Proper Focus
(1 Cor. 1:10-25)
 
By Paul Robison

Working in Italy had its privileges when it came to seeing some of the masterpieces of the greatest artists throughout history: Da Vinci, Caravaggi, Donatello, and Michaelangelo.  Some of their huge paintings in the museums were truly amazing in their details, beauty, and impact.  They were 25-40 yards long.  If you went and stood closely to a huge painting and looked at one spot, you would see just a mixture of colors and hues.  You couldn't always tell what it was that had been painted, but when you stood back some distance, the people and objects came into focus, and your brain suddenly saw how those colors and hues had design and purpose behind them and contributed to the overall effect!  You sometimes even felt overwhelmed by the enormity of it all!  This illustration shows us the importance of having the proper focus. 

The church at Corinth had lost its focus.  The apostle Paul had learned about some of its problems through three sources.  He had gotten a letter from them with many questions.  Those who brought the letter were probably Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17), and they also told Paul how they viewed the situation.  The household of Chloe had also communicated some troubles (1:10).  So Paul began dictating a letter to this church in 54 A. D. and Sosthenes, another brother from Corinth, wrote it down.  Even though this congregation had many problems, we see that Paul begins this letter by focusing on Christ and God and what they had done for this congregation.  Look closely at the first nine verses, and you will see that Christ's name is mentioned in every verse except verse 5, and in this translation the word “Him” is used there.  So, do you see where Paul is trying to help these members put their focus? 

Paul continues to help these members have the proper focus as he addresses a real problem in verses 10-25 of the first chapter.  Paul's advice to these members is applicable to us as well.  Let's look at four areas where Paul challenges them and us to keep a proper focus. 

First of all, we are to focus on unity, not on divisions.  Turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 1:10-11.  Note what the apostle says here: “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.”  Paul does something interesting here by saying, “Now I plead with you.”  In Paul's other letters, he usually takes some time before he gets to this statement because the phrase, “I plead, I urge, I beseech” gets us to the heart of an ancient letter.  So this statement of appeal is found in chapter 4:1 of Ephesians, and it's found in chapter 4:1 of 1 Thessalonians, and it's found in chapter 12:1-2 of Romans.  But notice in this letter, it's found right off the bat in 1:10.  Why is this?  This shows that a matter is important and urgent.  What's important is that the congregation in Corinth is developing into little cliques that are bashing each other.  And what's urgent is that this conduct be stopped immediately!   After his brief introduction in this letter, Paul gets right to business and confronts the first big issue.  “Now I plead with you, brethren and in verse 11, “For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren.”  Yes, the Corinthian members are having problems, but to Paul, they are still his brethren in the Lord.  He hasn't given up on them yet and kicked them out of Christ's family.  Can we live like that?  Come on now, can we remember that despite our personality differences, our various gifts, and our personal quirks, we are all still a part of Jesus' family?  We are brothers and sisters united by a bond of divine blood!  Are we loving and working together like a good family should?  Do we have faith in one another?  Are we honest enough with each other that we trust and talk to each other?  Do we truly forgive each other?  Do we let love cover a multitude of sins?  Are we helping each other up when one falls?  Are we praising one another when we do something well that makes Jesus happy and our whole congregational family proud? “Brethren, my brethren” -- even to those Corinthians members!  Are those empty words or meaningful words to us?  “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).  Paul is begging these members to be united using the highest name possible.  He is supposed to be their common Authority and their common Master.  Is Jesus our common Authority and Master?  Are we obeying His commands?  Are we imitating His ways?  Are we reading His teachings?  Are we living each day and running the Christian race with our eyes focused and fixed upon Him?  Corinth is located in Greece.  The Greeks were well known for their philosophers, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Zeno, Epicurus, and all these philosophers had their followers.  These philosophers would often gather around Poseidon's temple shouting at and reviling one another.  Their disciples were called zealots, and on occasion that they would get violent against rival philosophers and orators (Barclay).  These Grecians had studied greatly the art of persuading others by using rhetorical devices and eloquent appeals, and in the marketplaces as they raised their voices, sometimes they would be applauded, and sometimes they would be attacked and beaten.  You see how the members at Corinth were carrying much of their culture right into the way that they were doing church!  “It is no wonder that Paul takes factiousness over Christian teachers so seriously” (Witherington).  Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing.”  To speak the same thing means “I'm begging you to agree with each other, to speak only the things that the Holy Spirit and your Christian teachers have taught you.  Don't act like the philosophers and their zealots and push YOUR line!  Let's have a common desire and get back to pushing the Gospel!”  “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”  They were divided over their favorite teacher, and we're exalting the person who had baptized them (Lipscomb).  All this was taking away from the central place that Jesus should have had?  Have you ever been in a congregation where there is an issue, and groups begin to form sides, and then they forget that they are brethren, and their position must win at all cost?  Members in the first century were exalting personalities; members in the 21
st century are exalting positions! Satan doesn't mind what we exalt, as long as we don't exalt Christ!  And Jesus must be shedding tears as He watches us fuss and bicker, and unbelievers decide that they'll never become Christians if Christianity is only more fussing.  Our common goal should be that we have no divisions among us.  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.”  Quit being divided and be perfectly, not partially, joined together by thinking and acting in the same way.  When Christ transforms our thoughts and our actions, we will show a common conduct.  “Perfectly joined together” -- maybe we ought to put that on some signs and stick them above our doors coming into the auditorium; just to remind us of what our common conduct ought to be.  Didn't Jesus pray in John 17:20-23 that “all [would] be made perfect in one” and unbelievers would be impressed by our unity?  “Perfectly joined together!”  Focus on unity, not divisions!  Verse 11 states: “For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you.”  The word “contentions” is often found in scriptures with the words “envy” (Romans 1:29; Philippians 1:15; 1 Timothy 6:4) and “jealousy” (Romans 13:13; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20, Halladay).  Paul told Titus in 3:9: “But void foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless.”  Contentions and quarrelings about some matters are unprofitable and useless!  Did you hear that statement?  Some matters aren't worth fussing over!  When are we going to learn that?  “Contentions among you” was the common sin at the church in Corinth.  Is our congregation known for this sin as well?  Do others see us as contentious, always fussing, always quarreling, always bickering?  I, Paul Robison, plead with you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, stop such behavior, and let's follow Jesus perfectly joined together!  Focus on unity, not on divisions!  “'The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home." 

I don't know who said it, or when, or where, but I've chuckled over it, thought about it, and quoted it too.  With a mountain of mercy behind me, and a mountain of mission ahead, I need you, my sister, my brother, I need to be tied to you, and you need me too.  We need each other ... to keep from bolting, fleeing in panic, and returning to the [insanity] of unbelief” (Frost in Swindoll)!  Let's focus on unity, not on divisions! 

Next, Paul wants the members at Corinth to focus on Christ, and not His agents or ministers.  Notice what he says in verses 12-17: “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.”  

Just like the zealots of the philosophers, these Christians were exalting their preachers and were seeing themselves as zealots of those who had baptized them!  They were making these humble preachers, none of whom were in competition with each other, into heads of their cliques, and making them rivals to Christ Himself (McGarvey)!  They were following their culture, defending their turf by boasting about their teacher and about being baptized by him or his disciples, and all the while creating division and contention.  The earliest Greek manuscripts have no punctuation, so the translators have to supply them.  Verse 12 could be translated in this way: “Now I say this, that each of you says, 'I am of Paul,' or 'I am of Apollos,' or  'I am of Cephas,' but “I Paul am of Christ.'  There are three cliques mentioned, and then Paul tries to correct this thinking by saying that he is of Christ, and he wants each of the members at Corinth to be too.  “Paul then moves at once to show how ridiculous are their actions of glorying in human teachers” (Coffman).   

This is why Paul asks three questions, to put the focus back on Christ again: Is Christ divided?  Answer: No!  Was Paul crucified for you?  Answer: No!  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?  Answer: No! 

That last statement “baptized in the name of Paul” makes it sound like some of the Corinthians may have been mistakenly baptizing people in the name of their favorite preacher.  These members need to quit exalting the person who converted them, and get back to exalting the Lord who saved them!  The silver-tongued rhetorician or speech maker was highly honored in Grecian culture.  It is not what they were saying that counted, but how they were saying it.  “Their thought might be poisonous so long as it was enveloped in honeyed words” (Barclay). 

Contrast this now with Paul's statement in verse 17: “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.”  Paul renounces the fancy speech devices so dear to the Greek intellectuals, and in opposition to the philosopher's so-called “wisdom”, he puts the emphasis upon the gospel and the cross.  The gospel saves all people for all time, and the cross redeems all people for all time!  All the members at Corinth and all of us as well stand on common ground at the cross and with common knowledge at the preaching of gospel.  Focus on Christ, not on His agents!  “To decorate the story of the cross with rhetoric and cleverness would have been to make [people] think more of the language than of the facts, more of the [messenger] than of the message.  It was Paul's aim to set before men, not himself [nor any other preacher] but Christ in all His ... grandeur” (Barclay).  Focus on Christ, not on His ministers! 

Then thirdly, focus on the revelation, not on rhetoric.  Note what Paul says in verses 18-21: “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, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.'  Where is the wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the disputer of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”  It is very clear here that Paul is contrasting the wisdom of God with the wisdom of world.  Did you know that the term “wise” occurs 20 times in the New Testament, and Paul uses it 10 times in the first three chapters of this letter!  The right use of wisdom is a problem particularly for members at Corinth (Halladay).  Why is this?  What does the term “philosopher” mean?  It comes from two terms: philo = lover and sophos = wisdom, so philosophers were supposed to be “lovers of wisdom,” and we saw earlier how the Grecians exalted their philosophers.  There is nothing wrong with a pursuit of wisdom, but by Paul's day, the philosophers had become men with nimble tongues and an empty brains (Coffman).  Their style and rhetoric had become more important than their content and message.  Paul shows that we must put the focus on revelation and God's wisdom rather than on rhetoric and the world's wisdom.  “People glorify the arrogant, proud, mighty, and successful, but Jesus was patient, meek, humble, and submissive” (Coffman).  The idea that being an humble servant, suffering, and dying the death of a criminal were the ways “to exert influence and power to overcome people and lead them away from selfishness and sin is contrary to all inclinations of human nature” (Lipscomb).  Yes, the Gospel was foolishness to the philosophers, but it is God's power to salvation to all disciples!  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16).  Paul then quotes a passage from Isaiah 29:14 to show that God's revelation upends mankind's wisdom.  Paul asks: “Where are the wise ones, the scribes, and the orators?” in order to set up a contrast.  God's revelation has made foolish their wisdom, so the Corinthian members should quit exalting their preachers by pointing to their styles.  The Gospel, the message preached, and not eloquence, is God's method to save those people who will believe!  Don't Paul words sound contemporary?  Does American culture put the emphasis on style over content?  Isn't our media's wisdom exalted while biblical wisdom is ridiculed as being antiquated and out of date?  Isn't it wonderful that we don't have be skilled orators in order to share God's simple Gospel with others?  We can still show others that now we live in the Christian Age and that Christ has all authority because of His death and resurrection.

We can still explain that His life fulfilled prophecy, and He is the only Mediator who restores the friendship between God and people.  We can still urge others to believe, to repent, and to be baptized to be added to Christ's blood-bought non-denominational family called the church!  It still pleases God through the foolishness of His revelation to save those who believe in His Son and put Him on in baptism!  Let's focus on revelation, and not on rhetoric!  If someone was to ask you the question: “What must I do to be saved?” would you be able to open up your Bible and share God's saving revelation with them?  Being able to share God's wisdom to make disciples is a task and a joy for which every Christian should be prepared!   “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).  Peter addressed these words to ordinary members who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.  Let's focus on revelation, not on rhetoric! 

F
inally, let's focus on Christ crucified (God's wisdom), and not on our cultures' values (man's wisdom).  Notice verses 22-25: “For Jews request a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”  The Jews were looking for some startling sign to help them know when the time of the Messiah had arrived.  In fact, in Paul's day, there were many false Messiahs who promised miraculous signs.  At the same time that Paul was dictating this letter, a false teacher from Egypt was claiming to be the Messiah, and he persuaded 30,000 Jews to follow him to the Mount of Olives where he would then command the walls of Jerusalem to come crashing down.  This example shows the kind of signs that the Jews were seeking (Barclay).  “In Jesus, they saw one who was meek and lowly, who deliberately avoided the spectacular, one who served and ended on a cross—it seemed to them an impossible picture of God's Chosen One” (Barclay).  The Greeks seek wisdom.  The philosophers believed that a god becoming a man would be an impossibility, and a god willing to suffer would be a contradiction.  Change is natural for people, but constancy is natural for a god.  Why would a god want to go from a world of goodness and come to world of wickedness?  A god who would chose the way of suffering was really out of the ballpark; he should be pitied, not worshiped, according to the Grecians.  “Christ crucified” went against all cultures' humanistic values.  How could one hung on cross possibly be the Messiah when the law said that he who is hanged is accursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23)?  This was the Jews' stumbling block.  And how could one who suffered as Jesus had suffered possibly be divine?  This was the Greeks' foolishness.  So we see that the preaching of Gospel was counter-cultural.  It went against the grain of both what the Jews and the Greeks valued.  It goes against the grain of what many Americans' value today.  “How can you even claim Christ crucified is the ONLY way to God?  You Christians are being too brash, too narrow-minded, too pushy, and too simplistic!”  Ever hear something like that?  The Gospel is still counter-cultural.  But Christ still remains God's answer.  “God” has the emphatic position in verse 24.  “The crucified Christ as God's power and God's wisdom again underscores the plan is God's, and [it] stands in irreconcilably sharp contrast [to any culture's humanistic values]” (Halladay).  Cultures change, but God's plan for salvation is eternal.  Peter calls it the incorruptible seed, “the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23)!  God's plan is superior to all cultures' humanistic values.  “For God, even at His worst, always upstages mankind, even at our best.  It's really no contest” (Halladay).  Focus on Christ crucified, not your culture's values.  Corinthian members, Christ crucified is God's answer, and it's our rallying point.  It's not His messengers, or eloquent presentations, or philosophical wisdom.  Get back to Christ crucified, and let there be no divisions among you! 

American members, Christ crucified is still God's answer, and it should be our rallying point too!  It's not His preachers, or slick sermons, or the mass media's wisdom.  Get back to Christ crucified, and let there be no divisions among you!

This lesson began with the great Italian artists and their masterpieces and showed how one must view them with the proper focus.  It concludes with the masterpieces sitting right here all around us, who are part of Christ's one holy family called brethren, and with the Great Master Himself, Whose cleansing blood has made each of these works of art possible.  Step back now for a moment, get the proper focus, and let the enormity of God's grand design for mankind's salvation overwhelm you!  In the center, you will see a cross and an empty tomb!  Let Jesus' cross cut your heart, and let His empty tomb excite it!  The Risen Christ is calling you to live a life transformed into His likeness, united with His disciples, and prepared to explain His salvation while living against the grain.  Why don't you give up your stubborn will, lay it at the foot of the cross, and let the Master fashion you into His masterpiece?