Paul wrote 1 Corinthians somewhere about 54-55AD while he was in Ephesus. It is said that Paul’s Corinth was at once the Los Angeles, New York, and Las Vegas of the ancient world and the church was in many ways a mirror of the city. Corinth was a thriving cosmopolitan city, known for its diversity, culture, commerce, paganism, immorality, and great wealth. As the founder of the church in Corinth, Paul was vitally concerned about its spiritual health. He wrote 1 Corinthians in response to a formidable number of problems that had arisen. He had been officially informed of some of these issues but was made aware of others on the basis of questions from the Corinthian believers. There were factions in the church, conflict over spiritual gifts, sexual immorality, challenges to Paul’s authority, nascent heresy about the resurrection, aberrant practices in the worship services, and questions about proper Christian behavior. Old Corinth was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. It was rebuilt a century later as a Roman colony and populated in large part by former Roman slaves. By the time of Paul’s visit it was a cosmopolitan city. The members of the young church were multiethnic. As you read look for general principles and practical information that can be applied to Christian living and modern church relationships. Paul has much advice to give to the Corinthian church. Study and find encouragement in his argument that Jesus’ resurrection was a factual, historical event. The central Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” was a particular problem in the Roman Empire because the affirmation of the sovereignty of Jesus was a direct challenge to the claim of absolute rule on the part of the Roman emperor. There are four themes to watch for. First, divisions. Corinthian society was riddled with competitive individualism, an attitude that spilled over into the church. Feuding groups developed around rival leading figures who may have hosted different house churches. Paul admonished those who fancied themselves spiritual, mature, and wise, reminding them that God uses the lowly, despised, and weak in this world to bring about change in the wise and the strong. Next, Christian conduct. Correct living is rooted in correct thinking. Paul addresses the problem of sexual immorality and the dangers and advantages of sexual asceticism. He pointed out the detrimental effects of Christians suing one another in secular courts, and the evils of idolatry. Third, worship. Paul addressed practices in worship, the character of the Lord’s Supper, and the nature and use of spiritual gifts. Worship is to be orderly, God honoring, uplifting, and unifying. Lastly, Resurrection. In denying the resurrection, the Corinthians almost certainly were not denying life after death; belief in the afterlife was held by virtually everyone in the ancient world. They were disputing the Jewish and Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection in favor of a Greek form of belief that limited the afterlife to disembodied immorality of the soul.
Paul used a typical greeting here in this letter. An apostle of Jesus Christ was a missionary evangelist commissioned by Christ Himself. The church is comprised of those who are called by God to be His own holy people, those who belong to Him, and are dedicated to Him. They have been made holy by means of Christ Jesus. God set them apart for Himself through the saving work of His Son and their faith relationship to Him. Grace and peace are traditional Greek and Hebrew greetings. Grace is undeserved blessing that comes from the kindness of God and peace is a sense of well being and contentedness, rooted in the Good News and brought about by the Holy Spirit. Paul thanks God for the spiritual gifts he sees in the lives of the Corinthian Christians and he expresses his confidence that God will keep them safe to the end. Paul frequently uses the phrase “in Christ Jesus” to refer to the saving relationship believers have with Christ. He also acknowledges the abundant spiritual gifts that God has given the church in Corinth. Later he will correct their distorted perspective on these gifts. God was giving this church everything they needed to do His will. Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to live holy lives so they will be found faultless when Christ returns. God has chosen them to do His will.
The first issue Paul addresses is that of division. This extends from 1:10-6:20, the majority of today’s reading. The Christians in Corinth had formed factions loyal to different leaders but the leaders themselves do not seem to be in conflict. Leaders included Paul, Peter, Apollos, and Christ. This last group may well have disavowed any allegiance to any human authority and viewed themselves holier than others. In verse 13 Paul asked three rhetorical questions, all with the answer of no. Crispus and Gaius were two of Paul’s earliest converts in Corinth. Crispus was a former synagogue leader and Gaius later offered Paul the use of his home. The household of Stephanas were the first converts in the province of Achaia which is southern Greece. Paul wasn’t sent to baptize but to preach and teach the Good News, knowing that he needed to not speak cleverly and thus risk putting the power of the cross in danger. The last half of chapter one Paul spent contrasting eloquence and human wisdom which were highly valued by some of the Corinthians, and the foolish message of the cross, which was the expression of God’s wisdom. Paul emphasized that the real power lies in the simple message of the cross of Christ. This message is foolish to unbelievers because their eyes are blinded to the truth but believers have their eyes wide open. Unbelievers, still in their sin are headed for destruction and ultimate condemnation. Believers are saved and headed for eternal life and glory. In God’s eyes the human wisdom of this world is foolish and human wisdom does not bring people to true knowledge of God. That comes through the message of the cross which the world sees as foolish but which saves the lives of believers.
What we see are unbelieving Jews who want miraculous signs to validate the message, just like they did in Jesus’ day. Greeks on the other hand were only interested in human wisdom or philosophical reasoning. It didn’t matter what people wanted. Paul only gave the simple message of the cross. For Jews this was a contradiction in terms because crucifixion expressed curse, not the power of God. What the unbelieving world considered foolish and weak…Christ and the message of the cross… in reality is stronger and wiser than anything the world has to offer. It solves the world’s greatest problem, the problem of sin, and overcomes all the powers of evil that oppose humans. Few in the Corinthian church were of the elite, but God chose despised and humble people in order to demonstrate his judgement on human pride. And, as we have seen before, when people are united with Christ Jesus God makes them righteous, holy, and free. This work is an expression of God’s wisdom. Because of what God has done, there is absolutely no room for human pride.
Paul made sure the Corinthians knew that it was God’s sovereign work that made his preaching effective. Paul relied solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing that the message of the cross has its own power. None of what Paul does is out of his own strength. Human weakness is not a hindrance to God’s work. The power lies in the message of Christ, and in the Holy Spirit who convicts the human heart. There is a huge difference between the wisdom of the world and God’s wisdom and only the spiritually mature will recognize God’s wisdom. This means that many of the Corinthians would not recognize it. Things of this world come and go but the things of the risen Christ will last forever. When Paul writes, mystery often refers to a previously hidden truth that is revealed in the work of Jesus Christ. He reminds all of us that from the very beginning it has been God’s desire to save His chosen people through Christ and to bring them to ultimate glory in the coming age. By quoting Isaiah 64:4 Paul again reminds us that those with no spiritual sensitivity do not understand God’s work of redemption. The things of God are understood because of His Holy Spirit who alone reveals God’s thoughts to His people. And, learning spiritual truths are not done in the realm of the world but in the dimension and power of the Spirit. Non believers only see through physical eyes but those who have the Spirit have a true understanding of divine revelation. As believers, we are linked to Christ. That means we have the Spirit of Christ in us to reveal Christ’s thinking to us.
Continuing on, Paul rebuked the Christians in Corinth for their spiritual immaturity. They were behaving like the unbelievers who are attracted to the values of this world. In fact, they were so immature Paul addressed them as spiritual infants in Christ. And because of that, Paul wasn’t able to speak deep spiritual truths to them which is the solid food that is reserved for mature Christians. Instead he had to feed them milk , the basic teachings of the Good News. Their jealousy and quarreling showed that they were still just like unbelievers, controlled by their sinful nature rather than the by the Spirit of God. Identifying oneself with a preferred teacher was common in Greek culture but it is not in keeping with the mind of Christ. These teachers could not save anyone. Only God has the power to do that, and the apostles are only God’s servants. Everyone has a job to do in the kingdom, and all are accountable to God for the way they serve Christ. Paul reminded the Corinthians that he was the one who laid the foundation of the church in Corinth and now others were building on it by what they were teaching young Christians. There can never be any other foundation except Christ but these Corinthians were in danger of treating a human teacher as their foundation. Some of the things people built on the foundation of Christ will endure and other things will burn up in the fire of judgement. On judgement day the work of each builder who instructs the church will be assessed. Those whose teachings are faithful and true will receive a reward and the others will suffer great loss, not of their salvation but their reward. They will be saved but just barely.
Paul cautions that Christians must be very careful in what they teach and in how they relate to one another because the body of believers is the temple of God, the home of the Holy Spirit who lives in them. There are terrible consequences for anyone who destroys God’s temple by such things as jealousy, argumentativeness, and divisiveness. As the privileged children of God, they may now lay claim to everything; the world, life after death, and the present and the future. So, there is no point in claiming a human leader as their own. Just as they may now claim everything as their own, so Christ has claimed them for Himself, and in Christ they are ultimately claimed by God.
Chapter 4 begins with Paul emphasizing his faithfulness and the genuineness of his motives as an apostle of Christ. But only God can judge the heart. Paul and Apollos were not leaders competing for a following. They were merely servants of Christ who have been put in charge of explaining God’s mysteries. Paul’s deepest desire was that he be found faithful before God. What humans think doesn’t matter to Paul. Only the Lord can fully know a person’s heart, and when he returns, He will judge. Then again, Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their arrogance, admonishing them as a father would. When we have pride in a specific leader that results from failure to realize that everything is a gift from God. There is no room for pride; humble gratitude is the only appropriate attitude. Paul follows this with the difference between himself and them. Their attitudes reflect the wisdom of the world and he the wisdom of God. The Corinthians thought they had arrived but if that was the case they would have been sharing the suffering Paul experienced. Paul compared himself to a condemned prisoner who died by facing wild animals in the amphitheater which was always a spectacle. But Paul gladly accepted suffering because God was using it to bring blessing to others and he reminded the Corinthians how much he had endured for Christ’s sake. To avoid being blamed by others for taking money, Paul preferred to support himself. He was even willing to bless those who cursed him. This follows directly with Jesus’ teaching.
Paul concluded this section on divisions in the church with gentle words of fatherly admonition and warning. As their spiritual father who first brought them the Good News, Paul affirmed his genuine concern for their well being. As his beloved children, they should listen to their father and imitate his example and teachings. Timothy, Paul’s child in the faith and one of his closest associates, was with Paul when he first preached the Good News in Corinth. Paul sent him to faithfully communicate what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Because of his sending Timothy, some may have concluded that Paul lacked the courage to visit them himself, but in fact Paul was deeply engrossed in his work in Ephesus at this time. He would indeed visit them soon and he would confront those who publicly opposed him and show that they were nothing more than big talkers. His life and words would demonstrate the reality of God’s power.
Chapter five deals with sexual immorality, spiritual pride and the disciplining of those who sin. A man was having sexual relations with his stepmother. Even pagans didn’t do that. It violated both the law of Moses and Roman law. The Corinthian Christians were proud when they should have been mourning in sorrow and shame over such sin among them. Paul instructed the church to expel this man from their fellowship. Such blatant sin required immediate action and discipline. Paul’s spiritual unity with them and the authority he had received from God through the Spirit were effective among them. Throwing the man out of the church means the man would be under the power and control of the evil one. There was a chance that this man would repent and not be condemned. Yeast in scripture was often a symbol of sin. Jews ceremonially cleansed their homes of yeast before the annual Passover meal. But sin, if unaddressed, could spread throughout the church, just as yeast spreads throughout a batch of dough. Paul drew an analogy between the traditional Passover celebration and the sacrifice of Christ. In the Passover celebration, a lamb was sacrificed and unleavened bread was eaten. The sacrifice of Christ, which occurred at Passover, results in the removal of sin for believers. Paul also makes reference to an earlier letter but it is unknown. Some scholars believe what we know as 1 Corinthians is actually Paul’s second letter to the church. He generally encouraged believers not to separate themselves from the company of sinful believers. Separation from a professing believer who was living in sin was intended to reinforce and maintain the high moral standards of the Christian community. The social pressure it exerted might also encourage repentance in an erring brother or sister. Christians are not called to judge sin in unbelievers, but in believers.
When serious differences arise between two Christians, they are not to be settled by a secular court, but by other believers. Someday we believers will judge the world, and even angels, as associates of the Son of Man, who is the ultimate judge of all people. In light of this responsibility, Christians should be able to settle their disagreements over comparatively little things. It is a scandal for Christians to have to resolve their conflicts in secular courts, as if there were no one in the church sufficiently capable of resolving them. Suing a fellow believer reflects self interest rather than concern for the welfare of others or the glory of God. Christians are called to follow the example of Christ’s self sacrifice. But some of the Corinthian believers were even cheating their fellow believers. Both their actions and attitudes were wrong. Those who willingly sin have no share in the kingdom of God. The lives of Christians must reflect the faith they confess. Sin is deceptive and believers should not take it lightly, as if it were somehow acceptable.
Following the strong warnings of verses 9-10, Paul reaffirms his confidence in the genuineness of his readers conversion. They had been cleansed which is a metaphor for the righteousness that’s comes from forgiveness. They were made holy by God Himself and they were made right with God by their identification with the Lord Jesus Christ and the transforming work of the Spirit of our God. Paul tells them to run from sexual sin and gives several ideas why this behavior is unacceptable by Christians. Some Christians believed they were allowed to do anything they wanted. Paul countered by saying not all things are helpful. Our bodies were not made for immorality because it does not glorify God. In light of Paul’s concern for our bodies and the coming resurrection from the dead, our bodies must be used for holy purposes in God’s service. To be a Christian is to be spiritually joined to Christ in both life and death. As a result, believers bodies have become parts of Christ. For Christians, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Christians can no longer claim their bodies as their own, as they have been bought…with a high price, the blood of Christ. And every part of their lives has been claimed by Christ for God’s glory
In His Grip,
Pastor Matt W