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1 Corinthians 2:6-3:23

Roger Hahn

Paul began the body of 1 Corinthians by introducing the problem of division in the church. The problem of division was bound together with the Corinthian church's understanding of wisdom. An elaborate pattern of speech-making skills was an important part of the understanding of wisdom in the Greek speaking world.

The Greek word for wisdom is sophia from which we get such English words as sophisticated and sophomore. Those very words show that the Greek concept of wisdom suffered the danger of confusing outward form with inner content. Paul was aware that some of the Corinthians found the cross distasteful. In their minds it wasn't sophisticated enough. 

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul pointed out that the message of the cross demonstrated God's foolishness in contrast to human wisdom. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 the apostle pointed out that the foolishness of the Christian message of the cross enabled many of them to believe. The gospel did not (and does not) require status, education, or power to be effective in people's lives. Finally, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 reminded Paul's readers that his actual preaching had demonstrated the power of the gospel because he had relied on the power of the Holy Spirit rather than on speech-making skills when he had first come to Corinth preaching. Paul then continues his treatment of wisdom in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.

God's Wisdom Is Revealed by the Spirit - 1 Corinthians 2:6-3:4

Paul's discussion of wisdom has been mostly negative up to this point, because the Corinthians understood wisdom as a human achievement and skill. Biblical faith can never allow such a view to stand unchallenged.

Verse 6 begins with an adversative (either "but" or "however" in most translations). Though Paul has painted a negative picture of Greek wisdom, "We do speak wisdom among those who are perfect." Greek philosophical schools often divided people into three classes: the beginners, those making progress, and the perfect. The word "perfect" is teleioi in Greek and is often translated "mature" (see The English Term Perfect). By claiming to speak wisdom to the perfect or mature Paul has moved from a defensive to an offensive posture. The problem with the Corinthians is not just the message of the cross, which is foolishness to them. The problem is that they are not advanced (perfect or mature) enough to be able to receive and understand Paul's teaching. If they were they would have understood the message of the cross as the deeper wisdom that it really is.

Paul also points out in verse 6 that this wisdom belongs to neither "this age nor the rulers of this age who are becoming ineffective." Here Paul reveals one of his most fundamental ways of thinking about the Christian faith. He saw Christ and the gift of the Spirit as signs that a new era had burst into history. He used the Jewish language of "this present evil age" to describe human history as it had been known. "The age to come" described the final epoch of human history when Messiah would establish God's sovereign rule on earth. Paul believed that Christ had already begun this final age and the present age was in the process of disappearing from the scene. This age might put confidence in human wisdom concocted by persuasive words. The political and spiritual rulers of this evil age might be trumpeting their final say. But genuine wisdom was the wisdom of God's future reign that was already invading the present. From Paul's perspective investment in human wisdom and human powers was to commitment oneself to a sinking ship.

The already present but not yet recognized wisdom of God was a mystery that had been hidden since the beginning of time (before the ages) according to verse 7. God's eternal plan for wisdom was to unveil the hidden secret in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The result of that is "our glory" according to Paul. He does not mean that we receive glory for ourselves, but that we share in God's glory because we are the ones He has graciously permitted to announce the unveiling of this eternal plan. Given the cultural assumptions of the ancient world one might have expected God to have chosen the rulers, the rich and famous people of Jesus' time, to unveil the plan. Paul points out the error of such an assumption. The rulers crucified the Lord Christ who incarnates the ultimate full glory of God. Obviously they did not understand and they did not qualify for the rich privilege granted to the church.

To explain how believers "beat out" the rulers for this privilege Paul appeals to the Old Testament in verse 9. Scholars are puzzled by this "Scripture quotation." No verse of the Old Testament exactly matches the citation of verse 9. It appears to be an amalgamation of Isaiah 64:4 and the Greek version of Isaiah 65:16. The point of this "quotation" is that God had prepared marvelous things for those who love Him. The first phrase of verse 10 takes the matter to its climax: these things God has revealed to us through the [Holy] Spirit.

One of the signs of the new era of God's rule was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Early Christianity saw Pentecost and the gift of the Spirit on all believers as the confirmation of Christ's Messiahship and God's sovereign rule. Thus Paul was quick to explain the "wisdom" of the cross as that which was taught by the Holy Spirit. The reference in verse 10 to the "deep things" of God includes at least the wisdom of the message of the cross. In fact, it is only the Holy Spirit who understands these deep things of God according to verse 11. Since only the  can understand what a human being is thinking, likewise only the Spirit of God understands the thought and plan of God. Failure to understand the wisdom of the message of the cross can only mean failure to connect to God's Spirit.

Beginning in verse 12 Paul closes in on the idea that the Corinthians do not understand the message of the cross because of a spiritual problem. He states, "We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that proceeds from God Himself." Whatever spirituality the Corinthians might be claiming, it was a spirituality of this present evil age. Thus like their wisdom, their spirit was not from God. On the other hand, Paul and believers who understand the cross as the wisdom and power of God have received the Spirit whose origin is God Himself.

Paul is arguing that one of the signs of being authentically filled with the Spirit is understanding of the wisdom of the cross. However, simple academic understanding of the cross is not what Paul has in mind. The NRSV catches his point most powerfully when it translates the purpose clause in the last half of verse 12, "So that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God." Authentic possession of the Holy Spirit will lead to viewing spiritual gifts in the light of the cross. Pursuit of personal glory through spiritual gifts reveals that those "gifts" did not come from the Holy Spirit but from the "" or one's own human spiritual imagination. Paul is quite clear in verse 13a that the things that he is teaching did not come from skillful techniques of human communication but from the insight of the [Holy] Spirit.

The final phrase of verse 13 is not clear at all in the Greek text. Comparison of English translations shows a variety of suggestions. The NIV has "expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words." The NRSV has "interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual." The KJV has "comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (things -implied). If Paul means interpreting spiritual things with the words and message of the Spirit his thought builds on the material before. If he means interpreting spiritual things to spiritual people he has already shifted the subject to the idea of spiritual people, with which he will deal in the following verses. The flow of thought suggests that "interpreting spiritual things by means of words of the Spirit" is his most likely meaning.

First Corinthians 2:14-3:3 brings the discussion on wisdom to a climax and 1 Corinthians 3:4 ties it to the problem of division in the church. The verses 2:14-3:3 have often been interpreted as teaching Paul's three-level understanding of human beings (see Body and Soul). However, the point is not a theory of Christian psychology but an attempt to describe the Corinthians' problem.

Verse 14 begins with a word that has been difficult to translate meaningfully. The KJV speaks of "the natural man." The NIV translates, "The man without the Spirit." The NRSV has, "Those who are unspiritual." The Greek adjective is psychikos, which has led a few recent writers to speak of psychical man. However, much more important than a translation is meaning and "psychical" man does not yield much meaning. The Greek word is derived from psyche which is often translated "person, self, or soul." It is the most common term used by biblical writers when they were simply referring to a person. Paul's point in verse 14 is that an ordinary person does not perceive spiritual things because such spiritual things are foolishness to an ordinary person. Only spiritual people are able to discern spiritual things.

Paul's description of spiritual things as foolishness to ordinary people in verse 14 suggests that the message of the cross is the fundamental spiritual thing he is talking about. The clear implication is that the Corinthians are, in fact, ordinary people rather than spiritual people since they have not grasped the wisdom of God in the message of the cross. If that were the case then they - of all people - should have had no business criticizing Paul for his lack of fine speech-making skills.

This is precisely the point Paul then makes in verse 15. A  person discerns or perceives or has insight into all things including other people, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Spiritual people are not understood by ordinary, unspiritual people. Since Paul understood and preached the message of the cross he was a spiritual person with the ability to discern the hearts of the Corinthians. Their inability to comprehend the cross revealed their unspiritual condition and disqualified them from critiquing Paul.

Verse 16 quotes from Isaiah 40:13. There the prophet was extolling the majesty and unfathomable mystery of God. What human could ever understand the mind of God or give him advice? The obvious answer is, "No one!" Paul, however, does not use the obvious answer. If God should share His divine mind with someone, then that person would also be unfathomably mysterious to ordinary human beings.

The final sentence of chapter 2 is one of the most audacious statements to be found in the Bible. "We have the mind of Christ." Paul's point was that the gift of the Holy Spirit gave him access to understanding the mind of Christ. Such a claim is full of danger. Too many nuts have claimed special insight into the mind of God and then unleashed schemes more characteristic of hell than of heaven. What right do we have to claim that Paul was an exception? For him the simple answer was, "The message of the cross."

Final verification of a person's claim to have the mind of Christ or of God can be seen in their understanding of the cross and whether they take up the cross daily to follow Christ (Luke 9:23). The mind of Christ does not set us apart as miracle workers and super saints to be envied and adored by other believers. The mind of Christ is the disposition to serve rather than to be served and to give our lives as suffering servants for others.

First Corinthians 3:1-3 directly and pointedly describes the Corinthian readers as incapable of the message of the cross. Paul could not speak to them as he would to spiritual people. At best they are babies in Christ being nursed with spiritual pabulum. Neither when Paul founded the church nor when he wrote 1 Corinthians had they attained sufficient maturity to chew on the meat of the gospel. In fact, they are "flesh" or "carnal" people rather than spiritual people. In verse 1 Paul uses the Greek term sarkinoi and in verse 3 the term sarkikoi but he seems to use both words with the same meaning. Both words derive from the Greek word for flesh (sarx), which Paul uses to refer to a life lived out of purely human resources.

His point here is clear. Though the Corinthians claim the infilling with the Holy Spirit and exercise great spiritual gifts they are actually living out of merely human resources. They are living as ordinary human beings with no spiritual insight and apparently incapable of understanding spiritual truth as 2:14 had declared.

Verses 3-4 clinch the argument. Division, strife, jealousy, and partisanship (I am of Paul) reveal the ordinary, human, unspiritual character of the Corinthians' lives. Spiritual people demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (see Galatians 5:22-23). The works of the flesh (see Galatians 5:19-21) mark a person as carnal, fleshly, and devoid of the Spirit even if such a person claims the gifts and infilling of the Spirit. In the church self-centered, sinful behavior must be exposed for what it is. To permit unspiritual behavior to be cloaked by spiritual sounding talk is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and thus approaches the borders of the unforgivable sin. Acts 5:1-11 and 8:14-24 reveal God's most severe judgment and Peter's harshest words against attempts to imitate the work of the Holy Spirit by purely human efforts.

Understanding the Church and Ministry: 1 Corinthians 3:5-23

Since the Corinthians' division into supporters of Paul and supporters of Apollos is wrong, what is the proper way to understand these leaders? Paul answers that question in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9. Those thoughts lead him on to further reflection on the nature of the church in verses 10-17. He returns to the dangers of exalting human leadership in verses 18-23.

To the question, "What then is Apollos? What is Paul?" the apostle has a one-word answer, "servants." However, the translation "servants" may be too soft; the word "slaves" would come closer to providing the emotional impact of Paul's word diakonoi. Paul and Apollos were slaves under the orders of their master (the kyrios - translated as "Lord" in verse 5). Other Greek words for slave existed and Paul will use them in other contexts. Perhaps he chose diakonoi because it was also already being used to describe Christian ministry. (Our English word "deacon" is derived from diakonoi.) As a result of the "slave-labor" ministry of Paul and Apollos the Corinthians had come to faith in Christ and Christ was the object of their faith not Paul nor Apollos.

Though the concept is open to abuse (by fleshly, unspiritual people) the New Testament understands ministry as slave labor. It is not the professional ministry of clergy for no distinction was made between lay and clergy in the New Testament. For all believers, lay and clerical, ministry requires the abandoning of self-direction and the placing of ourselves under submission to the lordship of Christ. He will tell us where to go, whom to serve, how, and how long to serve or our activity is activity rather than ministry. Such a biblical understanding of ministry is often as difficult for modern Americans as the message of the cross was for the Corinthians. Our desires to minister and to control our own destiny contradict each other.

Verses 6-9b then view ministry as service in God's field. In John 4:35 Jesus spoke of the world as a field ready for the harvest. However, Paul views the church as the field in which God's slave-ministers labor. Paul planted. This is clear reference to his work as the founding pastor of the Corinthian church. Apollos watered the newly sown field. His work was a necessary follow up so that a crop could be harvested.

However, Paul is careful to avoid giving much credit to either himself or Apollos. The growth did not come from the planting or the watering. The  was the free gift of God. Neither ministers nor lay people grow churches. God grows the church. Ministers (both lay and clergy) who obey God may have the joy of seeing God provide growth. The other side of the coin is equally important. God never grows a church without someone obedient planter and waterer. The growth of the church is ultimately a cooperative effort of both God and obedient people. The theological term for this is "synergism" - a word derived from the very word Paul uses in verse 9, "" (synergoi in Greek). (See Divine-Human Synergism in Ministry)

The description of the church as God's field seemed to trigger another figure of speech in Paul's mind. In verse 9c he states that the Corinthians are "God's building." Verses 10-17 then develop this idea. Early Christians frequently used the figure of speech of the church as a building - either a house or temple. Ephesians 2:19-22 and 1 Peter 2:4-10 provide the other concentrated development of this metaphor that can be traced back to Jesus (John 2:21).

Within the concept of church as God's building project Paul described himself as the wise master-builder. His choice of the word "wise" (some versions use "skilled") reflects the discussion of wisdom in chapter 2. The word "master-builder" translates the Greek word architekton from which the English word "architect" is derived. A tekton was an ordinary carpenter. The architekton was a combination architect and contractor. Paul is clearly claiming the right not just to work at building the church but also to design and organize construction of the church.

The expression with which he begins verse 10, "According to the grace of God which was given to me," also reveals an important part of Paul's self-understanding. This expression was one of the common ways the apostle alluded to his calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles (see Ephesians 3:1-2 for an example). In terms of the whole structure of the Christian church Paul saw himself as missionary to the Gentiles playing the role of architect and head contractor. His normal pattern, which he had followed at Corinth, was to lay the foundation (see Romans 15:20) as the founding pastor. The building analogy meant that Apollos, Cephas, and others followed with framing and finish work. This super-structure work Paul described as "building on" the foundation he had laid.

That foundation is Jesus Christ. The context of chapters 1-2 suggests that the foundation is Christ crucified. First Peter 2:7 describes Christ as the corner stone. Paul describes him as the whole foundation. The problems of the Corinthian church lead the apostle to warn in verse 10 that each successive builder must watch carefully how he or she builds on the foundation.

Verse 12 shifts the metaphor a bit. Each successive builder may invest the quality of building material that he or she chooses. Paul lists gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble. The obvious contrast is between very valuable building materials and the cheapest options available. However, Paul does not develop that contrast. In fact, he seems uninterested in the building materials as building materials. His interest is in the builders and whether or not their work stands the tests of time and of God.

Verse 13 states the case clearly. "The work of each [builder] will become visible because the Day will reveal it." The "Day" is the day of judgment and Paul speaks of fire testing each builder's work and revealing its quality.

So far the figure of speech and Paul's real point seem clear. However, verses 14-15 introduce more difficult points of comparison. Verse 14 states that if the work of a builder survives (literally - remains) he will receive a reward. This thought is parallel to verse 8. Fee (p. 143) correctly states that the reward is according to grace and not according to obligation as Romans 4:4-5 makes clear. Verse 15 describes the scenario in which the work of builder does not survive the fire of judgment. Since the "work of each builder" is the church Paul is warning of the possible destruction and loss of the church itself. The church at Corinth was in the process of destroying itself by division. However, Paul is careful not to state that the builder is destroyed. At Corinth the other builders were Apollos and Cephas. The builder will be saved but he or she will also pass through the fire.

It would be a mistake to interpret these words as teaching purgatory or some other intermediate state of judgment that is reversed to become salvation. Paul is warning that the Corinthian church is in danger of being destroyed and that leadership that contributes to that destruction is also in severe danger. Fee (p. 145) points out a significant contemporary application of this text.

It is unfortunately possible for people to attempt to build the church out of every imaginable human system predicated on merely worldly wisdom, be it philosophy, "pop" psychology, managerial techniques, relational "good feelings," or what have you. But at the final judgment, all . . . will be shown for what it is: something merely human . . . of course, the test may come this side of the final one, and in such an hour of stress that which has been built of modern forms of sophia usually comes tumbling down.

Paul's conclusion in verses 16-17 compares the Corinthian church to God's temple in which God's Spirit makes its home. This text is clearly teaching that a congregation of people forms a temple of the Spirit rather than stating that individual persons are a temple (though that may be an appropriate application of 1 Corinthians 6:19). Verse 17 places God's ultimate condemnation on leadership that destroys a congregation from being a genuine temple of the Spirit. A congregation is holy and its holiness is not to be treated lightly by either leadership or the followers within the congregation.

Paul attempts to bring together his teaching in 1 Corinthians 1-3 on wisdom and on the church in verses 18-23. The opening warning, "No one must deceive himself," shows that Paul sees the potential for grave spiritual danger at Corinth. Human wisdom must be exchanged for God's wisdom even if that looks foolish. Corinthians - or modern Christians - who build on purely human foundations and call it spiritual will discover that God is not as easily fooled as many of his followers are. Paul quotes two texts from the Old Testament, Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11, which reveal God's attitude toward people who think they are wise. Human wisdom that tries to function without God ultimately becomes trapped in itself. Human wisdom is ultimately empty.

Verse 21 states the conclusion, "Let no one boast in men." The NRSV correctly catches Paul's point, "Let no one boast about human leaders." He then turns their slogans, "I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos," on their heads by stating, "All things belong to you." It is possible to identify the church in terms of a human leader. But that is upside down and backwards. God's will is to put all things in service of the church. Leaders, life, death, past, present, future, insiders, and outsiders - all the things under which we often find ourselves in bondage - all those things must submit to the church. That is because the church belongs to Christ and Christ belongs to God and God controls all those things that frighten and bind us. Christian, live with the freedom that comes from belonging to 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 2:6-3:23. Look up the Scripture references.

 1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant.

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 help you find and fulfill your role of ministry in the church.

Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-21. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 4:1-7.

1. Why does Paul state in verse 2 that stewards are to be trustworthy? How does that apply to your stewardship in the body of Christ, the church?

2. Does verse 5 describe a fearful or fulfilling time? What could you do in your life to more eagerly await the coming of the Lord?

3. What do you think Paul means in verse 6 by "Nothing beyond what is written." Is it good advice? Why or why not?

Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-21. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 4:8-13.

1. Do you think Paul was being serious or sarcastic in verse 8? Why? Do you think sarcasm should be allowed in the Bible? Why or why not?

2. What new insight do you get from comparing verses 9-13 with 2 Corinthians 11:16-30? How does 2 Corinthians 12:6-10 help you understand both passages?

3. What enables a person to respond the way Paul describes in the last part of verse 12 and the first part of verse 13? What would need to change in your life for you to respond that way?

Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-21. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 4:14-21.

1. What does it mean to have a spiritual father as Paul was for the Corinthians? What contributions has your "spiritual father" made to your life?

2. Was Paul arrogant in asking the Corinthians to imitate him (verse 16)? What additional understanding comes from 1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6 and 2:14?

3. Compare verse 20 with Romans 14:17; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 1:13; and 1 Thessalonians 2:12. Based on these verses how would you summarize Paul's understanding of the Kingdom of God?

Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 5:1-8.

1. What problem mentioned in verses 1-5 most concerned Paul? Why?

2. What do you think verse 5 means? How could it have application in the church of today?

3. What is Paul's point when he states that a little yeast leavens the whole batch? Can you give an example from your own life?

Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 5:6-13.

1. What does it mean to call Christ our Passover lamb? Read Exodus 12:1-13; Isaiah 53:7-12; and John 1:29 for background.

2. What festival does Paul invite us to celebrate in verse 8? What changes in your life would be necessary to celebrate that festival?

3. Describe the expectations of chapter 5 with regard to sexual purity. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you and your church demonstrate that level of purity in promiscuous world in which we live.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright 2017, Roger Hahn and CRI/Voice, Institute
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