The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 26, 2003
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
459, 477, 264 (melody of 276), 412
May the God of all grace give to each one of us unconventional wisdom that we may all recognize the Truth in our thoroughly deceitful world, and that we might be given the strength and conviction to walk in accordance with that Truth. In Christ Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Dear Fellow Ambassadors for the Lord Jesus Christ:
The man, the Dad, came to Jesus and pleaded with Him. He begged Him. His daughter was dying. Imagine yourself in this position. Imagine how you would feel. Imagine how you would implore the one whom you believed could help you. What words would you use to convey your great need? What impassioned entreaty would you bring? How would you communicate to the Good Master just how desperately you needed his help?
Now, shift to another time. See with your mind’s eye the desperate family bringing their handicapped son to Jesus. Jesus could heal the boy—they believed that. What words would they bring to entreat Jesus to do for them what no one else could, but what they desired above all else?
Move forward in time again, this time to Bethsaida and hear the family and friends of a blind man petition Jesus to relieve the poor man’s suffering. Now, hear the impassioned entreaty of the Centurion as he humbly implores Jesus to heal his paralyzed and tormented servant. Now, hear the passionate plea of the leper—the social outcast—as he begs Jesus to make him whole again, to restore his life.
What do all of these desperate people have in common? They all needed to communicate or articulate their acute need to Jesus. In each case the inspired Word of God uses a form of the very same word to describe their pleading, begging, or entreaty. This same word is used in our text this morning. See if you can recognize where it is used as you read the Word of God found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the First Chapter:
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
These are the verbally inspired words of our God. May no one among us ever doubt that this is so, for herein lies the very key to Life Eternal. In confidence let us then pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
It was probably not very difficult for you to recognize where Paul used the word that we discussed earlier. It was the third word in our text, translated there as “plead.” What is interesting, however, is to note both the context of Paul’s use of the word, and the history of that word in the New Testament.
This is the word people in Bible times used to ask for help when their sons and daughters were dying. This is the word they used to plead for family and friends who were sick, tormented, and in great pain. This is the kind of word they used to beg the help of another in desperate times or circumstances. This is the kind of word we are dealing with here, and it is that word Paul used… for what? What was the context of Paul’s use of that impassioned word of pleading? He did not use it to ask for life or health or healing. He used it to ask for unity among the members of the Church in Corinth. In other words, he used this passionate, emotional word to ask for something the vast majority of Christians today dismiss as inconsequential and outdated. He used the word to ask for complete and total unity of belief and confession.
Before we continue to talk more about Paul’s plea we must first address and answer an objection that has been offered by many Christians concerning this section of Holy Scripture. Their objection has to do with the understanding or interpretation of this passage. Their argument, simply stated, is that this passage does not call for doctrinal unity (as we maintain it does), but rather condemns the error of dividing over doctrinal differences. In other words, they believe that this passage says just the opposite of what we believe it says. In their opinion, Paul is telling the Christians in Corinth to agree to disagree, rather than split into various church bodies and synods. They regard Paul’s condemnation of the “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ” [v.12] as his condemnation of today’s “I am Lutheran” or “I am Baptist” or “I am Catholic” etc.
How do we respond? We respond by humbly suggesting that anyone who holds this position might be well served by rereading this entire letter to the Corinthians. As is often the case with false teaching, this argument is based on desire rather than the Word of God, on bias rather than on context. The entire Book of First Corinthians shows Paul trying to correct the many problems that had begun to plague the Christians in Corinth, and to do so with the hope that Christ Jesus and the Gospel might reign supreme among them. Divisions take away from Christ, they diminish Christ.
What was Paul’s own solution in this letter when faced with a man who clung to sin and error? In 1 Corinthians 5:4-7 we read, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened.” This hardly sounds like a man who would condemn separating for doctrinal reasons. It is hard to imagine that the same inspired man who wrote these words could have written essentially the exact opposite a few chapters earlier in our text. The fact is he did not.
The Holy Spirit’s meaning here (speaking to us through the pen of Paul) is clear: We are to be a unit in what we think and speak and teach as Christians. Nor are we to practice some sort of mindless, thoughtless association. The Greek word translated as “speak” in our text always included the thought behind the words that are spoken. It never signified just the sound or form of the words. Paul emphasizes that very thought in our text when he says, “but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” [v.10]
What are we supposed to do with someone who refuses to follow God’s Word, or who teaches that Word differently than what we find in God’s Word? In Romans 16:17 this same inspired writer, the Apostle Paul, tells us to take note of those who teach differently and to avoid them. In Titus 3:10-11 he said, “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.”
This is the fellowship principle in its simplest form. Speak and teach the same things and enjoy fellowship with all others who do the same. Reject and separate from those who refuse to do so.
This principle is probably not a new concept to anyone reading these words, yet in much of the Christian Church it is either unknown or rejected. Why? Why would those who also love their Lord Jesus every bit as much as those who practice Biblical standards of fellowship reject this principle? For some the answer is simply that this truth has never been taught to them (though the Bible’s teaching on this is there for all to see).
Others have heard the principle and have rejected it. Again, we ask “why?” Most often they believe that there is a better way to accomplish what they, out of love for their Savior, want to accomplish. Their plans for mission work, for example, require the kind of money that only vast membership roles could provide. They want large and active teen and youth ministries, and the financial means to enhance the worship experience and to continually upgrade and enlarge their worship facilities. Most of all they do not wish to offend anyone, or to turn anyone away who is searching for the Truth. For these folks, doctrinal compromise is the answer. Agree not to condemn, agree never to judge sin as sin, or false doctrine as false doctrine and the parking lot, pews, and offering baskets will be full every Sunday.
The only problem is that God doesn’t see it that way. Our opinions as children of God are supposed to be determined, not by personal bias or opinion, but by the Word of God. God in his Word determines for us what we are to think and teach and believe. Man often thinks he knows better, and at times his contrary views seem to find justification in outward success. In other words, Christians today believe that they are right in abandoning the fellowship principle because of the numeric growth of their ecumenical churches. Yet, if numbers alone were an indication of God’s seal of approval, then we would all need to take a good long look at the religions of both the Mormons and the Muslims. Both are growing faster than any Christian denomination. The fact is that numbers are not now (and never have been) an indication of God’s seal of approval on any religious denomination. Outward signs are seldom an accurate indication of either God’s pleasure or displeasure.
Having said that, we turn our focus back to our text, and there we find evidence of something that is often sorely lacking in any discussion of fellowship—the value of doctrinal agreement.
The first key in our text is found already in the first sentence. Paul pleads for unity of doctrine and practice “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [v.10] Satan is not opposed to full churches. He is fanatically opposed, however, to any and every church where sin and grace are preached. The best of all possible worlds—as far as the Devil is concerned—is any church that calls itself Christian, but fails to preach Christ. He would like nothing better than to fill every such church to overflowing, and he does. Flip through the channels and listen to the message preached in those enthusiastic, overflowing “mega-churches.” You will see tremendous excitement and enthusiasm, but you will rarely hear one word about sin, or grace, or justification, or salvation by grace through faith. My own experience is that if you hear the name of Jesus Christ at all, you will only hear it at the end of a prayer—“in the name of Jesus, we pray.” You will hear about claiming your rights. You will hear about the power of women. You will hear about patriotism, money, and kindness. Souls are not saved through such messages, but churches do grow for no one is offended at such things. The cross, however, is an offense and Christianity is hollow and pointless without it.
Paul understood this fact. That is why he never failed to focus on Jesus Christ, and that, dear Christians, is the true value of doctrinal agreement. If man is allowed to wander from the solid rock of God’s Word, his message will invariably wander from the message that saves and strengthens souls. This is because the message of the cross—the very thing that Paul never failed to emphasize—is a natural offense to sinful mankind. Man’s natural inclination is therefore to do exactly what Paul warned against in the last verse of our text—“lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.” [v.17] The greatest value of “speaking the same thing” and of being and remaining “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” is that Christ Jesus and salvation through faith alone in Him as Lord and Savior will always remain the heart and soul of our thoughts, actions, and message. Human reason and visible evidence will probably always support a different approach.
It is unlikely that a congregation or synod that practices the Biblical teaching on fellowship will ever amount to much in the eyes of the world. That should be of no concern to us. What ought to occupy our thoughts and prayers are these inspired words found later in this same letter to the Corinthians: “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:1-4). To even begin to follow or associate with error is to begin the walk away from the cross of Christ. Human intellect is a poor substitute for the perfect Word of God, as Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 4: “…that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
Can our Lord Jesus preserve us even though we fellowship with false teachers? Of course, He can. Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Yet why would we want to do any such thing? Why would anyone want to expose himself to such danger? What program, what relationship, what noble intention could be worth the risk to our eternal future? What human plan could ever prove superior to God’s will for us? Cling instead to the full truth of God’s Word, and that same God who gave us that Word will carry us along until we join him in the heavenly mansions. “Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word!” Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.