The below sermon on unity is from 1 Corinthians 1:1-17. These free inductive notes are intended as supplement to your own study, not a replacement. Feel free to copy, print, or share them. These notes can be helpful for individual study of the Word or for small group Bible studies. We hope your understanding of God’s Word is deeper from them.

1 Corinthians 1:1-17 – God Calls us to Unity

God Calls Us to Unity

I. Background of Corinthians (1-3)

Corinth still exists as a small town today with a population of around 60,000 people. However, in New Testament times it was a prosperous and important city.

Beyond that, it was very strategically located. Greece is divided into two parts.

  • Sailors did not want to sail around the whole tip of Greece. Lengthy and dangerous.

  • Captains would instead choose to drag their ships across the narrow isthmus, which was only about 6.5 km across.

  • Regional trade passed directly in front of Corinth.

  • It meant economic prosperity for the region.

  • Now a canal has been dug for ships. It was begun by Nero in 1st century AD, but not completed until 19th century.

  • Corinth was also home to Isthmus Games (one of the two great athletic festivals of the day along with the the Olympics).

  • The city was home to the famous Temple of Aphrodite, which housed over one thousand priestesses and ritual prostitutes.

  • Thus the city was known for its moral corruption of every kind and an idiom “corinthiazesthai” (to behave like a Corinthian) came to represent a person who indulged in every type of immorality.

The church at Corinth:

  • Paul came to Corinth on his second missionary journey.

  • There he met Aquila and Priscilla, zealous and faithful servants of the Lord. Silas and Timothy also joined him.

  • Together they shared in the synagogue every week. More and more people believed. See Acts 18:8. Even Crispus, the head of the synagogue, believed.

  • Opposition mounted and Paul was dragged before the local Roman tribunal, Gallio. He refused to hear the case.

  • In that passage, Sosthenes is the new head of the synagogue, perhaps replacing Crispus. He is leading the anti-Pauline faction of Jews, but for some reason he himself is beaten. In 1 Corinthians 1:1, Paul greets the Corinthians together with “Sosthenes our bother.” Perhaps he too had been saved!

  • Paul would then leave for Ephesus and Apollos took over as leader of the church in Corinth. He was a very good teacher who had learned from Aquila and Priscilla and was “mighty in the Scriptures.”

The problems at Corinth. Of all the churches Paul wrote to, Corinth possibly had the most serious problems. Immorality, wild abuses of gifts, extreme selfishness, pride, and factionalism are just a few of the problems. The church was having a hard time separating from the sinful society around them. The evil and immoral practices of the world were creeping into and influencing the church. It was as if the people had one foot in the world and one foot in the church.

This book is very practical and speaks to our lives today because the modern church in some ways is very much like Corinth. The world around us is filled with immorality and sin. Division tears the church apart. It is very hard to separate ourselves from the sinful culture around us. I hope that as we read and study this book, you will not only listen to the theory or historical facts inside, but consider what you need to do to separate from the world and fully give yourself to the Lord.

II. We encourage unity by being thankful for one another (4-9)

If you study Paul’s letters to the churches, you will notice that in almost every single one he starts off with words of thanksgiving. He is thankful for their positive qualities. He is thankful for what God has done in their lives. And he expresses his thankfulness for them to the Lord in his prayers. In verse 4 he says, “I thank my God always concerning you.” Paul ministered to the Corinthians for 18 months, but when he left he did not forget about them. He prayed continually for them. And he thanked God for them. Now he expresses his thanksgiving for them through these words of affirmation of their faith in the Lord. This is his standard practice.

Paul practices the principle of giving both positive and negative reinforcement. His goal is to help the churches grow in their spiritual faith. Thus he shares with them two things. He shares with them what they do well. And he shares with them what they need to improve. Notice that he always starts off with positive reinforcement. I believe he does this for two reasons.

  1. It shows us that Paul truly looked at the bright side of people. He did not focus on the negative aspects. He tried to look for people’s good qualities and comment on those. In 1 Corinthians 13 it tells us that “love believes all things.” Paul loved the Corinthians. Therefore he tried to look at them as God looked at them, saints who were saved by grace.

  2. As a mentor, first sharing with people their positive attributes before reminding them of areas of improvement is a very effective strategy. Share about my experience at Gymboree as a trainer of other teachers. Application: A person will be more likely to listen to constructive criticism if we give fair and balanced feedback. Do you like it when your spouse always complains about your mistakes, but doesn’t comment on your successes? Do you enjoy it when your boss always picks out your flaws and ignores your strengths? Do you like it when a relative compares you to others and only mentions your failures? Nobody enjoys this. We think “It is not fair! You never say anything when I do a good job, but are quick to criticize if I mess up!” This may quickly cause us to stop listening to these people because we label them as criticizers and believe that they are not fair. So we may tune out what they have to say. Perhaps while they are lecturing us we outwardly are nodding, but inwardly are not paying attention. Do you know anyone like that? I want you to think for a minute. Do you sometimes do the same thing to others? Do you often criticize your spouse? Do you expect perfection? Do you quickly point out mistakes? Are you as quick to show appreciation as you are to correct? I know that I myself learn an important lesson from Paul here. I learn how important it is to give positive reinforcement to the people around me. Many times positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement. I have noticed with my kids when I say positive words they are very happy. Their chest puffs out and smile lights up their face and they work harder than ever before. So the first application from todays’ message is: Use positive words of encouragement to motivate the people around you to improve. X2.

Let’s take a close look at verses 4-9 to see exactly what Paul is thankful for the Corinthians about:

  • For their salvation (4)

  • For their improved speech and knowledge (5)

  • For their salvation (6)

  • For their spiritual gifts which God gave to them (7)

  • For their eagerness for the Lord’s return (7)

  • For the fact that God will make them blameless, ONE DAY (Note, not yet! Not even close!) {8}

  • For their salvation (9)

Look carefully at these verses. When I studied this passage, I realized these are very general things that Paul is thankful for. And I compared it a bit with other churches. In Colossians, Paul mentioned many specific things he was thankful for such as their love for all the saints and the fact that they were bearing much fruit. In Philippians, he was thankful for their zeal in sharing the gospel. In 2 Timothy, he is thankful for Timothy’s strong faith. In Romans, he is thankful that their faith is being proclaimed through the whole world. Here in Corinthians he mentions few specific things. If we are to summarize, he is thankful that they are saved, and he is thankful that one day they will be made blameless. From this we can make two conclusions:

  1. The Corinthian church was far from blameless now. In fact, they are a mess. They have more problems than any other church in the New Testament. But God still loves them. God still saved them. And God still has a plan for them.

  2. Secondly, although this church must have surely been a headache for Paul, he still is thankful for them. He still finds something positive to say. There is a lesson for us here. If you try hard, you can always find something positive to say. You can always find something to be thankful for. An old English idiom goes like this, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” The meaning is not bad. Don’t say unkind words. However, as believers we should go further than this. We should look for the positive. We should find something nice to say. Perhaps you too know someone who is annoying or unpleasant, who has many sin problems. Perhaps it is hard for you to find anything nice to say about them or to them. Like Paul, you can start by praying for them. As you do, your heart may fill up with love for this person and you can genuinely begin to look for positive things to say about them.

The focus in this chapter is on unity. Paul starts off his very long letter with a gracious and upbeat message which promites unity instead of division. He wanted them to know that he was on the same team with them. He wanted them to know that he loved and cared for them. He prayed for them. He was united with them in spirit. He wanted the absolute best for them. All of these things are very important for them to know so that they would be willing to listen to some of the harsh rebukes he has for them in the rest of the book. Is there someone in your life who needs encouragement? Is there someone in your life who needs to hear positive words of thanks. I would encourage you to take initiative this week to express your thanks for them.

III. We encourage unity by focusing on Christ (10-17)

The Plea (10)

Now I exhort you… – The word here “now” marks a transition in Paul’s letter. Verses 1-9 included his greeting and as we just saw, his thankfulness for the positive things in the Corinthians. But the Corinthians had real issues. And Paul needed to address them. He didn’t shy away from them. Instead he got right to the point. And from verse 10 through chapter 15 he writes many instructions and exhortations related to their weaknesses. He exhorted them to “all agree” and that there be “no divisions” among them. He exhorted them to be “made complete in the same mind and judgment.”

We can see from this verse that there were divisions in the Corinthian church. The people disagreed with each other. They were not complete. They were not a whole, unified group. They were not a team intent on one purpose. Instead they were fractured and broken. Each had their own thoughts, their own opinions, and their own judgments. Note that Paul calls them “brethren,” here and in verse 11. He had already established in verse 1 that he is an apostle. He had the authority to rebuke and instruct them as an apostle, but he instead chose to appeal as a brother. This made his words less harsh and easier for them to accept. It also promoted unity between he and them as he reminded them they were his brethren, and between each other, as they could remember that they were brothers, though they were not acting like it.

He urges them to agree. It means that they “all speak the same thing.” One of the biggest complaints about the church is that there are so many! There are so many denominations, each one with its own set of doctrinal beliefs. And it is a very poor testimony to unbelievers when they see believers who argue and fight and disagree. Unfortunately though Jesus said that they “will know you by your love,” splits and divisions are often more common. The word for division here in Greek is “schismata,” from which comes the English word “schism.” It means to “tear or rip apart” or “separate.” When groups within a church disagree, often the solution is to separate and form two churches. Even with a church there may be factions, groups of people who agree and are unified with each other, but at odds with other groups. The problem is people. We are selfish and prideful. We think our own opinion is always right. We look down on others. We don’t listen. We don’t seek God’s will, we seek our own. Jesus knew this problem and prayed in John 17:21, “that they may all be one, just as you Father are in Me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent Me.” Jesus wants the church to be unified, to be one. And He recognizes that this unity will be a testimony to the world to encourage people to believe in Jesus. Therefore the opposite is also true. Where disunity and division thrive, God is dishonored and people are repulsed from the gospel, instead of attracted to it.

Paul pleas that they be made complete – Their divisions meant they were not whole. They were far less divided than what they could be together. Imagine a computer with its many different pieces. Each piece tries to function on its own. What can you do with a keyboard that is not hooked up? What can you do with a CPU by itself? What is the good of a screen with no battery or electrical power? The Corinthian church was like many pieces of a computer lying around that had not yet been put together.

And Paul also urged that they be “of the same mind and the same judgement.” Thus he didn’t want them to just fake unity. He didn’t want them to smile on the outside, but resent each other on the inside. He encouraged them to be truly united from the heart.

The Parties:

What specifically were they divided about? We can see the answer in verses 11-12. They were quarelling about and dividing into factions, each faction claiming to follow a different leader. Read verse 12 (Paul, Apollos…). It is not wrong for us to follow the teaching or wisdom of a human leader. After all, Paul said to “follow me as I follow Christ.” The people had been saved under the ministries of these different men. But the problem was that they were developing factions where the groups primary allegiance was to a person rather than Christ. They were prideful in their claim on that human leader and felt that being saved or discipled by that leader in some way made them more spiritual or gave them special status. Clearly this was not through any intention of Paul or Apollos. When Paul heard about it, he strongly rebukes them.

A fourth group says, “I am of Christ.” It would seem this was the right answer. But though their words were correct, their attitude clearly was not since Paul included them in his rebuke. It is likely this group was the most prideful and self-righteous of all, looking down on all the others and claiming no need for any human instruction or counsel except from Christ himself. I met a sister like this once who refused to listen to any counsel from other believers because she said “only God could teach” her.

The Principle:

Read verse 13. Paul’s response to them is clear. Christ is the center of everything. He is supreme. Everything is to be about Him. He is the one who was crucified on our behalf. He is the one who took our sin upon His own shoulders. He is the one who suffered the wrath of God so that we would not have to. He is the one conquered death and rose from the grave. When we are baptized, we are baptized in his name, not our leader’s name. A Christian by name is someone who follows Christ, not anyone or anything else. He is to have our ultimate loyalty. And what He wants is for us to be united in love and purpose.

Ephesians 4:2-6

Romans 15:6

Application: We must always remember that our loyalty is to Christ first. What does this mean in actual practice?

  1. We must not put any person up on a pedestal. That means we should not look to this person for the answers instead of to God’s Word nor should we blindly believe what any person says no matter how respected (Acts 17:11). You should not believe something just because John MacArthur says it. You should not believe something just because Tony says it. Both are people. Neith