by Jimmy Larkin
Comedian Emo Philips used to tell this story*:
In conversation with a person I had recently met, I asked, “Are you Protestant or Catholic?”
My new acquaintance replied, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me too! What franchise?”
He answered, “Baptist.”
“Me too!” I said. “Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
“Northern Baptist,” he replied.
“Me too!” I shouted.
We continued to go back and forth. Finally I asked, “Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?”
He replied, “Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!”
Everybody likes to be around people we agree with. And in 1 Cor. 1:10-18 the Apostle Paul urges, exhorts, or makes an appeal, to the Corinthians to agree with one another.
10 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. 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.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 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.) 17 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.
18 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.
Apparently there were some quarrels and fighting taking place among the Corinthians. If we examine why they didn’t agree with one another, we see it’s the same reason why sometimes we don’t agree with one another. We need to overcome these reasons and to be obedient to Paul’s exhortation to agree with one another. Simply put, the reason we don’t agree with one another is that we’ve lost sight of the main thing. What is that main thing? It’s Jesus! Jesus and the Cross, the message of the resurrection!
Beyond that, I would like to examine three reasons why the Corinthians and, so often, we lose sight of the main thing.
First, we lose sight of the plan. This is evident from the very fact that Paul urges us to agree with one another. What is the plan? In Matthew 16 Jesus asked His disciples a question, “Who do men say that I am?” They gave Him a number of answers, from John the Baptist to Elijah to a prophet. Then He asked, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Christ or the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus tells Peter he is blessed because God, not man, had revealed that to him. Jesus goes on to say, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” And that is where the plan begins. You see, Jesus’ plan is to build His church. He’s building a church right now, is He not?
In John 17:11, 20-23, Jesus elaborated on the plan in a prayer shortly before His arrest. He prayed that those who would believe the message of His disciples would be brought to complete unity so that the world would know that God sent Jesus and know about God’s love for them.
Later, when the disciples were replacing Judas (Acts 1:21-22), they said, “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” Jesus, the cross and the resurrection is the message of the disciples, and it is the only message that builds Jesus’ church. No other message can bring people into the church. That’s why you’ll find throughout the book of Acts (2:32, 36; 3:15; 4:10, 20, 33; 5:30-32, 42; 8:35; 9:20; 10:36-43) the disciples declaring this message, thereby building Christ’s church. That was the plan, and it’s still the plan today. It’s what Paul says in v. 17: “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” But the Corinthians had lost sight of the plan, and too often, I believe, so do we.
The word “agree” in 1 Cor. 1:10 means “to say or speak the same thing.” Paul is literally saying to them, “I want you all in the church to speak or say the same thing.” Now, what do you think this “same thing” is that he wants them to say? Would it not be the message of the apostles? It’s the message of the gospel…Jesus, the Cross, His Resurrection! Yet somehow the Corinthian believers were dividing themselves behind different preachers. Some liked Paul, others liked Apollos, others liked Peter, and the most pious claimed Christ himself.
Don’t we do the same today to a certain extent? Some say, “I’m a fan of John MacArthur. He’s deep and I can really learn from him. When he preaches, I learn new insights that I don’t learn anywhere else.” Others will say, “I like Rick Warren. He’s America’s pastor, you know. That Purpose Driven Life book really changed my life.” Still others will say, “I prefer Billy Graham. His evangelistic messages are so plain and powerful. That man has done more for the kingdom than anyone else.” And each of these followings will try to convince the rest why we should like one over the other. Before long those who like MacArthur will say that they don’t like Rick Warren because he’s all about world peace and is seemingly propagating a social gospel. And the people who like Rick Warren won’t like Billy Graham because all he did was the evangelistic crusades and he didn’t do much to make a difference for the physical needs in this world. And the people who like Graham and Warren both won’t like MacArthur because he’s too deep and hard to understand, and he always makes them feel bad when they listen to him.
And what we fail to see is that the message that each of those preaches is the same message. It’s Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection. But we get bogged down on those other things. That’s what the Corinthians were doing.
They lost sight of the plan. But they also lost sight of the purpose. If we read the preceding verses 1-9 in I Corinthians, we would notice something repetitive in those first 10 verses, and it’s the purpose behind Paul’s exhortations to agree and be unified. The purpose is the person; Paul mentions the name of Jesus Christ 10 times! Do you think he wanted to get a message across to these Corinthians?
The Corinthians were dividing up into groups behind human preachers, Paul, Peter and Apollos.
So, Paul turns their attention to the purpose that is the person, Jesus Christ! In v. 13 Paul asks three rhetorical questions that would surely get their attention. “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” When you think about those questions it kind of becomes ridiculous what they were doing, doesn’t it? It makes no sense. But he is saying to them in essence, “Don’t forget about the purpose behind which you gather together in the first place. Don’t lose sight of the reason why you are there. Jesus is that reason. Why are you talking about following these human preachers? They are in the place of preaching and authority simply because of Christ.”
How often do we lose sight of our purpose? It’s easy to do, isn’t it? We just get comfortable in our little church, in our little gatherings, in the group of people who we’ve put around us that agrees with us about the same things. And before long we’re focused on ourselves and those things and we forget the whole reason why we’re here in the first place. It happens in churches all the time all around the world.
One of my favorite hymns is Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. The words of the chorus say it all. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” Our purpose comes from Jesus and our eyes must always be on Him if we are to accomplish His plan.
Finally, the Corinthians had lost sight of their power. “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. 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” (I Cor. 1:17-18). The only message we have that contains any power is the message of the cross.
Christ has a plan, a plan to build His church. That plan involves a message. And there is great power in that message. And it’s only in that message that a person can have true hope. It’s a message so powerful—have you thought about this—a message so powerful that it can change someone’s eternal destiny.
Author Greg Asimakoupoulos wrote,
Visitors to the Smithsonian Museum of American History can see the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1814. The original flag measured 42 by 30 feet. It was the immense size of the flag that allowed Key to see it from his position 10 miles out to sea, following a night of gunfire.
The means by which a flag that large could fly on a pole 189 feet in the air is on display at Fort McHenry on Baltimore’s inner harbor. There, in one of the barracks, are two oak timbers, 8 foot by 8 foot, joined as a cross. National Park Service personnel discovered this cross-shaped support near the entrance to Fort McHenry in 1958, buried nine feet below ground. Not only did the cross help rangers locate the original site from which the star-spangled banner flew, but it answered the mystery of how such a large flag could fly in stormy weather without snapping the pole. This unseen wooden device provided a firm foundation for the symbol of our national freedom.
Similarly, the cross of Christ provides the foundation by which our faith is rooted and supported. It is the message of the Cross that supports and sustains and grows the church. The message that Jesus Christ came to this earth; God became man, born of a virgin; lived a sinless life; arrested, tortured and crucified. He died on that cross. His blood was shed willingly because it was shed for a purpose. He was the sacrifice for my sin and your sin and the sin of the world. After he died he didn’t stay that way. No, three days later he rose from the dead and conquered sin and death. And when a person is willing to believe all of that about Jesus and they are willing to accept His sacrifice on the cross on their behalf and they repent and turn from their sin and to Christ they can be assured that they will spend eternity in heaven with God. And that is a powerful message!
But what have we done in the church? Instead of being completely unified behind Christ’s plan, His purpose and His power, we create divisions in the church by focusing on our own messages, things that are seemingly important to us.
There is a whole movement that was built on the doctrine of baptism of the Holy Spirit, or speaking in tongues. This is in no way to put down the charismatic movement, but I spoke with a gentleman who was part of a charismatic church for years, during which he sincerely prayed that God would give him the gift of tongues in order to manifest the baptism of the Spirit; he longed for it, but it never happened. And he was looked down upon because he never displayed the gift even though he truly believed in Jesus.
A particular Church of Christ in Wyoming taught that they are the only true church and if the sign doesn’t say “Church of Christ,” you’re not part of the true church. A man came into my office and told me he was ready to give up on God and religion because of things his pastor was saying from the pulpit, such as Charles Spurgeon was in hell because he wasn’t Church of Christ.
Different denominations have different emphases. Now, I ask you, are any of those the message that the apostles preached? Are any of those messages that the apostles would emphasize today? No! The sad thing is that each of the churches I have mentioned teach the message of the cross, they have just chosen to place emphasis on lesser things. And we do it too, don’t we, but just a little differently? We may argue Calvinism versus Arminianism. Or worse yet, four-point Calvanists versus five-point Calvinists versus Hyper-Calvinists! Or we’ll divide over Dispensational Pre-millennialism versus Covenant Theology. Or we’ll divide over the timing of the rapture. Or we’re dividing over pre, post, or amillennialism… election and predestination… lordship salvation… and on and on.
But here’s the deal. Paul’s plea to the Corinthians and to us was to agree with one another that the message of Christ and the cross ought to be the main thing in our churches. That’s the only way the church grows. That’s the plan of Jesus Christ today: that His message will go out to the nations.
I’ve never heard of anyone getting saved at a debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. I’ve never heard of anyone getting saved because of division in a church. I’ve never heard of anyone getting saved because Christians all rallied together and voted the right politicians into office, politicians with Christian values, politicians who would begin a revival with Christian policies. That’s not how Christ’s plan works. He’s building His church and He said it would be our unity that would testify to the world that God sent Him and loves them. He wants us to be unified and I’m here to tell you today that the way we do that is by focusing on Christ and His message: Jesus, the Cross, and the Resurrection.
The Corinthians had lost sight of the plan. They lost sight of the purpose, the very person, Jesus Christ. And they lost sight of their power, the message of the cross.
I don’t know where you are or where your church is, if there are divisions among you, but if Christians can agree to say the same thing, to make Jesus Christ the main purpose, the reason why we gather, His message the very thing that drives what we do, then we can have those disagreements on all those other issues because Jesus’ plan is to build His church and He builds His church when we focus on Him and when we declare Him and His message to people. That’s why we’re here. As long as we continue to be divided and to follow behind human preachers, we aren’t going to accomplish Christ’s plan. We weren’t going to be about His purpose.
So, my challenge to you is this. Don’t lose sight of the plan. Realize that you’re here because you have a specific purpose in Jesus’ plan to build His church. He has saved you and He is sanctifying you because He is going to use you to build His church. And if you remember that, you won’t lose sight of the purpose, the very person Jesus. And remember the only way you can be a part of executing His plan is if you proclaim His message—the only message in this life that has real power to change destiny, to influence people for eternity. If you keep Jesus, the Cross, and the Resurrection at the forefront, you can walk together and disagree on so much else.
Jimmy Larkin is currently a full-time seminary student residing in Kansas City with his wife and five children. He enjoys spending his free time hunting and fishing.
*New Republic. Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching (Baker), from the editors of Leadership