1 Corinthians 1:17
By: David Smitherman
The Text: For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel...
The Meaning Given To It: In correspondence with a Baptist preacher a few years ago he made the argument that since Paul said "Christ sent me not to baptize" that meant baptism was insignificant and unnecessary in regard to salvation. Since many people use this verse to make that point, we need to put it in its context and give it its true meaning.
The Context: Paul writes to a church beset with problems.
Verses 10-11 - An entreaty to be united based upon the report given Paul by the household of Chloe regarding divisions within the congregation.
Verses 12-13 - The nature of the division: some were aligning themselves with various preachers and Paul asks them three rhetorical questions.
Verses 14-16 - Paul is thankful he had baptized only a few of them, lest they call themselves by his (Paul's) name.
The Meaning: This verse involves a figure of speech (the use of not...but...) that we see clearly in other verses and need to understand in this text. Whenever we find this "not...but..." construction we need to place the emphasis on the phrase after the word "but", not after the word "not". For instance, in Jo. 6:27 Jesus said, "Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life." Are we to conclude, based upon the interpretation given to 1 Cor. 1:17, that Christ is saying men are not to work for the food which they eat? Certainly not. Jesus is simply stressing the greater importance of working for "food" which could give eternal life. When comparing the two, one is far more important than the other.
So in our text. Paul is not denying the role of baptism in salvation. That would violate what he was told in Acts 22:16 and what Peter said in Acts 2:38 and 1 Pet. 3:21. Paul intends, with this "not to baptize but to preach" statement, to let the Corinthians know that it really doesn't matter who does the baptizing. What is important is the preaching the precedes it; who does it matters not at all.