Report of Divisions
At the time Paul penned this letter, he was residing in Ephesus. (1 Corinthians 16:8) But he received word from Corinth that a problem was brewing:
“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.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:10
The early apostles and disciples of Christ took their ministry very seriously. They spread out from Jerusalem preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God and making more disciples. Those teachers and leading men spent time caring for those who responded to the message, and those who responded developed a deep respect for their teachers, some becoming attached, even dependent on those men.
Though many of them were able teachers, none was as proficient or knowledgeable as the Christ. Thus, they could not convey all the different facets of the diverse Kingdom message and yet maintain its oneness as thoroughly as did Jesus. Instead, each focused on what they were able to grasp and what they appreciated most, and their listeners latched onto that facet of the message. As a result, apparent divisions arose, giving rise to Paul’s counsel.
As noted above, Paul’s first directive was for the Corinthians to put matters into perspective. Not one of their leading teachers – not Apollos, not Cephas (Peter), not even Paul himself – was impaled for them, and none of those disciples were baptized into the name of any of their leaders. All were baptized into Christ, thus all belonged to Christ.
To those who claimed Paul as their ‘owner,’ Paul emphasized that he wanted no part of that distinction, telling them he hardly baptized anyone! He told them that preaching and teaching was his primary mission, and that he was not even a baptizer:
“I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 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.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:14-17
But he readily recognized that the divisions had sprung up because of the Greek influence of intellectual sophistry and the Jewish influence of legalism:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 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.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:18-21
Paul’s reference to ‘the cross’ is not limited to the context of Jesus death. But it also includes our ongoing baptism into Christ’s death and the need to live our lives and worship the Father as he did. Notice how Jesus described it and how Paul used the phrase in other letters:
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
– Mark 8:34-35
“Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
- Galatians 6:12-14
“By setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
- Ephesians 2:15-16
So Paul is telling the Corinthians to focus on the ‘cross’ – the Christ-like lifestyle – and not be influenced by seeming intellectuals or be drawn into debates based on worldly wisdom. Such debates lead nowhere; whereas the simple message of accepting our torture stake and following Christ will save us. He goes on:
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:22-25
The Jews, being a superstitious religious people, were looking for signs and miracles and portents in order to believe in the ‘Christ crucified’; the Greeks, being intellectuals, were looking for great philosophical utterances. Because there were no signs given, the Jews were stumbled; because no great sophistry was heard, the Greeks dismissed the message as foolishness. However, “to those whom God has called,” they are to accept the message of Christ based on the wise, powerful and exemplary life Christ led. Indeed, looking to the Christ is stronger than any miracle and any wisdom originating with man.
Yet it appears that the Corinthians brothers were trying to conform the Christian message so as to appear intellectual to the Greeks and miraculous to the Jews; and it is likely that this effort was the source of the divisions. Paul wanted those brothers to know that they did not need to make those compromises. Though they may not be as wise as the Greeks, or so versed in the Jewish laws of rituals and superstitions, their faith in Christ was sufficient for salvation:
“Brothers and sisters, 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. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:26-28
Paul is not telling them that God purposed to shame and embarrass people who are wise in a worldly way. He is telling them the Father recognizes how difficult it is for men who put faith in their mental prowess to accept the simple message of salvation. But if the so-called foolish ones could take hold of the Kingdom message and demonstrate the wisdom of God, the so-called wise ones might humble themselves and see the futility of their fleshly thinking. And there was another reason:
“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 the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:29-31
The Father wants us to rely on Him and not our own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5) When we think too much of our own wisdom, we block the reception of the wisdom from above because there is no room for it. Brothers, there is so much we do not know. But as long as we remain conscious of our spiritual need – our hunger for spiritual understanding – (Matthew 5:3) we will be allowing place and opportunity for the Father’s wisdom to reside.