‘I follow Paul – I follow Apollos’

1 Corinthian Series – Chapters 1-3

“Now that I’ve left my church and joined yours, must I be baptized again?” The young lady was serious. I stood speechless, wondering where on earth such a thought could come from. Then I asked “When you were baptized, were you baptized into Jesus or into your church?” “Oh into Jesus” she said.” “So, if you’re baptized into Jesus you are baptized for all churches, right?” Her eyes lit up, “Oh good … thank you!”

Over the last few years a number of people have asked me the same question. Isn’t it strange how quick we are to forget that all churches and denominations are part of one universal church – the Body of Christ unified and bound together by his death and resurrection.

At Corinth, the Christians did not speak of belonging to different churches or denominations, but they said something very similar. Some said, “I follow Paul”, others said “I follow Apollos” (1 Cor 1:12). Paul was stunned. He asks “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The answer of course is no, Paul is just a servant, and Christ is Saviour. And the truth is that your church or denomination – whatever it is called – is just a service  and its status next to the Saviour is very low one. In fact it is hardly recognizable because the Saviour only recognizes one universal church. And it is not your denomination, nor mine.

The divisions over leaders at Corinth was driven by a cultural issue. The pagan Greeks took great pride in their philosophers. The streets of Athens and Corinth were full of men proclaiming the latest ideas. Each of these men claimed to have the right angle on life. They also had their own following of students who were convinced of their arguments and denounced all rivals. These students were passionate about their mentors just like football fans are passionate about their clubs today. But the Corinthian church had allowed this partisan attitude to creep into the congregation, and there was strong rivalry over two leaders – Paul and Apollos.

Not long after Paul had got the Corinthian church going, Apollos visited. Apollos was a Jewish believer from the scholarly town of Alexandria. He was a learned man, raised in Greek culture, and excellent in public debate. Paul had struggled with the Jewish opposition in Corinth, but Apollos ‘was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah’ (Acts 18: 27-28). It did not take long for the Corinthians to start comparing Paul and Apollos, and soon the congregation had some who were pro Paul and some who were pro Apollos. And it would seem that they also began to denounced the one they did not follow just as the students of the pagan philosophers did. This was damaging for a church that needed to present a united front in a strongly pagan community.

Paul said to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Co 2:1-2)

Like Apollos, Paul was a learned man, he grew up in a Roman town and was trained by Gamaliel, the greatest Rabbi of his era. But knowing that the Greeks were big on public speakers Paul decided to take a humble stand and resolved to know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ Instead of relying on education and natural speaking skills, Paul looked for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

He continues, “When one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service … “ (1 Cor 3: 4-9)

There is much to learn from this. Some men like Paul are gifted to start churches, others like Apollos are gifted to add a dimension of growth to those churches. Some are better at evangelism, others are good at teaching, some are best at nurturing the gifts, while others are good at mobilizing an army that reaches the community. Sometimes God brings these people through our churches, and at other times he moves us on to churches that have these people. Paul preached the basic gospel, ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ And it would seem that Apollos preached a Messianic defense of Jesus aimed at the Jews, probably something like what we find in the book of Hebrews. In fact many scholars today think that Hebrews is the work of Apollos.

Finally Paul says, “Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1Cor 4:6-7)

Sometimes we can get ‘puffed up’ about our church or denomination, and can act as if all others are a lesser species. But Paul reminds us “what do you have that you did not receive?” Different churches do have different strengths, but those strengths come by God’s grace, and they are there for us to bless the others. There is no reason for any group to consider themselves above the rest.

When we get starry-eyed about a certain preacher or get over devoted to our denomination to the exclusion of all others, we are walking in a kind of idolatry. Its important that the church worship no one but Christ, and that we are ready to worship Christ with the whole church.

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