The Seven Churches of Revelation

by Mike Stine

Hidden in the back of your Bible is a book many of you are scared to read.  Hidden in the opening chapters of this book is a story of seven very different churches.  If you’ve read the book of Revelation, and many people haven’t just because of the difficulty of understanding it, you probably gave little to no time pondering the seven churches found in chapters 2 and 3.  A wealth of information can be found in these chapters and by studying them, we can learn a lot about our church, ourselves, and others in our church.

The book of Revelation is broken into three parts; past, present, and future.  In chapter 1, John describes what had already happened.  Christ had come and gave himself as a sacrifice for the lost.  Chapters 2 and 3 are the present.  When the book was written, all seven churches were literal and in existence.  More importantly, they are representative of all churches as we’ll see in a moment.  Chapters 4-22 discuss what will take place in the future.

The book of Revelation was written as a letter and it was intended to be circulated around to the churches.  The seven churches mentioned are located in Asia Minor , which is modern day Turkey.  Going in order from Ephesus, all the way around to Laodicea would create a loop.  In all likelihood, the letter was originally circulated in this way.

While each church is addressed individually, all seven messages are important for each church to read.  At the end of each address to an individual church John writes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  If the warning was directed at one particular church, it would have been easy to have said, “ Ephesus , listen to what Christ has to say to you church.”  Instead, the call to be heard is repeated seven times that all the churches should hear what Christ has to say.

Because of this, readers needed to heed what was said to all the churches.  Obviously not everyone in the church of Ephesus had left their first love, but the majority.  Some in the church of Ephesus were probably better characterized by what Christ said about the church of Smyrna or Pergamum .

The seven letters to the churches in Revelation depict many things.  First, they depict the state of affairs of seven literal churches.  Some are ok with some bad points, some are good, some are bad.  Secondly, each church is representative of a span of time during the church age, beginning during the apostles’ time going until the church is removed at the time of the rapture.  Thirdly, every Christian can be categorized by one of the seven churches.  Finally, every church that exists today falls under one of these seven categories.

The purpose of studying these seven churches is to evaluate ourselves and our churches in light of the evaluation Christ made of these seven churches.  By the end of this sermon, you should be able to determine what church you best relate to and what church your own church is most like.  Upon doing this, you may need to make some adjustments in your life and in your church, just as Christ admonished these churches to do.

Read Revelation 2:1-7.

The church of Ephesus looked like it was in a great place.  It was in the most affluent city in Asia Minor.  It had a long line of well known preachers; likely founded by Priscilla and Aquilla, served by Paul, Timothy, and after writing the book of Revelation, even John is believed to have called Ephesus home.

The church had numerous good things said about it.  They are hard working and persevering.  They cannot tolerate wicked men.  They tested those who claimed to be apostles but are not and found them to be false.  They endured hardships for the name of Christ and did not grow weary.  Finally, they hated the practices of the Nicolaitans which Jesus himself hated.

Little is known about the Nicolaitans but writings by others at the same time mention that the group was short lived.  They were a heretical sect that taught that spiritual liberty allowed them to practice idolatry and immorality.  The church of Ephesus had stood against this group and they were commended for it.

However, there is something wrong with the church.  Verse 4 declares, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.”  The church of Ephesus suffered the same problem as many Christians today.

When the church began, they were excited about their salvation.  They proclaimed it in the pagan streets of Ephesus .  Then time began to take its toll.  The church matured in knowledge.  They learned right from wrong.  And they acted upon it.  What followed was a ritual obedience to the teachings of Jesus.

The church at Ephesus was doing the right things.  They stayed away from the practices of false teachers and endured hardships for the name of Christ.  However, they had forgotten why they did it.  It was not for their first love, their true love that they labored.  The church did not obey Christ’s teachings because they loved him.  It had either become something that they did to look spiritual in front of the other Christians in the church, or they had simply become legalistic in their approach to life.  They did what was right and did not do what was wrong because they had been told so.  They did not act in love.

Because of this, Jesus says, “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things which you did at first.  If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.  If the church of Ephesus did not regain its love of Christ, the church would be removed.  There is reason to believe that the church did repent as it flourished until 449 AD when the church faded away after the Third Council of Ephesus.  Ultimately, the church’s lampstand was removed just as prophecy had warned.

Read Revelation 2:8-11

The church of Smyrna is one of two good churches in this group of seven.  There is no condemnation of this church listed as it is doing as it should.  Jesus said, “I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!”  This church was poor and afflicted, however, they had become spiritually rich.

It is ironic the name of the city is derived from myrrh.  Myrrh was used in the embalming and burial process and it was in this city that many Christians would die.  As a city known as one of the founders of emperor worship, persecution came early.  In 155 bishop Polycarp, a student of the apostle John, was executed in Smyrna.

Jesus said that he knew of “the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”  There were apparently Jews in the area who spoke falsely of those in the church.  This is a problem that has plagued Christ’s church since the beginning.  People do not like what is different from themselves and they are often afraid of it.  Because of this, lies and rumors quickly spread about the church.  Jesus reveals that the true source behind this slander is Satan himself.

Nevertheless, the church of Smyrna is not to fear the persecution that would come.  They are warned that they would be put in prison in order to test them.  If they are faithful, even to the point of death, they would receive the crown of life.

There is a paradox shown in the church of Smyrna that Jesus talked about in his ministry.  In Matthew 16:25 he says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”  Many of the church would lose their life, however, they need not be afraid because through it, they would gain eternal life.  For the one who overcomes, they will not be hurt by the second death.

Read Revelation 2:12-17

Unlike the cities of Ephesus and Smyrna, the city of Pergamum was not known as a commercial city.  It had been given a rare gift by the Roman government, the ability to enact capital punishment.  Capital punishment was symbolized by the sword in Roman times and the numerous references to swords link the city to capital punishment.

Jesus recognized the difficulty that the church lived with.  He referred to Pergamum as “where Satan has his throne.”  In the city was a 40 foot altar to the god Zeus and the city was also well known for its emperor worship.

Nevertheless, the church stood firm even when Antipas was put to death in the city.  According to tradition, Antipas died a gruesome death by being slowly roasted to death in a bronze kettle.  This was likely a recent occurrence at the hands of Emperor Domitian, the Apostle John’s tormentor as well.

Despite the faithfulness to the name of Jesus, there was a big problem in the church.  Compromise had crept into the church.  There were those in the church who were following the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans.

Both groups led the church astray into idolatry and into immorality.  These groups fall under many different names in the church today, and are often not even named.  However, the problem is very real.

Satan had directly attacked both the churches of Smyrna and Pergamum and found that the believers were not afraid of persecution and death.  However, he introduced small doctrinal errors into the Pergamum church.  The church held to the name of Christ and stood up for it.  However, it did not follow all of his teachings and believed that as long as they did 75% of what Christ had taught that they were alright.

Many churches today teach about Christ but they are wrong issues such as homosexuality, divorce, abortion, and evolution.  They believe that they are okay and as long as they teach about Christ the rest of the truth is not as important.

Jesus calls on the church of Pergamum to repent; or the consequences would be dire!  Jesus himself would come and fight against those who followed the misguided teachings of these groups.  And so there is no mistake about it, they will be struck down as they are in Revelation 19.

The need to make sure the church is following correct doctrine and not being led astray cannot be understated!  If there are false teachers in the church, they need to be thrown out!

Read Revelation 2:18-29

The city of Thyatira is the least significant of the seven cities of the seven churches of Revelation.  It was away from the main commercial routes and likewise did not hold much religious significance.  The church is likewise small.  Nevertheless, it has a big problem.

There is little good to say about the church at Thyatira.  Jesus knows their deeds, their love, faith and service.  They are doing more than they did at first – the exact opposite of Ephesus which has left its first love.

A woman, referred to as Jezebel, has entered the church and caused problems.  The name Jezebel immediately links the reader to Queen Jezebel who lead her husband Ahab deep into idolatry.  This woman, calling herself a prophetess, has done the same to the church at Thyatira.

The church has fallen into idolatry and sexual immorality.  Some interpret sexual immorality to be spiritual adultery, leaving Christ for another god.  However, the sin mentioned may very well be literal as well as metaphorical.

What angers Christ the most is that the woman and the church has been given the opportunity to repent and has not.  Because of this, judgment will fall.  The woman will be cast upon a bed of suffering.  Her children, best interpreted as her followers, will likewise be put to death.

In spite of all this, there is a remnant left in the church.  Jesus places no additional burden upon them other than to simply hold onto what they have until he comes.

It is interesting to note that he does not tell them to leave the church.  While the tendency today is to flee to a church that better suits us the moment something goes wrong, the true Christians in this church are instructed to stay where they are.  The sinful men and women around them would be removed through judgment.

Once again, a church that has compromised with sinfulness is dealt with harshly.  However, those who are true to Christ are to remain where they are and will be spared the judgment falling around them.

Read Revelation 3:1-6

The city of Sardis was once a great city and even capital of the kingdom of Lydia.  However, this was relegated to 500 years before the writing of this letter to the church.  At the time, the city was still commercially important but had nothing near the prominence it once had.  Instead, its citizens seemed content to rest on the fact that lived in a once great city.

The church of Sardis is dead.  Much like its city, while its accomplishments may have been great at one time, it was now resting on what it had done and was doing nothing at the time.

Jesus said it had a reputation for being alive but was in fact dead.  There are numerous churches today that look alive and vibrant on the outside but are dead in their deeds.  These churches may be full of people and have moving worship services but the same people are never drawn to act on their feelings they supposedly have when they worship Christ.

Condemnation for this church is short and to the point.  If they do not wake up and strengthen what little remains Christ will come like a thief.  Christ has judged the church of Sardis as being incomplete in their works and if they did not repent, they would suffer the same fate as Ephesus, Christ would come and the result would not be pretty.

Fortunately for the church of Sardis, there is a remnant left in the church, just as there was in Thyatira.  These people have not soiled their clothes in the filth that surrounds them.  Those who overcome will walk with Christ and be clothed in white.

Read Revelation 3:7-13

The name Philadelphia means the same as it does in the United States.  It was known as the city of brotherly love.  The city was named after a king who was known for loving his brother.  The name could hardly be more fitting for the church of Philadelphia .

Of this church, Jesus says nothing bad.  They are the church that every church should strive to be like and every member should want to be.  Jesus has opened the door to them and no one can shut it.  The church of Philadelphia has kept Christ’s word and not denied his name.

This church has little strength, but this is a commendation and not a condemnation.  In today’s world, we look at numbers as the source of power.  Larger churches have a bigger budget, can offer more programs, reach more people and bring more people into the kingdom of God.  However, this is not a large church with many members.  It is a small church that God has commended.

Not that all large churches are bad, but when one has size, they have power.  When they have power, they have a tendency to forget God.  Which church is more likely to continually seek God in prayer, the church of 1000 members with a million-dollar-plus budget or the church of 50 members that can’t afford to pay the pastor.  A large church will have a tendency to say that their fundraising techniques raised the money they needed while a small church knows that it is through no ability of their own that they even remain a church.  This was the Philadelphian church.

Because of their faithfulness Jesus would make the enemies of the church fall down at their feet and acknowledge that Jesus loved the church.  This is a powerful testimony that the church has.  We should all strive to live such exemplary lives that no matter how much someone dislikes you, in their heart of hearts, they still know and understand that God loves you.  Even if they do not want to admit it, they will recognize that you are a Christian and you do what you do because you love God.  That is what a light the Philadelphian church is to even its enemies.

Also, because of the faithfulness of the Philadelphian church, God would spare them from the “hour of trial” that would fall upon the whole earth.

Read Revelation 3:14-22

The city of Laodicea was the wealthiest in the province of Asia Minor and was well known for its banking industry, medical school, and textile industry.  It was also known for its lack of good drinking water.

If the report on the church of Philadelphia was all good, then the report on the church of Laodicea was all bad.  Jesus has nothing good to say about this church as it is the opposite of the Philadelphian church is many ways.  At least the church of Sardis had a false reputation for being alive.  The church of Laodicea did not fool anyone.

Jesus calls the church lukewarm and warns that he is about to spit them out of his mouth.  This is a reference to the quality of drinking water in the area that the church would have been able to identify with.  The church of Laodicea is the large church that I described with the church of Philadelphia.  They are wealthy.  They have no trouble meeting their budget every month.  They say to themselves, “I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.”  What they need is Jesus.

Jesus calls this church wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.  This description fits many of the churches of today.  Churches are often looked at as a business and the bottom line comes down to money.  Other times, numbers – conversions, baptisms, new members, youth group attendance – is emphasized as the bottom line.  There are churches that have an incredible track record of producing converts, however the church never grows spiritually.  If the maturity level of the church is at the same place it was five years ago, people are obviously not growing and chances are the converts are not even sticking around.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells a story of a sower who sows seeds on four types of ground.  Some seeds fall on the rocks and they are snatched up by the birds before they ever take root.  Other seeds land in shallow soil.  A plant springs up quickly. The roots don’t have the ability to grow deep to withstand the heat and tough times.  When tough times come the plant withers and dies because it doesn’t have the roots to support itself.  Seeds land on a third type of soil and a plant springs up quickly.  However, weeds are nearby and rob the plant of needed nutrients and choke it out.  The weeds represent the cares of this world.  Finally, some seeds fall on good soil.  A plant springs up and produces much fruit.

The church of Laodicea is planting seeds.  They are seeing plants.  However, they are not taking care of their plants.  They ignore the plants that have a shallow root system and let them wither and die.  Likewise, they see weeds surrounding other plants, but they don’t pull the weeds.  The allow the cares of the world to choke out young Christians.

The church of Laodicea counts how many plants they have spring up and determines that they are doing a good job.  God, however, looks for fruit and sees that the church has failed to produce much fruit.  He is ready to rebuke the church.

Like the other bad churches, there is a call for repentance.  Jesus declares that he stands at the doors and knocks and will come in if anyone answers the door.  Revelation 3:20 is a common verse used to discuss salvation.  It is usually looked at as Jesus is knocking on the door of a person’s heart.  This is a fair way to use the verse in the context of salvation.  However, this verse is actually more condemnation of the church of Laodicea .

Jesus is standing outside of the church and knocking on the door.  This is not a good thing for the church to have happen.  Jesus should not be outside of the church.  However, this is exactly what has happened in the Laodicean church.  They have decided that they are self-sufficient and do not need God.

The seven churches of Revelation depict every church and every person of the church age.  Every church loosely falls into one of the seven categories.  Likewise every person.  Now the task you must do is determine what this church is and what you are.  If you are going to be good, you must match either the church of Smyrna or the church of Philadelphia.

To help you decide, allow me to quickly run through the seven churches once again with a phrase that best describes each.  You may want to write this down.

  1. Ephesus – left its first love
  2. Smyrna – persecuted
  3. Pergamum – compromised with the world
  4. Thyatira – immoral with a remnant of good
  5. Sardis – reputation of being alive but is dead – only a remnant remains
  6. Philadelphia – weak but has kept the word of God
  7. Laodicea – believes it needs nothing – is about to be spit out

Of these seven real, historical churches one remains today.  Can you guess which one?  Philadelphia is today known as Ala-shehir, which means city of God, and is still a Christian town.

If we wish to thrive and wish to see our churches thrive, we must not compromise with the world, throw out the immoral leaders in the church and adhere to the word of God.  It is my prayer that we have the courage and ability to do this in all of our churches or we will suffer the same fate as threatened of five of these churches.  If we are able, we may share in the blessings of Smyrna and Philadelphia.

Divisions in the Church

1 Corinthians 1:1-4:21

by Paul George

The Fact of Divisions – 1:10-17

Paul first preached the gospel message in Corinth on his second missionary trip. He preached in the synagogue until opposition forced him to move to the house of Titus Justus. After leaving, Corinth Paul wrote a letter to the church, which has been lost (1 Corinthians 5:9). Disturbing news about the behavior of the members of the church at Corinth and questions they asked Paul in a letter they sent him prompted the writing of the letter before us this morning.

In the salutation of the letter, Paul identifies himself as, “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” He identifies the believers in Corinth as “saints, by calling.” Paul’s calling was by the will of God, the Corinthians calling was by the will of God.

The word “church” generally refers to a local church or the church universal. The local church is the body of believers who gather regularly in one place. The universal church consists of all believers in every place and in the whole course of church history.
The phrases “the church of God” identifies the One who brought the church into existence through the shed blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the One who sustains the church, the body of believers, “which is at Corinth” identifies the church as a local church, “saints, by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” identifies the local church as part of the universal church.

In the salutation of the letter, Paul demonstrates his love and concern for the church. Many of the members of the church at Corinth were the fruit of his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 3:1-4).

Considering the situation in the church at Corinth thanks is something most people would not expect from Paul. The Corinthian are listening to false teachers who are challenging Paul’s authority. They are condoning immorality. Personal conflicts are being aired out before unbelieving eyes in secular courts. How can Paul possibly give thanks?

Paul’s expression of thanks is not a condoning of the sins and failures of the members of the church; Paul directs his thanks toward God for what God has done and for what He will ultimately do for the Corinthians. Paul first gives thanks for the grace God has extended to the believers in Corinth. God’s grace to the saints in Corinth was boundless. He enriched them in everything, in all speech and all knowledge. The false teachers who claimed the Corinthians were lacking and that they needed something more were liars. God had provided all that they needed. No gift was lacking in the church. God had provided just the right gifts for the growth and maturity and ministry of the saints in Corinth. If the church at Corinth was failing, it was not due to any failure on God’s part to provide for their needs, but rather a failure on their part to appropriate these means. They had God’s promise that they would be in Christ’s presence when He returns and that they would be blameless, based on the faithfulness of God.

The problems in the church were causing the Corinthians to lose sight of a very important fact, those who God sets apart have an obligation to be devoted to the One who provided their sanctification, our Lord Jesus Christ and not men. Just as the Corinthians, needed to be reminded they were a people set apart for a higher purpose and end and the gifts they have received comes from our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ there are times when we need to be reminded who we are. We are people set apart for a higher purpose and end, the worship of the Lord. The gifts we receive come from our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ and we are to use them in the building of His kingdom and not to satisfy egos. The gifts we receive are due to the mending of the broken relationship between God and man.

There are also, times when we need reminding that every good thing in this life comes from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The ungodly and unrighteous of this world do not realize or understand they also benefit from the blessings God pours out on His children. Those who want to rid the world of those troublemaking Christian do not realize or understand if there were no so-called troublemaking, intolerant Christians on this earth this earth would be a wilderness filled with evil and terror. If the anti-Christian movements of this world would face reality, they would see the troublemakers and intolerant are not the Christians they are.

The Corinthian lost sight of the fact that through the grace of God, they have fellowship with Jesus Christ and brothers and sisters in Christ. They are part of family. We also know, from experiences, the members of a family have different viewpoints on any given subject and they express their viewpoints. The problem is not the expressing of a viewpoint. In fact, it can be a good. It can build a stronger relationship. They problem arises when a family member’s viewpoint creates division in the family. Division weakens the family structure. Division in the church weakens the structure of the church. It weakens the influence of the church upon society. The true worship of the Lord cannot exist where there is division.

Jesus addressed the problem of division in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:22-24).

Division is one of Satan’s weapons. Confession is the weapon used to overcome Satan’s weapon. You will note Jesus did not say if you have something against your brother, He said if you remember your brother has something against you go and be reconciled to your brother. What would keep a person from doing this? The answer is a one-word answer, “pride” and this was a problem in the church in Corinth and in the twenty-first century church. The Corinthian were letting pride rob them of the gift of peace and the members in the twenty-first church are letting pride rob them of the gift of peace.
Finally, Paul expressed his thanksgiving for the faithfulness of God that He would complete that which He had begun in the Corinthian saints (verses 7-9).

While the Corinthian may not consistently be faithful, God is faithful. It is through His faithfulness that each believer will enter into His kingdom, blameless “in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 8).

No wonder Paul is thankful. In spite of the stumbling and sin in the Corinthian church, God has sufficiently provided for their every spiritual need. He has purposed to present them faultless when He establishes His kingdom. Paul therefore is assured that his ministry is not in vain, because the salvation and sanctification of the saints in Corinth and elsewhere are the work of God. The God who called these saints and destined them for glory is the God who called Paul to be an apostle and to minister to these saints. Paul’s work is not in vain, for his work is ultimately God’s work.

The church at Corinth has come to a point that will determine the future of the church. What they decide will have an impact on their society and their relationship with the Lord. They know where they stand. The Lord is calling them through Paul to repent from their evil ways and return to Him, so that He can return to them.

Paul began his letter expressing his thanksgiving to God for the Corinthian Christians, 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 (v 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 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 Christians of his day are applicable to our own lives as well. The conflicts that existed then are still 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, the gospel condemns them. The gospel strikes at the heart of inter-personal conflicts, then and now. Let us learn, for the lessons Paul has for us here are those that we should apply moment by moment.

Paul does not begin with the problem of divisions but with a positive exhortation to maintain Christian unity. His 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. Paul defines unity as the absence of division. Paul does not refer to formed groups in the church, but to divided opinions over their various leaders, which according to verse 11 and chapter 3:3 have developed into jealousy and quarrels, having the “same mind” refers to the more general disposition or way of thinking. 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.

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. When they selected Matthias as the replacement for Judas, they came to the same judgment. They reached a particular decision with unity. 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.” 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.

The source of the quarrels and divisions in the church was the focusing on personalities rather than doctrine. Each of the personalities—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ, is viewed as the one leader that the individual member has chosen to follow. None of these leaders was responsible for the problem or encouraged any of the members of the church to follow them. The problem is a follower problem rather than a leader problem. The true problem was not one of loyalties and allegiances to different leaders in the church it was pride. The first three groups take pride in the leader they have chosen to follow. The last takes pride in thinking he or she is following Christ. It is true that we all should be followers of Christ. However, we should not be proud of ourselves for doing so. Those who think of themselves as being “of Christ” also think of the rest as not being “of Christ.” Those who boast of their following Christ are effectively declaring themselves the leader. Those who are “of Christ” do not need Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. They do not need an apostle. They can discern Christ’s mind by themselves without any outside help from others. These are the most frightening group of all, and Paul makes this clear.

In verse 13, Paul asked three questions, “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” These are closed end questions and require a single word answer, no.

Paul’s point is, salvation is not about the work of men but 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 Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Just as it was necessary in Paul’s day, it is necessary today, those who are man-centered need reminded salvation is Christ-centered. Since Christ is not divided, 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. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, shed His blood on the cross to cleanse us from all sin. Baptism testifies to this fact. Baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and not in the name of any man. This is because salvation is through Jesus Christ and not through mere men, regardless of their position in the church.

Baptism is a prominent theme in verses14-17; Paul mentions baptism six times in this passage. Some people in the Corinthian church appeared to take great pride in and looked down on those a celebrity did not baptize. This deadly pride is present in people today. I have heard more than one-person brag about the fact that some prominent religious baptized them some prominent location, such as the ocean, popular lake, or river. Paul lets the air out of the tires of these proud namedroppers 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 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. Paul saw salvation as something that occurs independently of baptism. True, baptism is important. It is the believer’s public identification with Jesus Christ. However, baptism is not the means of one’s salvation; rather it is the outward manifestation of salvation. Paul rejects the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. If he thought baptism was the means of salvation, he would have made it a much higher priority. Baptism took second place to preaching in Paul’s life and ministry.

The Causes of Divisions,

The Misunderstanding of the Gospel Message 1:18-31

Paul reminds the church 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 message of the cross, the gospel of the cross to unbelievers is foolishness. For those of us who “are being saved,” the message of the cross, the gospel of the cross 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 that 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 Canaan over other places on earth? Would human wisdom have led the Israelites into a trap 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? 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. Mostly, 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. In addition, even when God may draw one of the “greats,” He first humbles them. 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 that the world regards as foolish. God has chosen the cross of Christ as the means to save sinners.

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 popular among the Jews and Gentiles. To the saved, the preaching of the cross of Christ is a manifestation of the wisdom and the power of God.

Beginning with verse 26 Paul directs our attention toward the church; Paul wants the Corinthians to give thought to who is present in the church. Granting the possibility of a few exceptions, Paul reminds the Corinthians the church is not composed of the wise, the mighty, or the noble, when judged by fleshly standards. Instead, God has chosen to save the foolish, the weak, and 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.

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, 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 (vv 27-28).

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. However, God chooses the opposite, those whom we expect to fail that when His wisdom and power are evident, and 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 amazing thing is the difference in the way we deal with those divisions and strife. In the church and in Christendom in general, we deal psychologically with the divisions in the church and in Christendom, turning to God and His Word is the last resort.

Psychologically the root of divisions and evil in the secular world, and in the church and in Christendom is poor self-esteem. It should come as no surprise that Paul identifies pride as the source of divisions and evil in the church and Christendom. It is not that the professing believers in the church think too little of themselves; they think too much of themselves. The root of the problem is not “poor self-esteem” but “inflated self-esteem.”

Why are the church and Christendom embracing secular cures for the sickness in the church and Christendom? Why when we seek to heal conflicts and strife, do we turn to a psychology book rather than to the Word of God? When Paul deals with strife in the church, he begins at the beginning, the gospel of Jesus Christ and His sufficient provisions for salvation and godly living.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul sets a standard of Christian unity rejected in the majority of the twenty-first century churches and Christendom. If we are a Christ-centered people and not a man-centered people, why do we let Satan plant the seeds of pride in the church. Paul seeks to correct the ungodly divisions in the church by turning immediately to the gospel. 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?

The Bible teaches us many truths, but the one truth that overshadows all truths is the message of the cross. If any other truth begins to overshadow the gospel, something is wrong.

Paul identified 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 to remove enmity between men because the gospel is incompatible with human pride. When Christians strive with other Christians out of pride, the cure is not to enhance their pride, to improve their “self-esteem”; it is to crucify pride. Do you wonder why our Lord instructed His church to remember His suffering and death by the observance of the Lord’s Table? Communion is the commemoration of the work of Christ, the gospel. Communion is not simply a remembrance of an act that our Lord accomplished in the past; it is a way of life that we are to emulate every day of our lives.

The gospel that saves is the gospel that 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.