance their pride, to improve their “self-esteem”; it is to remove that pride. The self-esteem of the saints does not need to be commended; it should not even be criticized. It needs to be crucified. Do you wonder why our Lord instructed His church to remember His suffering and death by the observance of the Lord’s Table (communion)? You should not. Communion is the commemoration of the work of Christ, the gospel. Communion is not simply a remembrance of an act which our Lord accomplished in the past; it is a way of life which we are to emulate every day of our lives.
How often, when men seek to evangelize the lost, or when they attempt to motivate Christians (and unbelievers) to give or to serve, do they appeal to human pride. They glorify certain tasks and positions, so that people will fill them for that glory. They publicly laud the gifts or service of people, so that they will be proud of their contribution. Gospel thinking requires us to do just the opposite. In order to be saved, we must confess our sin and admit that we are unworthy of God’s gift of salvation. We must humble ourselves and accept the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. We must cease trusting in our goodness, in our works or efforts, in our worthiness, and cast ourselves on the sinless Son of God who died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sin, and giving to us His righteousness as a free gift. The gospel which saves is the gospel which humbles, and that humbling gospel is the basis for Christian unity and harmony. If you have never accepted the gospel message, and the gift of salvation in Christ of which the gospel speaks, I urge you to do so this very moment.
22 In Matthew 19, the scribes and Pharisees quiz Jesus about divorce. Under what circumstances can a man divorce his wife? Jesus’ response is to emphasize the rule and not the exceptions. It is not that exceptions do not exist. But to focus too much on the exceptions can undermine the rule. So here Paul wants to begin with the rule. He then cites specific examples where the Corinthians have departed from it (and these areas are not exceptions to the rule; they are examples of the rule).
23 Robertson and Plummer indicate that, “The expression is taken from Greek political life, meaning ‘be at peace’ or (as here) ‘make up differences.’” Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971 [reprint]), p. 10. Leon Morris quotes Bishop Lightfoot: “This ‘strictly classical’ expression ‘is used of political communities which are free from factions, or of different states which entertain friendly relations with each other.’” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 38-39.
24 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprint, 1993]), p. 54.
25 The term used here by Paul is a colorful one. Robertson and Plumber (p. 10) tell us, “It is used in surgery for setting a joint (Galen), and in Greek politics for composing factions (Hot. v. 28).” In the New Testament, it is employed for the process of mending fishing nets (Matthew 4:21).
26 Fee, p. 53, fn. 29.
27 “… nous, as is shown in ii. 16, denotes the Christian way of thinking in general, the conception of the gospel in its entirety; the gnome, according to vii. 25, refers rather to the manner of deciding a particular point, what we call opinion, judgment.” Frederic Louis Gadded, Commentary on First Corinthians, Kregel Reprint Library (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications [reprint], 1977), p. 63.
28 Paul speaks here of our salvation as an on-going process, and not just as a historical event.
29 It has been observed that Paul divides the whole world into two categories. These are not the categories of “Jew” and “Gentile,” but of believer and unbeliever.