1 Corinthians 1:1-2:5
First Corinthians began as a letter. Long before it was part of the Bible Paul wrote 1 Corinthians as part of an on-going correspondence between himself and the church at Corinth. Because it was written in the first century AD, 1 Corinthians is structured like a typical Greco-Roman letter of that time. It begins with a salutation that identifies the sender, the recipients, and gives a greeting (1:1-3). It then contains a thanksgiving section (1:4-9). The body of the letter follows (1:10-15:58). The conclusion wraps the letter up with a discussion of travel plans and closing comments and greetings (16:1-24).
The Salutation - 1 Corinthians 1:1-3
The first word of 1 Corinthians is Paul since the author's name was always the first word in an ancient letter. He is called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. The term apostle is a fairly common way Paul describes himself in the salutation of his letters. Nine of the thirteen letters bearing Paul's name include the word. The word apostle is the noun form for one of the Greek verbs meaning "to send." As a result Christians have long interpreted apostle to mean "one sent on a mission." Since Paul describes himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus we understand that he means he was sent on a mission (perhaps his Gentile mission) by Christ.
Recent research suggests that Paul may have had an even stronger meaning in mind when he described himself as an apostle. It is likely that he understood the word apostle as the Greek translation of a Hebrew word, shaliach. The rabbis stated that a man's shaliach was as the man himself. This means that the shaliach had the power of attorney and was authorized to act in the place of the person he or she represented. If Paul understood himself as a shaliach of Christ then he believed that being an apostle authorized him to speak in Christ's stead. That would have been a strong claim to authority.
The grammatical form of verse 1 also identifies Sosthenes the brother as a co-author of the letter. This has long puzzled scholars because no further mention of Sosthenes is made. All the uses of "we" in 1 Corinthians seem to refer to Paul and the Corinthians rather than Paul and a co-author. It is possible that Sosthenes was the secretary who did the actual writing of the letter but we cannot be sure.
It is possible that this Sosthenes is the same Sosthenes mentioned in Acts 18:17. If so he would have been the second consecutive leader of the synagogue to convert to faith in Christ. However, it is possible that verse 1 is referring to a different person who just happened to have the same name. The identity of Sosthenes and why Paul described him as co-author of the letter are two questions we simply do not have enough information to answer with certainty.
Paul describes the recipients of this letter as the church of God that is in Corinth. The word church translates a Greek word ekklesia that was used throughout the Greek Old Testament for the people of Israel gathered in community to hear from God and to respond to him in worship. Like other first century Christians, Paul (and the Corinthians) understood the church as the authentic continuation of Old Testament Israel. For this reason the church was a universal concept that included all who called on the name of Christ as Savior. However, the church did not exist in a philosophical and abstract manner. Rather, it consisted of the collection of all the local expressions of the church. In Corinth there was a genuine expression of the church. It consisted of all those who believed in Christ.
Instead of defining the church in terms of those who believe Paul defines it in verse 2 as those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus. In this context Paul uses the expression to refer to the conversion of the Corinthians. The word sanctified means "set apart" or "dedicated to holy use." It was a term especially used for the people and utensils used in temple worship. In following chapters Paul will describe the Corinthian church as the "temple of the Holy Spirit." As such they are set apart for holy use by God. This is an important aspect of what it means to be a Christian and to be part of the church. As much as we would like to think of ourselves as free to do anything and everything we might wish, the New Testament understands us as people and vessels set apart for holy use in the temple of God.
Paul brings the salutation to a close with his traditional expression, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Greco-Roman letters normally began, "X to Y, greetings." The word "greetings" was the Greek word chairein (Acts 15:23 and James 1:1 use this word). Paul modified the standard Greek greeting (chairein) by changing it to "grace" which is charis in Greek. Hebrew letters ordinarily began with shalom, the Hebrew word for "peace." Thus Paul begins his letters with a pun on the ordinary Greek greeting and with the traditional Hebrew greeting. The gospel was for all the world and Paul introduced each letter with an international greeting that incorporated both the expectations of Greek culture and the rich heritage of his Jewish tradition.
The Thanksgiving - 1 Corinthians 1:4-9
Greco-Roman letters normally followed the salutation with a paragraph of thanksgiving to the gods of the author. Though this was a stereotyped form in ancient letters Paul's thanksgiving sections always provide a helpful introduction to his concerns as well as offering praise to God. Five elements normally compose the Pauline thanksgivings: 1) the verb "give thanks," 2) addressed "to God," 3) the word always, 4) mention of the recipients (you), and 5) the reasons for which Paul is thanking God.
The first reason for Paul's thanksgiving for the Corinthian church is the grace of God that has been given to them. Some people have thought that Paul was being sarcastic at this point. The word "grace" (charis in Greek) and the word "gift" (charisma in Greek) are closely related. We will discover the Corinthians to be quite impressed by their spiritual gifts. However, it does not necessarily follow that Paul's statement of thanksgiving is sarcastic. In the face of people who are too impressed by their gifts it is quite appropriate to reaffirm that all good gifts come from the grace of God in our lives.
The result of God's grace in our lives is that we are enriched in every way. Perhaps the most enriching aspect of God's grace is the way in which it enables us to see and recognize that God is at work in so many ways in our lives. Paul specifically states that the Corinthians have been enriched in the areas of speech and knowledge. Since those areas will be mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14 in the discussion of spiritual gifts it is likely that Paul is giving thanks for the Corinthians' giftedness in the areas of speaking and knowledge. This is not sarcasm. Rather it is the apostle's effort to help his readers understand that their gifts are expressions of God's grace to them. Verse 6 points out that the witness (or testimony) of Christ has been strengthened (or confirmed) among them. It is always God who gives the power to testify with effectiveness. The confirming work of God is not limited to the present.
In verse 8 Paul describes God as the one who will confirm or strengthen the Corinthians to the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is an obvious reference to Christ's second coming. God did not invest the efforts and witness of Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and others in Corinth just to let the Corinthians fizzle out in their Christian commitment in the future. God's goal for the Corinthians and for us is blamelessness when Christ returns for his church. The particular word that Paul used for blameless does not mean perfection. In fact, it is not a particularly moral or religious word. It is a legal term meaning not liable to charges.
Paul concludes the thanksgiving paragraph by appealing to God's faithfulness (God is faithful). The ability to arrive at the final judgment blameless before God is not the product of human gifts and efforts. In the final analysis it is only because God is faithful that we can expect all his grace gifts to bring us to the last judgment as good and faithful servants.
But Paul's perspective is not just oriented toward the second coming here. God's faithfulness calls us into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord according to verse 9. This fellowship begins at the point of conversion and continues throughout eternity. The fellowship with Christ is experienced in fellowship with the body of Christ. Paul was truly grateful for such a rich theological understanding of his relationship with the Corinthians even though problems existed in the church. You and I can be grateful for the opportunity we have for such fellowship with Christ and his people. Present grace offers us eternal hope.
Wisdom and Division at Corinth - 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21
The body of 1 Corinthians begins with verse 10 of chapter 1. I appeal to you was one of the common expressions used to begin the body of a letter in Paul's time. The apostle uses the expression both to begin bodies of letters and to make a transition to a new subject within the body. The first major section of the body of 1 Corinthians is usually identified as 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21. The problems of division in the church and of a faulty understanding of wisdom occupy the majority of these chapters. The section begins by identifying the problem of division.
Division in the Church - 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Paul's appeal is an appeal for unity, that all of you be in agreement. The Greek text literally asks that all the Corinthians "say the same thing." This is a figure of speech requesting the Corinthians to begin to agree with each other. The second phrase, that there be no divisions among you, reveals the problem.
Verse 10 concludes by affirming Paul's goal for the Corinthians: that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. The Greek text has two very interesting features in that final phrase of verse 10. The verb that is translated be united in the NIV and the NRSV literally speaks of being "repaired." It is the same verb used by Matthew and Mark to describe James and John mending their nets when Jesus called them. Division in the church is not simply a matter of normal differences of opinion that lead to political parties. Rather, division in the church is a tear in the fabric of the fellowship of the body. Division in the church rips one part of the body from the other parts and the result is far more tragic than the existence of plural sociological groups. Broken relationships need repair not analysis.
The second interesting feature of the conclusion of verse 10 is the final word of the verse. The Greek word can be translated thought as the NIV does, purpose as found in the NRSV, judgment as in the NASB and KJV. The word may even be translated "opinion." The point is not of factual thoughts or intellectual views. It is not a random thought passing through one's mind. Rather, the word speaks of a thought or decision that leads to an inflexible position. Opinions may vary in the life of the church as long as they do not lead people to rigid positions that will never compromise. Purposes may vary as long as they function under the larger shared purpose of the church. Division that was the product of thinking that refused to listen to anyone else was destroying the church at Corinth. Such inflexible judgments do not bend or stretch. They tear and break the body of Christ.
Verse 11 identifies the source of Paul's awareness of the problem. Chloe's people have reported quarrels or rivalries in the Corinthian church. Chloe is not identified but she appears to have been a somewhat well-to-do businesswoman of the Corinthian church. The structure of the Greek text does not make it clear whether it was slaves of Chloe or members of her family that brought the news to Paul. Our knowledge of the sociological context of Corinth suggests that it would have been slaves. Greco-roman slaves often traveled internationally doing business for their master (or mistress in this case). Neither is it clear whether Chloe sent them with the message to Paul or if they simply dropped in on him in Ephesus as they were passing through. At any rate the mention of Chloe follows the Greco-roman pattern of backing up one's claims with an important witness when making an accusation.
Verse 12 defines the nature of the rivalries mentioned in verse 11. Parties pledging their allegiance to Paul, to Apollos, and to Cephas had developed in Corinth. Scholars have debated whether there were four parties or just three at Corinth. Do the words I belong to Christ describe a fourth group or are they Paul's ironic way of portraying how ridiculous the divisions were? Since further references to Cephas and Apollos appear in chapter 3 it is clear that they represent a specific group in the Corinthian church. Clearly Paul also had his supporters.
Subsequent church history has shown that it is not unusual for church loyalties to become divided around the personalities of various pastors. A pastor who knows the styles, strengths, and weaknesses of his or her predecessors can quickly discover people's likes and dislikes by the tone of voice they use in referring to former pastors. It is natural for people to be attracted to different personality types in church leadership. It is destructive when personality and style issues become more important than the purpose of the church.
The first sentence of verse 13 may be understood as either a question, Has Christ been divided? or a declarative sentence, "Christ has been divided." The tense of the Greek verb suggests an event of the past with continuing results. Division in the body of Christ is never simply a matter of the original tearing of the fabric of the fellowship. The painful results of division multiply and last and last. Paul attempts to show the insane nature of the rivalries by pointing to the central realities of the Christian faith. Neither Paul, nor Apollos, nor Cephas was crucified for the Corinthians. Allegiance belongs to Christ who has paid the price to provide salvation, not to the messenger that announced the salvation.
The similar point, that the Corinthians were not baptized in the name of Paul (or Apollos or Cephas), leads to the first digression of the letter. Religious people and long-time Bible readers often miss the humor of verses 14-16. The point of baptism leads Paul to thank God that he had only baptized two persons, Crispus and Gaius, of the Corinthian church. Further reflection brought the household of Stephanas to mind as another group that he had baptized. He finally concludes that he can't remember who he had baptized and who he had not baptized. Modern computers with their one-touch editing would have deleted these verses. As they stand we are granted a fascinating and humorous picture into a brief stream of consciousness by the apostle. The point is not that baptism is unimportant. Paul first brought it up as a central issue of the faith that could not be attached to a human personality. Baptism expresses the Lordship of Christ not the leadership of the officiating minister.
By verse 17 Paul was back on track with his thought pattern. To proclaim the gospel was the defining task of his apostleship not baptism. Proclamation of the gospel preached the cross of Christ and verse 17 links up with verse 13 to focus on the crucifixion. It also sets up Paul's next point.
The Contradiction of Wisdom and the Gospel - 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
The contrast between human wisdom and the gospel is introduced in 1 Corinthians 1:17. The development in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 can be seen in the three paragraphs: 1:18-25; 1:26-31; and 2:1-5. First Corinthians 1:18-25 begins by defining the message of the cross as foolishness. This foolishness is seen in the proclamation of a crucified Messiah. 1:26-31 portray the foolishness of the gospel by the describing the range of people at Corinth who were converted by it. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 then parallels the foolishness of the gospel with the lack of persuasiveness and rhetoric in Paul's preaching.
Verse 18 contrasts foolishness with power. Preaching the cross of Christ is foolishness to those who are perishing. But it is the power of God to those who are being saved.
In passing Paul has revealed two important aspects of early Christian thought. First, being saved or being lost was not defined in terms of acceptance of some doctrine or in terms of a moral life. Rather, for New Testament Christians one's salvation was determined by one's response to the message of the cross. Rejection of the cross - both Christ's death on the cross and the idea of taking one's cross - meant rejection of salvation itself. On the other hand, embracing the cross with all its implications was the essence of saving faith.
Second, response to the cross and thus salvation was not simply a one-time event. Verse 18 describes both perishing and being saved with present tense, continuous action verbs. Daily accepting the cross meant a daily process of being saved and daily experience of the power of God.
Verse 20 introduces the other half of Paul's point that the message of the cross is foolishness. God is not bound by human definitions of wisdom and foolishness and often reverses our understanding of wisdom. Verses 22 and 23 present the heart of Paul's point in this paragraph. Jews demand signs that point to the mighty acts of God that characterized the deliverance he provided in the Exodus from Egypt. Greeks seek intellectual sophistication with philosophical discourses on justice, authority, and power. The preaching of the cross dismays both. To the Jews the cross seems like the defeat of God rather than his triumph. To the Greeks the cross tells of the noble but futile death of one man and ignores the great themes of justice, citizenship, and persuasion. Thus the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness, nonsense to the logic of either Jewish or Greek cultures.
Only those who have answered the call of God see the wisdom in the cross. They see the cross as both wisdom and power. It is wisdom that sees God at his most foolish moment being wiser than humans in our wisest moment. It is power that recognizes God at his weakest moment being stronger than humans in our most powerful moment. It is the paradoxical wisdom that understands the cross, symbol of defeat and shame, as the vehicle of God's ultimate triumph.
Paul further contrasts human wisdom and God's foolish commitment to the cross in verses 26-31. Here the apostle appeals to the range of social standing that existed in the church. We know that some of the Corinthians were well-to-do financially. Several of them apparently had high regard for their understanding of the options of Greek philosophy.
Yet Paul states that only a few of them were wise, powerful, or well-born from a human perspective. Their experience of the life of the church should have shown them that education, income level, and cultural privileges did not grant spiritual insight. Their experience in the church should have shown them that God chose the less privileged in ways that brought confusion and even shame to those who normally would have thought themselves to have the advantage.
The point of all this was not that God enjoys embarrassing the rich and famous. Rather, the goal of God's choice of weak, foolish, uncultured people is to enable us to correctly focus our boasting. Boasting in wealth, power, or social influence is difficult when God keeps upsetting those apple carts. The result is to turn the spotlight onto Christ and what God has done through him. Paul expresses a similar thought in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12. As the source of wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption Christ is the all in all for the Christian faith. Nothing else - education, religiosity, wealth, human status - is worthy of being compared to Christ. All boasting, all sense of glory, must belong to Christ rather than to ourselves. The upside down wisdom of the cross helps us keep that truth more clearly in focus.
First Corinthians 2:1-5 brings to a conclusion Paul's treatment of the cross and the way it contradicts normal human expectation. Here Paul points out that his preaching the message of the cross at Corinth flew in the face of typical understanding of what makes for success. His preaching was not delivered with persuasive words of human wisdom. The skills of rhetoric and speech-making - so highly valued by the Greek culture of that time - did not contribute to the success of the gospel in Corinth. It is not clear to what degree Paul accurately paints the picture of his inability in public delivery. The highly developed passages like 1 Corinthians 13 suggest that Paul was quite capable of making a very impressive speech. His weakness, fear, and trembling may have been historical fact. They may also represent an overstatement on Paul's part to make his point. The success of the gospel at Corinth was not the product of human skill. It was a demonstration of the Spirit and of the power of God. The end result, which has been the purpose of all of 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 was that the readers' faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 1:1-2:5. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant to you.
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to teach you the meaning of knowing nothing except Christ and him crucified.
Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 2:1-16. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 2:6-13.
1. How does Paul attempt to define the wisdom of which he speaks? (He also calls it God's wisdom.) How would you define it?
2. Verse 9 partially quotes Isaiah 64:4. Read Isaiah 64. What is the context of Isaiah 64:4? How does Paul take it out of context? Do you see some basis for Paul's use of the verse in 1 Corinthians 2?
3. What promise arises from verse 12? What do verses 6-13 say about our ability to have confidence that we have correctly understood the message of salvation?
Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 2:6-3:9. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4.
1. What danger(s) do you see in verse 15? Are you aware of specific circumstances in which such dangers actually happened? What is the best response in times like that?
2. Verse 16 quotes or at least paraphrases from Isaiah 40:13. As you read Isaiah 40 what verses and phrases best address the kind of problem that Paul was dealing with in 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4?
3. What accusation does Paul level against the Corinthians in 3:1-4? What evidence supports his claim? What problems most undermine the effectiveness of Christian witness in our world? What can we do about it?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 3:1-23. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 3:5-9.
1. What roles did Paul and Apollos fill according to these focus verses? What role does God fill? Is Paul's analysis correct or not? Why or why not?
2. In verse 9 Paul compares the Corinthian church to God's field. What truths come from such a comparison? How does John 15:1-11 help your understanding?
3. Reflect on your own experience in the church. What people have played significant roles in it? How do they compare to Paul and Apollos? Write a brief thank you note to God for those people.
Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 3:1-23. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.
1. Compare and contrast the teaching of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and 1 Peter 2:4-10.
2. What do you suppose Paul meant in verses 12-13? How do verses 14-15 fit in with your interpretation?
3. How can your church become a temple for God's Spirit? What evidences would indicate that the Holy Spirit felt at home in your church?
Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 3:10-23. Now focus in on 1 Corinthians 3:18-23.
1. Verses 18-20 seem to refer back to Paul's previous discussion found in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5. How do these verses connect to the previous context found in 1 Corinthians 3:5-17?
2. Apply verses 21-23 to your church and to your life. What does it mean to read, "all things are yours?" How does verse 23 shape your understanding of this promise?
3. Write a prayer asking God to bring his wisdom to your church. Ask him to make your church a temple in which he will feel at home.