Paul started his letter to the Corinthians with a stark appeal: stop elevating people and pay attention to Christ! Who were the competitors to Christ among Corinthian Christians? None other than Paul and, with him, Apollos and Peter.
Let’s review this cluster of Christ’s Corinthian competitors. Paul founded the church in Corinth so he had support as a paternal figure. Peter was known for his place as the leader among the apostles in Jerusalem and as a traveling emissary of the faith. But who was Apollos?
Our few clues about Apollos come from Acts 18. He was a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria, Egypt—one of the great educational centers of the world in that era—with impressive personal and spiritual qualities. He was a follower of Jesus and was known for his eloquence; he knew his Old Testament; he was fervent in his faith; and he seems to have been a natural teacher—strong and clear.
There were, however, some gaps in his understanding so in Ephesus the couple Aquila and Priscilla—ministry companions with Paul in Corinth before Paul brought them to Ephesus—coached him in the faith. Apollos moved on to Corinth from Ephesus and there “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (v. 27). His skills as an apologist were impressive: “he powerfully refuted the [antagonistic] Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (v.28). In all he was one of the more impressive converts of his age. Paul even spoke of him as a partner to his own ministry to the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).
Here’s a question: did Apollos mean to create a problem for Paul in Corinth? Was he competing with Paul to be the spiritual leader of the church? Paul seemed to have anticipated that question by the way he phrased the list of roles in 3:6—he and Apollos were merely two instruments used by God to build up the church. So, in effect, Paul answered, “No, we’re just fine with each other.”
What wasn’t fine was the way church began to divide among the three—or, in line with verse 3:6—between the two strong leaders who ministered to them. But Paul, rather than treating Apollos as a latecomer with less authority, instead challenged the immaturity of the Corinthians. Christ and the cross are to be elevated, not the stylish capacities or presence of any given leader.
Paul chastened the church by citing Jeremiah 9:23-24, a text that warned against boasting in human wisdom, power, or wealth. Boasting is assigned to God, not to humans: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).
In a later letter, 2 Corinthians 10:17, Paul returned to the Jeremiah text. But this time there was no sign of Apollos but the problem of spiritual division was still alive. This time the disruption centered on “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13).
Here’s another question: is it possible that the faulty elevation of Apollos by some in the church paved the way to a later elevation of corrupted leaders? Did these party-spirit folks later facilitate those who would “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (11:15). Probably so.
So here’s a lesson about spiritual maturity: Christ needs to be central in our ministries. If we find a great leader, or a charismatic personality, or a winsome and articulate speaker, we need to ask this question: what do people talk about after the leader finishes speaking or performing? Is it Jesus? Or the speaker? What if a less-skilled speaker, after speaking, has people talking about Jesus: will he be invited to speak again?
Our response to any Apollos-like people in our churches today, then, may help us see where our boasting is centered: whether in Christ and the cross, or in the strength of that leader’s personality. Paul intended to lead the Corinthians, not on the basis of “outward appearance” but on the basis of “what is in the heart” (2 Corinthians 5:12). And what was in Paul’s heart? “For the love of Christ controls us . . .” (5:14). We will do well to respond with a similar heart: as those ultimately devoted to Christ rather than to our human leaders, no matter how winsome and compelling they might be.